Skip to main content

Avanti populo!

From the North East of England. Poetry, prose and cultural comment to keep you engaged and alert.

Home
About Us
Contact Us
Site Map
Member Login
Poems
blogspot2017
archive2016
archive2015
archive2014
archive2013
archive2012
archive2011
archive2010

28th December 2013

2013….the last word

As another year bites the dust the inevitable reviews of the year’s events and a search for meaning fill the broadsheets and blogs of political commentators.  It is a thankless and in many ways pointless task but one that is as compulsive as the ubiquitous ‘Quiz of the Year’ phenomenon, which tempts us to rack our brains to remember what happened, who died and what the implications of it all might be.

Some things have been around a long time and have not changed much in the course of a year.  The illegal occupation, settlement and blockade of Palestinian land by the Israeli regime, in defiance of international law and United Nations resolutions, continues with little more than a mild wrist slapping from the international community.  US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been making welcome efforts towards a resolution but nothing as yet has changed the lives of the Palestinian people.

The United States could of course lead by example and end its 50 year long illegal blockade of Cuba but is showing no signs of a move in this direction, in spite of the handshake between Raul Castro and Barack Obama at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.  The White House was quick to quash any significance which might be ascribed to the contact by describing it as nothing more than a “courtesy”.

Unlike the days of the Cold War, when international allegiances were broadly defined along East/West lines, the international balance of forces can often be more difficult to read. The added complication of the growing presence of militant Islam, from the Islamic Republic of Iran through to al-Qaida, and the Sunni/Shi’a divisions within the Islamic world make the mix yet more volatile.

In economic terms the growth of China as a significant economic superpower is also shaded in grey, with a Communist Party leadership but a strong capitalist ethic to large sections of the economic growth programme.  The leadership in North Korea, for all its anti-imperialist rhetoric, does little more than give the West an easy way of putting the argument against socialism and applauding the capitalist model.  How both China and North Korea develop in the coming year could well be significant in terms the stability of the current global power balance.

NATO troops will pull out from Afghanistan in earnest in 2014 and with presidential elections scheduled in April there is likely to be added uncertainty for the people of that country.  The conflict in Syria shows no sign of abating, with the West’s ‘preferred’ opposition in the Free Syrian Army showing every sign of having been hijacked by al-Qaida.  Stopping the spread of militant Islam in Egypt, with the deposing of the Muslim Brotherhood from government, appears to be at the price of the armed forces tightening their grip upon power, leaving the Egyptian people with a short term choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.

In the UK the build up to the 2015 General Election will take off in earnest as the year unfolds.  The Tory efforts to out-UKIP, the right wing UKIP, with the introduction of the Immigration Bill, have come under increasing criticism in recent days from both the LibDems and more liberal minded Tories, who see the prospect of the  ‘nasty Party’ tag being resurrected and votes leaking from Cameron.

Nevertheless a rightward trend across Europe could be manifest in the Euro elections, scheduled for May, when gains by the likes of Marine le Pen’s National Front in France are expected, along with a upsurge in right wing MEPs from Eastern European states.

On the positive side disillusionment with the response to the economic crisis in Europe is evident on the streets of Greece, through the indignados in Spain and Occupy protests across Western capitals.  The readiness of the Egyptian people to take to the streets is by no means an endorsement of the generals and the hope that a democratic path can be found for Egypt remains.  The people of Iran too have shown that they can mobilise for change.  While newly elected President Rouhani may have bought the clergy some time with his reformist rhetoric, the patience of the Iranian people will not be stretched endlessly.

Popular governments across South America, most recently the election of Michele Bachelet in Chile, have seen a return to more people focussed policies on that continent, while the African National Congress, in spite of having to negotiate a difficult transition post Mandela, still retains massive support in South Africa.

The coming year, like any other, will have its ups and downs but the struggle for peace and socialism will continue to engage millions across the world, drawing more into its orbit, taking more steps to support democracy and human rights across the globe.

Making predictions in international or domestic politics can be a foolish game but the one thing we predict for certain is that people will stay involved, make themselves heard and do whatever they can to change the world in 2014.  There is no alternative.

We wish you success in whichever struggles engage you in the coming year.

 

 

22nd December 2013

Fools rush in….

Proclamations by UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, this week have surely confirmed him as a fool, if the British public were not convinced of it already.   Much has been made of Cameron’s pronouncement that it will be “mission accomplished” when British troops finally retreat from the unwinnable war in Afghanistan, in 2014.  The PMs traditional pre-Xmas visit to Camp Bastion in Helmand province was the occasion for the remarks, obviously designed to buoy troop morale ahead of withdrawal next year.

However, apart from the obvious parallel with the comments of George W. Bush following the disastrous US intervention in Iraq, which precipitated that countries collapse into civil war, Cameron is in danger of setting up a few hostages to fortune of his own.   The original mission in Afghanistan was to destroy al-Qaida, crush the Taliban and hunt out Osama bin Laden.  Apart from the assassination of bin Laden little if any of this has been achieved.

Between May and October this year the Taliban mounted 6,600 attacks and could be set for a return to power next year.  Al-Qaida is hardly an insignificant force, with activities across the Arab world, not least the current Syrian conflict.  Thousands of Afghan civilians have lost their lives along with the hundreds of US and UK soldiers sent to a war zone with unclear and shifting objectives.  Pitted against an opposition familiar with the terrain, and armed with an ideological zeal lacking in NATO, it is little wonder that the conflict is ending in defeat for the West.

Western foreign policy in the Middle East has been disastrous for the past half century, directly contributing to the rise of militant Islam in Iran; the fuelling of the Afghan bandits who metamorphosed into the Taliban and al-Qaida; accelerating the disintegration and collapse of Iraq; and manipulating the ongoing conflict in Syria, which is developing into the worst humanitarian crisis of the century so far.

Far from making the world a safer place the modern day crusade unleashed by the West has given any crackpot the chance to call himself a ‘soldier of allah’ and commit murder in the name of Islam.  When such atrocities occur the emphasis, of both the politicians and the popular press, is to focus on the individuals concerned not the wider picture, thus ensuring that any debate or comment is diverted into a form of establishment backed Islamophobia.   

Playing by the rules?

The same mentality carries through into the government’s attitude to EU citizens from Bulgaria and Romania for whom restrictions on the freedom of movement will be lifted on the 1st January 2014.  While not citing religious beliefs as a cause for concern, there is more than a hint of “gypsies, tramps and thieves” about the crackdown on so-called ‘benefit tourism’, which is a thinly veiled tilt at Bulgarians and Romanians who may enter the UK after the 1st January.

It is worth quoting directly from the government Press Release on the subject, released on 18th December, which states,

The Prime Minister said:

 

“The hard-working British public are rightly concerned that migrants do not come here to exploit our public services and our benefits system.

 

“As part of our long-term plan for the economy, we are taking direct action to fix the welfare and immigration systems so we end the ‘something for nothing culture’ and deliver for people who play by the rules.

 

“Accelerating the start of these new restrictions will make the UK a less attractive place for EU migrants who want to come here and try to live off the state. I want to send the clear message that whilst Britain is very much open for business, we will not welcome people who don’t want to contribute.”

 

None of this would look out of place on the front page of the Daily Mail or the Daily Express and, if it has not already, will probably end up there.

 

The reality of course is that benefit tourism is not a drain on the economy; the UK is not going to be overwhelmed by immigrants from Bulgaria, Romania or anywhere else; and that the advantages of immigration far outweigh the issues pumped up by the Tories to feed the media frenzy led by the Mail and Express.  The fact that the movement of people across EU states to find work also benefits UK citizens seems to be conveniently overlooked.

 

The movement of capital and investment is another matter.  This is an area in which the Tories are more than happy to encourage investment to increase profit, however poorly paid the recipients might be and however much of a drain it may be on the UK economy.  Allied to the lack of robust action on tax dodging and tax avoidance, the real areas which take millions out of the Exchequer every year, it is clear where the government’s priorities lie.

 

The ‘something for nothing culture’ is not going to be tackled by demonising a handful of EU migrants, while those who have the means to pay lack the will to do so.

 

15th December 2013

Education reform – could do better

It is generally held that the old Jesuit edict, that if you ‘give me the boy until the age of seven I will give you the man’, holds true in terms of the significance of the early years in shaping the outlook, character and the life chances of our children.  It is for this reason, amongst others, that education is consistently a political battleground; essentially he who controls the early years, controls the future.

The reshaping of education in the UK, away from the post-war comprehensive idea, has been happening since the 1980’s but has gathered pace under the present government and its ideologically driven Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.  For Gove the role of the ‘state’ is not as the provider of opportunity and equality for the underprivileged but something to be demonised as a barrier to free choice for parents wanting the best for their children.

In practice this means pushy middle class parents getting more of their way more of the time and the kids from working class families having to make do with what is left.  Not that what is left is all bad of course.  The standard of teachers and teaching in the UK remains high but this is in spite of any reforms forced upon the profession by Gove, rather than as a consequence.

The flagship for Gove is the so-called free school policy, which this week came under fire from the National Audit Office (NAO).  The NAO calculate that schools are costing twice as much to build as the government had estimated, yet are failing to tackle the shortage of classroom places in many parts of the country.  So far 174 free schools have opened since 2010 while another 116 are on the way.  However, half of the area’s most in need of additional pupil places do not have any applications for free schools.  The schools also tend to undermine teaching as a profession, having three times as many unqualified teaching staff as the average for the state sector.

The NAO criticised the policy for being a dash to get schools open to justify the policy, rather than an approach which was getting value for money or even improving educational opportunity.

This view was borne out by the annual report of the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who revealed this week that eight out of ten state schools are now judged good or outstanding, the highest proportion in Ofsted’s 21 year history.  While Wilshaw recognises that this is as a result of better teaching and leadership in schools, the Department for Education have been quick to claim credit on behalf of the government’s educational reforms, in spite of their main objective being to dismantle the state sector.

In other respects however, Wilshaw could do better.  His assessment that luck, not poverty, is the great dividing line in educational opportunity must surely be open to challenge.  Wilshaw cites poor schools in affluent areas and vice-versa as justification for this conclusion. 

There are undoubtedly examples of excellent practice and attainment in areas such as Tower Hamlets, which has seen results turn around in recent years.  However this does not detract from the fact that education provision is systematically weighted against children from poorer backgrounds and that weighting gets heavier the further into the system they go.  Look at the number of Oxbridge degree holders from the working class.  Look at how many working class kids make it to the Cabinet, or onto the opposition front bench for that matter.

It is no accident that those who can afford it, pay for a private education for their children.  It is no accident that those children are educated in smaller classes and get more personal attention and tuition.  It is no accident that those children are more likely to go on to university and are better placed to secure top jobs.

It will be said that it is crude to characterise the education system as one which educates our children to accept a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.  It will be argued that social mobility in the post war period proves that merit rules and that it is indeed luck, not poverty, which is the major factor in determining life chances.   The recent report by the government’s social mobility ‘tsar’, Alan Milburn, suggest that any of the post war benefits to poorer children are at best treading water and in many cases going backwards. 

The term social mobility used to be preceded by the adverb ‘upward’; this is no longer to be assumed.  The emphasis the present government places upon free schools, pandering to those who can pay the most and shout the loudest, is not an education policy based upon equality of opportunity.   Whether the words ‘equality’ or ‘opportunity’ are in any dictionary of which Michael Gove would approve, is clearly open to question.  

 

8th December 2013

Autumn Statement – Osborne wears blinkers

“Britain’s economic plan is working.”  This is true according to UK Chancellor, George Osborne, who announced in his Autumn Statement this week that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) now expects growth of 1.4% in 2013 followed by 2.4% in 2014.  These predictions are up from the 0.6% and 1.8% forecast by the OBR in March, hence Osborne’s optimism.  Osborne was magnanimous enough to acknowledge that any turnaround in economic fortunes is due to the “sacrifice and endeavour of the British people”, given that it is the gambling debts of the City bankers that we are all engaged in paying off.

However, a scratch beneath the surface of the data finds that the reality is, as ever, at odds with the Chancellor’s rhetoric.  Real wages, for example, are still below inflation levels with the OBR not expecting a return to 2008 levels until 2018, a lost decade if ever there was one.  While consumer spending has picked up for the moment this is as a result of people dipping into savings rather than increased income.  As the OBR state,

“This isn’t sustainable forever and we expect consumer spending growth to slow next year until productivity growth revives and helps lift earnings.”

One of the keys to productivity growth however is an increase in business investment, both in capital and labour, as an expression of optimism in the economy and the prospects of growth.  While the OBR has expected business investment to grow by 2% in 2013 it is now predicting a decline of 5.5%, although a turnaround to 5.1% is predicted for 2014.  Employer’s leaders have expressed scepticism about growth prospects with Steve Radley of EEF saying,

“I think we’ve been here before a couple of years ago, when investment intentions picked up and it still proved difficult to get over the line.”

At the same time the TUC has pointed out that just 20% of economic growth over the next five years is expected to come from business investment, while Britain’s share of world export markets is expected to continue declining.

Osborne is clearly being selective in making his pronouncement and has one eye on the headline writers as the 2015 General Election looms.  While pointing out that, at £111bn, net government borrowing was less than predicted in March 2013 he omitted to mention that this was considerably higher than the £60bn predicted in June 2010. Given the Chancellor’s emphasis upon balancing the books, and austerity being a price worth paying for that, the statement suggests that it will take until 2019 to eradicate the budget deficit, meaning austerity is going to be on the cards at least until then.

The reality for the majority of the people of the UK is that even though it is hurting, it certainly is not working.  In the race to the General Election finish line however the Chancellor continues to wear blinkers.  Let’s hope he cannot see the rest of the field catching him on the rails.

Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)

Much has been written since the sad news of the death of Nelson Mandela on the 5th December.  There is little we can add to the body of praise for the man, his work and his achievements.  We reproduce below the statement released by the African National Congress, announcing Mandela’s passing.

 

The passing of Cde Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

 

5 December 2013

 

Comrades and friends,

 The Mandela family,

 Fellow South Africans,

 

“In the life of every nation, there arise men who leave an indelible and eternal stamp on the history of their peoples; men who are both products and makers of history. And when they pass they leave a vision of a new and better life and the tools with which to win and build it.”

 

With deep sorrow and a profound sense of loss, the African National Congress received the sad news of the passing of our Isithwalandwe and former President, Comrade Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

 

Our nation has lost a colossus, an epitome of humility, equality, justice, peace and the hope of millions; here and abroad.

 

Madiba loved South Africa. We recall the strength of his fist punching the air as he stepped out of prison after 27 years; and his sternness during the negotiations for the freedom of our beloved country. We celebrate his ever-present smile, the cheerful Madiba jive, his love for children and great respect for the women of this country.

 

The large African Boabab, who loved Africa as much as he loved South Africa, has fallen. Its trunk and seeds will nourish the earth for decades to come.

 

Nelson Mandela, Isithwalandwe – Seaparankwe, born in the village of Qunu in the erstwhile Bantustan of the Transkei, recognised the burden of colonial and racial oppression and exploitation. He then joined the African National Congress in 1942. He was convinced by the belief his wise tutor, Walter Sisulu, had in the ANC as the means to effect change in South Africa. As he said,

 

“Sometimes one can judge an organization by the people who belong to it, and I knew that I would be proud to belong to any organization of which Walter was a member”.

 

He loved the ANC.  Hence his frequent words that upon his death he would join

 

“the nearest branch of the ANC in heaven”

 

In his lifetime of struggle through the African National Congress, he assumed and was assigned various leadership positions.  He served with distinction.  He was part of the ANC leadership collective and did not make decisions without first reflecting with his comrades. Yet he would fight for the principle of what was the right thing to do.

 

Madiba was also a member of the South African Communist Party, where he served in the Central Committee.

 

His was a choice to not only be a product but the maker of his and his people’s history.

 

Soon after prison he took the mantle of the President of the ANC and, ultimately the country – becoming the first President of a democratic South Africa.  He worked tirelessly for the ANC and a free South Africa.  He hated racism and bigotry; sought a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society where all are equal.  As he said while in prison,

 

“Ours is not to ask for equality on a lower scale;

 Ours is to fight to win on an equal but higher level”.

 

He passed the baton to the younger generation of his beloved movement, the ANC, to carry on with the vision of bringing about an equal and just society.  The ANC continues in this task as set forth by him and those of his generation, living and deceased.  Indeed, men and women such as Nelson Mandela,

 

“... when they pass they leave a vision of a new and better life and the tools with which to win and build it.”

 

His life gives us the courage to push forward for development and progress towards ending hunger and poverty. As we said of him while still alive, and we say so now,

 

“We have you, Madiba, as our nearest and brightest star to guide us on our way.  We will not get lost.”

 

To the entire family of Mandela, we extend our heartfelt condolences.  He was as much yours as he was ours, probably his dedication to the ANC family robbed you of a father.  We will, from this minute on, as always, walk this journey with you to the end.

To his friends, in the ANC and across the globe and across all divide, be comforted.

 To the people of South Africa, may your hearts be not in distress. He lives in each and every one of you and in your homes, because he gave of himself to all of us.

 

Let us celebrate the gift of his life from this moment on.

 Let us honour his memory in a dignified way as his leadership and stature deserves.

 Let us participate in all the activities organised in his honour in a disciplined and respectful manner, until he is laid to rest.

 

Rest in peace, Comrade President,

 Isithwalandwe-Seaparankwe,

 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

 

Amandla ngawethu

 Matla ke a rona

 All power to the people

 

Secretary General’s Office

 

1st December 2013

Scotland’s Future?

Independence for Scotland?  It is clearly the story of the week in UK politics with the launch of the Scottish National Party blockbuster, Scotland’s Future, a White Paper running to 650 pages.  The SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, effectively has his political career tied into this one volume.  A ‘no’ vote is not one from which Salmond is likely to recover if Scots do not buy into his vision on the 18th September 2014.

How clear the vision Salmond is offering though is something which may not stand the test of scrutiny over the coming months.  The emotional plea to the principle of the right of nation’s to self determination is one which cannot realistically be argued with.  However, how independent and self determining a nation Scotland will be, while retaining the Queen as Head of State and the pound as its currency, is open to question.

In relation to the currency question, for example, the Bank of England would continue to act as lender of last resort for Scotland, as well as setting interest rates north of the Border.   As things currently stand UK Chancellor, George Osborne, has warned that the creation of a sterling zone is unlikely and the White Paper does not offer an alternative to this scenario.  In relation to EU membership, the independent Scotland would argue for “continuity of effect” with the existing UK position, such as opting out of the euro and the Schengen free travel area, which provides travel without border controls across Europe.

Although the UK monarch would remain as head of state in a separate Scotland, God Save The Queen could be scrapped as the national anthem.  All British citizens who live in Scotland and all people born in Scotland, but living elsewhere, would automatically be considered Scottish citizens.  As nationalism goes, this is not exactly at the cutting edge of progressive republicanism, with Scottish separation from the rest of the UK being in danger of being characterised as tokenistic.

A distinct positive for Scots however would be the commitment of an independent government to treat as a priority an “early agreement” with the remainder of the UK for the removal of Trident nuclear submarines from their Faslane base on the Clyde.  While this commitment is somewhat let down by the assertion that Scotland could still apply to join NATO, rather than being neutral, the potential for the use and purpose of Trident, for the UK as a whole, could be an interesting aspect of the independence debate over the coming months.

With cuts across the public sector and increasing pressure upon services for vulnerable children and adults, the  legitimacy of a £25bn commitment to nuclear ‘deterrence’ must be an argument that can fire public opinion in the run up to the general election.

On defence questions overall the White Paper proposes that Faslane would become the main operating base for the Scottish navy, including two frigates from the Royal Navy’s fleet, as well as being the headquarters for the Scottish defence forces.  In addition, an army of three infantry battalions, comprising 1,500 regular and 300 reserve personnel, would be formed, along with a separate Scottish air force consisting of up to 16 Typhoon jets.  The document proposes that Scotland shares RAF Lossiemouth in Moray with the remainder of the UK.

On economic questions the White Paper argues that Scotland would have “no requirement” to cut spending or increase tax.  Some commentators have suggested however that a separate Scotland would have to find an extra £6 billion of savings.   The White Paper also proposes to undercut the UK’s corporation tax rate by three percentage points, renationalise Royal Mail and scrap proposed tax allowances for married couples while retaining all the “free” benefits it currently enjoys, including free tuition fees for students.  Ministers would significantly increase the amount of free child care for preschool children.

The White Paper proposes setting up an oil fund to retain North Sea revenues that are swallowed up by public spending at present.  However a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has warned that Scotland would be worse off than the UK shortly after independence because of declining oil revenues.

Should the vote be ‘yes’, the date for independence is set as the 14th March 2016.

Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, described the document as the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published, stating,

 “This is the most detailed blueprint that any people have ever been offered anywhere in the world as the basis for becoming an independent country.   It puts beyond doubt that an independent Scotland would start from a position of strength, in fact, would become independent in more promising circumstances than virtually any other nation in history.”

However, the document appears to offer little more than an arms length version of the UK, with a more progressive social policy but no real independent economic position.  The SNP position on independence for Scotland is by some measures barely nationalist, given the acquiescence to retaining the Queen and the pound, but certainly falls way short of articulating anything like a socialist vision for an independent Scotland.

Lurking deep beneath the waters of the nationalist diversion this is in fact the real question; how is the balance of power across the UK shifted in favour of working class people and their families and away from the corporations, the City of London and the bankers? 

It is not just that Scotland’s Future does not provide the answer, it does not even address the question.

24th November 2013

Nuclear deal – today Iran, tomorrow Israel?

The news that the United States and Iran have reached a temporary agreement on the question of uranium enrichment is one which most sane people will welcome.   Under international conventions, to which it is a signatory, the Iranian government has not breached any guidance on the development of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.  The West has consistently asserted that Iran is aiming to develop nuclear weaponry, a claim which Iran has steadfastly denied, although the enrichment of uranium to the level of medium grade 20% purity can provide a springboard towards weapons grade uranium.  As part of the current deal Iran has agreed to stop enriching to this level and agreed to more access to its facilities by UN inspectors.

The Iranian regime is clearly not one to be trusted at face value, given its record on the suppression of political opposition, trades unions, women and ethnic minorities in the 34 years since the revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.  Proclamations by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that the state of Israel should be confined to history, has not helped give any re-assurance that the West is dealing with a rational partner.  Indeed the bizarre antics of the likes of Ahmadinejad gave the West the pretext it needed to impose sanctions upon Iran in the first place, putting the Iranian people in the unenviable position of being punished for the actions of a leader who was forced upon them, in the ‘stolen’ presidential election of 2009.

There can be no doubt that the sanctions regime has been crippling the Iranian economy.  The lack of basic foodstuffs, medical supplies and limited access to export markets have combined to bring the economy close to its knees in the past two years, with unemployment spiralling and poverty on the increase.  The war of words between the West and Iran, with the threat of military action never too far from consideration, has only abated in recent months with the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president in August and the engagement of the West in serious negotiations.

While Rouhani has been allowed to come to an accommodation with the West in order to relieve some of the internal pressure upon the regime, there is clearly some distance to go before the Islamic Republic comes close to meeting its human rights and International Labour Organisation (ILO) obligations.  The ‘external threat’, whether the reality of sanctions or the possibility of a military strike, has been useful for the Iranian government’s programme of silencing opposition by using the catch all ‘crime’ of ‘actions against national security’ as a pretext for ongoing widespread arrest and intimidation.  If Rouhani’s so-called liberal credentials are to hold up, significant changes inside Iran will need to be forthcoming.

In the meantime, the key points of the current deal as released by the US are as follows:-

  • Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond 5%, and "neutralise" its stockpile of uranium enriched beyond this point

  • Iran will give greater access to inspectors including daily access at Natanz and Fordo nuclear sites

  • There will be no further development of the Arak plant which it is believed could produce plutonium

  • In return, there will be no new nuclear-related sanctions for six months if Iran sticks by the accord

  • Iran will also receive sanctions relief worth about $7bn (£4.3bn) on sectors including precious metals

 

While US Secretary of State John Kerry said the agreement would make the region safer for its allies, including Israel, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet it was a "historic mistake" and that his country reserved the right to defend itself.

"Today the world became a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world made a significant step in obtaining the most dangerous weapons in the world," he said.

Israel has been leading the line in the demand for a military strike upon Iran so this response is not entirely surprising if still somewhat alarming.  The fact that the Israelis have been occupying the West Bank and Gaza for over forty years, denying rights to Palestinians in defiance of United Nations resolutions, obviously gives them cause to think that this is an action which may be open to other nations.  Allied to this is the fact that the West has turned a blind eye to Israel’s illegal development of nuclear weapons, in exchange for Israel being the West’s ‘policeman’ in the Middle East.

The world has clearly become a more sophisticated place than the old testament politics of the Israeli leadership allows for.  It is simply not good enough for Netanyahu to state, as he has, that Israel would not be bound by the agreement.  The United States, as the principal political and financial backer of Israel, needs to bring its maverick ally into line. 

