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29th December 2014

When ‘defence’ is no defence

As the penny is finally dropping with large sections of the British public that the five more years of austerity promised by Chancellor George Osborne is neither desirable nor necessary, scrutiny of how taxpayers money is spent is coming to the forefront.  It was only a matter of time before those being made to pay for the crisis would want to know where the money is going and what return they are getting for it.

Increasingly under question is the adherence of the government to spending billions on weapons of mass destruction.  The £50bn estimated cost to replace the redundant Trident nuclear submarine programme is the most prominent.  The estimated £20bn cost of occupying Afghanistan for the past 10 years is not universally regarded as value for money, quite apart from the lives lost for little purpose.

There are many socially useful projects that this money could support.  Renewing the public transport infrastructure, as recent delays at Kings Cross illustrate, not the best in Europe, would be a popular project.  There is a desperate need to renew public facilities from schools to hospitals to local roads.  At the macro economic level, investment in developing renewable energy technologies, which would both tackle the issue of carbon emissions and reduce reliance on nuclear power, would be a wise way to spend.

In the medical sphere the needs of an ageing population could be addressed by directing research and development into areas such as Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases.  There is no shortage of demands upon the public purse which would be of general benefit, in both supporting the needs of the country and creating jobs.

International collaboration in this area does have some history, in the Anglo-French development of the supersonic Concorde passenger plane.  However, current collaboration is not to support passenger transport but to enhance military capability through the purchase of the Typhoon fighter jet, at an estimated cost of £30bn.

The Typhoon started out life as the Eurofighter in 1985, in collaboration with Germany, Spain and Italy, at an estimated cost of £7bn.  By 1997, this estimate had already risen to £17bn and by 2003, with the project over four years behind schedule, costs were at the £20bn level.  Only the Ministry of Defence would be given such latitude in its budgeting and procurement processes.  The National Audit Office, in 2011, reported,

“Our examination has shown that key investment decisions were taken on an over optimistic basis; the project suffered from corporate decisions to try to balance the defence budget; and the department did not predict the substantial rate at which costs would rise.  None of this suggests good cost control, a key determinant of value for money.”

Such an indictment of spending in local government or in the NHS would undoubtedly be followed by a call for those responsible to be sacked and for a thorough review of expenditure and procurement procedures.  There is no evidence of any job losses associated with the Typhoon project.

On the contrary, the government is attempting to cover its position by working with manufacturer BAE Systems to sell on the beleaguered fighter to ailing Arab dictatorships.  A multi million pound deal to sell 72 of the aircraft to Saudi Arabia has been agreed, although deals with the United Arab Emirates and India have fallen through.  Ironically event the MoD has cut its order from an initial 232 to 160 aircraft.

The fate of the Typhoon, over deadline and over budget, is complicated by the appearance on the scene of the US F35 Joint Strike Fighter, the new kid on the block, which will be based on the navy’s new aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, now running over cost at an estimated £6.2bn.  The lifetime costs of aircraft flying from the carriers are currently estimated to be £15bn.  The government originally planned to buy 138 of the F35’s at a cost of £70m each, so far it has said it will buy 48 but these may not be ready in time for the new aircraft carriers.  So, new carriers without planes.  Would such incompetence in the public sector go unpunished?  Unlikely.

The final irony in this tragi-comedy of errors is that the Typhoons currently in service do not have the weaponry to be utilised, as part of the current air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and will not be armed appropriately until 2019.  In the meantime ageing 30 year old Tornado fighters are being sent out to do the job.

The delusions of grandeur on the part of the British ruling class, its pretentions to nuclear capability, its world policeman role are sad enough.  That the UK is not even very good at this is sadder still.  The real crime however remains the adherence to a policy of supporting the development and use of weapons of mass destruction to sustain the illusion of a powerful state.  It is the citizens of the UK who pay the price, both as taxpayers and as targets, as UK foreign policy continues to put its citizens in the front line as far as fundamentalists in the Islamic world are concerned.    

21st December 2014

Cuba/North Korea/Pakistan

It is a week in which international events have dominated the news headlines.  In an historic move by the Communist Party of Cuba, the United States of America will begin to move away from its international pariah status, due to its illegal blockade of Cuba, as diplomatic relations are restored between the two countries.

In spite of the government of North Korea routinely being characterised as backward looking and brutal by the West, it is now being accused, by the Sony Corporation of having hacked into its computer systems in an act of cyber war.  The plot of this news story is only surpassed by that of the film The Interview, the release of which has been shelved, due to the ‘North Korean’ cyber attack.  How long before the whole tale is revealed as a studio publicity stunt?  We shall see.

Finally, the barbaric attack upon a school in Peshawar, in Pakistan, leaving 141 dead, including 132 children underlines once again the medievalism of fundamentalist Islam.  A statement on the tragedy, released by the Tudeh Party of Iran is reproduced below, reflecting a position with which we concur.

The Tudeh Party of Iran Condemns the Inhuman Killings in a School in Pakistan

On Tuesday 16th of December, the band of Islamic terrorists who call themselves the ‘Pakistani Taliban’ created a humanitarian tragedy in an armed attack.  The attack, perpetrated by the backward, criminal Islamic Taliban on a school in Peshawar, left 141 people murdered, including 132 pupils and 9 teachers.

The spokesman for this criminal group claims that the forces which entered the school had orders not to harm the children and the operation’s objective was specifically to take revenge for attacks by the Pakistani army.  This inhuman attack was of such magnitude that even another backward militia band which calls itself ‘Afghanistan’s Taliban’ was forced to express its revulsion in relation to this criminal murderous act committed against the children of the Peshawar school.   

Since the start of the reign of the reactionary Islamists and in particular, since the military-Islamist dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq during the 1980s, Pakistan has been the arena of operation for extremist terrorist forces.  Many times Pakistani governments have stated that they will firmly deal with the Islamist militias but in practice they have either been unable or unwilling to carry it out.  The reality is that the emergence of these kinds of Islamist criminals has not been accidental and, over the last three decades, they have been closely connected in various ways to Pakistan’s military and security forces.    The historic background to the emergence of these backward, anti-people forces must be seen in the destructive, interventionist policies of imperialism, together with the rule of local reactionaries in the region.

In recent years, examples of such inhuman tragedies, created by Islamist forces under the pretext of defending Islamic values, have been witnessed on a number of occasions in other countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.  These futile cycles of carnage and the massacring of innocents, the predominance of an atmosphere of terror and violence and the creation of fear in the region by criminal Islamist forces must be halted by the eradication their socioeconomic and political roots and hence their life-blood.

Legitimisation of these criminals, holding negotiations with them and awarding them concessions while they still adhere to their deadly reactionary and discriminatory outlook, will only encourage them to perpetuate their inhumane acts.

The Tudeh Party of Iran, together with other progressive humanitarian forces in Pakistan and worldwide, expresses its deepest sympathy with the relatives of the victims’ of this tragedy at the Peshawar school and with the tormented people of our neighbouring country Pakistan.  We strongly condemn this vicious attack.    

The Tudeh Party of Iran

17th December 2014

 

14th December 2014

Are you glad to be American?

The publication this week by the US Senate Intelligence Committee of its report on CIA torture and ‘extraordinary rendition’, or kidnapping in everyday language, has stirred up a furore on both sides of the Atlantic.  The focus in the UK has been upon the extent to which the British government and security services have intervened to have sections of the report, which show British complicity redacted, or removed in everyday language.  In the US the soul searching has been more of the ‘how could it have been allowed to happen here’ type, led by committee chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who said that the brutality outlined in the report stood, “in stark contrast to our values as a nation.”

Feinstein, to her credit, fought long and hard for the 528 page report to be  published at all, while others warned of the dire consequences of publication.  The release of the report was welcomed by US President Barack Obama, stating:

“One of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.”

Yet the backlash was not far behind, with former US Vice President Dick Cheney bluntly stating that the report was “full of crap” and CIA Director John Brennan claiming that the process that led to the report was “flawed”.  Brennan went on to characterise the “transparency that has happened over the last couple of days” as “over the top”.  The CIA Director did acknowledge that some “abhorrent” methods used by the CIA were “outside of the bounds” of approved policy.  However, Brennan did question a central conclusion of the report, that the torture was not only abhorrent, but also ineffective.

The fact that torture was, and quite possibly still remains, part of the armoury of the CIA should come as no surprise to anyone.  Barack Obama acknowledged as much when he refused to establish a truth and reconciliation commission upon taking office in 2009, claiming “that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.  The interventions of the CIA in overthrowing Iranian democrat Mossadegh in 1953 and the Allende government in Chile in 1973 are well established.  Countless attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro have been hatched over the years, with the CIA usually implicated.  Intelligence on alleged Iraqi ‘weapon of mass destruction’, yet to be found, but precipitating a war costing thousands of lives, has the CIA’s fingerprints all over it.  This is not an agency that plays by the rules.  It is little wonder that Obama was reluctant to look backwards.

The current report however only looks backwards a little way.  It covers a five year period from 2002 – 2007 during which those suspected of terrorism were subjected to brutal and degrading treatment in order to gather intelligence.  Amongst other revelations, the report highlights abuse at four jails in Afghanistan, the Bagram airbase, alleged to have been the most notorious.  Two prisoners died from abuse in 2002, while others were subjected to sleep deprivation, cold, forced nudity and no access to their families and lawyers.

It is an ironic coincidence that the US announced the final closure of its detention centres in Afghanistan the day after the publication of the report.  Most prisoners were sent back to their own countries for prosecution although the whereabouts of a small group, considered hardened extremists, is still unknown.

The cries to prosecute those responsible for the abuses indicated in the report, standard if evidence of abuse or torture is uncovered elsewhere in the world, have not been screaming from the pages of the American press.  All of which suggests that there is a strong strand of opinion in the US that supports the view that, post 9/11, those suspected of torture deserve whatever they get.  Quite whether that view can be reconciled with the abuses outlined in the report remains to be seen.

Against this backdrop the UK role is, as ever, a supporting one to the US but important nevertheless.  The Commons Intelligence and Security Committee has demanded to see the sections of the report, relating to the UK, which have been redacted although the final decision on what is made available will be down to the US government.

Finally it is worth noting that each year, on 10th December the world remembers the day in 1948 when all nations came together in Paris to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The power and relevance of the recognition in the Declaration - that all human beings have fundamental rights and freedoms - is undiminished today.  The UN General Assembly proclaimed 10th December as Human Rights Day in 1950, to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

This year’s slogan, Human Rights 365, encompasses the idea that every day is Human Rights Day.  It celebrates the fundamental proposition in the Universal Declaration that each one of us is at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights, that human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values.

It may be too much to hope that Dianne Feinstein was aware of the significance of the date when the Senate report was published, even more unlikely that it registered highly on the radar of the US government.  Perhaps it should be drawn to their attention for future reference.

7th December 2014

Trident – the elephant in the room

If you are on a middle income about to buy a house, or you are planning to take a foreign holiday with your children, who are under the age of 12 years old, you may have found something to cheer about in UK Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement this week.  Otherwise, Osborne’s statement promised a return to 1930’s levels of public spending, with the likely consequence being a return to the poverty, unemployment and rising interest in fascism, which characterised that decade.

The loss of a further one million public sector jobs, predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), would be compensated for by the creation of two million jobs in the private sector, it was alleged, without anyone suggesting up front they would probably be at half the pay and lower tax revenues.  Over the past five years this balancing act has not worked, so there is little reason to believe that it will work in the next five years.  As public sector jobs have been trashed to cut the public deficit, the only areas of job increase have been the low paid, low skilled sector and in ‘self-employment’, often a euphemism for not drawing benefits and scraping by without state aid.

The fact that the deficit has not reduced, and that Osborne will borrow in the coming year more than double the £37 billion he originally promised, has not been regarded as an absurdity by the media in general.  Nor does the fact that the plans to reduce public finance by a further £55 billion, without any major increase in taxes, appear to have troubled the Tory supporting tabloids.  In fact, the Tories have a further £7bn of tax cuts pencilled in over the life of the next parliament.

As Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out in his assessment in The Guardian (4/12/14), referring to the position at the end of the next parliament,

“By that time, according to the OBR, the British state will be smaller than it was before the introduction of the welfare state.  In 2009, the government spent £188bn on everything bar health, education and foreign aid.  By 2019, that will have shrunk to £86bn.  At the last election, the rationale for making these cuts was that otherwise Britain would end up like Greece.  This time there will be no real justification at all.”

All of which means that the second half of the ten year austerity programme, initiated by Osborne in 2010, looks set to be worse than the first.  Only 40% of the public sector cuts Osborne wants have materialised so far, that means another 60% to come.

The elephant in the room in all of this is the Trident nuclear submarine replacement programme.  There is no indication that the government, or indeed the opposition, have backtracked on their commitment to continued investment in weapons of mass destruction, at a cost estimated to be in the region of £50bn.  Trident was a dubious investment in the days of the Cold War, when it could at best have contributed to a process of mutually assured destruction between the West and the Soviet Union.

In the current world situation, where UK foreign policy has largely succeeded in bringing upon it the opprobrium of the Muslim and Arab world, Trident is even more outdated, as the case for deterrence does not stack upon against the guerrilla and terrorist tactics of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.

Two things follow from this.  Firstly a foreign policy based upon neutrality, rather than membership of NATO and being first in line to help the US bomb the Arab world, would make the UK less of a target for terrorism.  A UK government actively supporting UN resolutions for a Palestinian state and working towards this goal would be a huge step forward.

Secondly, a radical shift in foreign policy, away from weapons of mass destruction and towards socially useful production, would free investment to support new non-military based technologies such as medical research and green energy.

Such an approach, which shifted the balance away from military spending to social spending would be a real boost to the economy.  It would certainly be a more welcome prospect than increased militarisation, intolerance of religious and ethnic differences and five more years of austerity.

30th November 2014

Ill fitting jackets, second hand clothes

It was billed as the ‘big speech’ on immigration from UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, last Friday in an attempt to win back the migration argument from the failed and disaffected Tory ranks which make up UKIP.  Cameron has never managed to quite pull off ‘statesmanlike’ and last week was no exception.  The Prime Minister came across as a teenage boy dressed in his Dad’s jacket hoping that he would look old enough to get served in the local pub.  That is bad enough but when the jacket is in a loud check and belongs to Nigel Farage it is even worse.

As the migration argument unfolds, the ludicrous assertions that migration to the UK, from the EU or anywhere else, is undermining the economy and the British ‘way of life’ is on shakier ground each time it is trundled out.

The figures speak for themselves.  Of the 3.9 million people in the UK receiving tax credits, 302,000 or 6.4%, are EU nationals.  Of the 4.9 million working age benefit claimants in the UK, just 2.5% are EU nationals.  Of the 2.3 million claiming incapacity benefits, just 1.6% are EU nationals.  Of the total number of EU nationals in the UK , approximately 2.7 million, only 15% are claiming benefits of any kind at all.  Given that net migration from the EU into the UK in the past year was only 142,000 these are hardly the kind of figures that suggest the economy is being bled dry by busloads sent over from Brussels.

So, what is Cameron’s plan?  Three main things are in the offing.  Firstly, the introduction of a four year residency period before immigrants can receive in-work benefits, including tax credits.  Secondly, to stop child benefit payments to people from other EU countries whose children live outside Britain.  Thirdly, to require any EU migrant who has not found work in the UK within six months to leave the country.   

The effectiveness of the measures in addressing the issue of ‘fairness’ is debatable.  The ability of Cameron to persuade other EU members to change existing treaties is doubtful.  What is not open to question however, is the climate the debate around EU migration has created.  The discussion has served to demonise those who are working legitimately in the UK and escalated the number of assaults on those from Romania, Poland and elsewhere in the EU deemed ‘scroungers’ by the cheerleaders of the right wing.

It is a measure of Cameron’s lack of political stature that he has been successfully railroaded into such a debate by the mavericks within his own party and those outside it pressing for EU withdrawal.  Such is the nature of shopping for soundbites in the political equivalent of a second hand clothes store.

In reality, many economic commentators assert that it is Britain’s openness to skilled economic migration that has fuelled such economic growth as the UK currently enjoys.  Even Chancellor George Osborne is reported to recognise this and has allegedly argued against the ‘emergency brake’ on migration Cameron was thinking of proposing, as it could affect the UK’s relative economic recovery.

Given the low skills, low pay, part-time nature of the UK ‘recovery’ some of this argument is inevitably skating on thin ice but it certainly does not suggest that a ‘benefits tourism’ culture is the main issue the UK needs to address.

Certainly, when it comes to his Autumn Statement this week George Osborne will have bigger fish to fry.  The revolt against austerity is now spreading from the heartlands of Labour to the Tory Shires, where local government leaders have been pressing for greater control over local spending.  In part, this is in response to the Smith Commission proposals to given greater devolved powers to Scotland.  However, the reality of 40% reductions in Council budgets since 2010 is beginning to bite.  Even Tory supporters in the Shires get old and require adult social care and NHS services. 

Investment in prevention, services which keep people healthy in the first place, is always cheaper and more effective than having to fund treatment, which is inevitably more expensive.  The less ability that Council adult social care services have to cope, the more pressure there will be on the NHS to deal with those unable to stay healthy.  It is a vicious circle, which Osborne needs to address.

Having choked off the stimulus, which may have jolted the economy in 2010 and opted for the path of austerity, Osborne will be desperate to dig himself out of a pit of his own making before the General Election next year.  The Autumn Statement is one of his last big set pieces where he has the chance to change course.  He will not.  He believes that the shaky economic recovery is real and that the taxing the poor while rewarding the rich remains the way to make it sustainable.  His level of delusion beggar’s belief and it seems that he remains determined to beggar the rest of us into the bargain.

23rd November 2014

In Pursuit of the English

The Labour Party have to be careful not to be too careful.  The Tories being trounced in the Rochester by-election this week should have been a good news story but instead the tweet by (then) Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, grabbed the headlines.  Her picture of a house draped in St George’s cross flags with a white van outside was construed as being insulting to the patriot inside.

Thornberry was sacked and Labour have retreated into a miasma of apology about not insulting hard working families and how they are as patriotic as the next man, or woman presumably.  When confronted with arguments about displaying the flag of St. George Labour simply retreat in this fashion in case they cause offence.  Offence to whom exactly?

Working class estates across the UK, or even England, are not festooned with the flag of St George on a regular basis, except perhaps in a few diehard loyalist areas of Belfast.  Other than during periods of forlorn hope at football world cup tournaments, the English flag is not a common or ‘normal’ sight across the country.

Whether we like it or not the flag has become colonised by groups from the far right and, in certain contexts, tainted by association with the likes of the British National Party, English Defence League and racist thugs at England football matches.  Most ordinary people would not drape their houses in flags of any description, so it begs the question, what is the mentality of those that do?

They are patriots of course, would come the reply, but who is not a patriot?  It is how that patriotism is defined which is important.  If it is defined by a small minded little Englander approach to anyone with a different view of the world or different skin colour, then it is not patriotism it is simply prejudice.  If it is defined by an unswerving allegiance to the Crown, without questioning the class basis of the institutions which govern us then it is not patriotism, it is simply kowtowing. 

The basis of nationalism is not inherently bad.  Nationalist movements have been progressive forces for change across Africa, Asia and the former British Empire, uniting people against oppression and tyranny.  Defeating apartheid in South Africa would not have been possible without the unifying umbrella of the African National Congress.  The national struggle to unite Ireland continues, the Scottish Nationalist Party have taken further the issue of the role of the nation within the UK.  Major multi-national states have existed in the 20th century, not least the Soviet Union and also Yugoslavia before the EU and NATO intervened to dismember it.

Nationalism in the face of oppression can be a force for progress.  Crucially though, it is only progressive when allied to internationalism, a recognition that the struggle to free one group of people from oppression is part of the wider struggle to free all.  The right wing hijack of the flag of St George is not this sort of nationalism.  It does not represent a statement of progressive intent but a small minded retreat into the days when Brittania ruled the waves, immigration was limited and there was no free movement of labour in the EU.

Emily Thornberry made a tactical blunder and politically she has paid the price.  Let us not pretend however that houses decked in the flags of St. George or the Union Jack are representative of ordinary working class people either; they are not.  The retreat into accepting such a position gives the Left no basis from which to argue against the demagogues of the right, who routinely blame everything upon immigrants and the unemployed rather than those in the banks, government and industry who have some control.