It will be difficult enough to make agreement with the Iranian government stick, as there will be hardline resistance to any deal with the West from the more conservative elements of the regime.  If Israeli attempts to derail and destabilise also have to be negotiated the chances of progress unravelling will be accelerated. 

The interests of the people of Iran, Israel, the Middle East and the rest of the world do not lie with the religious zealots on either side of the current discussion.  Too much is at stake to allow them to gain the upper hand.

17th November 2013

Recovery? Not as we used to know it….

It is official, the UK is now in a state of economic recovery because Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, says so.   He says so because unemployment continues to fall, although not massively, and the economy continues to grow, although not massively.  Past evidence certainly suggests that recovery is currently weak and may not be sustained.  Post war recession has typically been followed by growth rates of 3% to 4% a year, best estimates at present put current UK growth at 2% a year.

Carney’s famous “forward guidance”, proclaimed when he took the Governor’s job, states that interest rates will not need to rise unless unemployment drops to 7%, providing inflation remains under control.  Unemployment is currently at 7.6% and dropping while inflation is showing no sign of running off the leash, so should we not be cheering Governor Carney and his boss, Chancellor George Osborne?

Some undoubtedly will be raising a glass to the Chancellor.  It may not be the typical worker though, whose average wages have dropped every month for four years and are currently at the level they were in 2000.  It may not be anyone in their 20’s who have seen their incomes fall more than 12% on average since the onset of the crisis in 2008.  It may not be anyone in the manufacturing sector or in public services, which have taken a battering and are once again set to bear the brunt of austerity in the coming year.

There have been some gainers of course.  The high paying business services sector has added 460,000 jobs during the downturn, while the low paying hospitality and care markets have grown.   All of which means that at one end of the spectrum the fat cats get fatter but at the other there is a scramble for low paid jobs, being better than no jobs at all.  The extension of the UK economy into a low skill, low pay employers paradise continues apace.

The potential for interest rate rises, should unemployment dip below 7% is a major cause of concern for both homeowners and for the government.  Whatever the official propaganda the government are well aware that the reality of life as lived by most people in the UK is that times are tougher, wages are lower and job insecurity is a dark shadow at their shoulder.  The prospect of interest rates rising, and monthly mortgage bills with them, is not one which is likely to generate a pre-election feelgood factor, especially if wages continue to stagnate.

This is borne out by latest poll figures from Ipsos MORI which suggest that 48% of UK residents feel that the upturn has had no impact on their standard of living with only 14% indicating a positive impact.  In addition to this 77% do not expect economic growth to benefit them over the next year while only 19% expect to see a benefit.

With Labour currently on the front foot in relation to the cost of living debate the Tories are rocking on their heels, especially over the vexed question of energy prices where they have still not been able to mount a successful response to Labour’s price freeze promise.  As 2015 approaches it will be interesting to see what tricks Chancellor Osborne attempts to pull out of the pre-election budget hat and how much the Tories anti-union vitriol cranks up as they endeavour to play the ‘Red Ed’ card for all it is worth.

 

10th November 2013

Shipbuilding – is it worth it?

The announcement this week by BAE Systems that the last shipyard in England will close, with the loss of 940 jobs in Portsmouth, is the latest nail in the coffin of traditional British manufacturing.  As an island nation, with a developed production capability, shipbuilding should be an obvious area in which to invest and develop expertise.  Without ships there would be little import or export of any significance from the UK.  World trade still relies on shipping for both goods and energy, while warship building remains a lucrative if slightly more dubious area of activity.

The retreat of the UK shipbuilding sector into warship building alone was signalled back in the 1980’s with the privatisation of the industry by the Thatcher government.  The industry had passed its peak, of launching 192 merchant ships in 1961, but even in 1977 merchant ship launches were at 100 in an industry which employed 90,000 people.  This was significantly less by the mid 1980’s, 65 ships in 1985, but nevertheless a coherent industrial strategy, which considered wider world competition and emerging trends, could have  consolidated a core industry of some substance.

Shipbuilding in the UK could never have competed with the oil tankers and bulk carriers produced using cheap labour in South Korea and Japan.  Bulk carriers which cost $30m in 1981 were half that price within five years, making structural adjustment for the UK industry almost impossible.  However the capability to look at specialisation and developing world class design was an option in the 1980’s.  Luxury cruise liners, for example, are still built in Norway, Finland and France.  With investment and a coherent approach to the industry this could have been a reality.  As ever, with the Conservative administration of the day, dogma prevailed and the hiving off of the industry for the quick profit of a patchwork of small investors was prioritised over the strategic approach.

As merchant opportunities diminished the remaining shipyards were forced to compete for the Ministry of Defence contracts for warships in order to sustain any semblance of shipbuilding in the UK.  The latest announcement, in which a total of 1,775 jobs will go when jobs on the Clyde are counted, is just the latest in a long line of decisions which have seen shipbuilding disappear on the Tyne, the Wear, in Belfast and now the South coast.

For now the Clyde will get the orders for the type 26 frigates and patrol boats that will keep yards open but there are already indications that even UK naval work is beginning to go abroad.  Robert Willmington, shipbuilding analyst at consultancy IHS Maritime stated this week that,

“Interestingly, the Ministry of Defence itself ordered a series of replenishment tankers in 2012 from a South Korean shipyard in a £452m deal for service with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.  The cost of building these ships in a UK yard would have been around 30% higher, even if a yard still existed that could build such vessels.”

Willmington’s statement of course hides a multitude of considerations.  Even at additional cost, orders in UK yards would retain UK jobs, bring tax income to the Exchequer and sustain a wider network of suppliers in the local economy.  According to the university in Portsmouth each 100 jobs in the yards supports another 66 beyond, a figure that would be similar in other parts of the country should the industry have been maintained.  

The argument that high costs, inevitably linked with high wages in this context, are associated with inefficiency is a spurious one.  It is an argument that is bring trotted out to undermine the debate, opened by Ed Miliband in his speech at Battersea Power Station this week, to raise minimum wages and to give tax breaks to firms that pay living wages.  The right wing are keen to see wage costs reduced in order to aid “competitiveness” although in reality this generally only aids the dividends of shareholders and the pension plans of company Chief Executives.

As Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has pointed out this week,

“Workers in German car factories are paid about 30 times more than their Chinese counterparts, and twice what their American “competitors” get.  Despite that, German car companies more than match their Chinese and even US rivals.”

In reality the lower costs equals efficiency argument is an excuse by employers to undermine trade union organisation and reduce health and safety protections.  The Germans have clearly supported sectors of their industry in ways that UK companies have never supported shipbuilding or other sectors.  As Chang goes on to say,

“…German workers benefit from more productive technologies as a result of the investments that German companies have made in advanced machinery and research and development.  It is exactly because British companies have not made similar investments that they “cannot afford” to pay their workers good wages.”

Even within the limitations of capitalism there are still choices for employers and opportunities for improved outcomes for workers.  The UK emphasis upon the financial and service sectors has meant that, whatever benefits may accrue from investment in the UK, it is not as a result of investment in manufacturing.

The closure of the shipyard in Portsmouth this week has dominated the headlines as part of the debate around Scottish independence.  Preserving jobs on the Clyde, it is argued, may dampen enthusiasm for a yes vote.   Whether it does or not may well turn out to be academic.  If British employers continue down the present path, and the MoD steps up its overseas procurement, shipbuilding in any form in the UK will soon be a thing of the past.

 

 

2nd November 2013

Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR)

Statement on the position of jailed trade unionists and political prisoners in Iran

The recent House of Commons round table discussion, organised by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and chaired by Ben Wallace MP, co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Iran, is to be welcomed.  The IFJ ‘Free Iranian Journalists’ campaign, which was the subject for the discussion, has raised important issues in relation to the plight of journalists inside Iran and the limitations upon freedom of expression imposed by the regime.

The sensitivity of the leadership of the Islamic Republic to any criticism was underlined this week with the sentencing to 18 months in prison of actress Pegah Ahangarani, for the catch all “crime” of “action against national security and links to foreign media”.  The sentencing of Ahangarani is the latest in a long line of actions by the Rouhani regime which directly contradict the reformist rhetoric seized upon hopefully by many in the presidential election campaign earlier this year.

The House of Commons meeting focussed upon the campaign of the IFJ on behalf of its affiliated body in Iran, the Association of Iranian Journalists (AoIJ), to have its headquarters re-opened and for jailed journalists to be freed.

Since the 2009 presidential elections, more than 160 journalists have been jailed and similar numbers have been forced to flee Iran.  More than 30 newspapers and magazines have been banned.

At present around twenty journalists remain in Iranian jails, some of them since 2009. Three have been released in recent days but all have completed their jail sentence.   Like others speaking out in criticism of the regime, journalists are jailed because they are deemed to have "acted against national security".   They continue to be subjected to inhuman treatment ranging from flogging to solitary confinement and denial of hospital and family visits.

Two AoIJ board members remain in prison (Mr Rajaei and Mr Mogheseh) and two others are out on bail waiting for their appeal (the union's General Secretary Mrs. Badrossadat Mofide and its Vice-President Shamsolvaezin Mashaallah).

Like many others the IFJ and are hopeful that the reformist noises being made by the Rouhani administration will translate into real progress on the ground.  However, while there has been a collective sigh of relief internationally that the days of Ahmadinejad are over, the actions of Rouhani still fall a long way short of his reformist rhetoric when it comes to the domestic political agenda.  In fact, for jailed trades unionists and opponents of the regime, it is more accurate to say that nothing has changed.

CODIR has been campaigning with UK trade unions to reiterate the call for the release of trade unionist and prisoner of conscience, Mr. Reza Shahabi, the Treasury General of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, Sherkat-e Vahed.   A call has been made for the immediate release of Mr. Ali Nejati, the former leader of the Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Company Trade Union, a prisoner of conscience, and Mohammad Tavakoli, Secretary of the Kermanshah Teachers’ Guild Association.

Recently leaders of the TUC, UNITE, UNISON and RMT unions signed a joint appeal from CODIR, calling on President Rouhani to end Iran’s repression of trade unions by immediately and unconditionally releasing those in prison for their trade union work; dropping charges against others currently facing trial for several reasons; and ending the repressive measures which marginalise trade unions and their members.

CODIR continues to press for President Rouhani, to sign and fully implement relevant international conventions and protocols, in particular ILO Conventions 87 and 98 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the right to organise and the right to organise and collective bargaining.

CODIR is emphatic in its call for the right of Iranian workers to belong to independent trade unions.  The government should respect the independence of trade unions.  CODIR does not recognise Islamic Labour Councils and the Workers House as legitimate trade union organisations as due to their functions and constitutions they are under the control of the government.  The ILC's are ideologically oriented as they only permit those who believe in Islam to become involved in their activities.  They are tripartite organisations with the involvement of the Ministry of Labour and employers in their structures.

CODIR is clear that support from trade unions and MPs in the UK sends a signal to the regime that the people of the UK care about their brothers and sisters in Iran.

However, CODIR stresses that many prisoners remain behind bars in Iran, simply for standing up for human rights, women’s rights and trades union organisation. 

CODIR is committed to campaigning for the release of all political prisoners in Iran and will continue to work with political, trade union and human rights organisations to apply pressure upon the government in Iran until this happens.

 

 

27th October 2013

Young people question the status quo

Those who despair at the conservatism of many young people today should be encouraged by two diverse reports in the past week.

The first is on a relatively small scale but nevertheless important.  Economics undergraduates at the University of Manchester have formed a group called the Post -Crash Economics Society.  The aim of the society is to protest against the narrowness of economics teaching in universities in the UK.  The students, quite rightly, ask why economists failed to warn of the global financial crisis and question why the focus of courses is biased towards training students for jobs in the City.

The students are planning to publish a manifesto proposing reforms to the curriculum at Manchester and are encouraging other universities to follow.  Critics of the free market, such as Keynes and Marx, are routinely ignored.  Ha-Joon Chang, who teaches economics at Cambridge University and is backing the students, is critical of the lack of teaching about China and its influence on the global economy.  Chang claims to have “met American students who have never heard of Keynes.”

Last week’s initiative follows the launch in June of a network called Rethinking Economics, which brings together young economists and writers with the aim,

“…to demystify and diversify economics in the public eye; to educate ourselves and other students in a more reflective economics; to inspire divergent economists to engage with one another in debate; and to promote a politics of responsibility with academic economists.”

The failure of mainstream capitalist economists, to either foresee the crash or come up with a plausible way out of it, has inevitably resulted in the search for alternatives.  The danger for adherents of the system is that rational explanations for the currents crisis, and solutions to it, are to be found in the analysis provided by Marx and Engels and subsequently elaborated upon by Lenin.   

Those solutions require the need to address the anarchy of production within capitalism, with unplanned production resulting in waste in both material and human terms.  The need to question the ownership and control of the means of production and who benefits from the exploitation of labour also needs to be addressed.  The dynamics of the international economic order and the expropriation of resources from developing economies need to be considered.

An economics curriculum which even began to scratch the surface of these questions would lead to wider political and philosophical approaches, which could only raise doubts about the efficiency of the system as it stands.  The current initiatives may not take the students involved all the way down the path to an understanding of Marx but the fact that the current orthodoxy is being brought into question is a start.

Young people have moved a little further down the path of questioning accepted orthodoxy in Chile. Students who were engaged in protests supporting the right to free university education two years ago are likely to be members of the Chilean Congress, following presidential and congressional votes scheduled for the 17th November.  The elections could see the return to the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, who is heading a left wing bloc supported by the Socialists and the Communist Party in Chile.

Candidates standing for the Communist Youth in the congressional vote include Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, both of whom are expected to be elected.  Vallejo, a former president of the University of Chile student union, is focussing upon education reform and an overhaul of the Pinochet-era constitution in her campaigning.  The constitution as it stands makes it difficult for independent or smaller parties to be elected and helps the right wing maintain a disproportionate share of power.  It is widely seen as obsolete.

Vallejo has been trenchant in her criticism of the education system in Chile which she says reinforces a position where,

“…the children who are born poor are going to receive a poor education and will continue to be poor.”

Vallejo’s critique of the education system in Chile is equally resonant in the UK, with the so-called free school system, preferentially funded academies and increased university fees choking off opportunity for children from poorer backgrounds.  The example from Chile suggests that young people do not have to sit back and accept it.  Let’s hope that message filters through to the UK.

20th October 2013                     

Instinct, intellect and social mobility

It is surprising that sections of the press regard the Royal Mail sell off, a thinly veiled scam to enrich private investors, as a cause for outrage.  It is of course outrageous but given the history of the privatisation of state and public assets since the 1980’s not exactly one which could not have been seen coming.  David Cameron’s heroine, Margaret Thatcher, may have balked at selling off of the Queen’s head but plenty of other assets went under the gavel as the city boys lined their pockets.  Popular capitalism may have been Thatcher’s war cry but privatisation only ever turned out to be popular with those at the top of the economic food chain.

With Royal Mail shares closing their first week of trading at 500p, the government’s valuation of the company at £3.3bn was looking way short of the market’s estimation, of closer to £5bn.  On paper at least some investors will be looking at a 52% profit in week one.  Whether this will translate into a more effective postal service or better pay, terms and conditions for those working in the industry is doubtful.  Only a fool would refuse free money and most postal workers have pocketed shares to the value of £2,200 while still voting overwhelmingly, by four to one, for a 24 hour strike on the 4th November.

Communications Workers Union general secretary, Billy Hayes, has described as “laughable” government attempts to explain the undervaluing of the company.

“This is Vince Cable trying to absolve himself of a devastating mistake which has lost the taxpayer £900m”, said Hayes.  “It’s crystal clear that the government has rewarded private investors at the expense of public funds.”  

An alternative view was of course put by a Sunday Times leader last week which suggested that,

“The success of the Royal Mail offer was also a welcome reminder that after the trials of capitalism following the financial crisis, most people instinctively believe in the private sector as the driver of prosperity.”

Rupert Murdoch could hardly have put it better if he had written the editorial himself.

As with much of the output of the Murdoch empire however, there is little evidence to underpin the assertion that people “instinctively believe” in the benefits of the private sector.  In tough times people have an eye to make a few quid quickly.  Those with at least £750 to spare, not the average office cleaner or hospital auxiliary at a guess, may well have taken the chance to up their bank balance but hardly by an amount they will be able to retire on.

The reality of privatisation was reinforced further this week with the announcement by British Gas that fuel prices would be going up by 10% over the winter, an estimated £140 on average bills.  Meanwhile energy companies have made £3.3bn profit since the 2010 general election.

The erosion of opportunity for working class people was further evident this week.  Former Labour Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, is now chair of the government’s social mobility and child poverty commission which launched its State of the Nation 2013 report this week.  Amongst other things the report finds that the government’s cuts programme has been regressive, with those at the bottom of the ladder paying proportionally more; that excessive low pay means that employment is no longer a route out of poverty; and that children with families have borne half the cost of tax and benefit changes and almost two-thirds of spending cuts.

The report notes that,

“The UK has now one of the highest rates of low pay in the developed world.”  

Social mobility is increasingly becoming a contradiction in terms.  Not surprising when the policies of the government are designed to reinforce existing distinctions.  The free schools policy is aimed at further breaking down the scope for the state to redress imbalances in educational opportunity, which the comprehensive system attempted to tackle.  University fees price many children from poorer backgrounds out of the higher education market, while access to good quality early years provision is increasingly the terrain of those who can afford it.

These are all policies which promote the role of the private sector and introduce a more “business like” approach to areas of the public sector, deemed to be in need of an injection of new life and dynamism.  Many areas of local government are suffering the same fate, as the ethos of public service is eroded to fatten the private sector.

The Royal Mail sell off is the latest in an unfolding ideological process initiated in the 1970’s and still playing out today.  The undermining of the value of the public ownership and control of key industries, public utilities, health and education are part of an ongoing struggle, to assert the benefits of private sector over public sector control, to suggest in fact that people “instinctively believe” in the private sector.

As the realities of the pay as you go society of the Tories continues to bite, the belief of many people in the benefits of public ownership and control, putting people before profits and actively asserting the value of collective action is coming back to the surface.

Intellectually, people are beginning to see the benefits of socialism.

 

 

13th October 2013

Tea Party economics

It should come as no surprise that the lunatics are prepared to make every effort to take over the asylum in the United States.  In spite of the election victory of Barack Obama the barmier end of the Republicans, in the form of the Tea Party, continue to attempt to block even the mildest of reforms at every turn.

Health care reform highlighted in the Affordable Care Act (2010), dubbed Obamacare by its opponents, is aimed primarily at increasing the quality and affordability of health insurance, while lowering the number of those who are uninsured.   Hardly a blueprint for a US NHS, more a low cost BUPA.  However, Obamacare has become the bête noire of the Tea Party zealots, who are determined to extract concessions form the president in exchange for making progress in the US budget negotiations.

With public facilities closed across the country, as a result of the budget impasse, fears are now growing that the US is heading for a debt default as Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling which would allow the US to pay its bills after the 17th October.  Rumours that a six week extension to the debt ceiling may be granted were a source of temporary relief on international markets this week. 

With the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and the US being the biggest debtor nation, any debt default is regarded as something which would lead to chaos.  IMF chief, Christine Lagarde, warned that a default in the US could spread to the rest of the world through two possible channels,

“One would be the trade channel, caused by a reduction in economic activity in the US from the third quarter onwards.  The second would be the financial channel, the result of uncertainty and material issues.  We are likely to see volatility, uncertainty and consequences for the rest of the world.”

All of which is IMF code for the fact that a US default could make the financial crash of 2008 look like a walk in the park.

Lagarde’s position was reinforced by the OECD General Secretary, Angel Gurria, who suggested that a US default would mean that,

“…the OECD region as a whole will be pushed back into recession next year, and emerging economies will experience a sharp slowdown.  The magnitude of further possible negative feedback effects can only be guessed at.”

The US debt ceiling currently stands at $16.7tn.  On 17th October $120bn of debt needs to be repaid with a further $200bn due before the end of the month.

While it is evident that sections of the political class have gone crazy “over there” we can surely sit back and relax that nothing so unsavoury could possibly happen in sensible Europe; or could it?

With elections to the European Parliament scheduled for May 2014, mild panic is beginning to take hold in the corridors in Brussels as the far right make advances, with the paradoxical prospect of an increase in anti-Europe MEPs emerging from across the continent.  In France alone the National Front party of Marine Le Pen is currently 24% ahead in the polls. 

In the UK it is anticipated that UKIP could make gains at the expense of the Tories, while in Germany the anti single currency Alternative for Germany party is tipped to win its first seats.  Far right parties in Poland, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria are also expected to make headway.  European polls have had historically low turnouts making them vulnerable to determined parties capable of getting their vote out.  Add to that the possibility of those who do vote taking the opportunity to ‘protest vote’ against sitting national governments and the prospect of right wing gains is not so far fetched.

Whether such an assembly of the disaffected could mobilise around a coherent programme in the European Parliament would be another matter.  However, the far right are certainly united around the issues of immigration and the scale of the EU budget, both of which they see as needing to be cut back. 

A US debt default plunging the world into economic chaos may render the outcome of Euro elections in 2014 academic.  If the world dodges that bullet however it is still possible that Europe may yet have a tea party of its own to look out for.

 

6th October 2013

Miliband, Marx and the Mail

Former British PM, Harold Wilson, is routinely credited with having coined the phrase that ‘a week is a long time in politics’.  What he did not go on to say is that some weeks are distinctly longer than others.  The past week must have felt that way for David Cameron and the hapless Tory Party.

Conference is meant to be the time when the focus is on the Party, the Leader, and how they see the way forward being mapped out, in this case the road to General Election victory.  Cameron’s allies in the right wing press however appear to have other ideas.  The Daily Mail story that Ralph Miliband, father of Ed Miliband, was “the man who hated Britain” has set alight a debate about the future direction of the country and the kind of values which should govern the society we live in.

As veteran Labour left-winger, Tony Benn, stated on Radio 4 this week Marxists have always played a role in the development of ideas and debate in the Labour Movement and on the Left more widely.  Karl Marx, as Benn pointed out, was one of the world’s great philosophers, and exposed the truth that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between those whose labour creates wealth and those who benefit from it through their ownership of the means of production.

This is not a debate that gets much of an airing these days and it is ironic that the bungling of the Daily Mail has brought it to the fore.  It can only be hoped that a generation of young people steeped in the post Thatcher/Blair consensus can pick up the baton and run with the notion that revolution might actually be the only answer to the inequities of capitalism.

That may take some time but for now the fact that, when polled, a majority of people are in favour of nationalising the energy sector, rail services and retaining the Royal Mail in the public sector can only be seen as a positive.  Far from emerging from his conference week as the man with the plan Cameron has emerged in tatters, with Ed Miliband’s left-ish populism capturing the zeitgeist on one hand and Nigel Farrage’s UKIP hi-jacking traditional Tory little Englander territory on the other.

As Seumas Milne observed in The Guardian (2/10/13) this week,

“As the reality of his government’s policies are played out in growing hunger among school children, spreading cuts and charges in the health service, payday loans and food banks, it’s hard to see how the promise of 10 years of austerity will propel the Tories back to power…”

Indeed the plan outlined by Chancellor George Osborne, to achieve absolute budget surpluses over the next seven years by cutting public services in general and welfare in particular, was breathtaking in its flagrant class basis.  The only consequence of such a strategy will be to continue to heap the burden of the bankers gambling debts upon those least able to afford it, while allowing the Tories’ pals in the City of London to continue making profits.

The past week may have been the first real test of the general public’s elasticity of belief in the Thatcher/Blair consensus that the City rules and all else must follow.  Real wealth generation still comes from the actual manufacture of goods, the lack of which can only be masked for so long by the City wheeler-dealers.

The fury of the Daily Mail was initiated by Ed Miliband’s announcement of an energy price freeze if Labour win the 2015 General Election.  Power cuts, gloom and darkness were predicted, a return to the bleak days of the 1970’s were conjured up.  The fact that 15 of the 28 European Union’s members protect citizens from steep power price rises seems to have received little airplay.  Big player in the UK market, French owned EDF, has an agreement to increase UK prices by 5% for the next 12 months but French consumers will only have to live with a 2% increase.

Spanish group Iberdroia, who own Scottish Power, raised its UK prices by 7% last year but has been capped to a 3% rise in Spain.  New controls have recently been introduced in Belgium while in Portugal, Denmark and Greece there are controlled prices for energy.  There is no indication that the lights are going out all over Europe as a result.  Meanwhile UK consumers enjoy the fourth highest prices in Europe for electricity and are seventh top of the league table for gas costs.

Finally, the ignominy of the Daily Mail has been confirmed by two further facts to hit the news this week.  A reminder of that paper’s infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” headline in 1934, with an article praising the fascists by its owner Viscount Rothermere has raked up history the Mail would rather bury. 