What should be an exposure of splits on the right should not be turned into a battle ground for the Left.  UKIP is a party led by a public school educated former stockbroker, recruiting renegade Tories scared that they may lose their parliamentary privileges at the next election.  Such a party does not represent the working class and never will, no matter how many flags they wave and whatever the colour.

16th November 2014

Spectres at the feast

It is not everyday that you will hear the governor of the Bank of England quoting Marx and Engels but this week provided one of those rare occasions.  The original states that, “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism”, the famous opening sentence to the Manifesto of the Communist Party published in 1848, the first work by Marx and Engels.  The Bank governor, Mark Carney, was not foretelling anything quite so dramatic but for a capitalist banker it was bad enough, “a spectre is now haunting Europe – the spectre of economic stagnation”, he pronounced.

The restrictions placed upon European Union members, originally by the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990’s and endorsed by subsequent agreements, make the control of inflation and limits on public spending the central tenets of economic policy.  In plain English this means that EU governments can only spend up to a certain limit on major infrastructure projects before Brussels slaps their hands.  Needless to say, that limit was ludicrously low when set and looks even more so now that paying for the banker’s gambling debts has the economies of Europe tottering on the brink of economic stagnation.  

Even the EU powerhouse economy of Germany is now crying out for investment, although the Germans seem keen to continue force feeding austerity to other Eurozone economies at the moment.  Even in capitalist terms however, none of this works.  Cutting public spending and forcing down pay and benefits only results in less tax revenue and less spending power in the economy.  However fabulous your goods are there still has to be a market for them and that requires more people with more disposable income.

As for public spending, the need to improve road and rail infrastructure; build 21st century schools and hospitals; and ensure superfast broadband and telecommunications networks, would appear to be blindingly obvious.  However much the Tories choose to bleat on about market forces they know, as well as the rest of us, that these things will only get done with government investment; public spending by any other name.  The private sector will have a role in delivery but they do not have the strategic overview to plan for public need.  Even a capitalist government running a capitalist economy has to concede this much to Marx and Engels, infrastructure development needs public investment and planning.

Not that David Cameron or George Osborne would concede such a thing for one minute.  If they are not blaming the last Labour government for the economic crisis they are scapegoating immigrants, blaming benefit ‘cheats’, or falling back on the old chestnut of global forces to justify ongoing austerity.  While there may be some mileage in the latter excuse the Tory led coalition in the UK has been in office for nearly five years now so should be beginning to accept some responsibility for the state of affairs.

A new study, reported in The Observer today, certainly exposes further the underlying inequality in the government’s approach.  Due to be published on 17th November the report, by economists at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex,  shows that,

  • Changes to income tax and benefits since May 2010 have switched income from the poorer half of households to the richer half;

  • The richer half have gained between 1.2% and 2% in disposable income;

  • Lone parent families have been the hardest hit due to cuts in benefits, tax credits and higher Council tax;

  • A quarter of the lowest paid 10% have lost more than 5% of their income since coalition reforms to benefits and in-work credits

 

To cap it all, the report concludes that this transfer of funds, from the poor to the rich, has done nothing to contribute to the government’s stated goal of deficit reduction.  As the report’s authors state,

“The reforms had the effect of making an income transfer from the poorer half of households (and some of the very richest) to most of the richer half, with no net effect on the public finances.”

There will be little news in this for most people but the academic credibility given to what most knew  does no harm when confronting the government on its record.  The opportunity to press home the advantage should not be missed, as the economy will inevitably be a focus of the May General Election, as it is in most others.

It is always the case under a Tory government that the rich can enjoy the feast.  That does not mean however, that the spectres haunting capitalism have been exorcised.

9th November 2014

Keep the right wing on the ropes

The only thing taking the heat off question marks over Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party this week is the ineptitude of Chancellor George Osborne’s maths, when explaining the recovery of £850m from UK payments to the EU.  The Tories were taken by surprise a couple of weeks ago by a £1.7bn demand  from the EU, payable on 1st December.  In a round of furious red faced interviews Prime Minister David Cameron pledged not to pay on 1st December or any time after, as he claimed the demand, which his officials had been aware of, was an outrage.

Osborne, in a scheduled meeting with EU Finance Ministers, returned from Brussels this week claiming to have halved the payment.  Whether Osborne received a magic set for Xmas as a boy is not known but his sleight of hand on the payment issue is well practised.  The UK would have been due a rebate of £850m from the EU anyway, so Osborne’s victory amounted to getting the current payment demand delayed until after the General Election in May 2015.  In spite of what Osborne claims, the UK is paying the EU no less than was originally demanded.  Economists the world over have offered to loan Osborne a calculator but he is sticking with his magic box.  The British public are unlikely to be impressed.

Inevitably this has raised the question as to whether the UK should be in the EU and paying anything at all.  The UKIP drum beats the loudest on this point claiming that any EU contribution is wasted.  Maverick Tory MP Peter Bone, a lifelong Tory but anti-EU sympathiser, has called for an alliance of the right at the next election to ensure the pressure is kept on the Tories to have a referendum on EU membership.  The Tory leadership are unlikely to bend to the likes of Bone but the constant chirping from him and his ilk is designed to keep Cameron leaning to the right.

The debate on EU membership also finds a focus in the discussion about the free movement of labour in the EU, which the Tories are looking to restrict and the rest of the EU are looking to resist.  Free movement of labour it is argued, not least by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a core principle of the whole EU concept.  Either sign up for it or leave seems to be Merkel’s message. 

Merkel and Cameron did discuss the issue of benefits for unemployed EU migrants this week, so called ‘benefit tourists’, but Merkel’s position on the wider question was quite clear, stating,

“However, it is my view that this must be resolved in a way that on the one hand allows us to tackle abuses, but on the other, does not deviate from the basic principle of the freedom of movement in Europe.”

Cameron is currently in the process of preparing a keynote speech on the subject aimed at both heading off the UKIP threat at the Rochester by-election and setting out the Tory stall for next year’s General Election.  Either way, Cameron will get nowhere inside the EU without Merkel’s backing.

The entire debate about so-called ‘benefit tourism’ is a red-herring on a par only equalled by the right wing press bleating on about benefit cheats.  In both cases the debate serves to divert attention from the real financial tourists who are using Luxembourg as a base to reduce tax, siphoning funds into Swiss accounts, or registering their companies in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens to dodge their tax bills.  The few quid benefit tourists or cheats can access is peanuts when compared with corporate money movements.  Both should of course be condemned but it may be an idea to get the problem in perspective.

The immigration debate has been further fuelled this week by the report by University College London (UCL), which indicates that migrants into the UK have benefitted the economy to the tune of £20bn between 2001 and 2011.  One of the authors of the report from UCL, stated,

“Immigration to the UK since 2000 has been of substantial fiscal benefit with immigrants contributing more than they have received in benefits and transfers.  This is true for immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe as well as from the rest of the EU.”    

Ian Goldin, Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, supports the UCL position stating categorically that,

“While economists are notorious for being unable to agree on most things, there is a growing consensus regarding the economic benefits of immigration.  Indeed, there is no reputable evidence for the oft-cited fears that immigrants undermine job prospects or reduce wages either for the UK or any other major economy.  Studies on the short term impact of immigration on wages tend to show it yields a positive or at worst no statistically significant impact.”  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/09/increase-immigration-manage-it-better

The free movement of labour does not stand alone however in the EU pantheon of untouchable principles.  It is closely aligned to the free movement of goods, services and capital none of which the Tories are suggesting are problematic, mainly because it benefits their friends in industry and the City of London.  In effect this is the Tory conundrum and the source of the split on the right which UKIP are exploiting.  The anti-EU little Englander pose plays to the gallery but does not sit well with many businesses for whom the EU is a major export market.

All of which should give the Labour Party plenty of pre-election ammunition.  While Labour is not going to attack the EU for the right reasons, that it is a corporate club designed to benefit the stronger European nations at the expense of the weak, there is still mileage in debunking the arguments on immigration.  With only six months to go before the General Election the Labour Party should be marshalling its forces and arguments, not engaging in backstabbing over Ed Miliband’s leadership.  A Labour leader back in 10, Downing St will not solve everything but it still remains better than the alternative.

2nd November 2014

Afghanistan – darkness visible

The final retreat of UK troops from the unwinnable war in Afghanistan this week has been treated with the usual pomp and ceremony accorded British military ventures abroad.  The right wing media have made much of the contribution to ‘peace and freedom’ that British troops have made in an effort to justify the 453 deaths of UK service personnel and the £20 billion spend on the conflict over a 13 year period.

In spite of this, a poll conducted for BBC News revealed that the public remain sceptical about the intervention with 68% thinking it had not been worthwhile and 42% believing the UK to be less safe now than when the intervention began in 2001.  Less than a third of those polled were confident that Afghanistan could continue to ‘protect its citizens without the help of UK forces’ in spite of years of training and investment in the Afghan national police and Army. 

UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, inevitably paid tribute to the ‘incredible’ service personnel, stating,

“Yesterday, British forces concluded their combat mission in Afghanistan.  I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the friends and families of every one of the 453 British soldiers who lost their lives in this long campaign.  We will never forget their sacrifice for us.”

Labour leader, Ed Miliband, not wishing to break with the cross party consensus on the military debacle added his voice saying that,

“All of our thanks are with those who have served our country and all of our thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives.  But every one of our troops who served in Afghanistan can take pride in both their mission and what they achieved.”

Major General Sayed Malook, the commander of the Afghan army, stated,

“I would really like to pay my condolences to the families and even to the governments, those who sent the soldiers to bring peace and prosperity to the Afghan people.”

The tributes are almost routine and hardly surprising given the waste of life the conflict represents, 35 of those UK personnel who died were teenagers.  That of course tells only one part of the story.

Many Afghan men, women and children have died in the 13 years.  A combination of human rights and United Nations sources suggests that there have been up to 20,000 civilian casualties as a result of the war, many directly by US/NATO forces.

If the intervention was intended to defeat the Taliban then it has not succeeded.  The New York Times reported recently on Taliban gains in Kunduz province in the north of the country.  To quote the NYT report directly,

“In an area that has not been a primary front against the Taliban for years, there are now two districts almost entirely under Taliban rule, local officials say.  The Taliban are administering legal cases and schools, and even allowing international aid operations to work there, the officials say.” (New York Times 22nd October 2014)

The new Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani has acknowledged the depth of the crisis, with troop reinforcements being sent from Mazar-i-Sharif, the main city in the north.  However, combined with new Defence Ministry statistics, showing a huge rise in combat deaths for the Afghan Army and police forces, the situation in Kunduz reinforces concerns about the ability of the security forces to hold territory without Western troops directly entering the fight.

Ironically, the West is caught in a web into which it has spun itself over many years.

The April Revolution in Afghanistan in 1978 swept aside decades of feudal oppression and removed the monarchical dictatorship in favour of a socialist road of development.  In practice this meant agrarian reform, giving land to the people; raising wages in the cities; building houses; and improving medical services.  New schools were built which aimed to tackle illiteracy rates and permit female education.  

The response of the West to these signs of progress in Afghanistan was to effectively proceed with an undeclared war against the new republic.  The CIA, with the co-operation of the reactionary government of Pakistan, established a network of military camps and training centres in the Pakistani / Afghan border area.  Weapons and personnel were supplied to the opponents of the Afghan government and counter revolutionary activity conducted from the border areas.

The groups activated and supported by the West were effectively the seeds of what later became the Taliban and elements of al-Qaida.

The support of the Soviet Union for the Afghan government in 1980, characterised in the West as an ‘invasion’, was to lend support to the Afghan people and defend the country against the undeclared war.  The presence of Soviet troops, while essential to try and stem the tide of terror from across the border in Pakistan, also gave the West cover to justify the arming of the opposition and characterise the conflict as resistance to external invasion.

By the late 1980’s the Soviet Union had to withdraw, the West was rubbing its hands in celebration at the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.  Afghanistan was left to degenerate into internecine chaos with groups of well armed mercenaries effectively left to their own devices throughout the 1990’s.  The emergence of the Taliban, as the strongest of these groups, effectively sealed the success of the counter- revolution in Afghanistan, with the Taliban to all intents and purposes engaging in bombing the nation back to the stone age.

Following the 9/11 attack upon the United States in 2001 the West needed an enemy to fit the bill for its ‘war on terror’ and, as a precursor to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan fitted the bill.  The Taliban were to no-one’s liking and they were known to be shielding Osama bin Laden, America’s most wanted.  By October 2001 US and British bombs were raining down upon Afghanistan, an action described as “the cruel absurdity of…(the)bombing of one of the poorest and most ruined countries in the world by the planet’s richest and most powerful state, assisted as ever by its British satrap.”  (The Revenge of History – Seumas Milne (Verso) 2012).

The bombs have been raining and the occupation has been ongoing for the past 13 years.  There is no sign that the so-called ‘war on terror’ has been won; there is no indication that Afghanistan will emerge from its ordeal as being more stable or democratic.  Whatever the honeyed words of Cameron and Miliband, there is no sense that those UK troops who have been sacrificed in Afghanistan, along with thousands of Afghani civilians, have done anything but die in vain.

26th October 2014

Labour need to watch their backs

It is hard to believe that the UK government was not aware of the £1.7bn rebate demand from the European Union (EU) before Prime Minister, David Cameron, boarded the plane to Brussels this week.  It simply stretches credulity to suggest that a government, which spends so much of its time finding ways to punish its population financially to pay off the bankers gambling debts, would be unaware of such a significant bill.  Yet an EU summit, ostensibly to focus on climate change, has been hi-jacked by the anti-EU lobby to argue the case for UK withdrawal.

It seems that while Cameron got the news in the departure lounge on Thursday, Chancellor George Osborne was aware of the issue as early as Tuesday.  Even this seems a bit late in the day for a bill that goes into the red on the 1st December.  There is a suggestion that Treasury boffins knew this was coming months ago but somehow had their political antennae switched off and did not see fit to mention it to their political bosses.

Whatever the explanation, the issue has certainly been fuel to the fire of the Euro-sceptic camp as they build towards the Rochester and Strood by-election, on 20th November , with UKIP increasingly confident of another victory following their success in Clacton on Sea.  To add to the seasonal political bonfire The Observer today published a poll, which suggests that almost one-third of voters would be prepared to back UKIP if they believed they could win in their constituency.  The first past the post system makes such a scenario unlikely but a further UKIP by-election victory may well tempt more rats to leave the sinking Tory ship, as Tory MPs contemplate their political fates and their future expense accounts.

As the centre of UK politics, at least in England, is pushed relentlessly to the right the hidden outcomes of the post referendum situation in Scotland are barely meriting a mention in the UK media.  Some hint has emerged this week with the resignation of Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, who has accused the party national office in London of treating Scotland like a branch office.   

The schism comes at a bad time for Labour.  While many have rested on the success of the Better Together campaign, the outcome of two years of fierce political debate around the referendum has seen an upsurge in support for the Scottish Nationalists, with membership tripling in the recent period.  The stepping aside of Alex Salmond to make room for the sharp and savvy Nicola Sturgeon can only help the nationalist bandwagon in the period up to the May General Election.  Sturgeon has genuine working class credentials and an ability to connect with the realities of life for many Scottish voters in a way that the Labour Party in Scotland has struggled to do in recent years.

While Labour can take some solace from the right wing tearing themselves apart in the south of England, as the Tories and UKIP struggle for prominence, they would do well to look to their rear-guard in Scotland.  If the Scottish Nationalists make significant inroads into Labour’s current crop of 41 MPs at Westminster, Ed Miliband may still find the keys to No.10 snatched from him, however much damage UKIP inflict upon the Tories south of the border.

12th October 2014

Britain Needs A Pay Rise

It would be stretching it a little to describe UK state broadcaster, the BBC, as a cheerleader for the assortment of right wing malcontents that constitute the UK Independence Party (UKIP).  Following the widely predicted UKIP by-election victory in Clacton-on-Sea this week the BBC has however,  along with many other sections of the UK media, gone into overdrive speculating about the impact of this result on the forthcoming General Election in May 2015.

It is interesting to consider how the BBC and UK media would have treated the growth of a populist left-wing party, gaining votes in the way that UKIP have been doing.  Coverage would no doubt have been quite different, the end of civilisation as we know it would have been just around the corner and all stops would have been pulled out to demonise its leaders.

UKIP however plays to the prejudices which the media much of the time works hard to perpetuate.  These are a list which include, too many foreigners taking British jobs; too many benefits cheats living off the state; too much money spent on aid to underdeveloped countries; too much regulation, coming either directly or indirectly, from Europe; and the old chestnut that  society is dominated by political correctness.

The latest pronouncement by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, that HIV-positive patients should be kept out of the UK, just needs to extend itself to blaming victims for contracting ebola to plunge to new levels of ignorance and bigotry. 

The Tories have been moving further to the right for some time in anticipation of UKIP occupying their traditional territory on the right of British politics.  Recent conference pronouncements to clamp down on benefit cheats, control migration to the UK, and the long standing promise of a referendum on EU membership, are all part of the Tories re-positioning themselves back into their traditional ‘nasty’ territory as the election approaches.   

All of this is to be expected.  In one sense it should be the opportunity for Labour to press home an advantage and make sure that a split right wing in the UK is destroyed at the next election.  Unfortunately, that is not happening.  As well as their success in Clacton, UKIP ran Labour close in the Northern seat of Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester, coming within 617 votes of Labour’s total. 

The usual protest voting syndrome and low by-election turnout aside, this result is still cause for concern.  Getting on for seven years after the bankers gambling antics brought down the economy and sparked the current recession, Labour have still not made it stick that the interests of the City of London and the interests of the working people of the UK, are not the same.

Worse than that, Labour are in danger of allowing the proverbial tail to wag the dog, by immediately pronouncing that tougher rules on benefits for new migrants and stiff English language tests will be on the agenda if they are elected next May.  This is based on the assumption that immigration is a major issue for much of the British public and that immigrants flooding in from Europe and elsewhere are swamping the jobs market. 

There is no basis for this assumption, indeed evidence suggests that greater restrictions will choke off some skill sets needed by British industry.  The ‘immigration issue’ is, as ever, a fiction generated by the far right and fuelled by the media.  That working class voters are in danger of falling for such fiction is testament to the lack of an alternative position having any impact, rather than a reflection of its authenticity.

Labour’s position comes in a week when the TUC has just published research showing that British workers are suffering the longest and severest decline in real earnings since the 1860’s, over 100 years ago.  The TUC point out that this year represents the seventh consecutive year of falling real earnings in the UK, with an 8% fall in real earnings between 2007 and 2014.  As TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady has stated,

“Living standards today might have improved dramatically since the late 19th century but workers in 2014 are now into the seventh year of falling real wages and their financial pain is real, with no end to overstretched household budgets in sight.”

This week civil service workers and NHS staff will be on strike for better pay and conditions.  Industrial action by local government workers has been suspended at the eleventh hour as unions consult on a renewed offer.  On Saturday, 18th October TUC inspired Britain Needs a Pay Rise rallies will take place in London and Glasgow.  (http://www.tuc.org.uk/events/britain-needs-pay-rise-march-and-rally)

This situation has not come about because of migration to the UK.  It is not due to regulations from Brussels or any mythical notion of political correctness.  It is due to the fact that capitalism works in the interests of those who run the system, even when they run it into the ground as in 2008. 

Even within the confines of social democracy however, more can be done.  The push to the right is an attempt to shift the centre of British politics further in that direction, to keep the City safe for the bankers.  Labour should not be colluding in this.  Instead of more controls on migrants, controlled investment, support for the public sector and regulation of the City of London need to be at the top of the election agenda.  Such a programme may well mean that Labour has a fight on its hands with the state run media, but at least it will be a fight worth having.

5th October 2014

Austerity – where is the alternative?

The party conference season is over and what have we learned?  That Ed Miliband forgot about the deficit and immigration in his conference speech but is going to spend more on the NHS by taxing hedge funds and the tobacco companies.  Earlier in the week Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, had promised to match the Tory austerity plan pound for pound, so no let up there.

In spite of this the Tory press suggested a lurch to the left in Labour’s position, largely based on the mansion tax for those in houses worth over £2m, which will clearly hit the Tory demographic in the south of England hardest.