Secondly the ownership structure of the current Mail group has come under scrutiny this weekend.  The Observer (6/10/13) reveals that,

“…all of the voting shares in the DMGT, the floated company that owns both the papers, have been acquired by a financial vehicle called Rothermere Continuation Limited.  RCL, which operates for the benefit of Viscount Rothermere, DMGT chairman, recently bought the remaining 11% of voting shares in the Trust that it did not already own.”

More interesting still is the fact that RCL is a holding company incorporated in Bermuda and that RCL is owned by a trust which is held for the benefit of Viscount Rothermere and his immediate family.  RCL and the trust are administered in Jersey and the Channel Islands.  Both Bermuda and Jersey are tax havens which the Mail has recently described as the kind of “scourge” which “costs Britain billions.”

Is anyone suggesting that the Rothermeres hate Britain, or just that they are milking it?

 

 

 

Press Release

In Protest: new poetry anthology explores human rights and social justice

 

Date released: 2 October 2013

 

Poets from around the world explore themes of human rights and social justice in a unique collaboration between the Human Rights Consortium and the Institute of English Studies (both School of Advanced Study, University of London), and London-based poetry collective the Keats House Poets.

 

In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights is an ambitious new publication aiming to bring together the fields of human rights research and literature in an innovative way. Selected from over 600 poems submitted by established and emerging poets, itprovides a rare international insight into issues ranging from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Hola massacre and indigenous peoples' rights to the current war in Syria.

 

All the poems received were anonymised and the final 150 chosen include works from jailed Colombian human rights activist David Ravelo and acclaimed UK poets Carol Anne Duffy, Ruth Padel, Moniza Alvi and Douglas Dunn. Campaigner and philanthropist Sigrid Rausing, who wrote the afterword for the anthology, said:  ‘Poetry brings tiny details to life, and in a world where human rights is mostly about reports and abstractions, where real life and real details are lost, poetry can still make us see and feel.’ 

 

Co-edited by Helle Abelvik-Lawson (Human Rights Consortium), Laila Sumpton and Anthony Hett (both Keats House Poets), the 251 pages make up a body of contemporary works that is truly outstanding for its exploration of human rights. The poets come from a variety of backgrounds from more than 16 countries.

 

Divided into 13 themes – Expression, History, Land, Exile, War, Children, Sentenced, Slavery, Women, Regimes, Workers, Unequal, and Protest – the poems vary in style from compelling personal stories to reflections on contemporary events experienced via the evening news. With the forthcoming centenary of the First World War, this anthology also proves vital reading for an insight into contemporary war poetry, covering conflicts ranging from the Spanish Civil War to Syria.

 

‘This book has validated my suspicion that there is space and enthusiasm for literary creativity in human rights,’ said Helle Abelvik-Lawson. ‘Reading and writing poetry is a very therapeutic way to process some of the darker aspects of humanity. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom – there are some very empowering, fun and funny poems in this book. The feeling of solidarity is palpable, and I feel very privileged to have been able to read so many incredible poems. Like any good anthology, each poem offers something unique, telling a different story about the human experience.’

 

The editors, together with a number of poets, will speak at an event marking the UK launch of In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights (paperback) at the Bloomsbury Festival finale in Senate House, University of London on 20 October at 18:00. Discounted copies will be available. A series of events connected to the anthology are planned throughout 2013-14.

 

The publication and launch is supported by Spread the Word, London’s development agency, which also sponsored prizes for selected poets.

 

For further information please contact Chloe Pieters, the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London at HRC@sas.ac.uk or on +44 (0)20 7862 8853..

 

Notes for Editors:

 

1.       The Human Rights Consortium, founded in 2009, brings together the multidisciplinary expertise in human rights found in several institutes of the School of Advanced Study, as well as collaborating with individuals and organisations with an interest in the subject. The main aim of the Consortium is to facilitate, promote and disseminate academic and policy work on human rights by holding conferences and seminars, hosting visiting fellows, coordinating the publication of high quality work in the field, and establishing a network of human rights researchers, policy-makers and practitioners across the UK and internationally, with a view to collaborating on a range of activities. www.sas.ac.uk/hrc

 

2.       The Institute of English Studies, founded in 1999 out of the Centre for English Studies, is an internationally renowned research centre, dedicated to promoting advanced study and research in English studies in the wider national and international academic community. It provides a centre for excellence in English language, literature, palaeography and the history of the book.  Its activities include facilitating academic discussion and the exchange of ideas through its comprehensive events programme, hosting major collaborative research projects, providing essential research training in book history and palaeography, and facilitating scholarly communities in all areas of English studies. The Institute of English Studies is a member institute of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. www.ies.sas.ac.uk  

 

3.       The School of Advanced Study, University of London is the UK’s national centre for the facilitation and promotion of research in the humanities and social sciences. The School brings together the specialised scholarship and resources of ten prestigious research institutes to offer academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. The member institutes of the School are the Institutes of Advanced Legal Studies, Classical Studies, Commonwealth Studies, English Studies, Germanic & Romance Studies, Historical Research, Musical Research, Philosophy, Study of the Americas, and the Warburg Institute.www.sas.ac.uk

 

4.       Anthony Hett is a London-based poet from North Wales with an MA in Creative Writing (Plays & Screenplays) from City University London. A member of the Keats House Poets, Anthony has run workshops and performed his Spoken Word Poetry throughout England & Wales. He is currently working on a one-man play and his first full collection of poetry.

 

5.       Laila Sumpton is a member of the Keats House Poets and also a graduate of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights. She works both in the NGO sector for Plan UK and as a poet, running poetry workshops and events at museums and festivals across the UK and writing human rights themed poetry.

 

6.       The Keats House Poets, established in 2010, are a London-based poetry collective consisting of eight poets who are supported by the Keats House Museum in Hampstead. Two of these poets, Anthony Hett and Laila Sumpton, have been working with School of Advanced Study’s Human Rights Consortium staff for over a year to develop the Human Rights Poetry Project. This has included designing and running events that explore human rights and poetry at the Bloomsbury 2012 and 2013 festivals, and the publication of In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights. www.khpoets.wordpress.com

 

 

 

29th September 2013

Labour turns the tide?

With the Tory party conference hitting Manchester this week, and many delegates getting a nosebleed being so far North, the conference season is entering its final furlong.  So far Labour seem to be coming out of this race rather well.  If Ed Miliband is holding the keys to No. 10 in May 2015 he could even look back upon the past couple of weeks as the point at which the tide turned in his favour.

There is still a long way to go but the past week has seen the Tories rocked by the Labour announcement to freeze energy prices for almost two years if they are elected.  The energy companies have all reacted with horror, threatened to leave the market, claimed that the profits from energy are only a small part of their corporate picture and, best of all, suggested that such a policy would be a brake on investment.  Coming from an industry in which investment has been virtually nil for the past ten years, while profits and prices escalate, this last complaint is particularly hard to take.

Energy UK, the body which represents the UK energy sector, which is largely foreign-owned, has led the scaremongering stating that,

“Freezing the bill may be superficially attractive, but it will also freeze the money to build new power stations, freeze the jobs of 600,000 people dependant on energy industry and making the prospect of energy shortages a reality.”

However, even the Tories have been forced to admit that their private polls show that an energy price freeze is popular with voters, not to mention nationalising the energy sector, which is by no means a vote loser.  With the Lib Dems having already laid claim to the promise to give free school meals to all under 8 year olds, the Tories have been left scrambling to come up with a headline catching policy initiative as they make the long haul North.

So far the best they have come up with is an income tax break for married couples, or some married couples anyway, which will amount to the princely sum of £3.85 per week for those who are eligible.  If this is meant to be a measure of how highly the Tories value the institution of marriage it is not a hefty price tag; hardly a pint in most London bars and definitely not enough for a decent bottle of Chablis.

Social policy has never been a Tory strong point of course, as the much derided bedroom tax demonstrates, and their lack of contact which the lives of ordinary voters is the stuff of legend.  While the Labour front bench in recent years has seen more than its fair share of public school privilege it still just about manages to maintain some recognition of its roots and what might appeal to its voter base.  This is due in no small measure to the much maligned input of the trade union movement into the Labour Party.  The connection may make some of the Blairite luminaries in the higher echelons uncomfortable but the link remains one which helps keep Labour grounded in the day to day concerns of ordinary people.

This is of course the very reason why the Tories and the right wing press make so much of the need for Labour to cut the trade union link and why the Lib Dems call for state funding for political parties, thus institutionalising who is eligible to govern and diluting the influence of party members.

Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minster David Cameron will this week be doing their best to persuade the nation that the pain is worth it and that recovery is on the way.  For those watching, or catching the news headlines, it will be more than obvious that it is not Osborne, Cameron or their pals who are feeling the pinch.  Let us hope the tide has turned and they are left washed up on the beach.  

 

 

22nd September 2013

 

Prisoner release welcomed as first step

 

The release of human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and others unjustly incarcerated by the Iranian regime was welcomed this week by the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People's Rights (CODIR).

 

CODIR has been leading the campaign in the UK to highlight human rights abuses in Iran for over 30 years and attributes the release of Sotoudeh, along with eleven other prisoners, to the ongoing pressure upon the Iranian regime exerted by the international community over a long period.

 

Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to six years in prison in September 2010 for “spreading propaganda against the system” and “acting against national security”, catch all charges which the regime in Iran has routinely used to suppress the views of those prepared to be critical of the regime’s human rights record.

 

CODIR Assistant General Secretary, Jamshid Ahmadi, welcomed the news of the prisoner release but stressed that the regime’s reformist credentials would depend on much more being done to address abuses of human rights.

 

“Clearly any prisoner release in Iran is to be welcomed”, said Mr Ahmadi, “but we should be clear that one swallow does not make a summer.  Many more prisoners remain behind bars in Iran, simply for standing up for human rights, women’s rights and trades union organisation.  We still await the release of Reza Shabi, Bahareh Hedayat and many others languishing in the appalling conditions in Iran’s jails.”

 

CODIR has stressed that the timing of the prisoner release has clearly been significant, coinciding with the visit of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to the United Nations in New York this week, thereby maximising international publicity.

 

“The Iranian regime is not beyond using these prisoner releases for its own purposes,” continued Mr Ahmadi.  “While we celebrate the release of Nasrin Sotoudeh and others we should take the opportunity to increase the pressure upon the regime which has led to their release and press the Iranian government to abolish the policies which give rise to these injustices.”

 

CODIR will continue to campaign in the UK and work with human rights organisations worldwide to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Iran and press for democratic rights for the Iranian people.

 

Meanwhile, with preparations for the UN General Assembly underway, the ground is being prepared for an, ‘encounter’ between US President Barack Obama and Iran’s President Rouhani as a possible first step towards more constructive engagement over the Iranian nuclear programme and Western sanctions against the regime.

 

Western accusations that the Islamic Republic is working towards nuclear weapons capability has been roundly denied by the regime which maintains the programme is for peaceful nuclear energy purposes only. 

 

However, both sides appear to be ready for some degree of rapprochement.  Sanctions are having a dramatic impact upon the lives of ordinary Iranians who are unable to access basic goods and medical supplies.  Sanctions also maintain Iran’s international isolation and, for the time being at least, Rouhani appears to have the backing of the ruling clergy in Iran to take a new stance in the negotiations.

 

For the West, the crisis in Syria has brought home the fact that Iran is a major player in the region and any long term solution to the crisis there will require some role for the Islamic Republic.  While the stand off between the United States and Iran has served the purposes of both regimes for over thirty years pragmatism might yet win the day.   Iranian politician, Zahra Eshraghi, granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomenei,  is quoted this weekend as saying,

 

“The time has come for the two countries to put aside the mutual distrust and act on their national interests.”

 

How far the national interests of the United States or the Islamic Republic of Iran equate to the interests or needs of their people is another discussion.  However, if dialogue in New York can start the process of bringing the international community back from a position where ‘all options remain on the table’, in relation to a military strike on Iran, it will be a step in the right direction.

 

The test then will be for the international community to press on and tackle the ‘secret’ and illegal nuclear weapons capability of Israel and to address the illegal occupation of the Gaza strip and the West Bank.  With the international community having stepped back from the brink of a disastrous military intervention in Syria, more creative ways of approaching crises in the Middle East may yet be possible.

 

 

15th September 2013

Bursting bubbles

With less than two years to go before the next General Election, in May 2015, it is very convenient for the Tories that economic news is beginning to show signs of being positive.  House prices are on the up, with Newcastle upon Tyne allegedly outstripping the rest of the country, with an 11% increase in house values over the past year.  The economy is showing some signs of stirring into action and unemployment has shown a slight downturn.  UK Chancellor George Osborne has taken great delight in trumpeting his view that austerity is working and, that while there has been pain, we are now getting the gain.

The gain however is relative at best.  While the US and German economies have made up the ground lost during the past five years of recession, the UK has not.  Economic output not only remains lower than pre-crash levels but recovery is even slower than the 1930’s.   

Such recovery as can currently be seen is not built upon an upsurge in manufacturing but on the housing market.  In short that means that households are taking on more debt to get on the property ladder, encouraged by government schemes for first time buyers.  The potential for a housing bubble is there and, as evidenced by what happened in 2008, there is only one thing that bubbles do.

For George Osborne the trick over the next eighteen months is to prevent the bubble from bursting while continuing to persuade his friends in the Tory press to talk up the recovery, in the hope that the illusion of an upturn will get the Tories into office with a clear majority.  With prices still rising more quickly than wages the reality is that families feel the impact of falling living standards, whatever Osborne and his friends in the press tell them.

Whether that ultimately matters however may be another point.  Osborne’s austerity has been focussed upon those least likely to vote for the Tories anyway, the poor, the homeless, the public sector, and in areas such as the North where the Tories have little presence.  If Osborne can persuade Middle England that things are on the up, or that they soon will be, the chances of a Tory victory should not be ruled out.

The dangers of such an outcome are compounded by other factors.  The Lib Dems, currently conferencing in Glasgow, are twisting in the wind over which direction to face in any future coalition.  Assuming that their opportunist stint propping up the Tories has not lost them core voters, the Lib Dems hope to be power brokers once again.  Anyone labouring under the illusion that the Lib Dems are naturally ‘left leaning’ should be under no illusions by now.  In Lib Dem / Tory marginal areas voters may well decide to back the winning horse and just go with the Tories if that’s what they will end up with anyway.

The perception and performance of Labour leader Ed Miliband is a further key factor in the election run up.  If polls are to be believed Miliband has not been able to articulate a core message for Labour or to persuade voters that Labour can be trusted with the economy.  Labour have failed to get across the message that the recession was not primarily due to their mismanagement of the economy but the gambling of the international bankers which resulted in the housing bubble bursting.

As the crisis happened on Labour’s watch however the Tories have made it a badge of honour to pin the blame on the last government, rather than their own backers in the City.  Having been sidelined into a debate about trade union support and finance, Miliband is in danger of ending up on the defensive at a time when the government should be on the ropes.  Given the increasingly presidential approach to UK election campaigning it is likely that these factors and perceptions will gain greater currency as the election approaches.   

With the Labour Party conference just over a week away a clear alternative agenda needs to be articulated. This should not only outline the origins of the crisis, the partial approach to solving it taken by the Coalition government but indicate clear steps towards greater public sector control and investment in manufacturing in order to generate sustainable growth.  Even within the constraints of capitalism such a short term turn around is possible.  Anything more radical is too much to hope for from Labour but it would be a small step in the right direction.

 

 

8th September 2013

Syria – a bridge too far?

The vote in the British Parliament just over a week ago not to rush headlong into war with Syria was significant domestically and has had major international ramifications.  The G20 meeting of the world’s most powerful economies this week, in St. Petersburg, was dominated by the issue, with the session effectively degenerating into a series of arm twisting exercises aimed at getting those doubtful about intervention in Syria back into line.

The UK vote has forced US President Barack Obama to seek a vote in Congress before sanctioning any action in Syria, virtually unheard of and not constitutionally necessary for a US president, while leaving France isolated amongst EU nations ready to back armed action.

The vote prompted an immediate backlash in the rightwing press in the UK, not used to defeat on issues of military action, as well as a co-ordinated response from the Tory leadership aimed at blaming the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, for not being tough enough in a crisis.  The last Labour leader to be tough in a crisis was of course Tony Blair, leading the UK into no less than six foreign interventions, losing the lives of hundreds of service personnel and, most famously in the case of Iraq, flying directly in the face of public opinion.

Blair is not a good example to follow and Miliband must hold his nerve in the next few days whatever the provocations which come his way.  Not least of these of course come from Blair himself, who has taken to the airwaves in interviews designed to question the parliamentary vote and undermine the Labour leader.

The debate at the G20 has polarised international positions, with the US unequivocal in stating that the Assad regime used chemical weapons and therefore must be taught a lesson, while the Russians have been as adamant in their assertion that the attack was a provocation by the anti-Assad forces in Syria, designed to provoke an intervention by the West.  Neither side has yet publicly produced any verifiable evidence. 

The US claims that it has evidence of the attacks and who ordered them.  The United Nations inspectors claim that it will take them some weeks to analyse the evidence they have accumulated.  Whether this is due to the speed of US chemical analysis and UN sloth, or the Americans jumping to conclusions while the UN take their time to come to an objective assessment, is open to conjecture.

The debate remains finely poised with public and political opinion on both sides of the Atlantic being less willing than ever to give political leaders a blank cheque when it comes to foreign wars.   

Chile – an historic reminder

It is ironic that the critical discussion in the US over Syria will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the CIA backed coup d’etat in Chile which took place on 11th September 1973.  A reminder, if any were needed, that interference in the affairs of sovereign nations is a prerogative which the United States has exercised on many occasions over the years in defence of its so-called national interests.

The overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile led to the arrest and execution of thousands of Chilean trade unionists and democrats, while General Augusto Pinochet entrenched his rule in favour of the transnationals and mining corporations which dominated the Chilean economy.   Pinochet’s fascist government remained until 1990 and the lives of many were destroyed by his rule.

President Assad is no Salvador Allende, it must be said.  His government does not have the democratic mandate Allende enjoyed or the base of mass popular support.  Whether that gives the US any more right to play a role in engineering his overthrow however, is open to question. 

Just as it was the right of the Chilean people to choose their government, it is the right of the Syrian people to choose who should govern them.  How we move from the current situation to one in which the Syrian people, in free and fair elections, have such a choice is not easy to determine.  A political solution can be the only way forward and some consensus to work towards this by the UN Security Council must be achieved. 

Pouring more weapons into an area bristling with arms can only add to the emerging humanitarian disaster in the Middle East and accelerate the disintegration of any recognisable political authority in the region.  With Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt gripped by crisis and Iran the ongoing target of Western sanctions, intervention in Syria could be that bridge too far, with the territory on the other side completely uncharted.

 

 

27th August 2013

Secrets and lies

With the 50th anniversary of Dr Who almost upon us we could be forgiven for indulging in a little time travel.  Let us go back, say, 25 or 30 years at the height of the Cold War and the super power rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Imagine the outrage in the West if the partner of a Soviet journalist had been held as a suspected terrorist for nine hours.  The West would no doubt have been accusing the Soviets of human rights abuses and of gagging freedom of speech and the rights of the press.

Imagine if a military officer who had leaked state secrets to a journalist was tried in a military court and then given a thirty five year prison sentence, even though the leaks had exposed abuses on the part of the military and their treatment of civilians.  That person would no doubt have been heralded as a fighter for freedom, exposing the dark underbelly of the Soviet system.

Imagine too, if security agency information which exposed the extent to which the state was engaged in covert surveillance against its own population, as well as foreign citizens, was widely leaked.  Imagine the whistleblower fleeing to the West in a bid to find political asylum.  Being greeted with open arms would certainly have been the outcome, coupled with another sermon on the freedoms of the West and how ‘it couldn’t happen here’.

David Miranda, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden may all beg to differ.

On the contrary it happens here all the time.  US papers confirming the role of the CIA in overthrowing the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953 have just been de-classified, 60 years later.   The coup d’etat in Chile, the 40th anniversary of which will be marked on the 11th September, is widely known to have been engineered by the CIA to topple a democratically elected government.  Peace activists, miners on strike and trade unionists in general have, for a long time, been subjects of state surveillance in the UK.  Latterly environmental and animal rights campaigners have been added to the file.  Police attempts to discredit Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, have recently come to light.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Soviet Union the reality remains that the sort of activity which the West would have condemned as ‘typically’ Soviet in the Cold War days is an ongoing reality in the land of the free, the home of the brave and its key allies.

The latest twist in the sorry tale of misinformation which passes for journalism in the Western media is likely to be Syria.  The sight of children in Damascus, dying from nerve gas toxins, widely screened last week was almost guaranteed to elicit calls for military intervention from the West.  The US, UK and France have duly lined themselves up as the likely candidates to institute a no-fly zone in Syria with ‘boots on the ground’ not ruled out.   Weapons to those opposed to the Assad regime have started to flow more freely across the Turkish border, paid for by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The poisoning of civilians in conflict is a war crime and those who have perpetrated such an action should be duly tried and punished.  That would usually require evidence of criminal action and some indication of the chain of command to determine responsibility.  The view of the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, that it was “clear it was the Assad regime” that had carried out the attack was less a reflection of the evidence than Hague’s desire for this to be the case.   

US Secretary of State, John Kerry weighed in with the observation that,

“…there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapon against the world’s most vulnerable people.  Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”

UN inspectors have been able to access some of the sites to collect biological and environmental samples from the scene in order to try and determine their origin.  However, John Kerry has already stated that regardless of the outcome of the UN inspections the US has already concluded that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons.  Kerry claims that more information to this effect will be released in the “days ahead”. 

In the meantime the military build up continues, with UK warplanes gathering in Cyprus, Prime Minister David Cameron cutting short his summer holiday and talk of Parliament being recalled.

The view of French president Francois Hollande that “Everything will be decided this week” has never sounded more ominous or more likely to plunge the world into greater levels of conflict.

 

17th August 2013

Egypt - struggling free from dictatorship

The Middle East continues to be plunged further into conflagration as the crisis in Egypt takes on deeper and more unpredictable proportions.  While the ‘Arab Spring’ as a phrase was always little more than a Western imposed spin upon changes in the region, the reality remained a genuine effort by the peoples of the Middle East to move towards some form of democracy, often after decades of dictatorship.

The web of Western engagement and alliances across the region was never going to make the process simple however.  The West has been able to simultaneously oppose an Islamic Republic in Iran, while actively supporting and arming the nuclear Islamic state in Pakistan.  Against the Islamic militancy of al-Qaeda the West is prepared to support dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which in turn are fuelling the opposition to President Assad in Syria, plunging that country into civil war.

United States and Western support for Israel has long been acknowledged, even if the Israeli nuclear programme remains ‘secret’, but the extent to which the US has backed the Egyptian military, to the tune of $1.3bn a year, is only coming into question in the light of recent events.  US backing for the military under Mubarek, effectively buying Egypt’s complicity in failing to advance the cause of Palestine, carried on with little or no protest from within the Western military establishment.

Add the complexities of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and the recent French intervention in Mali into the mix and the picture becomes more volatile again.  Top up with the retreat from Afghanistan and post war deconstruction in Iraq and you are looking at a real powder keg.  It should come as little surprise that the West does not know which way to turn regarding recent events in Egypt.  Where ‘Western interests’ lie is probably more confused than it has ever been and the hypocritical but honeyed words about supporting democracy sound more false than ever.

Two strands of thinking are vying for position in Western foreign policy.  Firstly, having been forced to back the January 2011 uprising against the US backed Mubarek, the outcome of elections brought the Islamic brotherhood, in the form of Mohammed Morsi, to power in Egypt.  Not to the liking of the West but the people had spoken and the legitimate elected government should therefore be supported, according to one line of thought.

However, it is universally acknowledged that Morsi’s year in office was a disaster both in democratic and economic terms.  The first anniversary of his election brought the Egyptian people out onto the streets in their millions to demand his removal.  The people had spoken again but not through the ballot box this time.  The military nevertheless obliged to remove Morsi.  Not ideal but better than Islamists, would be the second line of thought in the West.  If the military can be persuaded to call early elections then the circle of democratic legitimacy can be squared.

Military action to clear Morsi supporters, resulting in hundreds of deaths in the past week, has appeared to be both heavy handed and excessive.  The blanket characterisation of all Morsi supporters as ‘terrorists’ flies in the face of the fact that just over a year ago millions of Egyptians, with no terrorist intent, voted Morsi into office.  The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood effectively bungled the opportunity to build a broadly based government arising from that support does not justify live ammunition being used on those engaged in legitimate protest.

It is clear that no amount of hand wringing by the West or anyone else will return Morsi to office.  Events have moved too far for that.  In spite of the pro-Morsi protests the opposition to his return remains more overwhelming still.  In any event a government which does not enjoy the support of the military will never last, under any circumstances.

The interim government in Egypt can do nothing other than to move towards elections at the earliest opportunity, or be in danger of rolling back the years to the perpetual state of emergency in place under Mubarek.  Any government may need the backing of the military to survive but ultimately both the military and the government need the backing of the Egyptian people.  