The Tories have made their position all too plain over the course of the current Parliament but took the opportunity at their conference to reinforce a few things.  Tax cuts for the better off and middle income earners, welfare cuts for the poor, leaving the European Convention on Human Rights and tougher immigration rules.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Nigel Farage had a hand in the conference speeches of both George Osborne and David Cameron, while casting an eye over the draft for Home Secretary, Theresa May.  The only thing preventing Farage loaning out his pen would be the prospect of him benefitting from the current meltdown of the Tories.

Cameron tried to get impassioned about the NHS but his undergraduate drama histrionics were not fooling anyone but the party faithful, desperate for something to applaud ahead of their likely defeat at the hands of UKIP in the up and coming Clacton on Sea by-election.  With perennial maverick Mark Reckless opting for the UKIP shilling on the eve of conference and Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, resigning over a ‘sexting’ scandal, it is amazing that most delegates made it through the week.

The Liberal Democrats, in conference in Glasgow this week, will be doing all they can to prevent the slide into the political mineshaft they so richly deserve, having  spent five years in bed with the Tories.  They are unlikely to succeed.

All parties know that capturing the working class vote, in current political parlance the votes of ‘hard working families’, is what will win them elections.  However the demographics are cut, paste and re-assembled, it is still people who rely on having to bring in a wage to pay the mortgage,  feed the kids and get to a sunny beach for two weeks of the year, that make up the majority of the voting population. 

In the recent referendum in Scotland the ‘yes’ campaign attracted the working class vote by rejecting austerity, opposing privatisation, taking a stand against illegal wars and re-armament through Trident.  They did not win but they did galvanise people with some actual policies and shook up the Westminster elite, who had to throw everything they had into Better Together in the final two weeks of the campaign to get a ‘no’ vote.

Between 1997 and 2010 Labour lost 4 million working class votes.  Labour needs these votes back if it is to win in 2015.  It will not win these votes back by promising more austerity and cuts in local government services, while getting cosy with the bankers of the City of London and the CBI.  That ways leads back to the politics of Tony Blair and the acceptance of the Tory agenda.

It should not be hard to attack the record of the present government.  Chancellor George Osborne has missed every fiscal target he has set himself by a mile.   The deficit, Osborne’s  benchmark of choice for the economy, is growing again.  Real wages have fallen for the longest period since the 1870’s.  The recovery is so weak that the economy is still an estimated 20% behind where it would expect to be in any ‘normal’ recovery.

As Seumas Milne has pointed out recently,

“Unsustainable growth has only been achieved by pumping up housing credit, while stagnating private investment and austerity have generated a productivity crisis and an epidemic of low paid insecure jobs.  Only the public sector can now fill that gap, taxing the corporate cash mountain and using publicly owned banks to deliver the investment the private sector won’t make.”

(Austerity has failed and it isn’t only Labour’s core voters who want change - The Guardian 25th September 2014)

The crisis for most of the population is such that only radical action will make a difference.  More of the same will simply mean more job cuts, more austerity and more pain for ‘hard working families’.  Anyone wanting that can vote for the Tories.  Labour need to fashion an alternative and get people on board with it, quickly.

28th September 2014

Bombs for victory? Time will tell

However many bombs the West decides to rain on Iraq or Syria it is impossible to bomb away an idea.  However inhumane, barbaric or undemocratic the idea might be it is impossible to dispense with it by bombing.  By its very nature the idea is too ephemeral, too elusive, too insubstantial to be erased by artillery.

The Islamic State (IS) have an idea.  The idea would appear to be that an Islamic caliphate must be established in the Middle East to defend the faith, eradicate apostates and defeat the infidels who are not adherents of Islam, or at least not the particular form of Islam they perpetuate. 

This is a bad idea; it is a terrible idea.  It is an idea which has seen the barbaric slaughter of innocent Syrians, Iraqis and Kurds.  It is an idea which has resulted in the more headline grabbing beheading of Western journalists and the kidnapping of aid workers.  It is an idea which, as a consequence of these things, has given the United States and its allies the excuse to bomb Syria and now the UK the reason to bomb Iraq.

The United States has been careful to engage not only the UK but the French and a range of Arab states in its action against IS.  It has been equally careful not to engage any vote in the UN Security Council for fear of awkward questions being asked, especially by Russia and China.  The diplomatic fig leaf to justify action in Iraq is the ‘request’ by the Iraqi government to intervene.  The Syrian government has made no such request.

In fact, the United States has not only bypassed the Syrian government but has said that, in its fight against IS, it will actively fund the opposition in Syria to tackle IS on the ground.  There is a school of thought which believes that much of the weaponry the IS now commands is Western artillery, poured in to support the Syrian opposition in the first place, which IS has captured and put to its own use.  Millions of dollars worth of military equipment being added to this war zone would appear, to use an American phrase, to be tantamount to putting out the fire with gasoline.

The rationale behind Western policy in the region appears to be unravelling with each new decision.  Backing the Syrian opposition to President Assad has clearly failed and arguably only served to help establish IS in the first place.  The sectarian Shia Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki has clearly failed, laying the basis for discontent amongst Sunni Muslims in Iraq, more fertile ground for IS, and has been replaced.  The new government’s ‘invitation’ to the West to conduct air strikes against IS positions may play to the gallery in Western parliaments but may not be such a vote winner in the Muslim world.  Time will tell.

The United States and Iran have been in secret negotiations since 2010.  The US is seeking a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, which it sees as a possible stabilising force in the region.  Whatever the Iranians think about this, their economy has been brought to its knees by Western sanctions and they are prepared to play ball, at least for the moment.  While Iranian complicity has gone so far as to collude in the removal of their Shia ally, Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, they remain wedded to supporting Bashir al-Assad in Syria.  Not a position shared by the West.  Western pressure may change the Iranian position on Syria.  Time will tell.

The commitment to airstrikes, but no boots on the ground, by Western governments is regarded by many as the thin end of the wedge.  It is estimated that ultimately something in the region of 15,000 troops on the ground will be needed to defeat IS militarily.  It is unlikely that such numbers will be supplied by the Syrian opposition or the Gulf state dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  It would appear that the lessons of recent interventions have not been learned.  The extracting of Western troops from the unwinnable war in Afghanistan may yet prove necessary only to redirect them back towards Syria and Iraq.  Time will tell.

The language used to justify the intervention against IS plays into their hands.  The characterisation of IS as ‘evil’ inevitably positions the West on the side of ‘good’, taking the conflict out of the sphere of political negotiation and into the realms of an existential crusade.  In a fight with medieval Islamic fundamentalists this is grist to their mill.  While MPs in the UK voted by 524 votes for, to 43 votes against, for intervention in Iraq last Friday, wiser words came from Oliver Miles, former ambassador and top diplomat.  Miles, commenting on the high profile beheadings, which have gained such media coverage recently, said of IS,

“If they can provoke the west into what they will call a crusade they can count on growing support from the marginalised Muslims both in the Middle East and in countries such as Britain and France.

It is depressing that the government seems to be following the example of Tony Blair, who ignored consistent advice from the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6 that our Middle East policy – and in particular our Middle East wars – has been a principal driver in the recruitment of Muslims in Britain for terrorism here.”

The full text of Miles’ comments can be found here:-

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/26/west-isis-crusade-britain-iraq-syria

There will be much media coverage to come, urging the need to support  ‘our boys’ and outlining the evils of IS but, as Miles rightly points out, only a negotiated solution is going to break the impasse at some point.  Whether Western governments are in any mood to listen to voices of reason, from whichever quarter they come, remains to be seen.  How far down the path of chaos and destruction, must the Middle East go before negotiation becomes an option?  Time will tell.

21st September 2014

No mandate for English votes  

It is interesting that, after the brouhaha of the Scottish referendum and the success of the Better Together campaign in galvanising the ‘no’ vote, UK Prime Minister David Cameron appears to be promising some form of English Parliament which no-one has voted for.  On the steps of Downing Street, the morning after the referendum vote, Cameron pronounced his commitment to “English votes for English laws”.  Not only that, he declared that such a process should happen “in tandem with and at the same pace” as the promises made to the Scots for greater devolution, in the desperate last days of the referendum campaign.   

To suggest that the promises to the Scots and the somewhat bemused English smell of political opportunism would be an understatement of the highest order.  The much vaunted ‘vow’ to which all three political leaders, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, signed up was purely a last gasp tactic of Better Together to keep Scotland on board with the UK.  It did not suggest that the question of English devolution would be part of the picture.  This is a creation entirely of Cameron’s choosing to suit his own political agenda.  Announcing such a manoeuvre on the steps of Downing St, while attempting to appear statesmanlike, only succeeded in confirming him as a shabby political chancer. 

In the south of England Cameron feels the hot breath of UKIP at his collar.  The usually compliant BBC reinforced that fear with an interview with UKIP leader Nigel Farage, an hour after Cameron’s announcement, in which Farage took the opportunity to promote the UKIP gimmick of writing to all Scottish MPs to ask them not to vote on matters which concern England alone.  While much of the country does not care two hoots for the rantings of the UKIP leader, the BBC continue to give him disproportionate airspace, and the Tories in the south fear that they cannot afford to be complacent.

It is no coincidence that Cameron’s pronouncement happens on the eve of the Labour Party conference, which kicks off in Manchester this week.   Miliband will be under pressure to respond quickly to the ‘English votes’ question, knowing full well that the pundits are already shaking their heads at the prospect of a constitutional crisis, whereby a UK wide Labour government with a high number of Scottish MPs, may have to face down a Tory dominated English Parliament in which the Scots cannot vote.

The immediate response has been the promise of a constitutional convention to look at the issues before rushing into change for the sake of change.  Miliband has stated clearly,

“We would be incredibly wary of back -of -the –fag- packet solutions which create two sets of MPs, two classes of MPs.  Why?  Because you have one Prime Minister for the United Kingdom rather than just one for England.”

Consideration of greater devolution to English regions and more powers for devolved assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland have also been mooted, as part of a new constitutional settlement.  Reform of the House of Lords also gets a mention.  Miliband is certainly right that such proposals should not be developed ‘on the hoof’ and the convention idea certainly helps buy time to consider the implications of constitutional change.

The framework for Scottish devolution already exists and accelerating the proposals to extend this before the May 2015 General Election should be possible.  What must be resisted at all costs however is Cameron’s attempt to link the ‘English votes’ question and force the pace of such a debate in order to satisfy the baying hounds of the Tory right wing.

The propensity of the media to pick over this question and the desire of the Tories to use it as a stick with which to beat Labour may make it difficult to hold off.  Add to the mix the desire of the Tory right to see a referendum on EU membership in 2017 go their way, then it is easy to see how an election based around a ‘how English are you?’ theme would play.

As with the debate in Scotland, the question of class interest has barely raised its head in relation to the ‘English votes’ issue but it remains the elephant in the room all the same.  The cartoonist of The Guardian this week quite succinctly characterised Cameron’s agenda as “English votes for global corporations”, which summarised in a sentence the Tory agenda.

The Left in the UK has to resist the red herring of regionalism and, within the parameters of the debate in a capitalist state, look for ways in which the redistributive potential of the state can be extended.  The existing vehicle for this in the first instance should be local government, a fairer allocation of resource to the regions, with a lifting of constraints on the ability of local Councils to raise finance locally.

In a state the size of the UK the bigger questions of defence, health and infrastructure will always need be decided centrally.  That still leaves a lot of scope to re-engage people in the political process locally.  Getting out on the streets and getting back to the grass roots will always be an advantage for the Left; we need to relearn how to use it.

14th September 2014

About the situation in Ukraine

Dear Comrades,

 

We are sending you the article by comrade Gennady Zyuganov, Chairman of the CC CPRF about the situation in Ukraine which explains the roots of the crisis.

 

In Russian, Spanish and English 

 

You can find it on our site: 

 

http://cprf.ru/2014/09/1108/

 

Fraternal greetings

International department

Central Committee

Communist Party of the Russian Federation

 

14th September 2014

Scotland – ‘Yes’ might be the only test

The debate around the Scottish referendum has galvanised the political debate in the UK in a way not seen for decades.  With 97% of those eligible registered to vote in the referendum on Thursday, and turnout likely to be high, the vote will be one of the biggest exercises in mass democracy the UK has ever seen.  One thing the debate has clearly exposed is the fiction of the United Kingdom itself and the legitimacy of such a constructed state to hold sway over its constituent parts.

As ever, in the history of the British Isles, the Irish have led the way in the debate for self-determination, with the Easter Rising of 1916 initiating a process, which resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Ireland five years later.  Not only did the Irish dispense with the Monarchy but from the onset took a position of non-alignment with any military bloc.  The position of neutrality means that Ireland is not a member of NATO and not subject to sending troops abroad into conflict situations.

Irish independence has not been without its problems however.  Not least of these was the military and economic occupation of the six counties, which became ‘Northern Ireland’, by the British taking the most prosperous and industrialised areas of the country out of the orbit of the Republic.  The oppression and prejudice directed at the Catholic population, not least by the Rev. Ian Paisley, who died this week, and his cohorts, provided the basis for the ongoing struggle for civil rights and against the British occupation in the sixties and seventies.  

In Northern Ireland at present there is an uneasy accommodation, which both Sinn Fein and Unionists are working through, but the ultimate question of Irish independence is still not settled.

This may all seem like a long way from the rather civilised exchanges of the Scottish referendum and the tame prospect offered by the SNP in Scotland’s Future, which promises to keep the Queen, the pound and NATO membership after a ‘yes’ vote.

However, some of the arguments levelled against Scottish independence were applied equally to the Irish.  A small population, a banking sector reliant on London, an export base reliant on the British for much of its market, are just some examples.  Yet the Irish economy, no paragon perhaps, has survived for close to a century having started from a weaker economic base than modern day Scotland would.  

This is the fear of the Better Together campaign and the coalition of banking, business and political establishment figures it represents.  The City of London and the Bank of England at present have the UK economy under as firm a grip as the laws of capitalism allow and they are able to manipulate the economic levers to ensure that the whole UK economy functions to their advantage.  

Thus, the burden of recovery from the 2008 banking crash has been passed onto the public sector, rather than the bankers themselves, who continue to enjoy a relatively protected position as a consequence.  No ruling class ever likes change and the prospect of Scottish independence is just the degree of change that would create uncertainties that the City of London could not directly or immediately control.

It is no surprise that in the final week of campaigning the major banks and retail businesses, who otherwise have no problem operating across international borders worldwide, are wheeled out by a tame and unquestioning media to warn of the damage Scottish independence could do to prices and investment.

Much of the Better Together huffing and puffing however is little more than naked self interest.  As Prime Minister of the UK and leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, to give it its full title, David Cameron is duty bound to back the ‘no’ campaign.  Not only his credibility but his job is on the line if the vote goes any other way.  With the spectre of UKIP making the hairs stand up on the necks of many Tories in the south of England, Cameron has to be both tough on supporting the union and even tougher on his promise of a referendum on EU membership if elected.

The Labour Party sees an independent Scotland as heralding an end to its prospects of ever forming a Westminster government, given the historic reliance of Labour on Scottish MPs.  This may well be true but whether a Labour Government equivalent to the Blair/Brown years, effectively a Thatcherite wolf in Labour sheep’s clothing, is one worth having is open to debate.  The shock of having to win votes on the ground and reconnect with its class base may be something that Labour needs if it is to be shaken out of its current torpor.

It should not be forgotten that the SNP has not achieved its current position by taking votes from the Tories.  Labour has progressively ceded ground in Scotland over the past thirty years, not by being too ‘English’, but by being too closely aligned to the City of London, backing the wrong class representatives, not the wrong country.   

There is a further fear that troubles the UK ruling class about Scottish independence and it is not one which would be an immediate prospect but may be a long term fear.  A Scotland which can go it alone, is a Scotland which may choose any number of paths down which to go.  The best example of a small independent country surviving in a hostile world environment is surely Cuba. 

The Cuban economy has been subject to an illegal blockade by the United States for over half a century.  It has survived the past twenty years without the economic assistance provided by the Soviet Union.  Yet it has a health care system that puts the United States to shame and continues to fly the flag of political and economic self determination in the Caribbean.

There is no prospect of a ‘yes’ vote turning Scotland overnight into a Cuba on our shores.  The programme offered by the SNP does not even hint remotely at such a prospect.  However, whatever the outcome of the vote on Thursday, all of the Queen’s horses and all of her men, will struggle to put the union together again.  With the promise from all parties of additional powers for Scotland even with a ‘no’ vote; with the UKIP drum beating louder in the south of England; with all English regions and Wales looking to decentralise more power from Westminster; the future of the so-called United Kingdom has never looked more uncertain.

The real test of how the struggle for the future unfolds will be the extent to which it can be transformed into a discussion about class and economic power.  The down side of the Irish example is that national self determination is fine but it is a limited step forward to be a small capitalist nation rather than bigger one.  That is an equally possible downside to Scottish independence.  In the short term however, voting ‘yes’ might be the only test and the best way to shake up the UK political establishment.  

 

3rd September 2014

Gagged

Press freedoms in Iran are already slender.  Moves by hardliners to restrict journalists further could make accurate coverage of events in the Islamic Republic even harder to source.  Culture, the media and freedom of expression for journalists is the latest front upon which hardline conservatives in Iran are digging in to resist any proposals for reform, which may emanate from Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani.

The Steadfast Front is a grouping of several hardline conservative ideologues, which has made every effort to throw obstacles in the path of Rouhani’s administration in the last year.  The group is now working within the Iranian parliament (Majlis) to block Rouhani’s nominee for the country’s Press Supervisory Board.  The Front insists that Hamid Rasai should be selected while Rouhani’s allies are pushing for Ali Motahari.  The result of this battle will determine whether more or less pressure will be exerted on the country’s press.

As currently constituted the Press Supervisory Board is, in any case, a significant constraint on the freedoms of journalists and the principle of a free press.  Rouhani has recently reneged on an election promise to allow the Association of Iranian Journalists (AoIJ) to resume its activities.  Instead, proposals have been brought forward for ‘tame’ bodies, controlled by the regime but giving the veneer of independent activity, to be set up.  The pressure to constrain the press even further, coming from the more conservative elements of the clergy, must be seen in this context.

The Steadfast Front has a majority in three Majlis committees (that of higher education, culture and article 90 of the constitution) and controls all the activities in social and media affairs.  Through these forums it exerts pressure and influence to maximise the list of conservatives for the next Majlis.  The Front have already exerted sufficient pressure to lead Majlis chief, Ali Larijani, to postpone introducing a new parliamentary representative to the Press Supervisory Board.

Because of his criticism of the administration during the previous presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Motahari has been criticised and attacked by members of the Steadfast Front.  Members of the group strongly objected to Larijani’s decision to postpone the Majlis full house vote on selecting a representative to the Press Board.

The struggle within the Iranian Parliament is significant because the Press Supervisory Board, which is part of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, is constitutionally responsible for supervising press activities.  It has the authority to ban a publication.  It also has the power to issue licenses for press applications.

In any free society it is the job of journalists to ask questions.  It is the job of journalists to raise difficult issues and, at times, to make politicians feel uncomfortable.  Without journalists having such rights, playing the role of the ‘fourth estate’, no society can truly claim to be open, accountable or democratic.

It is ironic then that in the Islamic Republic of Iran, journalists themselves are not asking these questions, they are not allowed to ask because they are suffering arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

In their place questions are being asked by Iranian society and the international community.  Many of those arrested are charged under the provisions of the Islamic Penal Code.  The code loosely defines ‘crimes’ such as "spreading lies", "spreading propaganda against the system" and "creating unease in the public mind".  Such wide ranging definitions are clearly open to both interpretation and abuse, effectively criminalising many peaceful activities.  The authorities are also using protracted prosecutions, unserved prison sentences and denial of medical leave as threats to coerce journalists into selfcensorship.

This is the current situation for the press in Iran, even before the hardline Steadfast Front exert greater controls over press freedom and the right to publish.  A stricter climate can only mean more pressure upon journalists and publishers with the threat of imprisonment looming for any that are deemed to have stepped ‘out of line’.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has joined its affiliate, the Association of Iranian Journalists (AoIJ), to demand that the government of Iran follows up on its election promises by showing respect for press freedom and releasing all journalists imprisoned in the country.