Wherever Western interests lie, in Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East, it is the people of the region who must be supported to find their own road towards a democratic future.  As events in Egypt have shown, that path will rarely be straightforward or free from contradiction but it is a path which must be taken or dictatorship, whether Western backed or Islamic, is the only alternative.

 

11th August 2013

Fix the economy, go home, or face arrest?

Is there any chance that the UK government will be sending advertising vans around the City of London bearing the slogan, “Stashed your taxes away illegally? Pay up or face arrest.”?  It would be a sight to see, yet the vans bearing the slogan, “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest”, are being justified by the government on the basis of the numbers of alleged illegal immigrants packing six London boroughs.  Not surprisingly the vans have been greeted by outrage and a rush of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Apart from the fact that immigration impacting negatively upon UK jobs is a myth stoked by the Tory media, the nature of the campaign is hardly clever politics.  Whatever their motivation illegal immigrants are likely to be poor, vulnerable and desperate if they have left their country of origin to find a living on the streets of London.  They will certainly not be living the high life of the tax dodgers who can break the law with impunity and hire the best lawyers if there is a chance of action against them.

Illegal is illegal, whether it is immigration or tax dodging but what you choose to highlight, and why, can say a lot about your priorities for society and what is driving your political philosophy.  Immigrants, illegal or otherwise, have long been the whipping boys for the Tory right when it comes to identifying the source of society’s ills.  With the UKIP vote coming up on the rails and an election in 2015 some of the Tory back benchers are feeling wobbly, circumstances in which a scapegoat is always handy.

One immigrant the Tories seem keen on, for the moment at least, is the new Governor of the Bank of England, Canadian Mark Carney, who has finished sharpening his pencils and is now sat firmly at his desk in Threadneedle Street.   Rumour has it that Carney asked for such a hefty package to come to the Bank that he thought UK Chancellor George Osborne, hell bent on austerity, would not meet his demands.  However, Osborne was determined to get his man whatever the cost, all of which goes to show that as far as the Chancellor is concerned immigration can be a boost to the economy.

It is too early to say whether the Chancellor’s judgement is correct in this instance.  Carney has made the headlines this week with his much heralded policy of ‘forward guidance’, pegging interest rates to a drop in the level of unemployment, unless other factors determined by the Governor come into play.  The policy is designed to give decision makers in industry and finance some assurance that there will not be major interest rate fluctuations and thus encourage investment and subsequent growth. 

Carney has also warned the UK’s high street banks that they risk becoming “socially useless” unless they work with business to invest and create real jobs.  Speaking on BBC Radio 4 Carney said,

“The cultural issue is fundamentally important.  There has to be a change in the culture of these institutions.  I think finance can absolutely play a socially useful and an economically useful function but the focus…of the people working in the banking system has to be on the real economy, what it does for businesses making investment, what ultimately it means for jobs in the economy.”

The social usefulness of much of the investment banking sector, using hedge funds and futures investment to effectively bet upon economic performance, was at the core of the 2008 economic crash.  Mortgages at 125% and loans to those with no realistic means to repay them created an economic bubble which had nowhere to go but to burst, with the consequences we are now facing. 

The anarchy of the marketplace means that the banks, and businesses for that matter, are in the game to maximise profits for their shareholders.  Changing this culture will mean a shift more fundamental than anything Carney can influence, as it goes to the very heart of the capitalist system’s raison d’etre.  We have seen the various arms of advanced capitalism co-operate in order to save the skin of the system and it is to this spirit that Carney is making his appeal.  If the banks simply cut each other’s throat and those of their business partners there will be no-one left to make a profit from.  It is much the same as David Cameron and George Osborne proclaiming that “we are all in it together”.  When they say “all” they mean all of those with a stake in the system as it stands, not all of the rest of us, who have to suffer austerity to pay the bankers gambling debts.

How the new boy does remains to be seen.  He is tackling problems that are fundamentally intractable and can only be alleviated for short periods.  At some point the Governor will no doubt be tempted to take his severance package and ‘go home’.  Unless the economy really is a car crash, in which case even he might ‘face arrest.’

 

3rd August 2013

International campaigners call on new president of Iran to end trade union repression

 

Before the ink dries on the documents confirming Hassan Rouhani as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, representatives of trade union and human rights organisations are calling on him to demonstrate that his approach will break with the past by freeing all trade union leaders imprisoned in Iran and legalising the work of independent trade unions in the country. 

 

Rouhani’s confirmation ceremony will take place this Sunday, 4th August and the Iranian regime is looking to use the opportunity to raise its profile in the international arena.  For the first time in the life of the Islamic Republic, Iran has invited leaders and dignitaries from across the world to attend its presidential inauguration ceremony as international guests. Activists are hoping that this welcome will be matched by an improvement in Iran’s respect for its international obligations.    

 

Noel Harris, General Secretary of the British based solidarity organisation, CODIR, highlighted the significance of the joint appeal entitled: Call for the opening of a new chapter in the treatment of trade unions in Iran”.  He welcomed the range of organisations which have signed up to the appeal and the widespread desire to keep the pressure on the Iranian government for its human rights violations.

 

“By signing this appeal, trade unionists are sending out internationally a clear signal to the Iranian government.  That message is that action to tackle human rights abuses and the persecution of trade union activists is more vital than words and posturing,” said Mr. Harris. 

“The media have tried to emphasise the positives in Rouhani’s election by highlighting his carefully-worded statements designed deliberately to hint at reformist intentions.  Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Until trade unionists and labour activists in Iran can operate in accordance with accepted International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, we cannot accept that the regime has made any significant change.” 

Jane Green, National Campaign Organiser for CODIR added,

“Fear of arrest, intimidation and imprisonment is the everyday reality for trade unionists in Iran at present. All signatories to the appeal are united in their condemnation of the Islamic Republic’s track record on the suppression of trade union activity and human rights in general.  The appeal calls on the President Elect to end the repression of trade unions by immediately and unconditionally releasing those imprisoned for their trade union work, dropping charges against others currently facing trial for similar reasons and ending other repressive measures which marginalise trade unions and their members.”

CODIR’s call for action has brought together major UK trade unions including the TUC, UNITE, UNISON and the RMT, as well as the Pancyprian Labour Federation, Amnesty International and the International Centre for Trades Union Rights (ICTUR).

 

Joint Appeal

 

Call for the opening of a new chapter in the treatment of trade unions in Iran 

 

Iran has announced that the inauguration of the new President, Dr Hassan Rouhani, will take place on 4 August 2013.   For the first time in the life of the Islamic Republic, Iran has invited leaders and dignitaries from across the world, including the UK, to attend its presidential inauguration ceremony as international guests. We hope this welcome will be matched by an improvement in Iran’s respect for its international obligations.    

 

We the undersigned, as representatives of national and international organisations concerned with trade union, human and democratic rights, have long been calling on the Iranian authorities to recognise and respect the fundamental right to form and belong to independent trade unions and to engage in trade union activities as specified under the terms of international labour conventions.  We believe that genuine and independent trade unions are one of the cornerstones of modern democratic societies and serve as reliable vehicles for ensuring popular sovereignty, progress, stability and social justice.

 

We who have been concerned about the fate of trade unions and trade unionists in Iran for many years would like now to call upon President-elect, Dr Hassan Rouhani, to use his inauguration to make a commitment that Iran will turn over a new leaf in respect of human and trade union rights during his presidency. 

 

We urge the Iranian authorities to end the repression of trade unionists by immediately and unconditionally releasing those imprisoned for their trade union work, dropping charges against others currently facing trial for similar reasons, and ending other repressive measures which marginalize trade unions and their members. In particular, we call for the release of trade unionist and prisoner of conscience, Mr. Reza Shahabi, Treasurer General of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed) and trade unionist and prisoner of conscience, Mr. Ali Nejati, the former leader of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Company (HTSCC) Trade Union.

 

We also call on the new President to commit to signing and fully implementing the terms of relevant international conventions and protocols and, in particular, International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions 87 and 98: the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (1948); and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (1949).  

 

Signed by: 

 

·     TUC (Head of European Union and International Relations, Owen Tudor) 

·     UNITE (General Secretary, Len McCluskey)

·     UNISON (General Secretary, Dave Prentis)

·     RMT (General Secretary, Bob Crow)

·     Pancyprian Labour Federation (PEO- Cyprus) (International Secretary, Pieris Pieri)

·     ICTUR (Executive Secretary, Daniel Blackburn)

·     Amnesty International (AI UK Trade Union Campaigns Manager and AI Global Trade Union Adviser, Shane Enright)

·     CODIR (General Secretary, Noel Harris)

 

30th July 2013

Osborne – the economics of make do and mend

Last week saw UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, huff and puff his way to try to make us all believe that the 0.6% growth in the second quarter of 2013 is a sign of an economy “on the mend”.   If this is an economy mending it would be sad to see one that is merely limping along.  In Osborne’s terms such a body would be comatose at best.  Over the entire period since the Coalition came to power the UK economy has grown by a mere 2.1%, compared to France and Germany, for example, where output has recovered to pre-2008 levels, in spite of the Eurozone crisis.

Many economic commentators are predicting a ‘lost decade’ for the UK, parallel to that suffered by Japan in the 1990’s, where growth was so low as to be negligible and austerity became a way of life.  In fact, to avoid the fate suffered by the Japanese in the 1990’s the UK will need to grow at a rate of 3.9% a year for the next five years, not a prediction that even Chancellor Osborne is building into his medium term planning.

While many on the right still make a great deal of noise about red tape and regulation restraining business, and by implication choking economic growth, the reality is different.  Interest rates are at an all time low.  The Bank of England has flooded the economy with money for easy lending.  Trades union organisation and wages are at record lows.  The days of being able to blame the unions for pricing workers out of the market (allegedly) stack up even less than they ever did.

Nearly 80% of the jobs created in the UK over the past three years have been in sectors where wages are below £7.95 an hour.  Business investment as a share of national output in the same period has fallen from 8% to 5%, one of the lowest in the industrialised world.   Low wages and low investment are simply resulting in a low growth economy for which employers are to blame.  Sports Direct for example have 90% of their staff on zero hours contracts, with no recourse to sick pay or holiday entitlement.  While this is not yet typical in the UK it is a development to watch.

While the bigger eurozone economies continue to outperform the UK, Europe is by no means out of the woods, as the austerity measures imposed upon Greece, Portugal and Spain may yet result in further civil unrest and economic instability.  The US has avoided the worst excesses of austerity through the stimulus measures proposed by the President but federal debt remains high and subject to internal wrangling in the United States.

The hope for an upsurge from other parts of the world is also beginning to show signs of the uneven development which inevitably accompany capitalist growth.  Protests in Brazil recently have focussed upon the lack of redistribution of the country’s wealth, while economic growth has in any case reduced from 7.5% in 2010 to just 0.9% in 2012.   In India, another area of potential expansion, the growth figures for the same period go from 10.5% to 3.2% with widespread economic disadvantage remaining a key factor of life in that country.

At every turn the capitalist system is clearly failing to meet the needs of the people and civil unrest remains just beneath the surface, if not at actual boiling point, in many instances.   The latest round of welfare reforms, which further punish the lowest paid and most disadvantaged in the UK, are just kicking in while further job losses in the public sector are set to hit the poorest parts of the country the hardest.

Ironically the ‘white knight’ for the poor in the past week has come in the unlikely form of the Church of England, threatening to challenge moneylenders Wonga by supporting local credit union development.  As the largest landowner in the UK the C of E could probably do a lot more, given the extent of its financial clout and access to economic policy makers.  The fact that the Church has historically been regarded as the ‘Tory party at prayer’ might of course be a barrier to it taking a position that is too progressive.  Watch this space.

 

24th July 2013

Following the blog dated the 20th July 2013, on the subject of recent developments in Egypt, we have received the following interview with its General Secretary provided by the Egyptian Communist Party.  The English translation is reprinted here in full

Interview with Comrade Salah Adli, General Secretary of the Egyptian Communist Party by  “Nameh Mardom", the Central Organ of the Central Committee of the  Tudeh (Communist) Party of Iran

 6 July 2013


I would like first of all to extend my greetings to the Tudeh Party of Iran and wish it success in its struggle. I would also like to salute " Nameh Mardom" newspaper for the opportunity to clarify the big historical events that are taking place in Egypt.


Q1 – In the recent statements of the CP Egypt (July 3rd) you referred the fact that the mass protest movement comprises of various classes and strata.  How were the classes and strata of the Egyptian society mobilized in the second wave of the 30th June Revolution?


Salah Adly: Since the outbreak of the revolution of 25th January 2011, the protest movements have not subsided, and demonstrations of millions of people have not stopped, i.e. th
e revolutionary state of the masses has always been there, subsiding at times and flaring up some other times. The workers’ protests and strikes also escalated. After the success of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, the masses discovered their authoritarian nature, fascist character, their bias to the interests of more reactionary and parasitic sections of capitalism, and their inability to run a state of the size of Egypt. Furthermore, their betrayal of the interests of the homeland and their willingness to act as the biggest broker to maintain the interests of America and Israel in the region were exposed. They concluded the truce in Gaza and gave America and Israel what even Mubarak’s client regime had not given. Their sectarian and obscurantist project, which is hostile to democracy, science, culture and tolerance, became very evident. More importantly, the masses discovered the falsehood of their use of religious slogans to disguise their plans in the service of the Greater Middle East project and “creative chaos”.

Therefore, the number of social protests (strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and protest pickets) reached 7400 - by Mohamed Morsi's own admission - during last year. The unemployment rate reached 32%, with most of the unemployed being holders of high and middle qualifications. The foreign debts rose from $34 billion to $45 billion. The domestic debt rose by 365 billion Egyptian pounds during the reign of Morsi last year. The proportion of people living below the poverty line increased to more than 50% of the population. In short, most classes and strata of society - and its liberal, nationalist and leftist political forces, as well as youth movements,  mostly leftist and nationalist oriented, in addition to the main state institutions, especially the army, judiciary, media and police – felt there is a grave danger as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood remaining in power because of their fervent quest to monopolize power and exclude anyone who is not with them, other than their allies among terrorist groups that use religion as a cover.

Even broad sections of the middle and big Egyptian bourgeoisie in the sectors of tourism, industry, trade, agriculture and construction felt very scared for their interests as a result of the continued rule of the Muslim Brotherhood which was creating an atmosphere of chaos, insecurity and instability.

The “Tamarud” (Rebellion) Movement succeeded in collecting more than 22million signatures for the withdrawal of confidence in Morsi and in support of calling forearly presidential elections. All parties, trade unions and organizations participated in collecting signatures, and the campaign spread in the streets of cities, in factories, schools and universities, and in villages in all the governorates of Egypt. The great importance of this campaign is that it was able to involve Egyptian citizens actively in the revolutionary movement to overthrow the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. It also restored the peaceful and democratic character of revolutionary action, and formed the basis for removing the sacred cover of the false legitimacy of the ballot box as the sole criterion for legitimacy and the democratic system.  The call for the collection of signatures was accompanied by calling for demonstrations in all the main squares of Egypt on 30thJune as a principal test of the credibility of this campaign and the fundamental basis for the revolutionary legitimacy of the masses to overthrow this fascist regime and foil the project of the religious state.

The response of the masses of the Egyptian people was great, and the biggest demonstrations in the history of Egypt, and even in the history of the world, came out. This has been verified by the"Google Earth" index. More than 27million demonstrators came out at the same timein all the governorates of Egypt, representing various classes and strata of the Egyptian society, in the face of protests that did not exceed 200 thousand demonstrators from the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies in one small square in Cairo. Thus, the Egyptian people were on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood were with their allies on the other, isolated, side. This is the reality of the  scene.  This is the reality upon which any evaluation of the situation or any political scientific analysis should be based.

We believe that what happened on 30th June is a second wave of the Egyptian revolution that is stronger and deeper than the first wave in 2011.  It has taken place to correct the path of the revolution and seize it back from the forces of the extreme religious right that had conspired to steal the revolution and ride its wave to serve their fascist and reactionary objectives and the schemes of world imperialism.

Q2 -What is the level of the participation of thetoiling classes and workers in these protestsWhy the workers participate in the battle with political Islam for democratic rights?

Salah Adly:The basic slogans of theJanuary revolution were: bread - freedom-social justice-human dignity. It is an essential link of the national democratic revolution, and came after a long historical stage that had begun in the mid-seventies of the last century, with the rule of dependent big capitalism anda full cycle ofregression, backwardness and tyranny. During that period, the reactionary forces, in alliance with world imperialism and Arab reaction, managed to strengthen a climate that allowed the current of political Islam- especially the Muslim Brotherhood-to spread and ascend. The forces of the left were weakened, workers were displaced and big industries were liquidated in order to deal a blow to any possibilities for achieving comprehensive development.

In fact, the workers have been involved in most of the protests that have escalated since 2006 and are participating in all the popular demonstrations as part of the people and not in a class organized manner. This is due to the absence of strong trade union organizations and federations because of a long legacy of a tyranny and government repression to control the federations and trade unions. It is also due to the big changes to the class map and tothe nature of the composition of the working class in various sectors that took place during the past period. Small and medium-sized industries controlled by private sector were relied upon, where workers were prevented from forming trade unions. The working classdidnotemerge in a clear classmanner in the revolution.  As a result of the lack of effective unity among the forces of the left and its weakness during the previous stage for many reasons, which there is no room here to mention, the labour movement did not appear in an effective and influential manner commensurate with the size of its participation and big sacrifices in the revolution.

It is important to clarify that the workers in the public sector have discovered that the practices and attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood do not differ from the orientations of the Mubarak regime, rather they were worse.  The Muslim Brotherhood implemented the same policies on the continuation of the privatisation programme and the liberalisation of prices, and did not raise the minimum wage even though it was one of the first demands of the revolution. They even reduced the taxes on businessmen, continued the privatisation of services and refused to implement the health insurance programme. They insisted on selling and mortgaging the assets of Egypt and its institutions through the project of "Islamic bonds" which they rushed to pass in the Shura Council [the upper house of parliament] controlled by Muslim Brotherhood. The most dangerous position was their refusal to pass the law to ensure freedom to form unions, which they had agreed upon with all political forces and trade union currents before the revolution, and replaced Mubarak’s men in the government-controlled General Union of Egyptian Workers with their own men. This is the social and democratic basis for the bias of the working class in favour of the revolution against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and the forces of political Islam, in addition to the other reasons that we have mentioned earlier.

Anyone who imagines that workers only revolt for factional issues or for economic reasons is mistaken. Workers are more aware of the dangers of the extremist religious right-wing project and their right-wing and fascist practices in all democratic, political, economic, social, and national fields.

Q3-  In your statements, the CP Egypt characterises the current developments as a revolution. What are the nature, tasks and urgent demands of the revolution?

Salah Adly: Yes, what is happening now is a revolution. To be precise, it is the second big wave of the January 2011 Revolution, as its first wave was aborted because it was robbed by the Muslim Brotherhood despite the fact that they did not participate in calling for it or making it. It is a democratic revolution with a clear social and patriotic orientation. It is continuing, and broad social strata and various political forces (liberal, nationalist and leftist) have participated in it. With the continuation of the revolutionary tide, the truth about the various positions has become clearer, and the biases of these forces and their willingness to continue along the path of the revolution are revealed.

The first democratic tasks of the revolution is promulgating a new civil democratic constitution that stresses human rights, women's rights and economic and social rights for the toiling classes, and one which does not negate the people's right to choose its political and economic system in the future according to the balance of forces. Thus, the task of overthrowing the sectarian, reactionary and distorted Constitution, rather than amending it, is a fundamental task for the democratic and progressive forces in the present moment.

One of the tasks of the democratic revolution is also the freedom to form trade unions, political parties and associations without government interference, rejecting the formation of political parties on a religious and sectarian basis, full equality between men and women in terms of rights and duties, equality before the law and the criminalization of religious and other forms of discrimination.

Among the social tasks is formulating an independent comprehensive social development plan that is based on encouraging the productive sectors with the need forequitable distribution of the development product and wealth for the benefit of the poor and toilers and achieving urgent social demands. A top priority among these demands is specifying a minimumand maximum wage and linking it to prices, cancelling debts for small peasants, redistributing the budget items to increase spending on health and education, providing housing for low-income people, raising taxes on the rich, regaining possession of the corporations that were looted fromthe public sector and fighting against corruption.

The national tasks are: opposing dependency on theUnited States, refusing to succumb to Zionist hegemony,amending the Camp David agreement, restoring Egypt's national role in the world on Arab, African, regional and international levels, and deepening the relationship with the countries and peoples of the Third World.

Q4 – Do the current developments in Egypt mean rejection of the 'political Islam' or only rejection of "Moslem Brotherhood" by the Egyptian people?

Salah Adly:  The Muslim Brotherhood are the most effective and influential organisation among the forces ofpolitical Islam. All the other organisations, including Salafi and Jihadist groups,were allies with the Muslim Brotherhoodand came out with them in their last battle defending their regime because they know that their defeat would mean a major defeat for the sectarian Islamist project which is supported bythe U.S. administration as an alternative to the collapsing authoritarian regimes.  Only the Salafi al-Nour Party was excluded from the alliance in the last battledue to considerations related to its association with Saudi Arabia, although we are aware that it is a reactionary and sectarian party that is hostile to human rights and the rights of women and minorities, including other Islamic sects.  This was evident in their inciting in the crime of murdering Shiites and dragging their bodies in the horrific massacre that took place in a village last month.

We believe that the battle is not overand there needs to bea political, social and cultural struggle to crush their resistance and change the general climate which has been rife for decades.

But what we would liketo draw attentionto isthat what is happening in Egypt now is not only a confrontation of the Muslim Brotherhood,and their allies among the forces ofthe religious right,with the security institutions of the state. They are in fact confronting the Egyptian people of all sects and currents as well as all state institutions, including the judiciary, media and culture.  In neighbourhoods and villages, the Muslim Brotherhood will be now confronting the masses of the Egyptian people, as they have certainly lost the support of large segments of the people during the last two years. But the army and security forces will have an important role in confronting their armed terrorist militias.

In short, we see that what has happened is a big defeat for the project of the religious right in general, and not only for the project of the Muslim Brotherhood. It will have major implications in the region in the coming period.

Q5- What is your view about the arguments which say Morsi’s removal is undemocratic because he was elected  legally and the new Constitution was ratified through a referendum.   Was Morsi overthrown by the Egyptian army?   

Salah Adly:Those who have ousted Morsi are more than 22 million citizens of the Egyptian people who signed a document containing the signatory’s name, ID number (national ID) and the name of the province, written by hand rather than on the Internet, in an unprecedented referendum that was culminated in the “big coming out" in main squares by more than 27 million demonstrators on 30th June 30, continuing for four consecutive days. It was Morsi who overthrew legitimacy when he issued his dictatorial constitutional declaration in November 2011. It was Morsi who devastated human rights when his terrorist supporters besieged the Constitutional Court, when his militia tortured protesters in front of al-Ittihadyah Palace [the presidential palace]as shown by investigations carried out by the public prosecutor office, and when his men killed demonstrators in front of the headquarters of the Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) in accordance with explicit orders from the leader of the group and his deputy, as the killers confessed before the public prosecutor. It was Morsi who reneged on the promises he had announced on the day he succeeded to amend the Constitution and form a coalition government. He and his group insisted on submitting to the conditions of the International Monetary Fund, and also declared Jihad on Syria at a conference of terrorist jihadist forces without referring to the army and the National Defense Council.

Therefore, all the political parties and forces, and even the Salafi al-Nour Party, which jumped from the shipbefore it sank, have supported early presidential elections. This call is not a coup against democracy, rather it emanates from the heart of popular democracy when any president betrays his promises to the people and his programme on the basis of which the people had elected him.

To limit the cause of democracy to just the "ballot box" is a complete plunder of theessence of democracy and an explicit rejection ofthe right of peoples to revolt against their autocratic rulers and the fascist regimes that use religion to hide their reactionary nature and right-wing capitalist orientation.

The defending of Morsi bythe United States and Western capitalist states and portraying the issue as just a "military coup" against "constitutional legitimacy" is a formal position that hides the fact that world imperialism is terrified by peoples’ revolutions and their ability to transcend the narrow confines of the democratic bourgeoisie which represents, in essence, the optimal form to fulfill the interests of big businessmen and monopolies and their local agents in controlling the destiny of peoples in Third World countries.

What has happened is not a military coup in any way, but a revolutionary coup by the Egyptian people to get rid of this fascist rule. What the army did is carrying out the will of the people and protecting them from the plots of the Muslim Brotherhood and their armed terrorist allies who want to ignite sectarian strife and civil wars, divide the Egyptian army and destroy the institutions of the Egyptian state to serve the interests of imperialism and Zionism in the region.

What kind of military coup is it when tens of millions of people are in the streets?!! What kind of military coupis it when the head of the Constitutional Court has already assumed power, which is what had been demanded by the Salvation Front, that includes all the opposition forces with their various orientations and the “Tamarud” (Rebellion) youth movement,  and has been endorsed by the masses of the Egyptian people??!! What kind of military coupis it when a government made up of civil national qualified people will be formed andhas full powers during a transitional period not exceeding one year and ending with the promulgation of a democratic civil constitution and presidential and parliamentary elections which every one is keen to have?? What kind of military coup is it that allows the right to peaceful protests even by its opponents and does not impose a state of emergency? The statement by Al-Sisi, the Egyptian army chief, in which he declared the road map for the transitional stage, was only announced after a dialogue and consensus with the representatives of the Egyptian people, including the youth of the “Tamarud” (Rebellion) movement, the representative of the Salvation Front, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Coptic Pope and a representative of women.  The Egyptian people have celebrated in main squares, neighbourhoods and villages this great victory for the Egyptian people and the national army’s compliance with it.

We should, as taught by Marxism, proceed from the concrete reality and not confine our vision to predetermined rigid ideas and ready formulas. Isn’t it noteworthy that the Western media turn a blind eye to all this, refuse to see the reality and insist that what is happening is a military coup??!!!

Nevertheless, we are keen for the need to be alert and pay attention during the next phase to ensure that the military's role in this stage is limited to the protection of the people and the Egyptian national security and to abide by its promises not to interfere directly in political affairs,and the need for the people to remain in the squares to ensure the implementation of their demands in the transitional phase.

Q6 What is your assessment of the USA’s position towards the developments in Egypt?

Salah Adly:The U.S. was taken by surprise by the revolution of January 2011,but it had been preparing for scenarios of change in Egypt before that when it felt that the Mubarak regime had become aged. So it intervened immediately after he was overthrown to form an alliance between the former Military Council and the Muslim Brotherhoodto pave the way for handing over power to Muslim Brotherhood after they pledged to ensure fulfilling the interests of the United States, ensuring the security of Israel and continuing the neoliberal economic policy which is against the interests of the popular masses.

But the United States discovered after a while the extent of the inability of the Muslim Brotherhood to run the affairs of governance, their lack of qualified people and their insistence on alliance with the jihadi groups instead of an alliance with theliberal forcesand uniting the big capitalists’ class with its various strata ina stable system that is based on a transfer of powerthat revolves in the orbit of this class and ensuring America's interests. The U.S. was atthesame time also keen to ensure the interests and privileges of themilitary institution in order to guarantee its loyalty.

But the United States was at the same time afraid of the continuation of the revolutionary situation in Egypt, the mounting scale of the protests and the escalation of popular rejection of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, it exerted pressureonthe Muslim Brotherhood to carry out reforms, and also exerted pressure on the forces ofthe liberal opposition, especially those representing the interests of big capital in Wafd Party, Free Egyptians Party and the Constitution Party to speed up parliamentary elections, end their alliance withthe forces of the left and reject the revolutionary orientations  of the youth movements which believe that the objectives of the revolution and the uprooting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime can only be achieved with a big popular revolution against it and boycotting the elections.

When the “Tamarud” (Rebellion) and its genius idea to withdraw legitimacy from Morsi were successful, it put every one in a dilemma when broad sections of the people and the political forces responded to it. This put an end to the wavering ofall the parties and forces, and they rallied behind the popular option to overthrow Morsi and conduct early presidential elections. This demand escalated to calling for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime, changing the Constitution and correcting the course of the revolution through a new revolutionary legitimacy and a new transitional phase on a proper basis.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Americans, the army, and even the forces of political opposition and youth, did not imagine that the people's response will be of this mighty size which forced everyone to implement the people’s will.

We know that the United States exerted pressure in a flagrant manner on the leaders of the army and the liberal political forces not to overthrow Morsi and only carry out big reforms. But it was too late and everyone realized that the people have spoken and that the alternative would be the escalation of civil war, the escalation of terrorism and sectarian strife, and opening the door to foreign intervention.

The arrival at this critical point led to the overthrow of Morsi and the intervention of the army in a manner that serves the objectives of the revolution at this stage.  It is noteworthy that this is the first time that theEgyptian army has disobeyed America’s orders because it has realized the nature of the big dangers that would plague itself and the homeland if it declines to support the revolution.

The national and democratic forces realise that the army’s leaders have interests and privileges which they want to preserve, and they also want to have a role in power without a direct political interference. We believe that this has to be taken into account at this stage with emphasis oncorrecting things gradually during the next phase.

We expect that the United States, in the current critical period, will encourage plots to ignite sedition and strife and to encourage these groups to stir up chaos to achieve the schemes of “creative chaos” and turn Egypt into another Iraq.  This is what happened and was revealed in theplot on Friday 5thJuly.  This plot has been called by the youth "the Tripartite, U.S.-Israeli-Muslim Brotherhood, Aggression" on the people of Egypt. The plan was aimed at aborting the revolution, reinstating Morsi, spreading chaosand terror through demonstrations that would occupy the Liberation squares by employing weapons and terrorism,launching a campaign of rumors and awar of disinformation that was unprecedented in Egypt in order  to create divisions between the people and the army and within the military itself, and conspiring with jihadist groups in Sinai to declare it a liberated area in collusion with Israel and the Islamic groups in Gaza.

Egypt lived through critical hours after the speech of terrorism and intimidation delivered by the leader of the fascist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, to his supporters in Rabi’a al-Adawiyya square in Nasr City,Cairo.  That was the signal for the start of this big conspiracy to turn against the popular will.  The CNN as well as the BBC Arabic service TV channels played a dangerous role in this plot.  But the people and the army were able to foil this plot and the shameful role of America and the Muslim Brotherhood’s betrayal of the people and the homeland were exposed.  This was a major blow to the schemes of America and imperialism in the region,and reaffirmed the triumph of therevolution and the people’s will over the forces of counter-revolution.

Q7 What is your assessment of the newly appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, and what he should immediately do?

Salah Adly: He is a judge who is well-known for his integrity and competence, and had not professed any political positions or adopted certain biases. The speech he delivered after he was sworn in and took up his post as interim presidentfor the transitional period was a good and positive speech. He stressed that it was "the people alone" who authorized him,and that the powers granted to him are honorary, but the real authoritywill reside inthe prime minister who will be chosen by consensus among the national forces and youth, and who will be charged with the implementation of tasks agreed upon by national democratic and social forces. A top priority for the government will be to halt the economic collapse, implement the urgent demands of the toilers and provide security.

We see the need for continued public pressure in the squares,which was confirmed by the statement announced by Al-Sisi, protecting the right to peaceful demonstration. This is to ensure that there will be no deviation from what has been agreed upon, and to ensure that the army will not intervene except within the limits agreed to ensure the success of this difficult transitional stage.

Q8 - What are the main challenges facing your party, specifically in relation to other political forces and creating a united alliance?

Salah Adly:The main challenge is the need tounite the forces ofthe left in the first place to confront the big tasks that we are facing at this stage. The most important are:

1) To ensure the achievement of the objectives and tasks of the transitional phase.

2) To achieve consensus on a single candidate for the national and democratic forces to fight the battle of presidential elections.

3) To form a front of leftist forces, Nasserites,youth movements and trade union organizations;to prepare joint lists to fight the forthcoming parliamentary and local elections; and to exert pressure to ensure there is no retreat from correcting the path of the revolution in the transitional phase.

4) To seek to complete and develop the party structure,to renew the party with fresh blood,and to develop its programme so that we can face the big challenges that we are confronting.

 

 

20th July 2013

Egypt – future remains uncertain

Less than a month after the military intervention in Egypt which toppled Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi on 3rd July, many could be forgiven for wondering where the Middle East’s most populous Arab nation will head now.  The intervention has split opinion across the world with the West caught between condemning military intervention and being pleased that the growing Islamisation of Egypt has, at least temporarily, been arrested.

The fact that Morsi was ‘democratically’ elected should not fool anyone.    Using such a platform to marginalise those who had pushed for the overthrow of Mubarak, significantly restricting the rights of women and introducing a creeping Islamisation of Egypt’s institutions is clearly a process opposed by the thousands who took to the streets resulting in the military takeover.

However, being rid of Morsi’s brand of Islamic zeal addresses only part of the problem.  The higher echelons of the military and judiciary, now running the show in Egypt, are precisely those who were in charge under Hosni Mubarak, begging the question as to whether the Egyptian people have simply been flipped from the frying pan and into the fire.

Having backed or actively installed ‘strongman’ dictators across the Middle East over the latter part of the twentieth century the West had no coherent strategy for transition once regimes fell or were overthrown.  Beginning with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, and the subsequent ascendance of Islamic forces in the Iranian revolution, the West has had no clear plan in the region other than the use of force to protect its interests.

Funding counter revolution in Afghanistan enforced the retreat of the Soviet army and its attempt to assist social and economic development in Afghanistan.  Encouraging Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to attack Iran in 1980 only served to strengthen the resolve of the Islamic Republic.  The subsequent interventions in Iraq to get rid of Saddam have helped fuel a wider backlash against the West in the Muslim world, while the support to oust Gaddafi in Libya seems to be resulting in a creeping Islamisation in the politics of that country.

The ongoing support of the West for the hardliners in the Israeli government, opposed to Palestinian independence, has been consistently problematic in trying to develop positive relations with the Arab world.

In terms of its geo-political significance, population of 80 million, military might and general influence, Egypt towers above any other nation in the Arab world.  Western support for Mubarak over a thirty year period included massive backing for the Egyptian military, including £1bn per year from the United States alone.  The generals in whose hands the fate of Egypt now rests are conscious of the fact that their ability to maintain their position rests with the government of the US. 

There are few instances in politics where he who pays the piper does not call the tune.   It is almost impossible to imagine a situation in which the US will not use whatever influence it can to engineer a government that will be safe for the West and protect US interests in the region.  The new Cabinet in Egypt installed today (20th July) conspicuously excludes the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafi Nour party, Egypt’s second largest, both of whom have refused to participate.  New Prime Minister, Hazem el-Beblawi is routinely praised as a ‘technocrat’ and will be expected to rescue Egypt’s economy, stabilise the country for tourism and end the wave of countrywide violence which has followed the military takeover.

With the Muslim Brotherhood effectively having resorted to extra parliamentary tactics in their campaign for the reinstatement of Morsi, it is clear that el-Beblawi will have his work cut out.  Morsi supporters continue to take to the streets at every opportunity, the installing of the new Cabinet being the latest occasion.  Given the response of the government to these protests it may only be a question of time before the violence of the state against the Muslim Brotherhood is reciprocated.  Interim President Adly Mansour, has vowed to protect the country against those seeking ‘chaos’.

The West may be able to use its influence to shape the Egyptian Cabinet and pull the strings of the military.  How much influence it can exert on the streets of Cairo and other major cities is more open to question.   Ultimately it is here that the fate of the Egyptian people will have to be determined if a government which reflects their real interests is to emerge.  Such a government will not consist of the puppets of US backed generals, or one subscribing to the politics of Islamic medievalism; it will need to be a progressive, forward thinking, socialist government of the people.  Anything less will sell the Egyptian people short and condemn the wider Middle East to continuing crisis and uncertainty.

 

 

30th June 2013

Labour needs to takes sides

The spending review for 2015/16, announced by the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, earlier this week was so interesting that much of the press have focussed upon the burger he allegedly had the night before when preparing the notes for his speech.  While this has given the so-called ‘poshburger’ company Byron’s a lot of free publicity it has not really cast any light upon why a spending review for one year and why now?

The consensus, amongst those who have looked at the detail, appears to be that this spending review had little to do with economics and more to do with politics in the lead up to the next general election.  It is difficult to separate the two but insofar as Obsorne’s objectives have been in part to do so, the pundits appear to be right.  In economic terms the Chancellor maintained the squeeze on local government expenditure, with a 10% cut totalling £2.6bn; took a further hammer to welfare spending; and made a commitment to £300bn worth of infrastructure spend between now and 2020, in the slightest of nods in the direction of the need to stimulate growth in the economy. 

Even the cuts come with some caveats.  The local government cut will be mitigated by additional access to social services funding which will reduce the net impact to around 2%, although this is still an estimated 144,000 additional public sector job losses.   On welfare, the country’s most expensively subsidised family, the Windsors, will get a 5% increase, something not to be enjoyed by welfare recipients across the board.   Jobseekers, who currently have to wait three days before they can claim benefits, will have that wait extended to a week.  Less generous subsidies to social landlords from 2017/18 and a new cap on the overall welfare budget from 2015 will also ensure that those at the lower end of the social scale have little or no financial room for manoeuvre.

The need to do any of this makes a mockery of Osborne’s claim that the economy is moving from rescue to recovery with the reality being that the austerity programme, much beloved of the Coalition, the Eurozone, and the Bank of England has signally failed to inject any dynamism into an economy which has struggled to keep its head above water since the great banking debt crisis of 2008.

So, given that the spending review announcement will do little or nothing for the economy what are the political gains the Tories hope for from the package?  Well in crude terms the main objective has been to draw the Labour Party into the light.  By saying, ‘this is how we see things in the first year of a new parliament from 2015, what about you?’ the hope is that the opposition will put their heads on the block of economic incompetence and the Tories can simply let the axe fall.  The Tory definition of incompetence is of course to use the tools of fiscal policy to stimulate a depressed economy.  Labour should be arguing for a fairer system of taxation and an increase in public spending to generate such a stimulus.

However, cowed by the right wing press characterisation of Labour as a party of ‘tax and spend’, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have proposed no such thing.  Rather than coming out fighting, arguing the case for appropriate and necessary taxing and spending (all governments actually do it after all) the Labour position has been to broadly accept the Chancellor’s budget cuts envelope, even adding that Labour might need to come up with some cuts of its own.  It would be nice to dream that such cuts could mean a reduction in the Civil List for the royal family, or a cancellation of the estimated £25bn Trident nuclear submarine programme but neither feel likely at this stage. 

It is an irony that in the name of chasing economic credibility, at least with the right wing press, Labour is in danger of losing its credibility entirely.  Former Deputy Leader, Roy Hattersley, hardly a noted revolutionary, has said of Labour recently that it has a choice,

“It can grub about in search of policies which will attract the swing voters and lose the next general election or it can become again an indisputable party of principle and win.”

If the Chancellor’s spending review has succeeded in doing anything this week it is in co-opting the opposition into the ‘we are all in it together’ philosophy.

Having correctly attacked the Coalition’s austerity programme for the past three years, now is not the time for Labour to wobble.  Stay on the offensive, expose the opportunism of the LibDems and the money grubbing class bias of the Tories.  Support public spending and rebuild public services, which are tottering on the brink of collapse, while investing in levels of infrastructure which will make a real difference to economic development in general and poorer communities in particular.  Take sides; there is no alternative.

 

 

25th June 2013

If there are images in this attachment, they will not be displayed.  Download the original attachment

Change or more of the same?

What can the new president deliver?  An assessment of the potential for reform in post election Iran

To say that the outcome of the presidential election in Iran on the 14th June was unexpected is an understatement.  It certainly was not the result predicted by most pundits and the public at large did not anticipate Rouhani’s victory.  The clerical leadership had played a sophisticated political game. They allowed a range of candidates to stand who were mostly acceptable within the context of their overall strategy, while preventing the pro-reform camp and wider spectrum of progressive opposition from fielding candidates.

The election of Hassan Rouhani was welcomed by thousands coming onto the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities. For those who had refused to participate in the election and those who cast their vote for Hassan Rouhani, the election result represented a clear rejection of the regime’s policies.   While the euphoria was in part about the election of Rouhani, it had more to do with the desire of many Iranians for reform.  Within the very strict limitations of the electoral system in Iran, Rouhani was the only candidate who appeared to promise reform, hence the shift of support his way in the final days of the campaign. 

This shift towards Rouhani was impressive enough for him to secure 51% of the vote and the presidency on the first ballot.  Commentators had predicted that a run-off with the conservative backed Saeed Jalili, leading to a second round vote, would be the best that could be hoped for.  In the event, Jalili trailed in third, the hardline vote was split and Rouhani squeezed through the middle.

Of course, many were reminded of the 2009 election, with reformist candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi being the most likely winner until the regime stepped in to rig the outcome in favour of incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   The outcome of the regime’s actions at that time was a mass outpouring onto the streets of Iran and the growth of the Green Movement in response to the stolen election.  Given the level of ongoing opposition since 2009, the regime may well have calculated that a similar imposition would not work a second time.  The ongoing threat of intervention from the US and popular dissatisfaction with the regime’s policies due to sanctions, means that the clergy have been reluctant to gamble on imposing their most preferred candidate again.

Rouhani himself has described his win as follows:

"This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill-temper"

This clearly aims to fuel the notion that he is a genuine candidate of reform, representing the people against the establishment.

However, little is ever as it appears in the world of Iranian politics.  With the economy in free-fall and relationships with the West at an all time low, over the issues of the nuclear programme and economic sanctions, the clergy look to have decided to cut their losses and go with the popular vote. After all, although the six presidential candidates did display varying signs of difference on policy matters, all had been selected with the approval of the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The outcome was always going to be a pro-regime president.

The more hard-line clergy in Iran have also had to accept that the reform movement has made some impact, so the appearance of a limited degree of accommodation may have been regarded as politic.  With a directly pro-reform candidate having been forced to stand down in the contest, former presidents Khatemi and Rafsanjani came out in favour of Rouhani during the campaign, even though Khatemi recognised that “Rouhani does not consider himself as belonging to the pro-reform camp.” However, for the people of Iran, the opportunity to prevent an even more hard-line candidate succeeding Ahmadinejad was clearly seen as the short-term priority, even if Rouhani promises little else than the more efficient management of the existing regime.

For the regime itself, there can be little doubt that Rouhani is largely considered to be a safe pair of hands.  His CV includes having been Khamenei’s representative and the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years, a position he maintained even after the electoral coup of 2009.

Rouhani has stated that he will lead Iran towards moderation and détente in the international arena as well as proclaiming the need to increase production and employment.  With the existing sanctions in place from the West, the two go hand in hand.  Given the wider regional considerations, including current action in Syria and the apparent need of the West to demonise Iran, the extent to which Rouhani can engineer any détente will inevitably be limited.  However, this is Rouhani’s main mandate from the regime.  Delivering on the lifting of sanctions, heading off the threat of military intervention and improving relations with Iran’s conservative and Arab neighbours is seen by the regime as vital for the long term sustainability of the Islamic Republic in its current form.

Also, the extent to which the ruling clergy will allow any genuine reform is questionable.  In any event, there is nothing in either the programme or declarations of Rouhani that would suggest that the legalisation of free and independent trade unions, the freeing of all political prisoners or greater freedom for women is to be on the agenda any time soon.

The election outcome in Iran may well be read as an unexpected defeat for the more hard-line factions within the establishment.  Whether that makes it a vote which will result in genuine reform is much more open to question.  There is still time for the voices of the Iranian people to be heard on the streets in coming months.  It will be interesting to see if they continue to proclaim Rouhani’s victory so loudly.

The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR), and those campaigning for human and democratic rights inside Iran, will watch closely to see if Rouhani is at all responsive to popular demands for change.  Campaigning on issues of peace, democracy and human rights will continue, however, until all political prisoners are released, executions are ended and the Islamic Republic allows free and democratic trade union activity in Iran.

With thanks to CODIR for permission to reproduce this analysis.  For further information on CODIR activities visit www.codir.net

 

23rd June 2013

Brazil – cup fever kicks off early

International sporting events, such as the World Cup and the Olympics, are generally regarded by the host states and sponsors as a licence to print money.  The building contracts for new infrastructure, the marketing opportunities, the showcasing of the country for international tourism and investment, are all regarded as a prize worth competing for.  The host population is usually persuaded that, while super profits may be on offer to those at the top, there will inevitably be a trickle down effect to the rest of the nation.  In any case, who would want to pass up the chance of a World Cup or Olympics?

On this basis the people of Brazil should regard themselves as being luckier than most, with the World Cup looming in 2014 to be swiftly followed by the 2016 Olympic Games.  If anywhere in South America should be the ideal focus for the World Cup it would be Brazil that would get the vote of most people.  By way of a taster the current Confederations Cup, featuring the top international teams from each continent was trailed as a World Cup taster, the chance to parade the crème de la crème of world football in a showcase tournament just a year before the real thing.

However, protests in Belo Horizonte are today reported to have numbered 60,000 people in advance of the latest Confederations Cup game and an estimated 250,000 are said to have been involved in protests across Brazil last night.  Such figures have been the norm over the past week as the competition is greeted with demonstration and protest as it moves from city to city.   Police estimates suggest that crowds of up to 100,000 were on the streets of Rio de Janeiro last Monday.

The Brazilian government has spent an estimated $13 bn on staging the World Cup in 2014 with a similar figure anticipated for the 2016 Olympic Games.  Little of that money is expected to reach the grass roots communities in host cities for the World Cup or Olympics and the widespread view is that corruption within the system for awarding contracts will ensure that only the few will benefit.

The trigger for the current demonstrations has been the plan to increase public transport fares in poorer parts of the country, not usually the stuff of nationwide protest, but in Brazil merely the tip of an iceberg which includes grievances about corruption and poor public services which has coalesced around the slogan “first world stadiums, third world schools.”

It is ironic that the protests should sweep the country when much has been made recently of the programme launched in 2008 of the “pacification” of the favelas, especially in Rio, many of which have previously been regarded as ungovernable.  The terminology is directly that of Iraq or Afghanistan and the level of armed presence in the poorer districts of Brazil’s major cities is comparable to military occupation.  Police battalions are followed by specialised urban warfare units then, where necessary, by the military in order to seek out drugs and guns.  While rooting out criminality and those profiting from the dejection of the poor through drug pushing is a welcome objective, the strong arm tactics appear to be indiscriminate in their use.  One community activist, describing the constant drone of police helicopters put it succinctly,

“It’s very noisy.  Then the shooting starts.  They are supposed to be aiming for traffickers but the problem is that the 762 calibre bullets go through bricks.”

Protests have been widespread in Fortazela, on Brazil’s north east coast, where the renovation of the local stadium for the World Cup has cost £149m but at the further cost of 5,000 people being forcibly removed from communities into areas without schools.

President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla who was tortured under Brazil’s military dictatorship has made a TV appeal to demonstrators, condemning corruption in government and promising to root it out.  The President has also promised to create a national plan to invest money from oil revenues into education and social programmes such as urban transport. 

Indications so far suggest that the President’s speech and promises have been met with scepticism by the general public.   The situation continues to be in flux but without change to address the needs of Brazil’s poor the coming World Cup and Olympic Games may take on quite a different character to that anticipated by the Brazilian government and the international sponsors.

 

9th June 2013

Iranian people urged to speak through protesting not voting

With elections in Iran scheduled for the 14th June the international community is beginning to focus attention upon the outcomes.  However, the ruling clergy in the Islamic Republic of Iran have once again denied the Iranian people the opportunity to vote in free and fair elections by loading the outcome in favour of candidates who support the existing regime.

With 700 candidates having expressed an interest, the Guardian Council, the body which vets all candidates, have narrowed the field down to eight men.  High profile exclusions include former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, defeated by current president Ahmadinejad in 2005, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, favoured by outgoing president Ahmadinejad but not the ruling clergy.

Reformists candidates defeated in the disputed 2009 election, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest and are therefore in no position to participate in the current poll. 

Those on the approved list include front runner Saeed Jalili, the Islamic Republic’s chief nuclear negotiator;  Muhammad Beqer  Qalibaf, the present Mayor of Tehran; and Ali Akbar Velyati who served as Foreign Minister from 1981 – 1997 and is currently Ayatollah Khamenei’s adviser on international affairs.  Velyati is known for his anti-American views.

In addition to the control exercised by the regime over who can stand in the election the mood inside Iran has darkened further, with a crackdown on internal dissent intensifying as the election gets closer.  Two men were recently executed on charges of espionage and waging war against God,  while known activists have been routinely rounded up for questioning on the flimsiest of pretexts.

The authorities in the Islamic Republic clearly fear a repeat of the widespread protests which followed the 2009 election, which resulted in thousands of Green Movement activists demonstrating on the streets of Tehran and many major cities in Iran.  Following those protests at least 1,900 remain imprisoned awaiting sentence with recent estimates suggesting that Iran’s jails are holding 2,600 prisoners of conscience.

With sanctions still crushing the Iranian economy and blighting the lives of ordinary Iranians the regime’s attempt to exclude any alternative voices from the election does not augur well for either the economy or the Iranian people.  The regime has effectively launched a coup d’etat in advance of the election bringing into question the ability of the regime to truly proclaim itself a republic, when it is in reality a religious autocracy.

While the clergy retain their grip on the armed forces and Revolutionary Guards within Iran they will sustain their position, at least in the short term.  However, increasing opposition from trade union activists, the peace movement, youth and women’s organisations has eroded the credibility of the regime with even some of its more traditional supporters.  In addition the aging and out of touch clergy is governing a population almost 50% of whom are beneath the age of 30 years old and not wedded to the interpretation of Islamic ideology perpetrated by the country’s leadership.  This is especially true of women, who are a highly educated section of the population in Iran but are denied career opportunities upon leaving university.