"Since Rouhani's election as President one year ago, the IFJ has repeatedly appealed to him and his government to send a strong message about media freedom in Iran by releasing journalists imprisoned in his country and reopening the offices of our affiliate, the Association of Iranian Journalists," said IFJ President Jim Boumelha.

"There can be no more excuses.  The time for action has come and the president must make good on his election promises by lifting the ban on the AoIJ offices and showing respect for the  important role of journalists in the future of the Iranian nation."

Reinforcing the IFJ's full backing to the AoIJ and journalists in Iran, IFJ General Secretary, Beth Costa, added,

"We call on the Iranian judicial system to uphold its responsibility to respect the basic human rights that are guaranteed by the Iranian constitution and release all journalists being held in Iran."

Control of information, and a flow of accurate news about the lives of Iranian people, is a vital part of the struggle to reform the Islamic Republic and improve the lives of its people.  It is evident from the current attempts to control the Press Supervisory Board that the hardliners in Tehran are well aware of this.  Stemming the tide of information, which exposes both their actions and intentions, is a key objective for the Steadfast Front.

For the same reason, combatting restrictions on the freedom of the press and trade unions is a crucial part of the resistance to clerical oppression in Iran.  Pressure upon the Iranian government to release all journalists and trade unionists unjustly imprisoned must continue. 

This article is based upon information from the latest edition of Iran Today available at www.codir.net

24th August 2014

The anti-Semitic smokescreen

It should come as no surprise but the right wing press in the UK is beginning to rally around the government of Israel in its bombardment of Gaza.  The British and US media have not usually been reticent in their admiration for the maverick Middle East state, in spite of its flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions, and both governments have ensured that the military industrial  complex have done nicely out of arms sales to Israel.

The current angle of UK journalists however is to resort to a time honoured favourite of the pro-Israeli hack, that is to accuse anyone opposed to the bombing and murder of innocent Palestinian civilians, of anti-Semitism.

Last week, Stephen Pollard, writing in the Daily Telegraph suggested that,

“A pattern is emerging in which a form of anti-Semitism is becoming normalised – as if it were now acceptable to speak or even act against Jews as Jews, under the cover of acting against Israel.”

Quite where this pattern is to be found is open to question but Pollard is careful to pull on the right emotive strings, while not actually accusing all opponents of the Israeli state as being against the Jewish race.  The inference however is clear.  Much as marijuana is routinely described as a gateway drug to the class-A selection, Pollard is clearly implying that opposing the bombing in Gaza is the first step on the road to full blown anti-Semitism.

Writing in The Spectator, Douglas Murray, produces an even more virulent display of right wing credentials with his wild accusation that,

“Barely a week now passes without some further denigration caused by anti-Semitic sorry, pro-Palestine demonstrators targeting businesses run by Jews / stores selling products produced by the Jewish state.  You know, like Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Starbucks and so on.”

The rational reader could be forgiven for thinking that Murray has simply taken leave of his senses in publishing such nonsense but his words are symptomatic of the trend now prevalent amongst the apologists of Israeli aggression; demonise the opposition by any means necessary.

As in most conflicts there is rarely a case of the ‘wholly good’ taking on the ‘wholly evil’, this is the stuff of comic books and US foreign policy briefings.  Anti-Semites will no doubt lurk in the undergrowth of those opposed to the Gaza massacre on humanitarian grounds, while the pro-Israeli press will no doubt have its share of hypocrites, who will defend Israel while turning a blind eye to the extermination of the Palestinians.

The fact remains however that the weaponry at the disposal of the Israeli Defence Force would outstrip that of most of the world’s armed forces, let alone a disparate and stateless group who have managed to smuggle a few rockets through a network of underground tunnels.

The fact remains that Israel has imposed a land, sea and air blockade of Gaza for the past eight years.  This has made any sort of normal life in the territory impossible for its citizens, who are unable to engage in normal trade, education or social activities without the threat of Israeli action or intervention. 

Since the 1967 war the Israeli armed forces have illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza.  Israeli settlements have been built on Palestinian land.  A defence barrier has been constructed to control the movement of Palestinians following a line which consciously ‘land grabs’ areas designated as Palestinian land.  Because of this relentless oppression the Palestinian diaspora is spread around the Middle East in a series of refugee camps, in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, suffering second class citizen status and resentment from the indigenous population.

Over 2,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombs and weapons in recent weeks, most of whom are civilians.  Less than 100 Israelis have died, most of whom have been  soldiers.

To state these facts is not to oppose the Jewish race.  It is to oppose the Israeli state and the policy of its government.  There is opposition within Israel, from Jews, who are no happier with the actions of the Israeli government than many in the world who support the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination.

As the Communist Party of Israel reported last week on demonstrations in Tel-Aviv,

“More than10,000 people arrived Saturday night at Rabin Square to rally for a political solution to the occupation of the Palestinian territories under the slogan, “Changing direction: toward peace, away from war.”  Many carried signs proclaiming, “Whoever doesn’t want peace is making excuses” and “Yes to democracy, no to fascism.”

At the rally speeches were made by author David Grossman, journalist Zuheir Bahloul, Meretz chairwoman MK Zahava Gal-On, Hadash chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh, and Nomika Tzion a resident of Sderot.  The rally also hosted performances by Achinoam Nini, Mira Awad, Yair Dalal and Adam Gorlitsky.

Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On called for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to tender his resignation at the rally.  “Bibi, you failed.  You need to leave the keys and go home.  You failed this badly because of five years of refusing diplomacy, of refusing to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative.”

(Read more at http://maki.org.il/en/ )

No doubt a rally of 10,000 in the UK calling for peace in Gaza in such terms would be caricatured by the right wing press as a gathering of anti-Semites.  Of course it would not be, any more than a rally of Israeli citizens in Tel-Aviv could be accused of being anti-Semitic.  Such talk is a smokescreen generated by those wanting to divert attention away from the real issues in the Gaza conflict.

Like segregation in the United States, apartheid in South Africa and religious discrimination in occupied Northern Ireland, the perpetrators have to come to the negotiating table eventually.  In all of those situations, international pressure played a key part.  It will be the case with Israel sooner or later.  If that means running the gauntlet of being called anti-Semitic by right wing columnists for not buying Israeli goods or boycotting stores like Marks and Spencer, that is a small price to pay.

17th August 2014

Capitalism begins to eat itself

Official unemployment figures have always been only a rough guide to the state of the economy in the UK, having been subject to manipulation and re-interpretation in a variety of ways.  The Tory governments of the 1980’s and 1990’s were particularly adept at finding new ways of ‘not counting’ various categories of people who were unable to find work, thus keep the official count at least a million below what everyone else knew it to be.

In spite of the attractions of so-called ‘benefit tourism', heralded by the ideologues of the Tory right and UKIP, the tendency in the UK now appears to have gone in the opposite direction.  Official unemployment is falling, currently at around 6.4% but the economy, far from enjoying a boom, is struggling blinking into the daylight of a very thin recovery.

So, what is going on?  Well, since 2008 the net rise in employment is accounted for by 80% of that figure being self employed.  In many cases self employed is the new part time or casualised workforce.  Older people post pension picking up some additional cash, former public sector employees scrapped to pay for the banker’s gambling debts, young people unprepared to go through the mill of the benefits regime, taking their chances in an ‘any job is better than none’ climate.

Talk of the economic recovery is based upon consumer spending, up 4.5% in the first quarter this year compared to the same period in 2013, with new car registrations up 6% on a year earlier.  Yet in the same period, income tax and capital receipts were 3.5% lower than the previous year.  It is also a fact that real incomes are barely growing.

However it is being done, people are currently spending more on consumer goods, not registering as unemployed, yet giving less money to the taxman.  Ironically, it would seem that the lesson learned from the bankers gambling crash of 2008 it that everyone is now prepared to behave more like them and find ways to minimise their contribution to a state that is clearly not meeting their needs, or spending the money it has wisely.

The post war buy in to the NHS, council housing, nationalised utilities and state pensions was based upon a philosophical recognition that collective provision was a necessary part of the way in which society had to function.  Not that such an approach prevented criminal activity or certain individuals being ‘on the take’.  Nor did it prevent the post war period providing rich pickings for property developers and others determined to find an angle to exploit the reconstruction process.  This was, after all, still a model based within a capitalist economic framework, and the struggle to sustain the welfare state once ‘plenty’ moved to ‘paucity’ was going to be just that, a struggle.

The turning point, which the Thatcher government of 1979 represented, was the naked acknowledgement by capital that the post war deal was over and ‘restrictions’, the things which gave the poor some investment in the state, were a constraint upon the free movement of capital.  Privatisation, the ‘right to buy’ council houses, caps on the freedom of local government, the extension of easy credit, all heralded a new era of unregulated capitalist dogfighting, one which ironically culminated in the 2008 crash when the whole edifice overreached itself.

The philosophical consequences of this process has been to invert the post war welfare consensus and normalise being ‘on the take’, so that the buy in becomes closer to an American ‘what’s in it for me’ model.  This has resulted in a widespread resentment about paying taxes, seen as being for suckers and those working in the public sector, the latter in any case being a diminishing group.

On the current trajectory the dismantling of local government is likely to be the next consequence of this growing trend.  The language of the market has already reached the local state in the use of the term ‘customer’ to describe local citizens, while the exhortations for local Councils to become more ‘business like’ continue to flow from central government. 

The reality is however that if you treat people like consumers they begin to behave like them.  The student population is beginning to ask the academic sector just what it is getting for its inflated University fees for example.  By the same token the local ‘consumers’ of local government i.e. Council tax payers, will soon have every right to ask what they are getting for their money.  As adult social care budgets are slashed, libraries close, sports centres are ‘outsourced’ and the private sector empty the bins what, it may well be asked, are we paying for?

Thirty years of de-regulation resulted in the 2008 crash, the subsequent austerity programme is resulting in the final attempt to dismantle local services but why worry? Individual choice reigns supreme!  It is just that without any obvious product on which to spend, individuals do not always want to pay those taxes.  Capitalism comes full circle, the philosophy that will ultimately eat itself.

10th August 2014

New Plan for a New Middle East

The decision by the United States this week to engage in air strikes against positions held by the Islamic State (formerly Isis) in Iraq may be a further sign of the unravelling of US policy in the Middle East. However, the key tenets of US Middle East policy date back to the mid 1990’s and a shifting pattern of behaviour and allegiance is not uncommon.  In the following article, the full version of which is scheduled for publication in the journal, Liberation, US actions in the region are put in their wider policy context.

Adapting to the changing pattern of activity in the Middle East has been the focus of much thinking by the United States.  This dates back to a doctrine hatched by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC, 1997) think-tank in the aftermath of the defeat of the Soviet Union.  The prime objective of PNAC was to ensure US world supremacy and to actively prevent the rise of any other superpower.  Implementation of PNAC’s principles has informed the blueprints of all subsequent strategy-makers in the US.

Soon after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the US announced its Greater Middle East Plan; to transform the political map of the region, stamp out Islamic fundamentalism and ‘democratise’ the Middle East.  In 2006 the Plan was revised and refocused under another grand title, the New Middle East Plan.  There are important differences between the two plans and their present implementation by the Obama administration.  The effectiveness of large scale military invasion to bring about “regime change” has been seriously reconsidered, for example.

For more than a decade the US has been engaged in large-scale military invasions and the commitment of huge quantities of hardware and personnel to the Persian Gulf.  However, there has been only limited success in stabilising the situation in favour of US control of the region’s markets and natural resources.  The financial costs and the negative political fallout from massive US military operations have significantly negated their benefit while incurring astronomic costs.

Political developments in the region suggest that a reconfiguration of US politics in the Middle East is taking place.  Indications are that part of this reconfiguration is aimed at the inclusion of ‘Political Islam’ in the New Middle East Plan, with Iran’s theocratic regime being seriously considered as a key player.  If successful, the new configuration in the Middle East will allow the US to influence and steer key regional developments.  

The US has calculated that the ruling regime in Iran can be a key partner in implementing the new plan in the Middle East.  Over the past two years the financial sanctions against Iran, spearheaded by the US, have been effective in bringing misery to the lives of millions of Iranians and inflicting heavy damage upon Iran’s economy.  The financial strategy deployed by the US has enabled it to gain significant leverage over Iran’s economy.  In November 2013, on the eve of the signing of phase one of the Geneva nuclear accord, $100 billion of Iranian money from oil sales was still blockaded and only $4.6 billion conditionally released.  The US had threatened to completely stop the export of Iranian oil, the life blood of Iran’s single commodity economy, all together.

On the Iranian side the theocratic regime has spent two decades implementing IMF-based policies and turning Iran into a dollar- based net import economy with sole reliance on the export of crude oil.  This strategy has made Iran vulnerable to the impact of US sanctions.  The stolen election of 2009, which saw the return to office of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, unleashed waves of protest across Iran.  The aggressive international policy of the Ahmadinejad government, resulting in the imposition of sanctions and more hardship for the Iranian people, forced the regime to reconsider its position.

To safeguard its future, the hard-pressed regime embarked on a dramatic policy shift.  Firstly, with the direct support and guidance of its spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, it entered into a highly confidential secret dialogue with senior US representatives.  The US had the upper hand in these negotiations and was represented in them by senior members of the State Department and subsequently by Senator John Kerry.  Secondly, the regime went on to engineer the presidential election, in June 2013, that installed Hassan Rouhani as president, a trusted and pragmatic figure known to the West as a pragmatic negotiator.  The impression given was that the Iranian people, in a “democratic election”, had mandated the government to negotiate with the US.

There are strong indications that the US and EU have reached some agreement about Iran playing a key part in securing stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the departure of the US, British and NATO troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.  If current developments proceed according to plan, Western countries will not oppose Iran playing a key role in securing the future of the present set-up in Afghanistan.  A key factor influencing this is undoubtedly the political clout wielded by the Iranian regime in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and Afghanistan. 

The greatest fear of the Iranian regime is that the widespread opposition within the country will develop into a groundswell for the sort of regime change that has developed elsewhere in the Middle East.  Dialogue with the United States, which would ultimately see a relaxing of the sanctions regime, is seen as a way of mitigating the pressure from the Iranian people, who are at the sharp end of the impact of Western sanctions.  The ongoing repression of the political opposition, trades unionists, women and student activists will not be a barrier to extending relations with Iran for the United States.  The New Middle East Plan is more concerned with the establishment of a neo-liberal economic order across the region than it is with the niceties of human rights.

Iranian co-operation in the international sphere will in effect be licence for the regime to continue with a free hand in its domestic policies.  The flow of officially sanctioned British, German and French trade delegations to Iran in the last 12 months has been significant.  Economic planners have been busy designing ways to secure lucrative parts of Iran’s sizable economy and see opportunities to use Iran as the platform for launching activities elsewhere.

Beneath the machinations of the political leaders, the struggle for democracy and social justice in the Middle East continues.  This will only be achieved by the effective and united actions of the progressive forces in the region.  The waves of opposition, which have emerged at key flashpoints across the Middle East, not least in Gaza in recent weeks, demonstrate that resistance does exist. 

3rd August 2014

Remembering the War

Across the UK this weekend events have been taking place to mark the centenary of the  beginning of the First World War on 4th August 1914.  The commemoration activity is invariably couched in terms of the importance of the war in defending freedom and laying the basis for the democratic rights we now enjoy.  The acknowledgement that hundreds of thousands of young men, in particular, lost their lives is unavoidable, as is the recognition that thousands of families across the UK felt the impact of those losses in the years immediately following the war and beyond.  The loss of so many ‘breadwinners’ in a traditional patriarchal society inevitably resulted in poverty, or reliance on charity, for many in the post war years.

World War One was of course a massive event for the British working class for all of these reasons.  Those who lost their lives and those who returned maimed and injured, both mentally and physically, deserve to be remembered for the sacrifice they made.  It is as important however that the real reasons behind the conflict are made clear.  The First World War was not simply a case of some existential struggle between good and evil but the outcome of growing contradictions and rivalries between the main protagonists, Germany and Britain.

Having stolen a march upon its imperial rivals in the nineteenth century, with the rapid expansion of its colonies and the industrialisation of the economy, the British Empire was finding itself overstretched, as new rivals with more rapidly developing economies began to gain ground.  Germany was the main challenge to British hegemony  with its rapidly advancing iron and steel production and growing military prowess.

Pressure for independence and national self determination was also beginning to be an issue in many of the colonies of the British Empire with nationalist parties beginning to emerge in India, Ireland and parts of Africa.  At home the period preceding the war was one of major industrial ferment.  From 1911 onwards railway workers and miners were engaged in significant strike action, with one million miners being on strike in 1912 for the entire month of February.

In July 1913 a major strike took place in Dublin (Ireland not then being independent) resulting from the tramways bosses refusing to recognise the workers union.  Two hundred workers were sacked for being members of the union and the campaign for re-instatement resulted in massive solidarity action across England and Scotland.  In 1914, just before the outbreak of war, major disputes in the engineering sector and the building trade were underway and only resolved by the outbreak of war.

The British ruling class was effectively under pressure from three fronts; the growing strength of its rivals, growing demands for self determination in its colonies and sustained pressure from its own working class.  The benefits of colonial expansion and empire may have made rich men of the industrialists and bankers but, as the twentieth century dawned, workers in Britain were feeling little of the benefit.  On many levels the First World War could not have come at a better time for the ruling class in Britain.

As the war progressed colonial troops were pressed into service in support of the devil they knew, rather than being the subjects of Imperial Germany.   British trade union leaders  were persuaded, in the infamous Treasury Agreement of February 1915, to suspend all normal rules of trade union engagement in support of the war effort, while the capitulation of the socialist leaders of the Second International meant that there was no effective mainstream opposition to the war from any quarter. 

The compliance of the trade union leaders did not however mean that action was not taking place on the ground.  Militancy in the shipyards on the Clyde in Glasgow, combined with community militancy led by women opposed to rent rises, for example, is just one area in which working class social and industrial grievances continued to be aired, in spite of the official propaganda of a united war effort.  This growing focus on grass roots action saw the development of a strong shop stewards movement and local trades councils with the ability to mobilise at a local level.

If the tensions which were evident before the war were not swept aside by its onset, nor were the fears of the British ruling class.  These fears were increased manifold by the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, when the Irish Citizen’s Army and Volunteers, led by James Connolly, seized the post office, banks and railways in the city with the aim of proclaiming a Workers Republic in Ireland.  In spite of its other military commitments the British government still managed to mobilise 60,000 troops and send a gunboat up the river Liffey to bombard the rebels. 

Connolly and his followers held out for a week before being  forced to surrender.  The British response was ruthless, arresting thousands and immediately executing twelve of the leaders.  Connolly himself, too wounded to stand, was taken from hospital, propped in a chair and shot on 12th May 1916.

The events in Ireland represented the immediate threat to British Imperialism on its doorstep.  The events in Russia in 1917 were, however, the ones that sent shock waves across the capitalist world and precipitated the entry of the United States into the war.

As British Marxist R. Palme Dutt noted in his seminal work published in 1936, World Politics, 1918-1936,

“It was the Russian Revolution of March 1917, with the consequent inevitable prospect of Russian withdrawal from war and the menace of Allied collapse, which was the decisive motive force behind the American entry into the war, within four weeks of the Russian Revolution, to safeguard its interests already heavily mortgaged on the side of the Allies.”

The transformation of events in Russia into the Bolshevik led socialist revolution in October 1917, with the masses mobilising behind the Bolshevik slogan ‘Peace , Bread and Land’ meant that the fears of the capitalist classes were turning into nightmares.  Worse than arguing amongst themselves about the re-division of the world they now faced an existential threat.  The reality of a socialist state, led by communists, put the whole world situation on a new footing, giving hope to the disenfranchised across all continents.

The centenary of the First World War is an event to mark and an event to remember.  It simply may not be for the reasons that we are being told in the official propaganda which is currently sweeping across Europe.

27th July 2014

Hysteria, hypocrisy and Hamas

There is no denying that the shooting down of Malaysian passenger plane MH17, with the loss of 298 lives, was a tragedy.  Clearly, an investigation into why this tragedy happened and how future occurrences may be prevented, is a priority for the international community.  Getting the facts, then deciding how best to deal with them, is the only way forward.