The view of opposition forces within Iran is that the election is a sham.  Rather than voting, protests against the ‘election’ should be held in order to demand the unconditional release of all political prisoners; the release of opposition leaders under house arrest; and the non-intervention of the security forces in quelling protest.

In effect, rather than the opportunity to elect a government which may take Iran in a new direction, the elections need to be seen as a platform for giving voice to the key demands of the people and exposing the plans of the reactionary leadership of the country.  Whatever the ruling clergy may like the world to think, Iran does not speak with one voice.  The voice of the present government, or that of the government elected on the 14th June, is not the voice of the Iranian people.  The voice of the Iranian people may well be heard on the 14th June but it is likely to be on the streets, rather than through the ballot box.

For more information on events in Iran and how you can support the Iranian people go to www.codir.net

 

2nd June 2013

Syria – UK adds fuel to the fire

With the retreat from the unwinnable war in Afghanistan barely sounded the UK government signalled its determination to up the stakes in another major Middle East conflict earlier this week.  Under intense pressure from the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, the European Union this week agreed to end the embargo on delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, thus paving the way for a further escalation in bloodshed and instability in the region.

An immediate response to the EU position came from Russia, who pledged to deliver sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft equipment to the Syrian government.  This was swiftly followed by the Israeli government claiming it would bomb any Russian missiles delivered to Syria as a threat to its national security.  At present only the UK and France are contemplating sending weapons to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) although the lift on the embargo does not become operational until mid August.  Hague made the UK position clear stating,

“We have brought an end to the EU arms embargo on the opposition.  This decision gives us the flexibility in future to respond to a worsening situation or the refusal of the regime to negotiate.”

With a peace conference in Geneva proposed for later this month Hague is clearly intending that the EU position will signal to President Assad that all options remain on the table.  However, the success of the conference is not only in jeopardy from a potential government boycott but the inability of the Syrian opposition to come to an agreed position.  The fragility and incoherence of the opposition is, in part, what has kept the Assad regime in power.  Continued external attempts to bolster that opposition, the Saudis and Qataris already being in the mix, will only result in the Assad regime digging its heels in deeper.

A less highly publicised consequence of the embargo being lifted is the possible collapse of the UN peace keeping presence on the Golan Heights, between Syria and Israel.  The Austrian government have already said they would withdraw more than 300 peace keepers if the UK looks to arm the Syrian opposition.  The likely consequence of this would be the intervention of Israel to create a defensive buffer, thus upping the ante in the region even further.

With an estimated 80,000 dead and millions displaced over the two years of the Syrian war, throwing more guns into the equation does not seem to be a recipe for anything other than more misery for the people of Syria and mounting casualties.  With the opposition divided amongst itself there is no guarantee that weapons will not find their way to those groups opposed to the West, directly or indirectly aligned to al-Qaeda, supposedly the West’s greatest enemy.

The promise of more weapons to Syria is equivalent to the West’s arming of the Mojahadeen  in Afghanistan to oust the Russians.  Greater monsters in the form of the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerged, an outcome which the governments of the EU and US are still living with.  The catalogue of Western foreign policy disasters in the past decade is almost too much to contemplate; failure in Afghanistan; failure in Iraq; increasing instability in Libya; ongoing strife in Palestine, as the illegal Israeli occupation continues to enjoy the tacit support of the West; sabre rattling against the regime in Iran, while imposing harsh sanctions which blight the lives of ordinary Iranians.  

Wars fought directly or by proxy to ‘defend’ the West do no such thing.  They result in the attacks such as that of 9/11 at one end of the spectrum and the mindless violence meted out against Lee Rigby in Woolwich recently at the other.

Whatever their colour, creed or religion the ordinary people of the UK, US and EU have no differences with the people of the Islamic world.  If anything their common interest in the need for peace and stability far outweighs so called divisions which are manufactured to justify occupation, profiteering and military spending.

At the same time as the UK government is contemplating pouring more guns into Syria, funding for Islamist groups in the UK, who aim to counter violence and promote community cohesion, is being cut.  A clearer example of inverted priorities is hard to imagine.

 

 

27th May 2013

Dangerous Ideas (1) - Austerity

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been through the books of UK plc this week as part of its regular economic health check of members.  The outcome of the visit has been to confirm the previously expressed view of the IMF that the austerity programme for the UK, and the wider Eurozone, is not working.   The US on the other hand, where the belief is that growth leads to deficit reduction rather than vice-versa, is recovering more quickly.  Quite how vigorously the US is actually recovering may be another debate but taking the assessment at face value the IMF is essentially acknowledging that the UK and Eurozone need more public spending to boost growth.

The philosophy followed by the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, has been to suggest that more belt tightening in the public sector will encourage greater growth and confidence in the private sector.  The problem is however that austerity encourages caution, not only amongst private sector investors but also amongst consumers.  Putting off that new sofa, washing machine or building repair may not seem like it is affecting the economy  but multiplied thousands of times across the country it has a significant impact.

The reliance on the private sector as the engine of growth is clearly perverse when the current economic crisis stems directly from the failings of the private sector, in the form of the banks.  The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 led to a contraction in the world economy unprecedented since the 1930s.  The stimulus provided by central banks and finance ministries across the major capitalist economies held off a major depression.  However, with that threat kept at bay, states then stepped in to save banks on the brink of bankruptcy, in effect spending public money on private sector failure.  The financial problems currently faced by many Western governments at present are a direct result of using taxpayers’ money to prop up the banks who had gambled their profits away.

Thus austerity is essentially a method for shifting the blame for the crisis onto governments, rather than banks, and making the public pay for a crisis which was not of their making.  It is on this basis that the UK Coalition government continue to accuse the Labour Party of leaving a huge economic mess for them to clear up following the 2010 election.  In reality the stimulus measures adopted by Labour had helped save the day but were thrown into reverse when the Coalition took the reins.

Much of the above is sourced from a new book published by the Oxford University Press (OUP), Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth.  Those wanting to know more should seek it out.

Dangerous Ideas (2) - Woolwich and beyond

The murder of Drummer Lee Rigby last week was both brutal and inexcusable.  Those responsible should be brought to justice and feel the full force of the law.

That does not mean however that those who make the law should bury their heads in the sand.   Whether our MPs, government, or even television interviewers like it or not, there is a link between the radicalisation of young Muslims and Western foreign policy.  This is not an excuse or a justification for what happened to Lee Rigby.  On the contrary, without a deeper understanding of what motivates those who commit such brutal acts we will never be in a position to prevent them.

As unsavoury as it may be for the UK establishment that means looking at the consequences of actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, failure to support justice in Palestine and how the crisis in Syria is handled.

Evidence of the use of uranium filled weapons in the war against Iraq is emerging daily with cancer deaths increasing tenfold in affected areas such as Basra.  Hans von Sponeck, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations has said recently,

“The US government sought to prevent WHO from surveying areas in Southern Iraq where depleted uranium had been used and caused serious health and environmental dangers.”

The death of Lee Rigby rightly made the headlines.  The ongoing deaths of Iraqis as a result of US and UK action are nowhere to be found.  The scales of justice need to be balanced.

 

 

20th May 2013

Won’t get fooled again?

It is remarkable how proper nouns can be transformed into verbs through regular usage.  The internet search engine giant Google, for example, is an amazingly successful international brand, so much so that many of us have dropped the need to conduct research into anything, we simply ‘google’ it, thus transforming a well known noun into an equally ubiquitous verb.

To look up something on the internet would seem to be the obvious use of the verb, to google, but it may be that it will take on another meaning when Labour leader Ed Miliband speaks at a Google event in Hertfordshire this week.  Having only paid £3.4m in tax, taken from sales of £3.2bn from UK customers last year, it may be more appropriate that we use the term  ‘to google’ to designate comprehensively dodging the tax man.   

Before the corporate lawyers come knocking we should of course point out that the deals in question were ‘closed’ in Ireland thus technically avoiding UK tax and not involving Google in any illegal activity.  It was still enough for MPs on the Public Accounts Committee to last week deem Google “devious, calculated and… unethical”. While this may not give Google any bother in the law courts it is presumably the kind of publicity the company could do without.

With the internet giant currently engaged in building an 11 storey headquarters, on a 2.4 acre site near King’s Cross in London, it will be interesting to see how tax affairs will be handled in the future, especially with Matt Brittin, Google vice president for northern and central Europe stating,

“This is a big investment by Google, we’re committing further to the UK where computing and the web were invented.  It’s good news for Google, for London and the UK.”

The government is taking the line that unilateral action will not change anything as this is an international issue and will need to be tackled on an international basis.  It is good however to see that Labour leader Ed Miliband has broken ranks with this approach by announcing that a Labour government would change tax avoidance rules with or without international agreement.

Miliband’s plan will aim to

  • Establish a global system where multinationals must publish corporate information useful to the revenue authorities;

  • Compel corporations operating in the UK to reveal any tax avoidance schemes they are using globally;

  • Reform “transfer pricing” where companies can shift money to other parts of their firm based in tax havens; and

  • Ensure UK tax revenue authorities can access information about firms based in tax havens.

 

Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, has now taken the view that he welcomes the move by the international community to crack down on tax loopholes suggesting that “…international tax law could almost certainly benefit from reform.”  The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will present an action plan to world leaders at the G20 summit in July so there can be no doubt that the issue will remain on the international agenda for some time to come.

This comes as no surprise of course at a time of recession, when tax revenues are vital to bolster the economy, and there is increasing pressure from those at the sharp end of the austerity drive to make the wealthy contribute their bit.  Given the massive profits made for their shareholders the least many of these companies can do is to pay their way when it comes to taxation.

Tax loopholes and avoidance schemes are the preserve of the rich, as the average worker has no recourse to offshore accounts, tax havens or investments to offset their tax liabilities.  While companies attempt to mitigate their position by indulging in ostentatious displays of corporate social responsibility their real intention remains as ever.  In an excellent article in The Guardian (Meet the new bosses: same as the old bosses 20/05/13) in house economist Larry Elliott sums up the situation neatly,

“Capitalism is not about being cuddly or sponsoring exhibitions at Tate Modern; it is about making profits, the higher the better.”

Let’s hope we won’t get fooled again.

12th May 2013

Long hot summer forecast

If the Queens Speech, which sets out the UK government’s legislative programme for the coming Parliament, is to be believed the major problem facing the country at the present time is immigration.  Ironic, coming from a woman with German ancestry who is married to a Greek we might think, but of course the Queen does not write this stuff it is her ministers in Government.  It is alarming however that while the G7 leaders prepared to meet in London to discuss the international economic situation, the parliamentary programme of the UK government had nothing to say about it.

Are the net 160,000 or so migrants coming into the UK, a nation of 60 million people, really bleeding the economy dry?  It is not very likely, especially given that the vast majority will be entrepreneurial and tax paying rather than so-called benefit tourists.  It is also implausible that the country will be overrun by Bulgarians and Romanians in the New Year when changes in EU migration rules apply.  This is in spite of what the government or UKIP, egging them on from the sidelines, might say.

There, of course, is the rub.  One of the most interesting facts of the week has been that it takes three days for the ink to dry on the parchment on which the Queen’s Speech is written.  This gem has been wheeled out to prove that the contents of the Speech are not a reaction to UKIPs strong showing in the local elections, as it would have been written before then.  Anyone believing this political jiggery-pokery was probably born yesterday.  Every move the government makes in the next two years is in preparation for the 2015 General Election and the perception that the anti-immigration, anti-Europe agenda of UKIP is gaining ground has got the Tories, in particular, on the run.

Avoiding talk of the economy would appear to be part of the governments DNA at the moment.  This could be because they are finding themselves in a dwindling minority of believers in austerity.  Even the United States has been pressing Germany to relax its stringent austerity programme and boost domestic growth as a means to stimulate the entire Eurozone.  A US Treasury official is quoted as saying,

“Strengthening European demand is the most important immediate imperative in reviving growth in the advanced economies and thereby global growth.  Increased demand in Germany would not only provide relief to its euro area partners, but also spur the world economy.”

While the Germans are digging in and resisting US demands there is support from the French, Italians and Spanish, all of whom are feeling the impact of continued austerity and lower growth more harshly than the Germans.  In Portugal unemployment levels this week hit 18% of the working population with 43% of under 25 year olds not studying now unable to find work.  With more jobs expected to go this year and an economy predicted to shrink by 2.3% Portugal could become the next crisis area for the eurozone. 

Already the recipients of a bailout overseen by the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission quite where Portugal will have to go next is difficult to see.  The austerity programme has failed to tackle a budget deficit which last year went up from 4.4%to 6.4% of GDP, all of which adds fuel to the debate as to whether austerity is the answer.  Recent figures for Greece for example show youth unemployment hitting 64.2% for those aged 15 – 24 years old.  Already six years into recession, the Greek economy is expected to contract by up to 4.5% this year.

Nobel prize winning economist, Paul Klugman, has been an opponent of the austerity agenda from the start.  In his book, “End This Depression Now”, now running into a second edition, he argues that reliance on austerity is a ‘delusional’ misreading of basic economics by policy makers.

Klugman argues as follows,

“Should we be having more spending?  The answer must be yes.  Why? Because there is plenty of slack in the labour market and investment needs to increase.  To me it is clear that there is plenty of room to increase spending without increasing inflation.”

Klugman is an erudite economist, clearly no socialist, but aware enough to recognise that the current path is not going to bail out the capitalist economies of the West.  As UK Chancellor, George Osborne, prepares for the visit of the IMF over the next two weeks, as part of their regular policy review, he could do worse than take notice of Klugman.  The IMF has already suggested that the austerity programme in the UK is too harsh, an assessment the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang states “…is like being told by the Spanish Inquisition to be more tolerant of heretics.”

The politics of Europe at the moment is such that the basic economic model is one of making the poor pay for the crimes and misdemeanours of the rich.  It is inevitably creating a massive pool of people, many of them young, with time and energy on their hands.  They may use some of that time to improve their political education.  They are already using much of it to get out onto the streets in protest.  Europe could be in for a long hot summer, whether the Met Office see it that way, or not.

 

6th May 2013

He who laughs last……

The lunatics may not have taken over the asylum but they are shaking the doors and rattling the window frames in an effort to make their presence known.  An obvious lead in to a piece about UKIP registering 23% of the vote in local elections in the UK last Thursday, you may think.  However the alarming rise in people prepared to vote for parties with no coherent programme and a broadly ‘none of the above’ agenda, is not confined to the shores of the UK.

Recent elections in Italy have resulted in the formation of a Grand Coalition, a pot pourri of Left and Right parties, forced upon the Italian electorate by their ageing president, Giorgio Napolitano, who appears to have little power other than to create governments at the drop of a hat.  He imposed the ‘technical’ i.e. not democratically elected, government of Mario Monti upon the Italian people last year for example.

This time round Napolitano will no doubt plead that his hand has been forced.  This is where the lunatic element comes in.  The remarkable showing of comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement meant that neither Right nor Left in Italian politics was left in overall control.  The moderate Partito Democratico (PD) has had to get into bed with the right wing The People of Freedom, led by none other than Silvio Berlusconi, in order to put together the ‘grand coalition’ which will attempt to govern Italy in the coming months. 

In some respects the ‘grand coalition’ is no more than the continuation of the Monti government by other means, in effect a coalition designed to save Italian capitalism from collapse and to assure the bankers across Europe that the eurozone’s fourth largest economy remains a safe bet.

In UK terms what is happening in Italy would be the equivalent of the Labour and Conservative parties coming together to keep UKIP at bay, on the basis that any government run by UKIP would send such negative signals to the markets internationally that UK plc would be heading for the rocks.  In one respect this is true but the chance of UKIP ever running the country are about as great as those of a movement led by a comedian running Italy.  Unless the international bankers or the respective armed forces suddenly shift their allegiance, the ruling circles in the UK and Italy have little to fear from Grillo or Farage directly.

However, the rise of the lunatic fringe cannot be dismissed entirely by those on the Left, resulting as it does from a widespread disaffection with politics in general and politicians in particular.  There can be no doubting that protest voting is in the air, it is just not being blown in a productive direction.  In fact, given the rightward tendency of where protest votes are going, there is a tendency to push the mainstream parties further to the right in order to meet the perceived constituency the likes of UKIP have captured.

In reality the UKIP catchment relies upon disaffected Tories drifting off to the right and the least class conscious elements of the working class vote, most easily attracted by demagogic slogans, being sucked into the simplicities of the UKIP world view.  The drift from the Tories is no surprise and to the extent that it may split their vote in crucial seats may be welcome.  However, the inability of the Labour Party to build the core constituency amongst its natural class base remains a cause for concern.

Given the state of the economy and the state of the Coalition government, in normal times Labour would have been the natural recipients of the anti-government vote.  The UKIP showing suggests that for many voters what Labour has to offer does not look very different from the rest.  For the right wing of the Tory party the rise in the UKIP vote gives them carte blanche to call for tougher laws on Europe, immigration, new airports and anything else that will shore up their vote in the shires.

With only two years to go before the election it is vital that an alternative of the Left, which does offer voters a real choice, is offered by the Labour Party and that core assets such as access to NHS services, social housing and decent local education are back on the agenda to be fought for and improved.

The main political parties are betting upon voters reverting to type at a General Election, when the serious business of running the country is put before them.  It may be that voters do that; the electoral system in the UK does not tend to benefit smaller parties.  However, it will not do to be complacent.  One comedian has already rocked the establishment in Italy, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that another may have a further laugh at the expense of UK plc.   

 

28th April 2013

The dark heart of Saturday night

The price of cheap clothing for a Saturday night on the town took a dramatically symbolic increase this week with the collapse of the eight storey Rana Plaza complex in Dhaka in Bangladesh.  The building collapsed at 9a.m. last Wednesday morning with nearly 3,000 people inside, over 350 of whom are known to have died, with hundreds still unaccounted for.

In the UK it is known that Primark, Matalan and Mango used the factories and an online petition has already been launched to seek compensation for the families of workers killed or injured.  Protests have taken place outside of Primark’s flagship Oxford St store in London.  War on Want have been clear on their reasons for targeting the company stating,

“We’re here to send a message to Primark that the deaths in Bangladesh were not an accident – they were entirely preventable deaths.  If Primark had taken its responsibility to those workers seriously, no-one need have died.”

Thousands of textile and garment workers have taken to the streets of Dhaka to protest at the ongoing lack of adherence to basic health and safety conditions for workers in their industry.  The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has pointed out that, in spite of over 700 deaths due to industrial accidents in Bangladesh since 2005, not a single factory owner has been found guilty of negligence.

Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation was perhaps understating the situation when he said that,

“The political clout of the garment industry makes reform difficult.”

As the third largest garment industry in the world, behind China and Italy, Bangladesh has become a magnet for the transnational corporations in the sector, which can see huge profits accruing on Western high streets at the expense of cheap labour in the developing world.  In 2010 the government raised the minimum wage in the garment sector in Bangladesh from £15 to £25 per month.   However, it is known that many subcontractors pay significantly less than this and enforcement of the minimum level is notoriously difficult.

The situation is compounded by the corrupt practices which dog the building industry.  As Gareth Price Jones of Oxfam has pointed out, even the Bangladeshi government “accepts that up to 90% of buildings fail to meet even local building standards let alone international norms”.  With Bangladesh being a country prone to earthquakes this effectively makes structures like that of Rana Plaza little more than death traps.

Price Jones goes on to say that,

“Oxfam is trying to reduce the risks by working with architects and municipal authorities to improve building standards. We also help communities to prepare themselves for disasters. With a major earthquake overdue, we are concerned that this terrible tragedy could be repeated on a far greater scale.”

Primark were quick to post condolences on their website, also stating that,

"Primark has been engaged for several years with NGOs and other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry's approach to factory standards. Primark will push for this review to also include building integrity. Meanwhile Primark's ethical trade team is at this moment working to collect information, assess which communities the workers come from, and to provide support where possible."

 

However, given the well-known failings of the building sector in Bangladesh, the poor to poverty wages paid to local employees and the continuing super profitability of the garment industry, the effectiveness of the ‘ethical trade team’ at Primark must be questioned.

 

The demand for cheap fashion items at affordable prices is not going to disappear from the high streets of Western countries.  The demand supplied by the likes of Primark and Matalan is close to being insatiable, so their shareholders can usually rest easy in the knowledge that their investment will turn a profit.  However, as is ever the case in a capitalist economy, one person’s profit is based on another person’s exploitation. 

 

Globalisation has meant that in many instances exploitation is invisible.  It no longer takes place in the cotton mills of Lancashire or the woollen industry of Yorkshire on the industrial scale of the nineteenth century.  Exploitation of the garment workers of Dhaka is no less exploitation however because it takes place out of site, in a poor country, in another part of the world.

 

21st April 2013

Tears before bedtime

George Osborne’s tears at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher last week were a taste for the Chancellor of how the rest of the country is feeling about the impact of the austerity programme and his handling of the economy.  While the ruling class managed to find £10m to bury one of their own the rest of the country simply had to get on with the business of meeting the bills, feeding  the kids and paying the rent.  Not immediate worries for the wallpaper millionaire running the Treasury, or his Old Etonian Cabinet pals, but then empathy was never Osborne’s strong point.

How the poor are coping will not cause Chancellor Osborne any sleepless nights but the opinion of Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may give him a troubled night or two.  Lagarde is no friend of the Left and has been a supporter of the UKs deficit reduction strategy to date.  However the weakness of recent economic figures has resulted in the IMF changing its stance with chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, quoted this week as saying that the UK would be “playing with fire” if it continued on the current austerity drive.

The World Economic Outlook of the IMF cut its prediction for UK growth to 0.7% in 2013 and 1.5% in 2014.  Output is currently still 3% lower than at the start of the 2008 recession.   The IMF are concerned that lack of growth could lead to a downward spiral making it difficult for key economies to recover.  In relation to austerity Lagarde said,

“We have said that should growth abate, should growth be particularly low, then there should be consideration to adjusting by way of slowing the pace.”

While economists this week expect the UK to technically miss out on being in a triple dip recession, the state of the economy remains fragile as high unemployment figures and poor high street spending underline.   

Osborne’s insomnia may be increased by the thoughts of the next governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who this week stated that he would be moving to a crisis economy when he takes up his post later in the year.  Carney characterised the world economic situation as being defined by three classes of countries; crisis economies, those emerging from the crisis, and those growing strongly, stating,

“The US is breaking out of the pack of crisis countries that includes the euro area, the UK and Japan.”

Carney went on to praise the role of the US Federal Reserve in providing guidance to financial markets on the future course of interest rates, implying that a failure to do this has been a weakness in other economies.

Whether unelected bankers guiding the economy is the way to go or not Carney will take over from Sir Mervyn King as Bank of England governor in the Autumn, attracted by an £800k per annum package after being head hunted by Chancellor Osborne.  Whether that investment helps turn around UK plc remains to be seen.

 

9th April 2013

Death becomes her

The death of former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, yesterday came too late for the many people whose lives she ruined and the communities which were destroyed as a result of her policies.   For those out on the streets of Glasgow, Brixton and elsewhere celebrating, it was a pyrrhic victory.  However, given the catalogue of devastation which rocked the nation over the twelve years of her premiership it is no surprise that for many news of her death has been greeted with joy.

Thatcher and her government nailed their colours to the mast as soon as they were elected in 1979 by immediately lifting controls on the export of capital.  This is not the policy which has been grabbing any headlines but was central to the Thatcher government project.  Giving greater freedom to UK capitalists mean that private sector investment was allowed to roam and find the cheapest labour costs in order to maximise profits.

De-regulation in every sense, still a mantra of the Cameron government, was the order of the day.  Freedom for the movement of capital was quickly linked to the deconstruction of state run industries and the introduction of business ‘efficiency’ through privatisation.  The post-war consensus had deemed that the basics of life should not be the subject of profiteering by the private sector.  Logically therefore the utilities of gas, electricity and water were in the state sector.  The same was true of key industries such as energy, steel and shipbuilding.  Transport in the form of British Airways and British Rail were publicly owned.

Local government was subject to budget reduction and constraints which have been taken to new levels by the current government but have their roots in the Thatcher administration.  The so called ‘right to buy’, effectively the privatisation of council housing, was central to the undermining of local democracy by feeding the illusion that private home ownership enhanced democracy.  Share ownership was promoted on the same basis, that the UK could become a share owning democracy and ordinary people would have a say in how companies were run.

It is evident now that this is arrant nonsense but Thatcher played upon the difficulties into which the Labour government of the late 1970’s had drifted and offered an alternative which appealed to the individual hopes and dreams of many ordinary people.