In the days since the tragedy the UK and international press in Europe has been less concerned with the facts than fuelling speculation around the event.  Particular opprobrium has been reserved for Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who has become, for the purposes of the popular press, virtually the man who launched the missile.

UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has called for Russia to be stripped of the right to hold the 2018 football World Cup, as a measure of the international community’s strength of feeling on the issue.  He has not issued a similar call to strip the Qatari dictatorship of the right to host the 2022 competition, based upon its inhuman treatment of guest workers, who work in conditions of virtual slavery.

Clegg’s hypocrisy is by no means unique.  It is just another example of the anti-Russian hysteria that has been generated from the start of the Western engineered crisis in Ukraine which, until last week, had reached its zenith with Russian support for the secession of the Crimea.

Such evidence as can be discerned at the moment suggests that the shooting down of MH17 was a tragic accident perpetrated either by the official Ukraine air force, not a theory which has gained must airtime in the West, or by the pro-Russian opposition rebels in eastern Ukraine.  Needless to say,  the latter has been the favoured option with the Western media, keen to use the tragedy for the political purposes of demonising Putin and Russia.

Quite what political advantage any side deliberately massacring a full passenger plane could gain is hard to see.  It would certainly be surprising if either the Ukranian or the Russian state officially sanctioned such an action, which would clearly put them beyond the pale in terms of international law.  Until the facts are established speculation will continue.

The cracks in the Western approach to Russia however are already beginning to show, with the French and German governments reluctant to impose further sanctions on Russian energy, finance and defence firms due to the high dependence upon Russian gas in continental Europe.  The Russians in any case are likely to prove resilient against sanctions given their range of natural resources and options of alternative markets in the Far East and China.  Even the UK, it was revealed this week, almost doubled its arms exports to Russia from £86m to £131.5m in the last year, not to mention donations of almost £1m to the Tories since 2007 from Russian sources.

The value of UK arms exports to Russia last year was dwarfed however by the equivalent trade with Israel, which reached a massive £7.9bn in the same period.  That UK weaponry has been used in the massacre of over 1,000 Palestinians in the past three weeks is a near certainty and goes some way towards explaining why the UK government is not quite so vociferous in its condemnation of Benjamin Netanyahu as it is of Vladimir Putin.

In March this year, then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, claimed that the UK was suspending all existing licenses and applications of military and dual use equipment to Russia, when it was or could be used against Ukraine.  While it is clear that the rebels in Ukraine are pro-Russia there is no evidence to suggest that Russia is pro the rebels, not in the sense of having directly supplied arms or expertise.

It is interesting that the UK government does not apply the same test to Israel where the state’s involvement in the massacre of Palestinian civilians is incontrovertible and the likelihood of military and dual use equipment coming from the UK almost guaranteed.

It is also incontrovertible that the Israeli regime has been occupying the West Bank and Gaza, in spite of UN resolutions to the contrary, since 1967 yet the international community continues to treat the current massacre as a battle of equals.  The Israeli Defence Force controls all access to Gaza by land, sea and air.  Israel has for the past eight years imposed a blockade upon Gaza due to Hamas winning an election, which they had been encouraged to participate in, rather than engage in armed struggle.

The ingenuity of the Palestinian peoples in creating a network of tunnels through which they can access the necessities of daily life is to be applauded under such conditions.  That these tunnels have also been used to transport weaponry is not surprising.  After nearly fifty years of occupation, fighting an occupier who refuses to meaningfully negotiate, an armed response is inevitable.

The United Nations Human Rights Council did at last acknowledge this week that  Israel had been engaged in “disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks” to the extent that they should be investigated for committing war crimes.  The 47 strong committee adopted the resolution with 29 states in favour and one against, the United States.  There were 17 abstentions, which included all nine EU members of the committee.  The Israeli response to the UN position was that it was a “travesty that should be rejected by decent people everywhere”; clearly not a measure the Israelis apply to the massacring of civilians in occupied territory.

20th July 2014

End Israeli slaughter, end the occupation

It is not anti-Semitic to oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip, now well into its fifth decade.  It is not anti-Semitic to oppose the slaughter of Palestinian men, women and children currently undertaken by the Israeli military, allegedly to root out Hamas terrorists in Gaza.  It is not anti-Semitic to characterise the Israeli state as a terrorist state determined to make the minimum, if any, concessions to Palestinian statehood while engaging in a fiercely expansionist policy of ‘settling’ Palestinian lands.

Over the years the Israeli government, of whatever political complexion, has been adept at playing the holocaust card, accusing anyone opposed to its policies of anti-Semitism and thereby implicitly associating them with the horrors of Nazi genocide.  The right wing in the West has been more than happy to support a strong pro-Western Israel as a bulwark against Arab nationalism and, more recently, Islamic fundamentalism.  The liberal left in the West has effectively kow-towed to the same policy, for fear of being characterised anti-Semitic and racist in its approach to Israel.

This weak kneed surrender to the diktats of the Israeli state must be stopped.  Over the past two weeks over three hundred Palestinians have been murdered by one of the most well  armed, highly trained and militarily skilled forces in the world.  At the last count three Israelis had been killed.  Gaza is a piece of land little more than 100 miles square.  For an army with the sophisticated weaponry of the Israelis it is literally like shooting fish in a barrel.  Except that one-third of those ‘fish’ killed so far have been Palestinian children, with 80% of those killed civilians.

The Israeli government accuses the Palestinians of using civilians as human shields.  Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, state last week,

“We are hitting Hamas with increasing strength.  It must be understood that our enemy hides in mosques, puts weapons stores under hospitals and situates command posts next to kindergartens.  The enemy uses the residents of Gaza as a human shield and inflicts disaster on them.”

That does not explain the four boys killed on the beach last week, or the many others killed in their own homes by Israeli rockets.

Many Israelis are themselves revolted by the ongoing slaughter carried out in their name and have no truck with the hardline Zionists determined to consolidate the occupation of Palestine, enforcing an apartheid system, which contravenes international law.  Liberal academic, Ahron Bregman, in his recently published, Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories (Allen Lane 2014), describes Israel as “a heavy handed and brutal occupier.”

It is ten years this week since Israel built its apartheid wall, cutting off many Palestinians from their own land.  In April, EU funded shelters for homeless Palestinians were demolished by Israel.  The EU did nothing.  In the same month 23 MEPs wrote to the EU foreign affairs commissioner, Catherine Ashton calling for action.  The EU did nothing.  In the US President Barack Obama has been quick to tighten sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis but has confined his comments on the slaughter in Gaza to calling for a ceasefire.  On the subject of condemning Israel’s continuing violation of international law, Obama said nothing.

In fact Obama has perpetuated the shame of Western governments by joining the chorus of those accusing the illegally occupied Palestinians as being in the wrong for fighting back against the illegal Israeli occupation.

“No country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders”, declared Obama, referring to Hamas missiles hitting Israel.  How many countries on earth would tolerate a forty-seven year occupation without resistance, while the UN looked on unwilling to enforce its own resolutions?

The Israeli government have made their position clear.  The diplomacy of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, over the past year has effectively gotten nowhere in the search for a two-state solution.  As Netanyahu has made clear this week, there cannot be “any agreement in which we relinquish security control.”

Is there a country on earth which would tolerate not having security control over its own borders?  Is this what Netanyahu seriously expects the Palestinians to accept?  Of course it Is not.  Netanyahu is not interested in a solution which gives Palestinians any scope for independence or self-determination.  The objective of Netanyahu, and those Israelis who think like him, is the consolidation of a ‘Greater Israel’, which at best would tolerate Palestinians as second class citizens.

This is not the view of the Palestinians.  It is not the view of the international community as voiced though the United Nations.  It is not the view of many Israelis, for whom peaceful co-existence with an independent Palestine would be a perfectly acceptable solution.  Those voices must be supported and brought to the fore if the current cycle of occupation and slaughter is not to be endlessly repeated.

10th July 2014

Public sector says ‘enough is enough’

Massive job cutbacks, pay reductions and cuts in services to the most vulnerable, all to help pay for the bankers gambling debts which led to the 2008 crash, should all be good enough reasons for one million public sector workers in the UK to be on strike today.  If they needed another, however, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has helped things along by suggesting that the laws on strike ballots should be further tightened to make such action even more difficult.

The Tories are considering two options.  The first is that a strike could only take place if a majority of the entire union membership supported it, not just those who turned out to vote.  The second is to suggest that a minimum turnout (60% has been suggested) would be necessary before the outcome of a ballot was considered valid.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite trade union, hit the nail on the head in response to these suggestions however, stating,

“The whiff of hypocrisy coming from Cameron as he harps on about voting thresholds is overwhelming.  Not a single member of his Cabinet won over 50% of the vote in the 2010 election with Cameron himself getting just 43% of the potential vote.  If he practised what he preached no Tory councillors would have been elected in the last 20 years and Londoners would have been spared the circus of Boris Johnson.”

Whenever there is action by workers to defend pay, terms, conditions and pensions the Tories will attempt to shift the terms of the debate and question the legitimacy of trade union action.  The reality of why so many have down tools today speaks for itself however.

As UNISON, the biggest public sector trade union points out

  • The current pay offer leaves most workers with pay at around 20% less than in 2010 which also affects pensions long term

  • Local government pay and conditions are the worst in the public sector

  • A further pay cut will do nothing to save jobs and services which remain under threat from the government’s austerity programme

  • Low pay is not only bad for individuals and families, it is bad for the wider economy

  • Paying a living wage will boost income to the Treasury by almost £1bn per year from increased tax and national insurance and reducing reliance on in-work benefits

 

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis, said,

 

 “I would appeal to all members to show their support for our striking members by sending messages, visiting picket lines, attending rallies or making the case for better pay to friends, family and neighbours.

 

And we will be joined by members of GMB and Unite.  The firefighters, teachers and civil service unions are also coming out in a day of co-ordinated action.  It's great that all our unions are working together to show solidarity and to say 'enough is enough'.  The Tories, aided and abetted by their friends in the media, will do everything they can to rubbish the members and attack the few employment rights that we have left.

 

 Don’t forget we already have some of the toughest strike laws in Europe.  Instead of threatening to make them even tougher, we need changes that would reduce the unfair advantage that employers have.  I again appeal to the new local government employers to get into talks with the unions to settle this dispute.”

Unions have also pointed out that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently reported that the "average" family needs to earn more than £40,000 a year for a decent life, while a single parent with one child needs to earn £27,000 a year.

 

The report notes that while these figures have risen by 28% since the coalition came to power, earnings have risen by only 9% thus underlining the widening gap for those struggling to make ends meet.   

 

At the other end of the pay spectrum, unions have highlighted the cases of those most vociferous in arguing against paying the living wage or paying a decent pay rise to workers.  Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, a regularly anti trade union flagship of the right wing press,  is paid £1.8m a year and had a pay rise of 5% last year for example.

 

While all of this action is positive there are still some challenges.  The turnout in the vote for action was low and union leaders need to address the issue of engaging members to ensure that low turnout is not used as a stick by employers to undermine the action. 

 

Arguing the case for action with workers would  be helped by a clearer line from the Labour Party leadership and unequivocal support for the public sector from Labour leader Ed Miliband.  At present Miliband has neither supported nor condemned the action, a position which puts him in the worst possible situation of not being able to make up his mind.

 

Where the leader of the Labour Party stands on such questions is still important and should be unquestionably on the side of the workforce.  The Labour Movement is just that, a movement, not just a party machine designed to get Miliband into No10 Downing Street.  Once Miliband realise this he may find he gets the upswing of support he has been so far lacking.  That in turn may give workers the hope that their actions will lead to concrete results through improved pay and conditions.

 

29th June 2014

Blurring the boundaries

The ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria, exacerbated by the Saudi funded Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) group, continues to blur the recognised national boundaries and redraw the map of the Middle East from where it has been since the end of World War 1.  The scale of the Isis advance continues to threaten the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and is forcing the United States, the Shia led Iraqi government and the Islamic Republic of Iran into a de facto alliance to try and halt the Sunni Muslim advance.

The Isis advance has within its grasp some key sites in Iraq including the Baiji oil refinery, the Haditha dam and Iraq’s largest airbase, north of Taji.  The rapid advances so far, into Mosul and Tikrit, have allowed the group to capture significant resources with which to continue their insurgency.  It is estimated that Mosul alone gave up three helicopters, more than $400m, Humvees, tanks, armoured trucks and anti-aircraft motor batteries.  Added to that, the release of 2,000 prisoners sympathetic to the Isis cause helped swell the group’s ranks.

US military cargo planes have been seen to land at Baghdad airport while Major General Qassem Suleimani, leader of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has been implicated in overseeing plans for the defence of the Iraqi capital.  Just to complicate the picture further, the Iraqi government this weekend took delivery of five Russian Sukhoi-25 fighter jets, to be deployed in the government push to retake the city of Tikrit.

The interest of both the West and Iran in shoring up the sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki has been a key factor in creating the crisis which Iraq now faces.  The Iranians have supported Maliki as a fellow Shia and extended their influence in Baghdad as a result.  The US on the other hand has supported the Maliki government as the outcome of its intervention ten years ago and justification of Iraq’s ‘democratisation’.  However, the sectarian policies pursued by Maliki, failing to form a government which could represent the various ethnicities and religions in Iraq, showing preference to Shia cohorts, has created the vacuum into which Isis have stepped.

The failure of the Maliki government to embrace the calls of opposition groups to establish a national conference and move towards a government of national salvation, in the face of the threat from Isis, reinforces Maliki’s sectarianism and the necessity of his removal before Iraq can advance.  Even the promise of “intense and sustained” support to defeat Isis, from US Secretary of State John Kerry, if the Iraqi government moves towards power sharing with Shia and Kurds, does not appear to have had the desired effect.

While the Isis insurgency flies the flag of defending the minority Sunni population its stated intention, to create an Islamic caliphate, flies in the face of its supposed defence of the poor and downtrodden.  The Saudi role in supporting Isis appears to be aimed at both stemming the influence of the Iranians in Iraq, while at the same time helping undermine the Assad government in Syria.

The battle for pre-eminence in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, is in fact one that poses the Sunni supporting Saudi dictatorship on one side, with the Shia supporting theocracy in Iran on the other.  The current battles across Iraq and Syria are effectively a manifestation of this power struggle.  Whether the oil hungry West will be able to shape the outcome, and the borders, in quite the same way as it did after World War 1 however is more open to dispute.

22nd June 2014

The politics of personality

It would be possible to assume from some of the headlines this week that there are those in the Labour Party who do not want to win the next General Election.  On the basis that, if you blab controversial views about your party leader to any passing journalist, off the record or otherwise, they are likely to end up in print, you would think that Labour’s luminaries would know when to keep it zipped.

Not so it would seem.  One clot, widely quoted as a ‘former minister’, has apparently been saying,

“People used to say Ed Miliband was Neil Kinnock.  But people are increasingly thinking he is Iain Duncan Smith.  Kinnock improved Labour’s standing.”

How far Kinnock improved Labour’s standing is a moot point in any case.  He did not win any elections and he hardly improved his credibility with his reactionary stand on the Miner’s Strike.  The City and liberal journalists may have liked him but there is no evidence that he won hearts and minds beyond that.  The real purpose of the clot ‘former minister’ is to take away Miliband’s credibility before he even gets a chance.  In anticipating that the Labour Party would not want another two time loser, like Kinnock, the effect is to undermine Miliband’s chance of being a winner in the first place.

What this effectively does is to hand the Tories and their cohorts in The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express etc. gift wrapped headlines to the effect that Labour is in danger of tearing itself apart; would not be fit to govern; will flood the country with immigrants; hand out benefits to everyone; and will tax the rich till they leave the country squealing.

With the high degree of media profile afforded all political leaders today it is virtually impossible not to get sucked into the General Election as personality contest, which much of the media would like us to believe it is.  After all, cheap headlines about bacon sarnies are easier to come up with than any analysis of the detail of policy. 

We have to accept that presentation and polish are a part of the current political game and a party leader cannot survive without some skill in this area.  However, that does not mean that the policy terrain should be abandoned in the search for the nicest tie in order to sway the undecided.  Getting away from personalities and back to politics has to be an objective, even if it may seem that the media conspiracy to reduce things to a beauty contest is insatiable.

To be fair, Miliband’s backing for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report the “Condition of Britain” this week, is an attempt to focus on the policy agenda and how to address joblessness amongst young people.  The headline proposals in the report are that young adults would lose their right to some state benefits in order to encourage them to find work.  The 18-21 year old age groups would not qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance if they have skills below Level 3 in the National Qualification Framework.  However, they would qualify if they undertook training to try and reach that level.  

Miliband and the IPPR and attempting to kill two birds with one stone here.  Illustrate that they will incentivise young people to find jobs, while at the same time not appearing to be ‘soft’ on benefits.  This is fine as far as it goes but there are flaws the plan, in that it is attempting to address the symptom, not the cause.  

The numbers of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) is so high because the opportunities are either not there or not easy for them to access.  The numbers of young people with qualifications below Level 3 is likely to increase unless the divisiveness of education policy, which promotes academies and so-called free schools is tackled.

In spite of what the Tory press might say, the Left has never been in favour of something for nothing or state handouts for those who do not deserve them.  However, equality of opportunity has always been a central part of the Left’s ethos and that means levelling the playing field for everyone.  Those who end up in the NEET category are rarely, if ever, the sons and daughters of bankers or Oxbridge graduates.  They are working class kids whom, more often than not, the system has failed.  They would willingly grasp a job, apprenticeship or training opportunity if one were provided.

Miliband is right to want to see the debate in the run up to the General Election steered away from personality and back to politics.  He should be supported in that while at the same time given every encouragement to get the policy right.  No one wants the Tories back but let’s at least fight for a Labour government worth electing.

15th June 2014

Isis fuels crisis

The imminent collapse of the Iraqi state under a jihadi blitzkrieg has captured the headlines this week.  It may have come as a surprise to some that the conflict, of which George W Bush famously declared ‘mission accomplished’,  should reignite with such vehemence.  Whatever the mission of Bush and Blair in launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003 it seems to have done little but remove the Western backed autocrat Saddam Hussein, while laying the basis for ongoing factional fighting between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) group, who are leading the current insurgency, is clearly a result of the lack of legitimacy of the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq but also a consequence of the opposition to Bashir al-Assad in Syria.  The financial backing for Isis would appear to be coming from the Saudi and Kuwaiti dictatorships, determined to back the Sunni Muslim Isis against the Shia dominated or backed governments of Syria and Iraq.

While the United States and the UK in particular continue to see the Saudi regime as their friends in the Middle East the Saudis are quietly making their own power plays.  The Saudi regime effectively see themselves as the Sunni counterweight to the key Shia force in the region, in the form of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Ironically the advance of Isis has encouraged both the US and Iran to condemn the insurgency.

The politics of Isis should not be misunderstood however, whatever the weaknesses of the states they are attempting to overthrow.  Upon taking Mosul in Iraq the group issued a ten point proclamation which included:-

  • It is time for an Islamic state.

  • Women should dress decently.  They should only leave their homes when absolutely necessary.

  • We are the soldiers of Islam and we have taken on the responsibility of re-establishing the Islamic caliphate.

Such medievalism will be seen for just that by many in the West but can still have resonance with many in the Muslim world.  In the historic Sunni/Shia divide within Islam, passions run deep.  This was reinforced by an Isis spokesman upon the taking of Mosul and Tikrit, who claimed that it is “the Lord alone who overpowers the Shia.  Praise be the Lord who brings terror to their hearts.”  Given that an estimated 60% of Iraq is Shia the scope for terror in that country alone is extensive, should the Isis advance continue.

While the US government of Barack Obama is reluctant to directly intervene in the region again the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush and two guided missile ships have been moved to the Gulf.  The UK government has also ruled out full scale military intervention but are considering a “counter terrorism” package which could include military and police presence.

However events unfold over the coming days and weeks it is difficult not to agree with the assessment of foreign correspondent of The Independent, Robert Fisk, who this week suggested that we are now in a position whereby,

“That from now on, the story of Iraq and the story of Syria are the same politically, militarily and journalistically; two leaders….fighting for the existence of their regimes against the power of a growing Sunni Muslim international army.  The Syrian-Iraqi border now counts for nothing.”

The Iraqi Communist party has called for a united defence by the Iraqi people, faced with “moments during which the homeland is exposed to serious dangers threatening its unity and social fabric, and the entire political process.”   The threat from Isis is seen as one which threatens the very existence of the Iraqi state which, for all of its weaknesses, remains the state which the Iraqi people need to strengthen and control.

The full statement is available here

http://iraqiletter.blogspot.se/2014/06/iraqi-communist-party-every-patriotic.html

8th June 2014

Defend the faith, defend the state

The spat this week between Cabinet heavyweights, Education Secretary, Michael Gove and Home Secretary, Teresa May, has been dominating UK headlines.  In a week when the flagging Tory led Coalition Government wanted the media to focus upon the eleven bills included in the Queen’s Speech the press have just not played ball.  Most pundits have calculated that the lack of Parliamentary business will effectively give MPs carte blanche to go back to their constituencies and prepare for the May 2015 General Election, popping back to Westminster for the odd vote in order to sustain the façade of Parliament actually doing anything.

The press have, quite rightly, calculated that the real story left in the Coalition is who will be the next leader of the Tory Party.  The LibDems, having achieved a derisory sixth place in this week’s Newark by-election, look set to continue their path towards meltdown, though by-elections have proven to be deceptive.  UKIP are unlikely to be serious General Election contenders, given both the lack of concentration in their support to win seats in a first past the post system, plus their leadership’s lack of concentration on anything beyond a neo-Thatcherite economic and social agenda which will wear thin as the months pass.

All of which means, in spite of the alleged earthquake in UK politics which UKIP claim to have instigated, the May 2015 election may well amount to a straight fight between the Tories and Labour, in good old fashioned style.  The Gove/May face off makes more sense in this context, especially as defeat for Cameron will certainly result in a Tory leadership challenge, with Gove backing Chancellor George Osborne and May positioning herself for the crown.

Inevitably, Cameron has cracked the whip and hauled the warring pair over the coals for the breakdown in collective Cabinet responsibility which the argument represents.  This is a bit like trying to reclose the lid of Pandora’s Box.  While an apology from Gove’s side and an adviser being sacked on May’s  are the minimum show of contrition Cameron would expect to exact,  the chaos of inner party struggle is now unleashed upon the world.  With the press pack having  little to distract it in the way of Parliamentary business, the inner party struggle of the Tories and the reshaping of Europe, often going hand in hand  will no doubt be meat and drink over the coming year.

The substantive issue, which resulted in the Gove/May debate, has wider implications for the long term shape of education in the UK.  The so-called Trojan Horse project, that Islamic extremists have been plotting to take over control of schools in Birmingham, has been the focus for the row.  A creeping takeover of places on school governing bodies has, allegedly, resulted in pressure upon schools to reshape their religious teaching in favour of Islam.  Who knew what when, and who should have done something about it, has been as the core of the Gove/May row.

For 150 years the issue of religion in schools has been relatively straightforward with the state backed ideology of the Church of England prevailing.  Some licence has been given to the Catholics to have dedicated faith schools and the odd Methodist establishment or Scottish Presbyterian primary has been permitted but, on the whole, these have been regarded as part of the wider Christian diaspora and not a threat to the state or the status quo in any meaningful sense.

The one exception to this rule until recently has been in Northern Ireland, where Protestant sectarianism was for decades reinforced by the British state, with Catholics relegated to the status of second class citizens.  Only with the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the late sixties, and the subsequent adoption of the armed struggle by sections of Republicanism to end British occupation, did the full extent of religious oppression become evident in the occupied six counties. The British have not forgiven the Irish for daring to tear up the script and establish a Republic in 1921, following five years of struggle to liberate themselves from British rule. 

In spite of the warning signs and the twentieth century having been dominated by the diminishing role of monarchy in government across the world, the UK has persisted in not only having an unelected Head of State but investing the same person with the title Defender of the Faith and leading the Church of England.

What has all of this to do with the Gove/May argument?  Simply that, for most of the twentieth century the British state has not had to worry about religion as an issue in relation to state education.  Religious observance in schools has been of the CofE variety with any other contenders effectively ghettoised and occasionally pilloried for their departure from the ‘true faith’.  The Church of England has, for many years, been known as the ‘Tory Party at prayer’, for good reason.

Local Councils, and through them Local Education Authorities, largely bought into this system as the Labour leadership was not ideologically opposed to either the Monarchy or the Church of England.

All of which may have seemed to be for the best, in the best of all possible worlds but for the coming together of two significant trends in the past thirty years.  The first is the political trend, initiated in the Thatcher years, of state deregulation.  Everything from denationalisation of utilities and major industry, to the sale of Council housing, comes under this umbrella.  Crucially, in this context local management of schools, LMS for short, has meant a lack of local authority control and more ‘power’ to locally based governors to determine school policy and direction.  The system of establishing academies, explicitly detached from any local authority connection, is the further extension of this policy.

The second significant trend is the growth of Islam, not simply as a tolerated minority religion in the UK, but as a political force in the world.  If the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran did not give the West sufficient cause for concern in 1979, then the attack upon the twin towers in New York by al-Qaeda in 2001 certainly did.

By enmeshing the state religion as a fundamental part of the state education system the British ruling class has effectively made a rod for its own back.  However, given the multiplicity of faiths in the UK how can the state give backing to one over another without being open to accusations of prejudice? 

Also, having set their ideological stall out by the path of deregulation the Tories are clearly finding that not all deregulated thinkers are of their persuasion.  Local control cannot just mean local Church of England backed control, if taken to its logical conclusion.

The only answer is to make a clear separation of church, state and education.  Those who support a particular religious world view should be free to hold that view but should not be permitted to perpetrate it within the education system; Church of England, Islam or anything else.  In the 21st century the concept of a Defender of the Faith, let alone one who is also Head of State, is just a little anachronistic; clearly time for change.

It is unlikely that Gove or May will do anything significant to square this particular circle, whether or not they end up succeeding David Cameron.  The question is, can we successfully move religion out of the public sphere and into the personal sphere where it belongs?  No state religion, no religious ideology in education.  There is no sign of anyone raising this question at the moment.  Until they do, the struggle for control of schools at a local level will continue, with the consequences we are currently witnessing.

1st June 2014

History repeating?

Memos from a war that resulted in an estimated 500,000 dead, will never be published.  The long awaited Chilcot report, into the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq will not contain the 130 exchanges between UK Premier Tony Blair and US President George Bush.  Any evidence of discussions between Blair and Bush will be limited to “quotes or gists”.  Not good enough for the Stop the War Coalition who this week stated,

“After £8m, two years of hearings and three years of examining the evidence it now appears as if we are still not going to be able to judge for ourselves what exactly went on between Bush and Blair in the run up to the conflict.  It makes you wonder what it has all been for.”

The publication of the report is anticipated before the 2015 General Election but no date has yet been set.

Does it even matter?  The 500,000 casualties will not be brought back, Iraq will continue to bear the scars of the invasion and the legacy of sectarian religious strife which it has left behind.  Will the post conflict analysis provided by Chilcot make a difference?

In the version in which it is finally published it may be that Chilcot does not have the impact it should, given the scale of the loss of life unleashed upon the slenderest of evidence.  The fact that the inquiry has happened and that there is at least some attempt to hold those responsible to account must have some significance however.  The fact that the actions of Bush and Blair are being subject to scrutiny at all holds out the hope that lessons may be learned and that, at the very least, history will judge them.

In the short term the pattern established by the intervention in Iraq has been modified slightly but with the same overall objective of putting a Western stamp on the reshaping of the Middle East.  Withdrawal from Iraq is being followed by the retreat from Afghanistan leaving behind, once again, a fragile and divided government.  In Libya the boots on the ground approach was averted, an anti-Western regime was toppled and popular government prevailed…..

Well, almost.  NATO air cover may have been the decisive factor in clearing a path to the overthrow of Gaddafi but it did nothing to ensure that the infrastructure for stable government emerged from the rubble of Libyan towns devastated by the aerial bombardment.  The militia at large in the country make it difficult to exercise central control, though a second coup attempt in three months by General Hiftar suggests that some effort is being made by the military to impose itself.

Given that Hiftar has the backing, not only of the CIA but that of the Gulf States of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, suggests that he may be the coming man as far as those looking to stabilise Libya in Western interests are concerned.  Egyptian President elect General Sisi has also given Hiftar his backing, suggesting that the ‘strongman turned elected president’ model  is one that the West are looking to return to as they desperately attempt to keep a foothold in the oil rich area.

As far as the West are concerned the military, often Western trained, are a devil they know as opposed to an Islamist faction, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and are more open to persuasion  through arms deals, an area in which the West retains worldwide pre-eminence.

The cycle of violence and terror extends across the African continent, as Seumas Milne has stated this week in The Guardian,

“US armed forces are now involved in 49 out of 54 African states, along with the former colonial powers of France and Britain, in what's becoming a new carve-up of the continent: a scramble for resources and influence in the face of China's growing economic role, underpinned with an escalating military presence that spreads terror as it grows. That will bring its own backlash, as did the war in Libya.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/22/coups-terror-nato-war-in-libya-west-intervention-boko-haram-nigeria

It is ironic that the new carve up of Africa is happening at a time when the West is preparing for events to mark the centenary of the first imperialist war, World War 1, fought by the major powers of the day for the re-division of the  colonies as they were at that time.  Much of the map of the Middle East and Africa was drawn as a result of that conflict.  We can only hope that history is not on the brink of repeating itself.

26th May 2014

Wake up call for the Left

The UK media have slavishly agreed with the promise of UKIP leader Nigel Farage that the outcomes of the local and European elections would cause an earthquake in British politics.  Little has been made of the fact that the UKIP share of the vote has reduced and less of the fact that the Labour Party gained over 300 Council seats.  The emphasis has very much been upon the first place in the Euro election polls for UKIP, with 24 MEPs, and the inroads into second place in many Council elections in Labour’s northern heartlands.

There can be little doubt that Farage has provided a wake up call to the political establishment, especially on the question of Europe where all of the main parties suffer from a problematic relationship with the EU.  The shift in voting in the UK however is, in this respect, no different to that across many parts of Europe, most notably the rise of the Front National in France and right wing parties in the Netherlands and Austria.  Even the staunchly pro-European Germans managed to elect one neo-Nazi from the National Democratic party.

The disaffection across Europe is a product of the ongoing economic crisis which is gripping the continent, in spite of the EU being one of the richest trade areas in the world.  The current manifestation of the crisis goes back to the banking collapse of 2008 but has been evident for many years in the growing struggle to sustain living standards evenly across the EU.

The German economy in the post war years of the Federal Republic (West Germany) was massively underwritten by both support from the United States and the low dependency upon military spending in the economy.  As the shop window of capitalism, standing toe to toe with the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the West could not be allowed to fail at any cost.  With US bases across the Federal Republic and German economic concerns allowed to focus on socially useful, rather than military, production the Germans became the economic powerhouse of Europe.  A steady supply of cheap Turkish labour, gestarbeiter or guest workers, also ensured that the benefits of the post war economic miracle flowed to many Germans lower down the food chain.

Post-unification, the German economy had to be sustained for other reasons.  As the powerhouse within Europe the Germans effectively set the benchmark for economic development within the EU at a pace which weaker economies simply could not sustain.  The economic struggles facing Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain are directly a result of the monetarist targets set within the EU, which emphasise control of the money supply and inflation, while limiting the capacity of governments to utilise public spending to boost their economies.

In effect, the EU becomes an economic strait-jacket from which the poorer economies cannot struggle free and the powerful continue to benefit.  In real terms this means spiralling unemployment in the ‘peripheral’ economies manifesting itself in a backlash against Brussels and the wider EU concept.

In this context in the UK it becomes easier for those on the right, xenophobic and opposed to immigration in principle, to blame the crisis and the failure to provide enough jobs for UK citizens upon those from elsewhere in the EU, who are working in the UK.  The fact that UK citizens enjoy a reciprocal arrangement with the rest of the EU does not seem to matter in this equation.  As the crisis bites and even the bigger economies of France, the UK and Italy struggle to meet the demands of their workforce, the tendency of the right across Europe to blame immigration for economic travails becomes more pronounced.

The austerity drive across Europe, to pay off the gambling debts of the bankers, has pushed more people into poverty and deprivation.  Youth unemployment across Europe is at alarming levels.  Public sector jobs are being slashed to foot the cost of the crisis.  As a consequence, those with the least suffer further as essential services whither and disappear.

The main political parties cannot provide a solution that either sounds credible, or is actually workable, because they are locked into the system which has generated the crisis.  The emphasis which Labour leader Ed Miliband has put upon the ‘cost of living crisis’ in the UK for example, should resonate with many but is struggling to keep pace with the simplicities of the UKIP message, that immigration is the issue, and that too much control from Brussels is denying British citizens their rights.

The right wing parties do not have a programme which will magically reinvest in the workers of France, Italy, Spain the UK, or anywhere else, providing well paid jobs and meaningful career opportunities.  They are simply preying upon the disaffection with the existing political elite to achieve their own careerist goals.  The consequences for Europe in the 1930’s should be lesson enough for us all in this regard.

The reality that capitalism is not working and cannot be made to work in the long term interests of ordinary people with never be faced up to by the social democratic parties of Western Europe.  The reality that the demagogues of UKIP, the Front National and others are getting their message across to a disaffected electorate needs be heeded however.  There is some comfort from the fact that the anti-austerity Left have also made gains, in Greece for example, but this needs work to be built upon and the threat of increasing racism combatted.

In the UK the path towards the General Election of May 2015 will be the real test for those opposed to austerity, xenophobia and racism.  The challenge will be not to succumb to the rightward shift of UKIP but to come out fighting. 

18th May 2014

Austerity takes Councils to the edge

In all of the distracting nonsense about UKIP and the position of the UK in Europe of recent weeks, the fact that local elections take place on 22nd May is tending to be somewhat overlooked.    On the ground, the outcomes of local elections are generally of more interest to voters than the Euro elections and may say more about General Election voting intentions too.

Of course everyone complains about their local Council, it is a truism of life in the UK, but the fact remains that for many people knowing the Council is there to complain to is a comfort in itself.  While exhortations to  local government to become more ‘commercially minded’ continue to stream from Whitehall to Town Halls, the average citizen is more interested in knowing that they have someone to complain to if something goes wrong, than how much income is generated by Council services.

However, even without having been engaged in the minutiae of local government finance over recent years, it would not take the most engaged citizen to realise that the wheels are in danger of coming off the local government buggy.  For many Councils something like 20-25% has been taken from their net budget over the past four years.  On current projections a similar amount is going to be required over the coming four years, meaning close to a 50% reduction in local government funding in less than a decade.

The Local Government Association (LGA) this week warned that closures of key public services such as libraries, leisure centres and youth provision are likely to intensify over the coming period as Councils exhaust avenues for so-called efficiencies and simply reach the point where they have to stop doing things.  The  LGA survey, Under Pressure,  found that three in five Councils will have no other way to make savings in 2015/16 meaning deeper cuts to existing provision.  In fact the report states that Councils are almost at the point “where they will not have enough money to cover their statutory responsibilities.”

With an estimated 360,000 local government jobs lost since the Coalition government came into office, it is clear where the brunt of the Chancellor’s austerity programme has landed.  Even that figure does not tell the full story however, with Newcastle City Council having produced an analysis indicating that Councils in the 10 most deprived areas of England faced average cuts of 25.3% from 2010/11 to 2015/16, with an average reduction of 2.54% in the 10 least deprived areas.

That the Tories would hit the poorest hardest, to pay for the gambling debts of their friends in the City of London, should come as no surprise but the extent of the difference remains stark.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), by no means a hotbed of radicalism, this week underlined the trend towards a divided Britain in its latest analysis of who owns the nation’s property, pensions and financial assets.  The average wealth of households in the South East of England is up 30% since 2006, according to the ONS, with the average rise in England only 6% in the same period.  The current figure equates to £309,000 per household in the South East compared to the North East of England where the average per household has actually fallen to just under £143,000 over the same period, the lowest in the UK.

The charity Oxfam have done some work on the figures and reveal that five billionaire families control the same wealth as 20% of the population, five rich families having the same wealth as 12 million people.  The richest 1% in Britain saw their share of wealth increase over the past four years  to the equivalent of that of 54.9% of the population.

The figures and the extent of the inequality is mind boggling, as ever, but no more so than the lack of outcry about such grotesque wealth concentration.

Sadly it is unlikely that the voting in Thursday’s Local Elections will reflect  outrage that such disparities should generate.  Quite where to put the cross to express such a view would be a quandary.  All the same local government remains one of the few areas where saving the fabric of what is currently offered will help those who are most disadvantaged and dispossessed.   In a week in which the fourth anniversary of David Cameron’s ‘big idea’ about the Big Society was celebrated with something less than dancing in the streets, it should be remembered that the big society already exists, in the form of local government.

With all of their imperfections local Councils make every effort to address the needs of those who cannot help themselves, while adding to the general quality of life for the rest of the local population. That involves working with the private sector, the community sector and volunteers to manage and deliver a whole range of services vital to people’s everyday lives.

The austerity programme is taking the possibility of retaining local government to the edge, while concentrating more wealth into the hands of those with power and privilege to spare.  However the voting patterns in local elections on Thursday turn out and whatever the pundits tell us, there is still a battle to be fought.  The grass roots engagement of communities in having a say about their own future would be a good place to start.

11th May 2014

Pub lounge politics

The blokey bonhomie of Nigel Farage continues to fascinate the media and, if opinion polls are to be believed, the sections of middle England and disaffected workers who may be persuaded to vote for him.  While Farage carefully cultivates the ‘bloke down the pub who talks common sense’ image he comes across as much like the bloke down the pub who you wish would shut up and keep his opinions to himself.   Sadly, the failure of the mainstream parties to connect with voters, especially Labour with the working class, means that the ‘anti-politics’ politics of Farage is getting more airtime than it deserves.

The up and coming European elections are of course the main platform for Farage with the one-trick pony of UKIP feeling that the combination of political disaffection, the anti-immigration agenda fed by the Tories and low voter turnout will give them an even greater foothold in the European Parliament.  They may well be right.

The mainstream media insist that the Farage push has got the Tories worried enough to be stealing UKIPs clothes in an attempt to shore up their vote.  In reality, there is little real difference between many attitudes in the two parties anyway.  Farage joined the Young Conservatives at the age of 15 and three times failed to be selected as a Tory parliamentary candidate.  It is not only clear where his political allegiances lie but also that the expressions of anti -immigration, anti-welfare and, ultimately, anti-people politics of UKIP, is little more than where the right wing of the Tory party would like to be, if they thought they could get away with it.

The proclamations on Tory European election leaflets to cut tax, cap welfare, control immigration, cut the cost of Europe, say no to British taxpayers bailing out the euro and  defend Britain’s interests would hardly look out of place on a UKIP communique.

Farage has admitted to ‘bottling’ standing in the Newark by election, so UKIP have proceeded to select a former Tory MEP, Roger Helmer, as its candidate.  An advocate of the death penalty, Helmer is also on record as comparing gay marriage to allowing incest and arguing that date rape victims can bear some responsibility for being assaulted.  While a Tory MEP, Helmer also tweeted in 2011 that the army, in situations of civil disturbance, should “shoot looters and arsonists on sight.” 

That the UK media is giving the amount of time and credibility it is to a party which selects such candidates for Parliament is questionable.  Such time and effort lavished upon the British National Party would not be tolerated.  Many in UKIP are little more than the BNP with a pint in their hand.  Indeed the well charted decline of the BNP since its 2009 peak, when it succeeded in getting two MEPs elected, has allowed UKIP to become the current standard bearers for the lunatic fringe, who have over the years gravitated either towards the National Front or the BNP.

The 22nd May local and European elections are likely to once again confirm the disaffection of many British voters for the political process.  Turnout in the Euro elections in 2009 was only 34%, in local elections it can often struggle to reach 30%.  The use of proportional representation for Euro elections allows for the greater influence of smaller parties and the impact of the right wing is likely to be felt across Europe.  Eurosceptic parties, including Marine le Pen’s Front National in France,  the far right in Holland and the Northern League in Italy, are expecting to obtain up to 30% of the vote and up to 200 MEPs.