The Falklands War is of course central to the mythology of the Thatcher years with a picture of the nation united against an Argentine threat usually the one portrayed through the state media.  Of course, like Blair’s adventure in Iraq many years later, thousands protested against the war in the South Atlantic and pointed out the anomaly of defending islands thousands of miles away which were only ‘British’ due to having been colonised.  Hundreds of deaths resulted but the fortunes of the government were turned on a wave of media led jingoism.

The Thatcher government’s ability to engage in the orgy of deregulation and deconstruction of the state was of course dependent upon the unity of the opposition to it.  The real turning point in that respect was The Miner’s Strike of 1984/85.  The Labour Movement had already been severely wounded by the split which resulted in the establishment of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981 by renegades from the Labour Party in thrall to their own egos.

The Miner’s Strike was forced upon the NUM by the consistently aggressive tactics of the coal board and its American axeman Ian Macgregor.  Industrial action in defence of jobs and communities received massive support both within the union and the country.  The leadership of the NUM, under Arthur Scargill, Peter Heathfield and Mick McGahey was unashamedly left wing and recognised that the union was engaged in an existential struggle which would determine the fate of trade unionism for decades.

While thousands took to the streets in support of the miners, formed support groups, collected money, food and clothing, the Labour Party leadership under Neil Kinnock shamefully equivocated.   Unable to commit themselves to the defence of the working class Kinnock and company kowtowed to the Tory press, afraid that support for the Miners would be a vote loser in electoral terms.  In spite of this, at the 1987 general election Labour were crushed and Thatcher was able to claim her third victory.

As the media engages in wall to wall coverage of Margaret Thatcher, the individual, in the week leading up to her funeral next Wednesday, it should always be remembered that Thatcher did not act alone.  She represented and acted on behalf of class interests fearful that the growth of socialist ideas and practice would undermine their position and profits for ever.

If Thatcher had not existed the British capitalist class would have had to invent her.  Britain in the 1970’s was ripe for change; the only question was whether it would be revolutionary or reactionary.  Sadly it was the latter.  We continue to live with the consequences.

 

7th April 2013

Build the anti-nuclear alliance

Can it be coincidence that in the week that David Cameron goes to Scotland, to justify an estimated £20bn spend on renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system, the news is full of the potential nuclear threat from North Korea?  Given that the North Koreans are tailor made for the role of international bad guys the sabre rattling in the Far East has certainly been seized upon by the Prime Minister to justify the unjustifiable.

Jobs are important, of course, but the case for converting jobs which create or support weapons of mass destruction into ones which are socially useful has been made for many years.  Speaking to defence workers in Glasgow this week Cameron was not going to address such subtleties however.  On the contrary the “worrying” noises from North Korea were to the foreground and used as justification that the UK should keep its “independent” nuclear deterrent.  Cameron argued that,

“North Korea does now have missile technology that is able to reach, as they put it, the whole of the US, so if they are able to reach the whole of the US they are able to reach Europe too.  They can reach us too….To me having that nuclear deterrent is quite simply the best insurance policy you can have that you will never be subject to nuclear blackmail.”

Cameron went on to suggest that the North Koreans abide by all UN resolutions that have been laid down and suggested that there is a need to “…make sure that the heat is taken out of this situation.”  This may have been good advice to give Washington and Seoul before their joint military manoeuvres precipitated the current crisis, aggravating what is clearly a desperate regime in Pyongyang.

It is interesting to note that former deputy commander of UK land forces, Lord Ramsbotham, took a different view to Cameron asserting that,

“When you’re looking at the  national interest of the UK, the threat from North Korea simply doesn’t  enter into it…..There is no evidence at all to suggest that the North Koreans possess a weapon which the prime minister suggested could pose a threat to Europe, or indeed to us.”

All of which reinforces the view that Cameron was simply playing politics with the current North Korean situation in order to back a flagging argument for Trident.  It could be that his intelligence sources are akin to those which found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction ten years ago but the view of Lord Ramsbotham would give the lie to that.

The fact that the US bristles with nuclear weaponry did not deter the 9/11bombers, nor has it quashed the resistance of the Taliban, or blunted the belligerence of the theocrats in charge of Iran.  Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and even then in dubious circumstances from a military point of view.  Being a nuclear power has been a largely symbolic position allowing for influence at the top table at the UN and to continue to feed the profits of the military industrial lobby through spreading fear and misinformation.

That does not mean that we should not prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  On the contrary the possession of nuclear weapons by states as unstable as Pakistan and Israel is a major cause for alarm and North Korea moving towards such capability would be of equal concern.  That does not become an argument for increasing UK nuclear capability however.  The UK can make a contribution to nuclear de-escalation by not renewing Trident and positively arguing the case for socially useful investment.

No one expects the current government to lead such a charge.  Winning hearts and minds in the trades union movement and in the Labour Party will be the only way to begin to get to grips with the debate around Trident and its associated cost.  In times when austerity across all areas of government spending is the order of the day, £20bn on weapons of mass destruction does not look like good housekeeping.  It does not even make any sense militarily, so an alliance broad enough to include the generals is waiting to happen.  Let’s hope Labour has the leadership to step up to the plate.

 

30th March 2013

Beggars can’t be choosers

Meltdown Monday is fast approaching for the poor, the sick and the needy in the UK.   While the right wing press continue their relentless applause for the government crackdown on scroungers the reality on the ground, if you are disabled, in possession of an extra bedroom, or just plain low paid, is that you will be hit.  With £18bn per year set to come off the benefit bill thousands will be pushed further into poverty from 1st April.

In Birmingham the Council have even done a deal with Asda to give those applying for crisis help vouchers which will allow them to buy food but not cigarettes, alcohol or phone top ups.  Whether the vouchers will prevent them from buying health defying food full of saturated fat or put proscriptions on the purchase of Israeli dates, who knows?  However, it is unlikely that the government will force the poor either to choose healthy food or support Palestinian autonomy.   The process truly is the fulfilment of the age old mantra, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’.  In Birmingham, they will not even be able to choose the shop but will have to go to US corporation Wal-Mart’s UK operation.

The deal is part of a shift due to the abolition of the social fund, which has been replaced by more than 150 welfare assistance schemes run by local councils and the Scottish and Welsh governments.  The fund typically gave small grants of up to £50, in any case repayable against future benefits, to assist those in short term crisis situations such as having cash stolen or benefits delayed.  A separate set of grants, usually up to £1,000, was also available to support ex-prisoners and domestic violence victims to help them live independently.

Quite apart from the nightmare scenario the changes to welfare provision present for local government in administrative terms there is also a significant cash reduction.  In 2009/10 a total of £230m was spent on the social fund.  This will reduce to £178m in 2013/14.  This is at a time when the austerity drive of the government, combined with its lack of investment in options for growth, is driving down employment.

Research carried out for by Demos/Scope analysing the effect of 13 separate welfare changes, last week estimated that, “by 2017/18 about 3.7 million disabled people will collectively lose £28bn as a result of the reforms.”    Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope has said,

“The same group of disabled people face not just one or two cuts to their support but in some cases three, four, five or even six cuts.  In this context it’s a frightening prospect that welfare could be capped in the June spending review, having already been slashed by billions.”

There are other approaches of course.  In his column in The Guardian this week George Monbiot outlines the response to his proposal of two years ago, to tax owner-occupiers with at least two spare bedrooms, of which there are nearly 8 million in England.  Monbiot quotes Ed West in the Telegraph as remarking that his idea was “far closer to fascism than the ethno-centric populism of the European radical Right….The state has no business in people’s bedrooms – ever.”

It would appear that such an exclusion of the state from bedrooms only applies to the wealthy, not the poor.

 

24th March 2013

El pueblo unido……

It is hard to avoid the torrent of newsprint following the UK budget, as the broadcast news, the press and every tinpot blogger pores over the pontificating of the Chancellor to try and extract some semblance of meaning from the depths of the red brief case.

Much of the talk is inevitably about the numbers.  How does the budget affect the poor or benefit the rich?  Is there a new role for the Bank of England?  Has the Chancellor abandoned Plan A, if so what exactly is Plan B? Is Vince Cable a Keynesian spy in the Coalition camp?

And so it goes.

In reality, almost exactly two years before a General Election in 2015, the only thing Osborne and his Bullingdon pals are interested in is winning.   The only numbers that stack up are those which would deliver a Tory majority at the General Election.  That the Tories think the economy can go to hell in a handcart is evident from their actions, so how they may fine tune the wheels on the bogie is somewhat academic.

Hammering the poor while giving tax breaks to the rich is the raison d’etre of the Tory Party.  The tax break for millionaires promised in the last budget kicks in from April.  So, in spite of the penny off the pint of beer; not imposing a fuel duty later in the year; and raising the tax threshold to £10,000 next year, the real budget beneficiaries remain those on over £150,000 a year who will see real income benefits and the big companies who will prosper from corporation tax being cut to 20%, enhancing the tax haven status of UK plc.

Having been stuck with having to pay off the gambling debts of his pals in the banking sector, following the 2008 crash, Osborne has been dealt a rotten hand.  Blaming the last Labour government has given him some mileage but after a fourth budget that song begins to sound a bit worn.   Sticking to Plan A in the hope that something will eventually turn up before the next election is also looking like a dubious strategy to rely on, as the economy stubbornly refuses to grow in the face of the lack of any substantial measures to help it do so.

The beleaguered Chancellor, with the backing of the Bullingdon jet set, does seem to have hit upon one rhyming slogan which he hopes will stick and see him back in No.11 after 2015; strivers not skivers.  He did road test “aspiration nation” as part of the budget speech but no-one will remember that, too obviously the product of a spin doctors wine bar focus group.

Striving not skiving though may just have legs, not least because it plays to the ever popular Tory axis of evil consisting of those on benefits, public sector workers and trades unions.   The blue blood Tory press in the form of the self righteous troika of the Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and Daily Mail hate all three groups, largely regarding them as scroungers, communists or both, while at the very least regarding them as a threat to decent English values.

Indeed, close analysis of the budget would suggest, on one reading, that it appears to have little purpose other than to aggravate members of all three of these groups, to such an extent that they may feel compelled to take action to defend themselves.   

Public sector workers do have form when it comes to speaking up.  Teachers are already mobilising for action in the summer while UNISON has expressed its disgust at the 1% pay ceiling imposed on public sector workers in the budget.  On behalf of the wider trade union movement TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, has already signalled dissatisfaction with the Chancellor’s insistence on Plan A, for continued austerity.

“Youth unemployment is rising again”, said O’Grady.  “But while millionaires will get a big tax cut next week, the chancellor couldn’t find any money to support the million young people desperate for work.”

Action by the public sector, trades unions and benefit claimants will of course play to the Tory blue blood gallery and allow the Bullingdon mob to pronounce the land ungovernable without them.  Osborne and his tax grabbing cohorts are hoping that such a scenario will unfold in order to declare that, however bad it is now, it would be worse under the red flag waving mob led by militant trades unions.

The other card Osborne can play is to challenge the Labour leadership to take sides if the dam does break and a wave of union militancy begins to sweep the country.  Historically this has been good ground for the Tories.  In the face of popular resistance to oppressive measures Labour leaders have proven historically weak kneed, from Ramsey McDonald, to James Callaghan to the vacillating capitulation of Neil Kinnock during the Miners’ Strike.

It is unlikely that Ed Miliband is going to face anything as historic as the winter of discontent or the Miners’ Strike.  However, Labour’s positioning over the next two years will be critical to determining whether they are seriously on the side of those that deliver their core vote, or simply a well oiled machine for smoothing the way for the swing vote.   

A Labour leadership that backs workers fighting for improved wages and working conditions; argues the case for public investment to grow the economy; and actively supports public sector workers who do essential work for relatively little pay, would be welcome and may even win Labour some votes.  Our Latin American and Spanish comrades have a phrase which sums it up, it goes,

“El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!”

It even scrubs up well in English, taking the form,

“The people united will never be defeated!”

No scope for anything to be lost in translation there. 

17th March 2013

Middle East on the brink of escalation

The push by the UK and France last week to end the embargo on arms to opposition groups in Syria is an indication of how finely balanced the outcome of the Syrian conflict remains.   UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and French President Francois Hollande, have stressed that there is no prospect of breaking the EU arms embargo before the review process in May.  Nevertheless French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, has called for the immediate lifting of the embargo stating,

“The position that we are taking which is also the same as that of the British is to demand that the Europeans lift the embargo now so that the rebels have the ability to defend themselves.”

Some French press reports have even suggested that providing the opposition with ground to air missiles has been discussed.  While the Anglo-French position has not yet prevailed, in large measure due to opposition from Germany, the potential to significantly escalate the conflict in Syria is clear.

The dangers of the strategy of arming the rebels have even been highlighted by the Israelis who oppose this approach for their own reasons.  Military Intelligence chief, General Aviv Kochavi, last week warned of the increasing influence of extremist groups in the opposition in Syria, especially the al-Nusra Front, which the Israelis fear is making links with anti-Israeli forces based in the Lebanon.    The prospect of high specification military equipment reaching such groups is an immediate concern for the new Israeli government, recently formed following elections at the end of January.

To state that the new government in Israel retains Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister is bad enough but the fact that Netanyahu is politically to the Centre compared to other parties in the coalition is alarming.  It is certainly not a government likely to exercise restraint in responding to any perceived threat to its security.  

Israel is also concerned about the extent to which the Syrian regime has been drawing upon support from Iran, through the development of a 50,000 strong “people’s army” based around the fundamentalist group Hezbollah.  Kochavi claims that the militia are being funded by Tehran, trained by Hezbollah and are used to bolster the regular Syrian army stating,

“Most recently, they are establishing a ‘people’s army’ trained by Hezbollah and financed by Iran, currently consisting of 50,000 men, with plans to increase to 100,000.  Iran and Hezbollah are also preparing for the day after Assad’s fall, when they will use this army to protect their assets and interests in Syria.”   

Syria has effectively become the latest focal point for the struggle between Western interests and Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East as the post war, post-colonial order continues to unravel and the people of the region struggle to make their voices heard.  The legacy of the West in this context has been one of the exploitation of the regions resources to enrich transnational companies, often in the oil sector, and the propping up of dubious regimes which would use the state machinery to defend Western interests, at the expense of their own population.  

With the people of the region increasingly finding their voice they are rarely seeing the West as their natural allies.  If anything the cause of Islamic fundamentalism, in a variety of local forms, is proving more attractive whether through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  The influence of al-Qaeda can still be evidenced in conflicts such as those in Mali and in Syria while the situation in Afghanistan remains unstable.  The existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, now an established presence for over 30 years, is a beacon for many fundamentalists in the region.

The web of alliances and cross currents in the struggle for influence are rarely black and white in this part of the world.  A strategy which aims only to pour more weapons into the area however is not one which is going to reduce tensions or create stability.  The British and the French governments must be deterred from adding further to the stockpile of weapons.  The only way forward in the short term for the Middle East, without further bloodshed, is a negotiated one. 

In the long term the politics of Western exploitation and those of Islamic fanaticism must be rejected.  A socialist solution, which prioritises the allocation of resources by the people, for the people through a government of the people, is the only lasting answer.  Those voices are there in the Middle East, through the Communist Party of Egypt, the Tudeh Party of Iran and others.  We must do our utmost to ensure that they are heard.

11th March 2013

Education - bought and paid for

Education is always at the top of the political agenda, whatever the government, whatever the regime.  The shape of the education system is the shape of a nation’s future.  Schools shape how, and often what, children think.  They shape their training, qualification level and, to a large extent, often determine the course of their lives.  The education system nurtures the nation’s next generation of workers and leaders.

The stratification of education in the UK has always been a reflection of this reality.   While those privileged enough to have had a private education insist that it does not confer any social advantages or special status, they are still first in the queue for their children to follow in their footsteps.   Nick Clegg is just the latest politician to ensure that his children get a private, in this case catholic, education.

The number of old Etonians in the Cabinet reinforces the reality that, while none of those in Cabinet positions were born to lead, they were certainly able to pay for the privilege.  The brief flowering of comprehensive education following the Second World War was a brave attempt to turn the tide and to give working class children half a chance.  Of course the country and economy needed an educated workforce to meet the demands of post war reconstruction but there remained an underlying belief in the power of education to improve and develop for its own sake.

This was not a luxury the working class had ever been afforded and the upswing in children from poorer backgrounds making it to university level, and on to the higher echelons of the professions, was one of the great post war achievements of the Labour movement.

The unpicking of that legacy, as with much of the post war social policy consensus, began with the election of the Thatcher government in 1979, which embarked upon a twin track strategy of freeing any constraints on the movement of capital and deconstructing the social networks which had given opportunities to working class children.

The academy programme of the present government takes this process a step further.  The systematic deconstruction of Local Education Authorities having been achieved through the process of local self management of schools, we are now moving into an era where a teaching qualification is not even necessary to deliver education.  In one example, Pimlico Primary free school in Westminster due to open in September 2013, the newly appointed headteacher, Annliese Briggs, is only now undergoing her teaching training.

Briggs is a former deputy director of the right wing think tank, Civitas, and has already stated that she will ignore the national curriculum and embark on a programme inspired by controversial American academic E D Hirsch Jr, who focuses on “content rich” learning.  The appointment of Briggs follows on directly from the announcement by Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2010 that free schools would be given greater latitude over appointments.  Gove extended this ‘freedom’ to the country's 1500 academies last year, dropping the requirement to employ staff with qualified teacher status.  A recent government census suggests that one in ten teachers currently working in free schools are not qualified.

Ironically the first Ofsted reports into standards at three free schools suggests they “require improvement” while the largest teachers union, the NASUWT, have criticised the deskilling of the profession.

The academy programme is one which is sponsored by foundations, usually established by rich sponsors.  Pimlico Primary enjoys the sponsorship of Future, founded by John Nash, former venture capitalist, Tory donor and newly appointed schools minister.  The Harris Federation alone, founded by Lord Harris, founder of the Carpetright chain, already ‘sponsors’ 21 schools. 

While schools are only meant to be forced to become academies when they are “below the floor standard…seriously failing or unable to improve their results”  the reality for some schools is that the slightest blip can lead to a Notice to Improve followed by an instruction from the Department of Education to turn a school into an academy.  The austerity programme clearly does not extend to the funding of academies, the programme having already overrun its budget by £1bn over the last two years.

It is clearly no surprise that the counter revolution in education should be taken so far that all schools are in danger of being privatised.  The old maxim that education is a right, not a privilege is in danger of being reversed entirely.  In some areas the Labour movement needs to find the energy to get back to basics and reassert its moral and political authority.  Improving the life chances of our most underprivileged children through ensuring they have a right to a decent state education is certainly the starting point; abolishing free schools, academies and the private school system would be the logical next steps.

Hugo Chavez

The death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez this week has resulted in speculation about the future for Venezuela and the sustainability of the reforms Chavez has initiated over the past fifteen years.  The opposition to Chavez is inevitably from the rich and privileged in Venezuelan society, often fuelled by US dollars to maintain opposition to the Chavez government.

Whatever the future holds there can be no doubt that the Chavez legacy must be that of demonstrating the possibility of changing things in favour of the poor, wresting the natural wealth of a nation from the usual line up of exploiters and using those resources to redress some of the imbalance.  Only time will tell whether Venezuelans are able to continue down the path they have taken  but they, and Chavez, should be congratulated for having made a start.

3rd March 2013

Guns before butter?

The opening shots in the battle to shape the future UK budget have been fired and not surprisingly they have come from the military lobby.  Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, has been the front man for a coalition of former generals and defence chiefs who are once again bemoaning the lack of military spending and the impact that this will have upon the UK’s role in the world.  Hammond has come out stating that it is welfare, not the military, which should take a hit in the next spending review.  

It is ironic that whichever way the decision goes it is still the boys (and girls) from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne who will suffer.  Unemployment and poor job chances are endemic in many of the UK’s poorer areas, leading them to become ripe recruiting grounds for the armed forces.  It says something for the state of the UK that the chance to be shot in Afghanistan can look more attractive to many of our young people that taking their chances in the job market at home.

The argument of the generals of course has nothing to do with the issues of self esteem or the need to restore the dignity of labour in working class communities.  The place in the world that the generals are concerned about is the place of the UK as a post imperial policeman able to intervene, either at the direct request of the US or its barely concealed military front NATO, in conflicts around the globe.  On the tenth anniversary of the craven support shown by the UK for the US military adventure in Iraq, it is tragic that Hammond can still get away with suggesting that greater military spending is likely to be anything but disastrous for the people of the UK.

Hammond stated that,

"Any further reduction in the defence budget would fall on the level of activity that we were able to carry out – the idea that expensively bought equipment may not be able to be used, expensively employed troops may not be able to be exercised and trained as regularly as they need to be.”

The critical points in Hammond’s argument are around ‘expensively bought equipment’, essential for the military arms manufacturers; and how regularly troops ‘need’ to be trained.  A policy of non-alignment, withdrawal from NATO and not supporting foreign intervention would reduce both burdens for example.  The manipulation of public opinion in this particular area however is far greater than in other policy discussions.  The number of newspaper headlines proclaiming support for “our boys” in Afghanistan over the past decade is testament to this.  The veneer of objectivity which the BBC sustains through much of its reporting is pretty well stripped away when it comes to UK military action, especially losses, in any part of the world.   Cheerleading for “our boys” becomes the principal activity of the state broadcaster.

The reality of the many dead and wounded means that the effect of such military adventures reaches into communities across the country, as young men and women lose their lives to defend UK interests.  To suggest that such loss of life has been meaningless is often too difficult for many of those left behind to contemplate, so the ‘hero’ status now attached to any UK combatant becomes a self fulfilling  process.

Conversely no-one likes a skiver or scrounger and Hammond’s intervention is clearly designed to make black and white an area which is finely nuanced in shades of grey.  The welfare budget is of course the one from which unemployment, housing, disability and other benefits come.  The popular press, so glowing in its tributes for our military ‘heroes’, is in the same measure as vitriolic in its condemnation of those ‘sponging’ off the state.  It is a small step to make the comparison between those fighting to defend ‘freedom’ in a hostile environment and those supposedly lying on the settee all day with the curtains drawn.

That this is an entirely false dichotomy does not make it any less a compelling political argument in the hands of those intent on using demagogy to pursue their ends or to rely on rhetoric, rather than reality, to bolster their position.  The Conservatives routinely play to the gallery on issues such as military spending, law and order and immigration.   What Hammond has failed to mention however is the extent to which a commitment to replacing the Trident nuclear submarine fleet would have an impact upon the budget for conventional armed forces.

In a report published in February for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank it was stated that,

The MoD may need to find around £11bn in savings over 10 years as a result of the decisions taken in autumn statement 2012 and spending review 2013. If spending review 2015 makes a further 2.5% cut in the MoD resource budget the requirement for 10-year savings could increase to around £17bn."

There can be little doubt that this situation will become acute if the government commits to replacing Trident, a programme that could swallow 35% of the military equipment budget on its own and comes with an estimated price tag of at least £20bn.

Even for those committed to the UK’s post imperial role these sums ought to be compelling and none of the above amounts to a case for cuts in the welfare budget.  The Labour front bench unfortunately does not appear to have caught on.  Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy has said,

"It is essential that there is now reform to procurement, an advanced defence industrial strategy, consolidation where necessary and modernisation of our force structures.  There are tough decisions ahead for defence, but it is essential the UK's ability to project force globally is maintained."

 

Labour buying into the ethos of being able to ‘project force globally’ is nothing new.  Being a carbon copy of the Tories on defence however is looking increasingly thin, while failing to unequivocally oppose Trident is clearly indefensible.

 

Getting back to basics and generating jobs for those currently languishing on welfare benefits might be a tougher line to take in the short term but will put Labour in a more credible place in the future.  Ten years on, the failure of Labour  to listen to the massive public protest against the Iraq war continues to colour their credibility with large sections of the public.  If the Coalition is to be defeated in 2015 that constituency of voters needs to be won back.

 

24th February 2013

Osborne – time to upgrade

As the thrills and spills of the’ horsemeat in everything you eat’ scandal begin to recede from the news headlines the attention of front pages in the UK begins to turn towards the budget scheduled for the 20th March.  Andrew Rawnsley in his regular column in The Observer (24/2/13) suggests that informed sources close to Chancellor George Osborne claim that the justifiably maligned wall paper millionaire has been heard to proclaim, in relation to 2013 that, “My main aim this year is to avoid fucking up the budget.”  This is a worthy objective of course but is somewhat undermined by the sterling job Osborne is doing of ‘fucking up’ the economy.

Osborne of course did not put things so bluntly when he introduced the nation to his much vaunted Plan A, to reduce the structural deficit and squeeze the living daylights out of the poor, in the name of defending the profits of the City of London.  We were, to coin a phrase ‘all in it together’, but Osborne failed to make clear how much more deeply some were in it than others.

The realities are of course beginning to bite.  The under occupancy charge, correctly dubbed the ‘bedroom tax’ in popular parlance, will see those on housing  benefit  having to pay more per week if they have more bedrooms than people to occupy them.   This will affect over 600,000 people, many of whom would happily downsize if the properties were there for them to move into.  Best estimates suggest that there may be 250,000 houses into which these unfortunates could move.