Neither the status quo, which supports the bankers of Europe, or a Europe of warring eurosceptics will be to the benefit of the people of the continent.  That is a longer term project which the Left must address if it is to convince people across Europe that it has a role.

5th May 2014

Changes in military budgets

It is often helpful to pay attention to long term structural changes in the world.  In that regard the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) on military expenditure is worth considering.  Total spend worldwide stands at $1750m.  While spend did even out following the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent   restructuring of economies in Eastern Europe, the upward trend picked up significantly since the 11th September 2001, with the United States in particular using that event as a pretext to reinvest in the military.

Following its peak in 2011 spend has dropped slightly but has remained above the $1500m mark since 2007.  However, as Sipri indicate, what is interesting to note is the redistribution of spend amongst the principal actors.  In first place, spending far and away more than any other nation is the United States with almost 37% of the world’s total military spend.  With France spending 3.5% of the world total, the UK 3.3% and Germany 2.8% the countries at the heart of the NATO alliance account for over 46% of the total military spend in the world.

Second and third placed in the military league table are China (10.8%) and Russia (5%).  Although these figures represent increases of 170% and 100% respectively since 2004 their combined spend is still dwarfed by the US alone.  Fourth highest military spend is that of Saudi Arabia at 3.8%, representing a 118% increase over the period.  The Saudi dictatorship feels increasingly threatened by the strength of Iran, the instability of events in Syria and the possibility of the so-called Arab Spring bringing some form of democracy to its doors.  At 9.3% the Saudi spend is the highest proportion of GDP of any country in the world.  Sipri also note that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s top arms importers, having a particularly strong relationship with the UK arms industry.

The top arms exporters in the world provides a different dimension to the debate although the United States also tops that league with 29% of the total world arms exports, closely followed by Russia at 27%, then some way behind, Germany (7%), China (6%) and France (5%). 

Military budgets in areas of conflict continue to grow with that of Bahrain up 26% since protests in 2011; military spend in Iraq up 27% since the departure of US forces; and an estimated 77% increase in Afghanistan in anticipation of NATO withdrawal this year.  Across continents Africa is the area in which military spend as a whole has increased the most at 8.3%, with Algeria and Angola leading the field.

Inevitably the increase in military spend in developing nations is at the expense of social development.  Military spend can be a response to the perceived need for security or reflect the  lack of confidence of an autocratic government.  In any event a regional or international arms race will only benefit the military industrial complex, not the people.

The above article is based upon L’evolution des budgets militaires published in l’Humanite (2/3/4 May 2014).  Further detail at www.humanite.fr

About Sipri

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament.  Established in 1966, SIPRI provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public. Located in Stockholm, Sweden, SIPRI offers a unique platform for researchers from different countries to work in close cooperation.

The Institute also hosts guest researchers and interns who work on issues related to the SIPRI research programs.  SIPRI maintains contacts with other research centers and individual researchers. throughout the world. The Institute cooperates closely with several intergovernmental organizations and entities, including the United Nations, the European Union, the IAEA and the OPCW, and regularly provides support to parliamentary, scientific and government partners.

Further detail at http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/recent-trends

27th April 2014

God Save the Queen?

Easter seems to have been more than usually a focus for Christian propaganda this year. 

UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has come up with the revelation that the UK is a Christian country, a proposition not surprisingly backed up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.  It is interesting to note that Welby had to admit that, based upon the number of churchgoers, Britain is “certainly not” a Christian country.  In looking at the wider question of values however Welby said,

“It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith this is a Christian country.”

Slightly equivocal given Welby’s job description but pretty much the expected position.

The contrary position has been put by a range of public figures and authors, 55 at least, who claim that “apart from the narrow constitutional sense that we have an established church”, that Britain is not a Christian nation.  However much we may loathe to admit it, this is probably wishful thinking.  While the number of practising Christians may be low and dwindling, to equate this to a generalised secularism may be premature.

The legal system still requires oaths to be sworn on the Bible; insurance claims can still be invalidated by so-called Acts of God; school assemblies still require some form of worship; horseracing on Good Friday only started this year; even the institutionalisation of Thought for the Day on Radio 4 every morning underlines what the establishment accepts as the norm.

Recent reporting on the BBC, about the alleged growing Islamic influence in schools in Birmingham, was peppered with references to “hardline Muslims”, not the sort of phrase which has featured in the reporting of “hardline Christian” Pope Francis, sanctifying two of his predecessors, Pope John XXIII and virulent anti-communist Pope John Paul II, this week.  Indeed, reportage in the press and other media has been remarkable in its gravity, considering that the second decade of the 21st century is underway and the implausibility of sainthood well established.

While not deferring to Rome, the church and political establishment in the UK has its own set of historical anachronisms to deal with when it comes to the relationships governing citizen, church and state.  The question of citizenship is somewhat ambiguous as residents in the UK are ‘subjects’ of the Queen.  She in turn is the head of the Church of England, a position coming with the title Defender of the Faith since Henry VIII split with Rome in 1534.  This is combined with the monarch’s position as Head of State in the UK and across many Commonwealth countries for that matter.

It is indeed bizarre that in the second decade of the 21st century it is possible to see four generations of UK Heads of State paraded, without anyone in the UK or Commonwealth having taken a vote as to whether we want, need , or approve of any of them.

Which brings us more or less neatly to the subject of the Young Royals, almost worthy of a soap opera of their own but presently still playing a supporting role to the main event, around the Queen and the accession of Prince Charles, the man whom nobody wants to be king.

UK taxpayers have, it would seem, seen fit to send the Young Royals to Australia and New Zealand over the past week to bolster flagging support for the ageing Monarch and head off any growing Republican sympathies the antipodeans might be harbouring.  William, Kate and the baby were wheeled out in front of an adoring press and, if the press are to be believed, an enthusiastic public to do their bit to support the boy’s future career.

In spite of the funding crisis facing the NHS; the war in Syria; the unfolding situation in Ukraine; and the consistent exposure of Nigel Farage as a charlatan, the Young Royals could still make front page news and TV headlines.  Having survived since 1534, it may be unwise to bet against the title of Defender of the Faith still being around if Prince George gets anywhere near the throne.

It is surely the responsibility of us all to try and put  a stop to this.  Finding this family some real jobs would surely be a welcome saving on the welfare bill.  The separation of church and state, with a republic and elected Head of State, are the least we should expect.

20th April 2014

When feelgood does not feel good

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has revised upwards it predictions for growth in the UK economy over the next year.  Wages increases have edged ahead of inflation, according to statistics released this week.  Unemployment figures are coming down, not very quickly in some parts of the country, but overall figures show less claimants.  For each public sector job lost it is alleged that the private sector has created three.  UK Chancellor, George Osborne, is trying to milk these statistics for all they are worth, so why does all this feelgood news not feel that good?

Firstly, the rise in wages does not look quite so rosy when bonuses rather than basic pay are taken out of the equation.  The Consumer Price Index as a measure of inflation stood at 1.7% last month, wages rises with bonuses were at the same level but without, dropped to 1.4%.  A slight difference perhaps but when even the editor of the right ring Spectator, Fraser Nelson, claims this is “..the worst economic recovery in history…it’s going to be 2020 before the average worker’s salary is going to be back where it was in 2007”,  there remains more than a little cause for concern.

While George Osborne is content to weigh the jobs figures by quantity there is also the quality factor to consider.  More people are working part time, including on zero hours contracts, or are registered as self-employed, so the one public sector for three private sector jobs trade off does not look so clear cut.  Outside of London and the South East there is little sense of recovery, as what little job growth there is remains concentrated in those areas.

Labour continue to repeat the message that the Chancellor’s economic medicine has left the average person of working age more than £1,600 worse off than in 2010.  The cost of living crisis continues to be the main thrust of Labour’s  pre-election pitch.  While this will undoubtedly have resonance with many voters, the right wing press will no doubt do their best to stress the ‘good news’ on behalf of Osborne and the Tories.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite trade union perhaps hit the nail on the head when he said this week that ordinary people were “bewildered at the self congratulatory tone of the government which has presided over the growing shame of food bank Britain.”  Therein lies the essential difference.  While George Osborne and his City pals can rub their hands at enough of an upturn to put some cash in their pockets, the escalation in food bank use is more in line with the realities on the ground for many people struggling to make ends meet.

Health workers, local government workers and teachers are all considering strike action in response to continued job losses and paltry pay offers.  Mobilisation on the ground and the backing of the Labour leadership will be essential for these actions to be effective.  There is a massive well of discontent in the country at the behaviour of the present government.  If Labour want to be returned to office in 2015 they will have to find ways to tap into it.

There is some solace for Ed Miliband in the fact that one of the Tories major cheer leaders, once again Fraser Nelson, has little faith in the Conservative leadership, stating,

“Increasingly Cameron is in many important regards becoming the public face of Osborne’s government.  He is the chief executive, Cameron is more of the chairman.”

Nelson sees Cameron’s biggest single worrying trait as being to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”  While the musings of one political journalist, however influential, do not guarantee victory it is nevertheless interesting that the cracks are showing across the broader  hinterland of Tory opinion.

The May local and Euro elections will give the first pointers in the 2015 General Election race.  The Autumn party conference season will see the main arguments being shaped in earnest, with manifesto commitments beginning to emerge.  With splits inside the Tories possible and with coalition Lib Dem partners inevitable, the opportunity for Labour to push an agenda for real growth may be better than ever.

13th April 2014

Gas supply - turning up the heat

The Western push to co-opt the Ukraine as part of both the EU and NATO does not appear to have lost significant momentum with the Russian annexation of Crimea.  Far from getting the message, that there is a line beyond which the Russians do not welcome Western presence, the negotiations to push on with the proposals that sparked the current crisis appears not to have diminished.  The Kiev based government in western Ukraine is poised to sign an accession agreement with the EU any day now.

Meanwhile, in the predominantly Russian speaking industrial areas of eastern Ukraine, government buildings have been occupied by opposition forces.  In the Luhansk region and in Donetsk, the heart of the coalmining industry, protesters have expressed the desire for a referendum aimed at declaring themselves independent of Kiev.

The pressure by the international community was increased this week as the Council of Europe human rights body voted to suspend Russia from its parliamentary assembly, withdrawing Russia’s voting rights until the end of the year.   A majority of Council delegates condemned Moscow’s action in Crimea as “beyond any doubt, a grave violation of international law.”

While the Ukraine government have threatened action against protesters in the east, NATO  has released satellite images which it claims show evidence of a Russian military build up on Ukraine’s eastern border.   NATO claim the images show a build up of fighter planes, helicopters, artillery and infantry which could be ready to move at 12 hours notice.  Troop levels of between 35,000 and 40,000 are claimed to be “at a state of advanced readiness.”

The developing face off is already having economic consequences.  While president Putin has threatened to cut off supplies of gas to Ukraine if bills are not paid, the usual levels of coal exports from eastern Ukraine to Russia have dropped because of the political instability and fears over uncertainty of supply.

In the United States two bills have been introduced into the Congress attempting to fast track the sale of liquefied natural gas to Europe, supposedly in order to lessen dependence on Russia’s gas supply.  In reality the bills are seeking the right to sell gas on the international market, not specifically Europe, and are more about deregulation in the US market rather than any perceived liberation of Europe from a Russian gas stranglehold.

The real struggle, which the crisis in the Ukraine highlights, is that of the control and supply of existing natural resources and the struggle to maximise market share.  It is also about the demarcation of post cold war military spheres of influence.  It is clear that the issues of military and economic influence go hand in hand.  Once you have an accession agreement with the EU and an eye on joining NATO, you will be more likely to buy the weapons and house the bases of your allies.  This is no less obvious to the Russians than it is to the West.

US author, Naomi Klein, suggests that for the US energy suppliers there is another agenda which they are seeking to exploit arising from the crisis in Ukraine.  Klein states that,

“For the past four years the gas lobby has used the economic crisis in Europe to tell countries like Greece that the way out of debt and desperation is to open their beautiful and fragile seas to drilling.  And it has employed similar arguments to rationalise fracking across North America and the United Kingdom.”

In the interests of so-called energy-security, states Klein, the crisis in Ukraine is being used as a “battering ram” to push through a free trade deal with Europe.   The gas companies are keen to push fracking as a solution to energy security issues due to the vast reserves enjoyed by the United States.  The fact that fracking releases climate destabilising methane into the atmosphere does not seem to be a concern.   As Klein states,

“Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases – 34 times more powerful at trapping heat than  carbon dioxide, according to the latest estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” (IPCC)

While the gas supply companies see the Ukraine crisis as a glorified market opportunity the IPCC have just produced a report, Mitigation of Climate Change, which argues for a quadrupling of the use of renewable power in order to keep carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below critical levels.  In the United States there can be little doubt that arguments about security of energy supply will have more traction that those about the threat to the planet from carbon dioxide or methane emissions.

Climate change denial is a mini-industry in the US and the IPCC will no doubt be written off as another bunch of interfering bureaucrats.  Saving the world will take planning, organisation and an interest in people; why waste time with all that when there is a dollar to be made?

6th April 2014

Putting the House in order

The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, has made a mockery of the report of the independent parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Hudson, with her cursory apology for having “over claimed” allowances.  Hudson took 14 months to compile her report while it took Miller just 30 seconds to apologise to the House of Commons for her attitude, as requested by the cross party parliamentary standards committee.  The committee, which adjudicated on Hudson’s report, had already judged that Miller should repay only £5,800 rather than the £45,000 the original report stated she had over claimed for her “second” home in Wimbledon. udson’s report, Hudson 

Miller claimed that her home in Basingstoke, her constituency, was her main home which allowed her to claim expenses for mortgage interest and upkeep on her “second home” in Wimbledon.  Members of Parliament can claim on a ”second” home if it is used purely for  parliamentary business, an acknowledgement that not all MPs are on the Westminster doorstep and need a local base during the parliamentary week.  What MPs are not permitted to do is to use a second home, subsidised by the taxpayer, to house their parents.  This is what Miller had been doing since 2005.

However worthy Miller’s desire to look after her frail and elderly parents, using state funds to subsidise this is a privilege most do not enjoy.  With the severity of the government’s austerity programme hitting adult social care services across the country, care costs will be an issue close to the hearts of many.  Miller dipping into public coffers to provide such support will not be welcomed.

With the government’s flagship bedroom tax policy now having an impact across the country, the extent to which those on low incomes are penalised for supporting  family members with disabilities, or who are frail and elderly, is beginning to be evident.  Many ‘spare’ rooms in poorer communities function as space for ageing parents, disabled relatives or rooms for children to stay over if the family is divided.  In most instances this is hardly a drain on the state and in many cases is an example of social care taking place within the extended family, without the state having to intervene.

Missing the point entirely about the issues of poverty and hypocrisy which the case highlights, the UK press have seized upon it to pursue an issue of blatant self interest, the extent to which the government of the day should impose controls upon the press.  The light touch controls suggested by the Leveson Inquiry  into press standards have been an ongoing source of contention with the press since the report was published last year.  The characterisation of any press regulation as the ending of any concept of press freedom is complete nonsense.  It is in any case a poor argument to suggest that the bad behaviour of MPs should be an excuse to permit the ongoing bad behaviour of press and media barons.  As Leveson revealed, the past twenty years have shown where that leads.

For the moment Miller has the support of Prime Minister David Cameron and, publicly at least, her front bench colleagues.  Her brand is rapidly becoming toxic however and, with summer being the traditional time for Cabinet re-shuffles,  her tenure as Culture Secretary, not exactly characterised by insight and dynamism anyway, could well be drawing to a close.   The press certainly smell a kill in the air and may well regard the summer as too long to wait to finish Miller off.

Whatever the outcome in terms of Miller’s personal circumstances  she will not be missed.  The bigger issue remains that of the hypocrisy of the political classes and the extent to which they can get away with behaviour that would see most people either sacked or under police investigation.  Quite why parliament has an independent standards commission, which can then be overruled by MPs, is a mystery.  In terms of reform, MPs could do worse than putting their own house in order.  

30th March 2014

Corporate or popular, capitalism exploits

As the elections to the European Parliament, scheduled for the 22nd May, move ever closer the focus upon changes in voting patterns across Europe is coming to the fore. 

Second round elections for French council and mayoral elections look set to see a surge for Marine le Pen’s Front National (FN), especially in the South of the country.  In the first round the FN polled over 10% of the vote in half of the 598 places it fielded candidates.  The situation is serious enough for the Socialist party to withdraw where it has no chance of winning so that voters can focus on voting for the non-FN candidate.  The right wing UMP however has not agreed to do this, so split votes allowing the FN to win are still possible.

Marine le Pen has characterised the present situation in France as follows,

“We are at year zero of a big patriotic movement, neither right nor left, which is founded on the opposition of the current political class, on the defence of the nation, on the rejection of ultra-capitalism and Europe, that is capable of rising above the old political rifts to ask the real questions.”

This sort of populist opposition to the “current political class”; the two party system which continues to manage but not solve the crisis; and the call to the nation, are the sort rhetorical flourishes which Nigel Farage is hoping will see benefits for UKIP in the May elections in Britain.

It is of course disingenuous of le Pen to suggest that her party is “neither right nor left”.  That the FN is clearly a party of the right is hard to dispute.  However, that does not prevent the FN having popular appeal.  That appeal is based upon the scapegoating of immigrants for the nation’s economic problems and the perceived failings of the EU in addressing the issues facing French workers and farmers.  A familiar ring?

As ever, the ‘power to the people’ dimension of the populism of the right is an illusion.  While railing against the corporate capitalism of the European Union, the likes of FN and UKIP are advocating a return to a populist form of protectionism that is no less capitalist for all that.  The freedom from EU bureaucracy and the demand for French jobs for French workers (or British jobs for British ones) is nothing less than a demand for freedom to hire and fire labour at will, a freedom to be allowed to exploit more readily on a national basis without international interference.

In the modern world of course such a  demand is an illusion.  French companies operate across national borders, as do all transnational corporations, and their allegiance to their country of origin can often be tenuous at best.  Increasingly corporations are internationally owned, further questioning their national allegiances and interests.  Globalisation is nothing if not the globalisation of monopoly capitalist corporations based, not so much on nation states, as the diktat of the international market, the banks and the major financial centres of London, New York, Frankfurt and Tokyo.

The politics of le Pen and Farage are the politics of those harking back to an illusory golden age which never really existed and, in the current world, could not actually be created.  The same arguments, in a different historical context, brought the Nazis to power in Germany in the 1930’s and Mussolini to prominence in Italy.  While appealing to popular prejudice both were supported by major corporations and industrialists, paving the way for their rearmament and  the carnage of the Second World War.

In reality neither le Pen nor Farage would get anywhere near meaningful influence or power without corporate backing or the support of the financial institutions, whether explicitly or otherwise.  At the moment the EU probably still looks like a better bet for the corporations as it institutionalises the protection of their investments and markets.  The illusion sold to the people of Europe by the EU is that it is an ever closer union of Europe and its peoples, when in fact it is an ever closer union of the  corporations which exploit those people.  It is precisely this contradiction, which is obvious to many, that the likes of le Pen and Farage are seeking to exploit.

In this debate the social democratic left is caught between a rock and a hard place.  The left fails to condemn the EU as it sees greater integration and better understanding between nations to be a badge of honour.  The fact that the EU can still hoodwink them into thinking it can deliver this is a tragedy.   The left clearly opposes the rhetoric of le Pen and Farage but often fails to address the popular concerns the far right are tapping into in any way that is convincing.

The road required is one which can both address the corporatism of the EU while offering real power to the people, constraints on the flow of capital and deepening democratic engagement in a meaningful way.  As it currently stands the parameters of the debate do not go this far.  Until they do the danger of degenerating into petty nationalism, rather than working class internationalism, as a response to globalisation will remain.

20th March 2014

The Threepenny Opera

The classic work by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill was probably not uppermost in the mind of Chancellor George Osborne when putting together his penultimate budget before the 2015 General Election.  To suggest that an arch villain was scamming the poor in order to enrich himself and his own class is not a picture the Chancellor would recognise as himself.  While it is possibly stretching it to suggest that the Government would go so far as to indulge in sanctioning murder and prostitution, the image of Mack the Knife is apt in other respects.