 Assuming that you could get an exact fit that would still leave 350,000 people unable to meet the new welfare criteria and therefore being unfairly penalised.  Once you add in regional variations and issues relating to disability, family breakdown and a range of other factors you essentially have a recipe for chaos.  The tragedy for us all of course is that the man in charge of doing the sums around this is the Chancellor himself, which does make one worry about the adding up in store for the 20th March.

Osborne did not get off to a flyer in the first place.  Such economic green shoots as there were when the Coalition came to office were choked off by raising VAT, whacking an estimated £12bn of consumer spending and implementing an austerity programme so severe that it made Margaret Thatcher look like a liberal.  Local authorities across the country are passing cuts programmes which are taking 30% off budgets in a four year period, resulting in drastic cuts in public services to the most vulnerable.  The alternatives are to provide rich pickings for the private sector, to whom some Councils are turning in the hope that some one running the service will be better than no-one at all.  The reality of course can be quite different.

Ironically, all of Osborne’s kow-towing to the markets has not prevented the credit rating agency Moody’s this week reducing the UK rating from its AAA status.  As this has been trailed for some time it did not cause significant financial jitters in the City.  This was not entirely surprising as the government have pretty much been in cahoots with the Bank of England, the CBI and the City over the direction of economic policy.  The AAA status however has been a badge of honour for Osborne and Cameron in particular, allowing the opposition to make much of the downgrade.   It would even be a consideration, one would think, that the Chancellor may reconsider Plan A, or at least make some modifications.

Osborne’s response has been that the downgrade reinforces the need to sustain the current course, a view which flies in the face of economic reality and plain common sense.  Public spending remains the engine of a successful economy, even in the capitalist world.   Roads, schools, hospitals, broadband infrastructure are all necessary for social and industrial progress.  By the time he realises it, Osborne may well be out of office.  By the time he is out of office, many will have suffered for his folly.  The UK may have suffered a downgrade in its credit rating status, it needs an upgrade in its Chancellor.

16th February 2013

Where’s the Beef?

As the horsemeat scandal gathers momentum, in the UK and across the EU, there are many who have long deplored the industrialisation of meat production now seeing this as a case of chickens coming home to roost.  At least they could be chickens, some testing may be required for proof.

Like any other transnational sector the food industry is driven by profit.  It should not come as a surprise that corners have been cut and cheaper products substituted, in the name of making a fast buck, or pound, or euro for that matter.  For some, in the UK especially, the idea of eating horsemeat is inimical and is partly the reason for public outrage.  In France and elsewhere in Europe, where eating horsemeat is not frowned upon, there is still concern at the mislabelling of products and the misleading of consumers. 

The real story of course is that meat substitution in the processed products sector is undermining the profits of farmers in the EU while enriching meat rustling gangsters elsewhere, presumably on the EUs fringes; Romania seems to be the latest target for corporate anger.  The widespread use of horsemeat does of course beg the question as to where the beef that should have been in these products has gone and how did no-one notice the alarming disappearance of horses?

The commercial dynamic to the problem is underlined by the fact that the Food Standards Agency of Ireland (FSAI) initially found both horsemeat in one third, and pig in 85%, of frozen beefburger products tested as far back as November 2012.  The FSAI did not announce its findings until 15th January 2013 as it continued to retest due to the commercial sensitivity of its findings.

While the Irish identified factories in Ireland and Yorkshire as the source of the problem two of the suppliers are part of the ABP Food Group, one of the biggest food distributors in Europe.  The finger was then pointed towards the Netherlands and Spain before Poland got a mention and Romania came under the spotlight.  Tests carried out by the UK Food Standards Agency on ‘beef’ products made for Tesco, Aldi and Findus by French company Comigel found up to 100% horse. 

Given that Comigel was making branded products for countries across Europe the scandal soon spread.  The only clear thing appears to be that there is a Europe wide network engaged in processed food adulteration and while this has now come to light no-one is clear for how long it has been going on.

In common with many other industries the food and retail sectors have become highly concentrated and globalised with a handful of key players dominating the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe.  Very long supply chains are developed, particularly for economy lines, which enable companies to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the supply chain can break down.

In a competitive market supermarkets have been driving down prices, seeking special offers on meat products.  The recession forces consumers to cut back on spending.  However, manufacturers' costs have been soaring with beef prices and the price of grain needed to feed cattle at record highs. The cost of energy is also a contributory factor, which has resulted in a mismatch between the cost of real beef and what companies are prepared to pay.

In relation to horsemeat in the food supply chain the issue is complicated by the possibility of an anti-inflammatory drug called phenylbutazone, or "bute" being present in food, as it is routinely used to treat horses.  Bute can, in rare cases, cause a potentially life threatening illness, aplastic anaemia, or bone marrow failure.   While doses from horsemeat are said to be very low it is nevertheless a concern now that horsemeat has been found in school dinners and hospital food in the UK.

Quite how much further the scandal has to run is anyone’s guess with revelations emerging daily.  As ever, the profit motive is not always the great innovator it is made out to be by its apologists, it is tempting to suggest that they should eat their words but for the concern that the food chain may not recover from such an influx of bullshit!

10th February 2013

EU budget smoke and mirrors

European Union budgets are a bafflingly complex affair.  As part of the EU club everyone has to chip in, that is only fair.  The club is not however an association of equals, so various allowances have to be made.  On the one hand there is the balance achieved by the bigger nations.  Germany, as the economic powerhouse of Europe effectively has a final say in negotiation outcomes, though no-one would say that openly.  The red line for the French is not to tinker with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), from which French farmers in particular have benefitted nicely over the years.  No presidential candidate would get a second term if they messed with the CAP.  The UK as one of the bigger nations, if not a member of the original Common Market, has negotiated the much discussed rebate, the deal which made Thatcher’s handbag famous and means that whatever the deal on the table to UK gets a bit back.

A host of second string nations then do what is possible and secure the best deal they can manage.  Italy lead the pack with Spain following closely, being major if struggling economies.  Then there are the newly emergent nations, who have either come into the frame following the defeat of the Soviet Union or are about to do so, such as Bulgaria and Romania.  The benefit of their inclusion is largely to provide ready markets for the first group, with the Germans in particular benefitting from a steady supply of eastern European consumers on their doorstep.  The alternative would be to allow the nations of eastern Europe to fall under the influence of Russia, who in spite of now being an ‘ally’ of the West, is treated with suspicion, or worse still China, whose expansion the EU wants to stem at all costs.

This week’s budget negotiations resulted in the agreement to cut the new EU seven year budget by 3.3% (€32bn) the first budget reduction in the EUs history.  The debate pitted budget cutting UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, against French president Francois Hollande, who argued for more spending to spur growth.  The two biggest items in the EU budget are the CAP and the cohesion funds which go to support the more underdeveloped nations from eastern Europe.  The CAP takes up 39% of the budget alone so the position of Hollande is understandable.  The UK position won out in the end largely because German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw her weight behind it.

However, the whole debate is largely one of smoke and mirrors.  The  €908bn spend over seven years, agreed this week, is only around 2% of total public spending in the EU as a whole.  To that extent to characterise the outcome as a victory of austerity over growth is an exaggeration of the real position.  The real issues within the EU relate to the policies in the member states and the extent to which growth or austerity are seen as the main objectives of economic policy.

To that extent the main news for the UK economy this week was not so much Cameron’s huffing and puffing to get a deal from the EU but the attitude of the new Bank of England governor, Mark Carney.   Speaking at a Treasury select committee earlier in the week Carney made sounds akin to wanting to re-stimulate the economy by suggesting that the gap between where the UK economy is and where is could be was about 15%, inferring that policies for growth and investment may be able to help bridge that gap. 

Will the fabled ‘independence’ of the new governor remain so if he does clash with the Chancellor, George Osborne, over economic policy?  Can the Chancellor be persuaded to move from his much vaunted Plan A, for austerity at all costs, even by someone with Carney’s credentials?  This battle could be the one to watch.

 4th February 2013

Troops vs. diplomacy – which way for the West?

The Middle East and North Africa remain the international focus at present with intervention, or its consequences, being the order of the day.  The Israeli airstrike into Syrian territory last week, allegedly targeting anti-aircraft missiles bound for Lebanon, further fans the flames of conflict in a region which hardly needs more fuel added to the fire.  Commenting on the strike, Israeli Foreign Minister, Ehud Barak stated,

“It’s another proof that when we say something we mean it.  We say that we don’t think that it should be allowable to bring advanced weapons systems in to Lebanon…”

This underlines the Israeli view that it is the self appointed policeman of the region.  Whatever the merits or otherwise of the respective regimes in Syria and Lebanon the right of Israel to mount operations outside their territory should be confined to issues of self defence.  There is no suggestion that either state has attacked Israel, though the Israelis see Lebanon as a base for Hezbollah, the alleged destination of the weapons.

While the Israelis continue to flaunt international law, in their illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, they will continue to find little sympathy across the rest of the Middle East. Last week’s unilateral strike on Syria, and Barak’s response, will only serve to reinforce the views of many in the region.

The Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, has already suggested that Syria “has the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation,” in response to the Israeli attack thus holding out the prospect of further military escalation.

In Mali the French forces appear to have made short term gains in pushing back Islamist forces in the North and retaking key cities such as Gao and Timbuktu.  The British military presence in support of France only counts in the low hundreds with continued assurances from the Foreign Office that it will not get significantly higher.  While scenes of President Hollande being mobbed by liberated citizens in Mali will no doubt play favourably with some sections of the French public in the short term, that may change if a protracted engagement becomes necessary.

For the moment Hollande has made clear the French position, stating at a news conference in the Malian capital of Bamako that,

“There are risks of terrorism, so we have not finished our mission yet.”

He went on further to say that France would only withdraw its troops from Mali once sovereignty had been established over the country’s entire territory and a UN backed African military force could take over from the French.   Quite how long this may take is not clear, so while the French commitment may not be indefinite, it remains open ended.

The French have pressed the Malian government to open negotiations with the MNLA who seized north Mali in April, before being ousted in turn by the stronger conservative alliance of Islamist groups including al-Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM.

While playing down the possibility of direct talks with the MNLA, the Malian government have acknowledged that there needs to be more devolution of power from the predominantly black African south of the country to northern Mali, which is largely underdeveloped and home to many lighter skinned Tuaregs and Arabs.

UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has also been to North Africa to engage in a diplomatic offensive with the governments of Algeria, Libya and Liberia.  The Algerians are by far the most significant of these in geo-political terms.  The move represents a shift in the widely accepted policy of European states to deal primarily with their former colonies.  In these terms Algeria would normally fall under French influence.  Even though independent since 1962 there remain strong social and economic ties between the two countries.

Cameron’s presence is unlikely to change this but it does represent a shift in foreign policy approach for the UK and a recognition that if the more militant elements of the al-Qaeda presence are to be combatted effectively, some engagement with governments on the ground in North Africa will be necessary.

This approach has been a feature of the weekend with Cameron hosting the Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai and Pakistani president Asif Ali Zadari for a weekend of talks on the future of Afghanistan, following the pull out of Western troops in 2014.  The conversation will look at ways in which elements of the Taliban can be included in any peace settlement as the medieval theocrats remain a presence in spite of 10 years of NATO involvement in Afghanistan.

Afghani women’s groups have already expressed concern that any return of the Taliban to positions of power will be a retrograde step.

However the talks go they have been preceded by the comments of Karzai that security in Helmand province was better before the intervention of foreign troops.  Karzai said he was unclear if western forces were leaving Afghanistan because they felt they had achieved the aim of making their own countries more secure by tackling international terror groups or because they had realised the mission was mistaken. 

It will be interesting to see how discussions unfold.  

 

 

 

 

27th January 2013

Dead men walking, the Tories on Europe

Finally, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron this week made the set piece speech on Europe which has been trailed for months.  It would be usual to expect this to be an occasion on which some great vision for an alternative to the current arrangements inside the European Union might be flagged up.  What is it that the Conservatives want?  What is their vision for Britain? How will Cameron, as their leader, move them decisively towards this goal?

None of the above, in the end, came into the speech.  In fact Cameron’s speech was that of a man with a gun to his head.  Quite whose finger is on the trigger may be a moot point.  The Conservative right wing have been baying for European withdrawal from the moment the ink was dry on the 1975 referendum with took the UK into the Common Market.  As a consequence of their inability to win the debate within the Conservative Party, the even more profoundly little Englander UKIP have emerged in recent years, to harvest the Tory Eurosceptic vote and provide the potential for a Tory implosion at the 2015 General Election.

So what did Cameron say?  Firstly, there is a big ‘if’; that being that if the Tories get a majority at the next General Election,  Cameron will commit to a vote on being in or out of the European Union by 2018. The second big ‘if’ is an assumption that the rest of the EU might be prepared to go along with the renegotiation of the terms of EU membership across the board.  There is no evidence that any other European leaders have such an appetite.   Cameron stated,

“My strong preference is to enact these changes for the entire EU, not just for Britain. But if there is no appetite for a new Treaty for us all then of course Britain should be ready to address the changes we need in a negotiation with our European partners.  The next Conservative Manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative Government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament.  It will be a relationship with the Single Market at its heart.  And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice.  To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether.  It will be an in-out referendum.  Legislation will be drafted before the next election.  And if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year.”

However much other elements are dressed up, this is the core of Cameron’s speech.  It is essentially an attempt to appease the Eurosceptic right wing in his party on the one-hand and to stop the drift towards UKIP on the other.  It is not a strategic vision, it is merely a tactical ploy, based upon the need to shore up a shaky right wing alliance which he hopes will deliver him a majority at the next election. 

There is no way of course that the majority of LibDems will buy in to this approach.  Nick Clegg has already said that the referendum promise will “hit growth and jobs.”  Being pro-European is one of the few defining characteristics that the party of perpetual opportunism has left.  To abandon this would signal a complete retreat to Toryism and put even greater strain on the already shaky LibDem brand as far as voters are concerned.  The Labour Party are for the moment hedging their bets, being unable to muster the bottle to oppose a referendum but sniping at Cameron for being too weak and, in the words of Ed Miliband, “being driven by his party, not by the national economic interest.”

The European market is a key one for UK trade and significant industry opposition to withdrawal has already been signalled.  Added to that, Cameron has unleashed a period of uncertainty, at least up until the 2015 election, which business leaders have been quite vociferous in saying they could do without.  Moreover, however much Cameron intended to dampen the debate on Europe he has effectively fired the starting gun on the referendum campaign with both the Tory right and UKIP certain to make much of it in their election communications.

As summed up by Andrew Rawnsley (The Observer 27/1/13), Cameron’s achievement is in some ways quite remarkable,

“With one speech that he never wanted to make, Mr. Cameron has unleashed several years of uncertainty about whether Britain will remain a member of the world’s most powerful political and trading bloc, made it less likely that he will remain as prime minister after the next election, and more likely that his party will ultimately come apart altogether over Europe.”

Progressives have always criticised the EU for being a capitalist club based upon monetarist principles, which do not ultimately benefit the working people of Europe but protect the interests of industrialist and bankers.  From the point of view of Europe’s peoples there are many good reasons for withdrawing or renegotiating the terms of European co-operation, not least to build a Europe which truly acts in the interests of the people; is a real force for economic co-operation; supports the development of social enterprise; and lays the basis for a new international economic order based upon collaboration rather than exploitation.

These are not the values espoused by David Cameron or by those on the right opposing him.  The only good outcome from Cameron’s speech is the possibility that it will result in a Tory meltdown ahead of the next election.  Let us hope so and look forward to the European debate moving onto a progressive basis rather than starting from a reactionary one.

20th January 2013

Mali – the West learns nothing from history

The French intervention in the West African state of Mali, allegedly to prevent the spread of Islamist rebels who have taken control of the Northern desert regions of the country, is a disaster in the making.  The headlines may have shifted to the hostage crisis at the BP plant in Ain Amenas in Algeria but the claim of the jihadist perpetrators, known as the ‘signers in blood’ is that their action is directly linked to the actions of the French in Mali.

Whether the action in Algeria could have been planned and delivered just days after the Mali action is doubtful, given the operational logistics of the hostage taking and the attempt to occupy the gas plant.  However, coming so closely upon the intervention in Mali, defined by the French as a “war against terrorism”, the two have been linked.  This link highlights the real threat to the West from an array of al Qaida linked jihadist groups, namely international guerrilla warfare.

The defeat of the Western forces in Afghanistan, and make no mistake it is a defeat, is a clear example of external intervention which results in an indigenous force, which knows the terrain, resisting outside forces.  The Vietnamese defeat of the United States in the 1970’s provided the template, although the Vietnamese people were fighting for progress rather than medievalism like the Taliban.  The point is however that knowing the ground is a huge advantage.  The desert terrain in Mali will not be familiar to French troops, whereas the Islamist forces will know the ground and are likely to provide significant resistance.

The modus operandi of Islamist groups the world over is to damage Western interests and retreat.  The events of 9/11 resulted in wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, to no significant effect, other than to demonise the West further in the eyes of much of the Muslim world.  Western collusion with Saudi Arabia to destabilise Syria is earning it few allies while the ongoing war of words with Iran plays into the hands of the hardliners in that country, keen to identify an external threat to detract from their own human rights and democratic shortcomings at home.

Persistent backing for Israel, in the face of a multitude of United Nations resolutions denouncing the illegality of Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, has done the West no favours in the Middle East for over 40 years and has helped fuel the growth of militancy in the growth of Hezbollah and Hamas.   Backing for the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt for over 30 years helped fuel the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, now effectively in control of the Arab world’s most populous nation.

French action in Mali is not going to help the West in the Middle East or in West Africa.  In fact it will simply reinforce the image that many people in those parts of the world already have of an interventionist, neo-colonial coalition attempting to prop up ailing economic interests.  Mali, in terms of trade, is not a major player in the wider context of French economic interests.  However, Mali does share a border with Niger, from where one third of the French uranium supply for its nuclear industry originates.  Mali also shares a significant border with Algeria, France’s biggest African economic partner and a major exporter of oil and gas to Europe.

The history of French, US and wider Western intervention in North Africa is excellently outlined in an article by Mark LeVine, professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden found at the following link:-

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/2013119153558185275.html

One point that LeVine does make clear however is that the West did see the crisis in Mali coming and could have taken steps to address it, stating,

Indeed, on the US side, the American Ambassador to Mali  already warned in 2004 that Mali is a "remote, tribal and barely governed swath of Africa... a potential new staging ground for religious extremism and terrorism similar to Afghanistan under the Taliban... If Mali goes, the rest goes".”

Ten years on the West is retreating in ignominy from Afghanistan having made no discernible progress.  It would indeed be tragic to be saying the same in ten years time about the position in Mali in particular and West Africa in general.

13th January 2013

Tackling prejudice key to progress

The devastating impact of British colonialism, and the subsequent neo-colonial exploitation which has been extended through the so-called British Commonwealth, has been well documented.  The empire, upon which the sun never set and the blood never dried, has been the basis of the ongoing wealth and international power of the UK for close to two centuries.  The fact that the British Queen is also head of state in countries with such significant economies as Australia and Canada is testament to how the British ruling class remains capable of hoodwinking significant constituencies, which really should know better.  Any nation which is not a republic in the 21st century, the UK included, can only be regarded as an historical anachronism and needs to sort itself out.

The defenders of colonialism will of course point to the good things which British domination brought to the peoples of Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the world, such as legal and education systems, industrialisation, transport infrastructure and a template for democracy.  For the most part these things were necessary for the more effective exploitation of resources and the creation of an indigenous population beholden to, and compliant to the will of, the exploiter.  How quickly home grown institutions would have been developed and national control of national resources would have taken is open to speculation.  Colonial peoples did not get that chance.

Where independence came it was hard won, particularly for the Irish who almost 100 years after the 1916 Easter Rising still have six counties under UK domination.  Partition was also part of the deal in India, with the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan and the division of Kashmir, an ongoing cause of conflict today.  British withdrawal from Palestine leading to the creation of a Jewish homeland in the state of Israel has hardly been unproblematic, while British domination of the oilfields of Iran resulted in the overthrow of the democratic leader Mossadegh, in 1953, paving the way for the autocratic and unpopular Shah.

Against this background of turmoil and strife has anything good come from the UK’s period of world domination?  One thing which is certainly significant and has helped break down prejudice and ignorance in the UK is immigration.  Indeed immigration, from former colonies in particular, is probably the single most important positive consequence of the British Empire as it has resulted in a cultural diversity and dynamism which the UK would otherwise be lacking.  In music and food alone the impact of Ireland, the Caribbean and South East Asia on current British culture is significant.  Some of the subtler influences may have been quashed latterly by the domination of US culture through TV and social media, a phenomenon common to Western Europe, though especially advanced in the UK due to the shared language.

It is a cause for concern that the major UK political parties appear to be united in their view that immigration is a problem for Britain.  This would be fine if they saw the main problem lying with those who use the issue to stir up strife and create divisions where none exist, if their main issue was with racists out to return the UK to some homogeneous, white dominated ‘golden age’, like the so-called Loyalists in Northern Ireland who trace their British loyalties back to the non-English speaking Dutchman, William of Orange.

The UK’s politicians however appear to be united only in wanting to get the immigration figures down, to have less people coming into the country, in the misplaced belief that immigrants are a drain on the resources of the UK.

A report published this week, The State of the Nation: where is bittersweet Britain heading?,  by the think tank British Future, paints a slightly more complex picture however.  The report found that one in three people did think immigration divided British people more than anything else.  Over half thought immigration was one of the top three causes of friction in society.  These are statistics which cannot be ignored, although the factors fuelling such views could usefully be explored.

However, when asked to consider their local areas the picture changed somewhat.  While 30% placed immigration first when thinking about tensions facing the UK as a whole, this reduced to 19% when people were asked to consider their own area.  It was also significant that there was no correlation between the level of concern and the concentration of immigrants in any given area.

As The Observer (13/1/13) reports,

“Immigration was regarded as the most divisive issue for 19% of people in north east of England and 20% in Wales – where the 2011 census shows 1 in 20 people were born abroad – and for 20% of Londoners, where immigrants make up one in three of the population.”

It appears that immigration is more a national rather than a local issue.  It is not the actual reality and the impact of immigration upon people’s lives that appears to be the major concern but perceptions and prejudice which fuel unfounded fears.

Misperception and prejudice are of course the lifeblood of fascists who would seize upon the consequences of austerity to stir up racial conflict and strife.  As immigration and the relationship of the UK to the European Union move to the political centre stage, the relationship of the UK to the outside world and its peoples will increasingly be an area for political debate.  It is worth noting who profits from division and in whose interest the unity of oppressed people rests.

Internationalism must be the cornerstone of any progressive philosophy.

 

 

6th January 2013

The hangover with no cure in sight

The big focal point, as the UK Parliament returns this week, will be the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill which is the focus for debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday.  The Bill is the usual Tory attempt to demonise the poor while they quietly get on with tax handouts for the rich.  By April millionaires will receive a tax cut worth on average £107,000 while the rest of the population, working or on benefits, can expect income rises of no more than 1% over the year.

Even this is an illusion.  With inflation at its current levels a 1% pay rise is a real terms cut in disposable income.  For public sector workers in local government, where 30% reductions have to be made over a five year period, hanging on to a job at all may be a bonus.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that an average one income family with children will lose £534 as a result of the current proposals.

Child benefit changes will kick in the day before the welfare debate, meaning that single earner families on £50,000 a year will see child benefit cut, while double earner families coming in at just under £100k will not lose a penny.  While this is clearly inequitable these sums will seem astronomical to many people on benefits for whom £50k will seem like a dream income from two earners, let alone one.

This year will see cuts in child benefit, housing and council tax benefit.  The majority (60%) of those set to lose out are people in work, including 3.7 million people on child tax credit and 2.5 million on working tax credit.  These are not the people of George Osborne myth, lying on the settee with the curtains drawn sponging off the state.  They are the teachers, nurses and public sector workers who are working hard to make ends meets but are paying the price for the gambling debts of the banks, as part of the Osborne austerity programme.

George Osborne and Prime Minister, David Cameron, are acutely aware that promising to tackle skivers and scroungers will get many hoorays in the country and buy them a few short term headlines in the popular press.  The problem will come when pay packets are thinner than expected for many of those readers of the popular press, who will find once again that they have been hoodwinked by the Coalition.

In a letter to The Observer (6th January 2013), signed by 27 voluntary sector organisations, including The Children’s Society, Citizens Advice and Barnado’s, it is pointed out that,

“Many thousands have turned to food banks for help.  Nearly half of teachers say they often see children going hungry.  Shockingly, 6 million households struggle to afford to heat their homes.”

After the razamatazz and jingoism of 2012 it was always likely that 2013 would be like a hangover.  In spite of Osborne’s famous cry that we are all in it together there can be little doubt that the coming year will demonstrate that some are still far deeper in it than others.  There is little sign that Osborne and his cronies have the cure for that hangover pain.