The popular press have been full of the spin intended by Osborne when presenting the budget, described as a package for “makers, doers and savers”.   Dressed up as a freedom of choice issue, Osborne proclaimed the lifting of any cap on access to pension pots as a major reform declaring,

“No caps. No drawdown limits.  Let me be clear: no one will have to buy an annuity.”

In the Middle England of pension pots and annuities this no doubt had the gallery applauding but for many of the low paid the consideration of whether or not to buy an annuity is a luxury they may only ever dream of.  The same goes for the creation of a new Isa, with an annual tax free savings limit of £15,000, from 1st July.  Not to worry though, in order to compensate ‘hard working families’ Osborne has cut the duty on bingo by half to 10% and taken a penny of the pint of beer.  Whether Osborne realised how condescending this claim sounded is a matter of debate but it neatly summaries the Government’s mindset.

That the richer live longer and are more likely to vote Tory is perhaps the overriding message from a budget which encouraged The Guardian headline “Vote blue, go grey” while The Sun proclaimed, “A budget for Sun readers: WIN-GO!”, making no secret of the political horse the paper will be backing come election time.  Going grey is clearly Osborne’s attempt to derail the UKIP train and bring the middle classes of Middle England back to their senses.

The poor, the young and the unemployed  on the other hand can take a running  jump as far as Osborne is concerned, whether they read The Sun or not, as Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice put it,

“The chancellor talked about making, doing and saving.  This budget needs to work for those who are making do and can’t save.”

Even Labour leader, Ed Miliband, managed to produce something close to a soundbite declaring the budget as the same old Tory trick of,

“…running an economy of the privileged, by the privileged for the privileged.”

In key areas such as energy costs to the consumer, the crisis in housing and greater control of the banking sector, Osborne was conspicuously quiet.  Even in his own terms, measured against his own objectives of eradicating debt , reducing the deficit and increasing growth Osborne and the Cabinet Old Etonians have failed miserably.  The deficit, which Osborne claimed would be £60bn by now, will be nearer £108bn. 

‘More jobs are being created!’ is the cry in defence, but the figures suggest that almost 80% of these are in sectors where average wages are less than a quarter of average earnings.  In addition, close to 80% of new jobs are in London.  The economy will not take off because there are more jobs for cleaners for Russian millionaires in Kensington.  Whatever Osborne might think, that is not investment in industry!

Private sector investment in the UK is down, in spite of UK corporations sitting on a £750bn cash mountain,  while the ability of the public sector to invest is hamstrung by the government’s austerity programme.  The private sector will respond to a confident programme of public investment which addresses the housing crisis, the need to invest in green and renewable energy, and the modernisation of the national transport infrastructure.  On its own the private sector will, ironically, be conservative with its cash or invest in niche areas with high returns.  That may add to the stockpile of Kensington millionaires but will not address the real needs at the heart of the economy.

In the midst of it all the Chancellor announced that the pound coin will change shape from 2017 to become a twelve sided object, not unlike the old threepenny bit of pre-decimalisation currency.  The announcement was accompanied by the proclamation that the new coin would be the most secure in the world.  By which the Chancellor was presumably referring to the difficulty for forgers to reproduce it, rather than its degree of economic stability.

16th March 2014

Foreign policy blunders pile up

The retreat from the West’s unwinnable war in Afghanistan will be completed later this year.  It is likely that any final arrangements for the governance of the country will need to include the Taliban, who still hold sway in large parts of the country.  The revelation this week by Major Richard Streatfeild, a former commanding officer in Sangin province, that British troops did not have adequate equipment for the task asked of them will only add to the sense of futility many feel about the war.

In Iraq the government remains weak and divided following the West’s intervention to seek out Saddam Hussein’s mythical ‘weapons of mass destruction’, an adventure which cost in the region of 500,000 lives and has exacerbated religious and ethnic strife in the country.

Latest reports from Libya, ‘liberated’ from Muammar Gaddafi  by NATO jets, suggest that the country is on the brink of civil war, as rebel militia challenge the Islamist led Congress in Tripoli and question the distribution of oil income by the government.   In addition to the natural gas piped to Europe, oil accounts for 95% of government revenue in Libya.   With rebel oil blockades now into their eighth month oil production has fallen from 1.55m barrels a day to a mere 200,000 a day, with government revenues plummeting equally.

The crisis in Syria continues to inch inexorably towards a fully fledged civil war, with any legitimate opposition grievances, having first been seized upon by the West as an opportunity to overthrow the Assad regime, now dominated by Islamist and al-Qaeda affiliated elements intent on pursuing their own agenda as opposed to any outcome the West may desire.

The past decade has seen a catalogue of foreign policy crises and Western interventions that have significantly added to the instability in the Middle East.

The latest Western engineered crisis, in the Ukraine, moves into a new phase today with the referendum in the Crimea on moving the area back into Russia.  While there is a slim majority of ethnic  Russians in the Crimea there is also a significant Muslim minority, who may not be too keen on ties with Moscow.  The position in the West is clear, that the referendum is a sham and that sanctions against Russia will inevitably follow any attempt to annexe Crimea from Ukraine.

However, the Russians have an equally clear view that the change in government in Kiev was the result of a constitutional coup and should not therefore be recognised as legitimate.  As the Kremlin rarely fails to point out, there are some unsavoury right wing elements in the Ukrainian government currently recognised by the West.  Backing for such elements may yet come back to haunt the EU and NATO.

The West’s foreign policy record over recent years does not augur well for next steps in the Ukrainian crisis.  There are calls from within the Ukraine for the West to respond militarily, a course of action which could lead any of the other NATO military blunders of the past decade to look like a walk in the park, given the firepower at the disposal of the Russians.

So far the West has not indicated that it will pursue a military route, although sabre rattling about sanctions continues unabated.  Given the abject outcome of Western military interventions in the  past decade it is to be hoped that sanctions are as bad as things get and a negotiated solution to the present crisis is sought soon, rather than when it is too late and more blood has been spilt unnecessarily.

Tony Benn 1925 – 2014

The news of the death of Tony Benn, aged 88, loomed large in the news this week.  Benn was a politician of principle who saw the need to combine both parliamentary and extra- parliamentary action to affect change.  Although having been born into the aristocracy his credentials as a friend of the working class and fighter for the rights of ordinary people are the values which endeared him to millions.  He will be sadly missed.

Bob Crow 1961 – 2014

Leader of the RMT trade union, Bob Crow, who also died this week, was known and respected across the world for standing by his views.  Those campaigning for peace and social justice in the UK and elsewhere in the world have lost a great champion and friend.

9th March 2014

The Death of King Arthur?

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the historic Miners’ Strike of 1984/85.  The re-evaluations, recollections and recriminations are already underway.  If new ways to vilify the leader of the NUM during the strike, Arthur Scargill, can be found, they undoubtedly will be.  In recent years Scargill has had his differences with what remains of the present day NUM.  The union and its former president remain at loggerheads over issues relating to property and legacy.

The media are raking through the current dispute as part of their wider objective of confining Scargill’s legacy to history.  This is not a history that sees the NUM and its leadership, including Scargill, as having played a heroic role in attempting to stem the tide of the British ruling class desire to turn back post war social gains.  It is a history which paints the NUM in general, and Scargill in particular, as the villains in a conflict between trades union dinosaurs and the onward march of progress.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

When the NUM leadership claimed in late 1983 that the government and the National Coal Board (NCB) had a secret plan to close 75 pits, a plan which would make an estimated 64,000 miners unemployed and decimate communities, Scargill and the NUM were shouted down as scaremongers by the capitalist press.  That such a plan did exist has only been admitted  in recent months, with a muted acknowledgement that ‘Scargill was right’ buried on the inside pages.

This acknowledgement does not of course extend to the entire strike and its conduct, although in that respect too, on all of the key issues Scargill was, in fact, right.

The pit closure plan of the Thatcher government was a calculated attack upon the industrial working class in Britain.  It was calculated to break union power in key industries, sow division within the Labour Movement, and move forward the agenda started in 1979 to deconstruct the post war welfare state.  It was a calculated risk.   There was no guarantee that these objectives would be achieved but having embarked upon a programme of deregulation in the state sector and agreeing to lift barriers on the export of capital, the Thatcher government had to tackle its key opponents.

Thatcher, according to the officially released papers confirming the pit closure plan, also suggested that pressure be brought to bear upon Chief Constables, stating,

"It was essential to stiffen the resolve of chief constables to ensure that they fulfilled their duty to uphold the law."

Thatcher's own handwritten notes for a meeting in July 1984, a month after the clashes at the Orgreave coking plant, outlined plans to deploy 2,800 troops to unload coal at docks in the event of a dockers' strike.  The papers also suggest that Thatcher was prepared to declare a state of emergency as part of the plan to engage troops in breaking the strike.

The courts were deployed early in the dispute with the high court ruling in 1984 that the National Union of Mineworkers had broken its own constitution by failing to hold a ballot. Arthur Scargill, the NUM president, was fined and the union's assets were sequestered.  Such tactics were not surprising.  The attack upon the NUM could undoubtedly have been resisited more vehemently with a united leadership within the Labour Movement.  However, such resolve was lacking in many quarters.

The Labour Party in the early ‘80’s had begun a proces of implosion, with the renegade gang of four  (David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers)leaving to form the short lived Social Democrats, later to join forces with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats.  The splitters in the Labour Party effectively laid the basis for Thatcher’s 1983 election victory and this success provided the platform from which Thatcher saw dealing with ‘union power’ as being the next step.

The genuinely left wing Michael Foot was replaced as Labour leader by the leftish poseur, Neil Kinnock, whose credentials amounted to little more than being ‘fiery’ and Welsh.  Apart from the abject failure of Kinnock to openly support the NUM,  Kinnock went further and criticised what he described as the “suicidal vanity” of Scargill.  A united front against the commom enemy was not in the air.

Like many on the Left, Kinnock was in favour of the NUM holding a national ballot in order to ‘legitimise’ the dispute.  The fact that the dispute had excalated from the grass roots, area by area, with its origins in the overtime ban of late 1983 gave the strike all the legitimacy it needed.  The NUM leadership was compelled to act by its own members.  Turning round and asking them to vote on the matter would have been a clear sign of weakness.

Elsewhere on the Left, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) retained some industrial and trades union influence but many of its leaders had fallen prey to the scourge of Eurocommunism.  The eurocommunist creed  not only downplayed the role of the working class, as being only one of a number of social forces in society, but failed to comprehend the inevitability of social conflict as a motive force for change.  Consensus could transform social democracy into socialism, according to eurocommunists, but with Thatcher at the helm little consensus was on offer.

The splintered yet vocal Trotskyist ultra left played its usual argumentative and tactically infantile role, helpfully pointing out the failings of the Labour Party (class traitors); the CPGB (Stalinists);  the TUC (lacking backbone for not calling a general strike); and even the NUM itself (not enough Trotskyist leadership); while of course claiming to have the answers and the way forward, if anyone would listen.

In spite of these organisational and leadership weakness many individuals and groups within the Labour Party, CPGB and even the ultra left played a key role in supporting the strike and articulating the demands of the NUM to defend pits, jobs and communities.  In spite of the differences within the Labour movement, and the Left more widely, the extent to which the strike united massive sections of the movement and engaged ordinary people in debate about the key issues of the day should not be underestimated.

It may be an overstatement to suggest that Miners Support Groups sprung up on every street corner but they certainly reached into many communities with no history or direct association with mining.  Women Against Pit Closures engaged women in mining communities and many women from wider working class communities, who identified with the struggle.  The reasons for this were not only to do with the demands of the NUM but the unpopularity of the Thatcher government, allied to a widespread recognition in working class communities that this struggle was, more than any other, an existential one, the outcome of which would be decisive one way or the other.

It may be difficult to understand this thirty years removed but the rundown of the shipbuilding and steel industries, the constraints imposed upon local government, and the rapid rise in unemployment combined to create an atmosphere of intimidation and impending collapse.  Opposition to nuclear weapons, through CND and the high profile Greenham Comman peace camp was high, the Anti Apartheid Movement was reaching its zenith, the campaign for Irish freedom continued to be a thorn in the side of British imperialism.

There was a sense was that something decisive was happening.  The Miner’s Strike crystallised that feeling.

To hear Arthur Scargill speak at mass rallies urging support for the NUM and its cause was scintillating.  To hear him speak to an audience, 99% of which were miners, was nothing short of electrifying.  Scargill could lead because he understood the immediate issues faced by members of the NUM but was also able to articulate the wider impact of pit closures upon communities.

The campaign was by no means about the defence of an outmoded and dangerous industry.  Energy policy more widely became the focus of debate, with the NUM pointing out the dangers of nuclear power as well as articulating the case for combined heat and power and carbon capture technologies.  Such technology however required not only vision, in terms of energy policy, but investment to make them happen.  The Thatcher government did not have the former and were not prepared to commit the latter.

On the contrary, energy policy for the Tories was specifically about undermining the dependence on coal for electricity generation, which was at 80% levels in the 1970’s and 80’s.  The privatisation of electricity, the dash for gas and the massive subsidising of nuclear power all combined to reduce dependence on coal and prepare the way for the privatisation of the coal industry itself.

The scars from the coal strike of 1974, when the NUM effectively brought down the Tory government of Edward Heath, ran deep in the Conservative Party.  Energy policy was not about the best method of meeting the countries needs, it was about breaking the power of the NUM.

Following the death of Margaret Thatcher in April last year a colleague of Scargill’s is reported to have texted him, ‘Thatcher dead’; the reported text reply was ‘SCARGILL ALIVE ‘, the nearest the former NUM leader has come to public comment on the death of his erstwhile adversary.

In 1994 The Guardian journalist, Seamus Milne , published a book titled The Enemy Within, outlining the secret war against the NUM which mobilised MI5, the press and the political establishment in a campaign to break union power.  A 30th anniversary edition has been published, it remains an essential read and can be found here,

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Enemy-Within-Secret-Against-Anniversary/dp/1781683425/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394376066&sr=1-1&keywords=seamus+milne

As Milne correctly asserts,

“The 1984-5 strike was a last-ditch fight to defend jobs, mining communities and the NUM itself against a government prepared to bring into play unlimited resources and its entire panopoly of coercive powers as and where necessary to break the union and its backbone of support.” (The Enemy Within p.14)

The Miner’s Strike was a dividing line in the 1980’s and it remains a dividing line now.  In the words of one of the most trenchant solidarity songs popularised during the dispute, by folk singer Ewan MacColl, amongst others, the question remains ‘Which Side are You On?’

 

 

2nd March 2014

Beware what you wish for

The emerging conflict in the Ukraine is shaping up to be the most significant flashpoint in post-Soviet eastern Europe, with both the West and Russia claiming that the defence of their strategic interests is paramount.  Having succeeded in defeating Soviet power in the early 1990’s, the wider strategic objective of controlling the resources within the former Soviet Union was always going to be the next logical step for the NATO led Western alliance.

The post-Soviet era in Russia and the former Soviet republics inevitably saw a rapid expansion of gangster capitalism, as competing groups within the unleashed bourgeoisie fought to control massive human and natural resources.  Gas, oil and coal are in plentiful supply in the former Soviet territories. Russia in particular inherited significant armed forces including nuclear capability.  The scientific and technical capability, amassed in the Soviet era to advance the needs of the people, was rapidly deployed in the pursuit of profit after 1991.

While the West initially applauded the coming of multi party elections as a sign of greater democracy, it became rapidly clear that the electoral process offered only the chance to determine which faction controlled the resources of the state, not how best they could be utilised to further the interests of the people. 

The capacity to abuse the system has been exemplified by the actions of current Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The Russian constitution previously allowed for a President to serve no more than two consecutive terms of four years.  Having completed two such terms Vladimir Putin hit upon the expedient of having a placeman, Dmitry Medvedev, serve a period as President, from 2008 with Putin as Prime Minister, paving the way for Putin to return as President in 2012, the term now extended to six years instead of four.

Inevitably this sort of blatant electoral shenanigans won Putin no friends in the West, particularly as it was coupled with a brand of Russian nationalism which reflected the superpower posturing of the United States, in determining areas of interest and if necessary military control.  Interventions in Moldova and Georgia in 2008 echoed the attitude of the US to Central America in the 1980’s and the ongoing illegal blockade of Cuba by successive US administrations for the past sixty years.   

The current situation in the Ukraine is the product of just such a political tug of war.  Russia sees the Ukraine as part of its near abroad, its sphere of influence in much the same way as the US has historically viewed Central and South America.  Attempts by the European Union to woo the Ukranians into ever closer co-operation with Europe have not been regarded well in Moscow.  The Black Sea fleet of the Russian Navy is stationed on Ukraine territory, at Sevastopol in the Crimea.  The only land based access to the port is directly through the Ukraine, making the Russians even more nervous about an unfriendly administration in Kiev.

The green light for troop deployment by the Russians, while undoubtedly hasty and potentially dangerous, must be seen against this background.  It is also interesting to note the diplomatic evolution of the present crisis over the past ten days.  Protests have been an ongoing feature of life in Kiev for the past three months with protesters calling for greater co-operation with the EU and less dependency on Russia.  The protests reached a peak on 21st February resulting in an agreement signed by Ukranian President Yanukovych witnessed by the German, Polish and French governments.

The agreement effectively conceded the protesters demands to initiate the Association Agreement with the EU.  The agreement would put the Ukraine on target for long term integration into the EU.  The deal would also revoke the 2010 law on the Ukraine’s non-aligned status and seek a NATO Membership Action Plan.  Even so, Ukranian nationalist radicals, wanting nothing less than the resignation of Yanukovych, scrapped the deal within hours, thus accelerating the crisis to a new and more dangerous level.

The concessions which Yanukovych agreed to would have been bad enough in Moscow’s view.  A Ukranian position which regarded EU and NATO membership as not going far enough was clearly never going to be acceptable to the Russians.

The West blames Moscow, while Moscow blames the West.  

Capitalism inevitably promotes conflict.  The territorial redivision of the world, which prompted the slaughter of World War 1, rolled inexorably in to the conflagration of World War 2, as the capitalist powers of the early twentieth century attempted to come to terms with the changed balance of world forces which the Bolshevik revolution in Russia represented.

Having taken seventy years to defeat that revolution the West has created an untamed capitalist monster on former Soviet territory, equally unwilling to bend to its will.  As Russian troops begin to mass in the Crimea, the West may just be becoming wary of what it spent so many years wishing for.

 

 

23rd February 2014

Moral mission accomplished?

Having pronounced that “money was no object” in the effort to bail out Tory voters hit by floods in the South of England, within the space of a week UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, asserted that the government’s welfare reform programme was part of a “moral mission”.  Quite what kind of morality demonises the poor for their poverty, when city bankers continue to award themselves extraordinary bonuses is anyone’s guess.  It seems to be the only kind of morality Cameron and his ilk know.

This is the kind of talk Cameron will have come to expect from the proselytising left wing.  This week however newly elected Catholic cardinal, Vincent Nichols, branded the government’s welfare system “a disgrace”.  Not to be outdone the Anglicans, in the form of 27 bishops, along with 16 other church leaders blamed benefit changes for the “national crisis” of hunger.

Just for good measure Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, chipped in to suggest that,

“People who are using food banks are not scroungers who are cynically trying to work the system.  They are drawn from the 6 million working poor in this country, people who are struggling to make ends meet in low paid or bitty employment.”

The government’s response to all of this is to fall back on the claim of fairness.  It is not fair, they say, that some people abuse the system and bring it into disrepute for those that are deserving of welfare support.  As an argument this has a superficial attraction, until it is acknowledged that benefit fraud only accounts for 1% of the money paid out in the welfare system.  A sledgehammer to crack a nut is the phrase which springs to mind.  The vast majority are being punished for the misdemeanours of a tiny handful.

In this respect at least Cameron is showing some consistency.  If the government’s austerity programme is not about the vast majority paying for the misdemeanours of a tiny handful, it is hard to see what it is.  It is not the kind of consistency that offers anything to those on the receiving end however and the fact that the churches seem to be reverting to their charitable Victorian role should give us all pause for thought.

As well as flagging up the poverty crisis in the country, churches are supporting local food banks and are on the brink of setting up a network of credit unions to tackle loan sharks in poor communities.  Somewhere in the midst of their Christian thinking churches may well subscribe to the idea that “the poor are always with us” but that should not be good enough for those wanting the mantle of political leadership.  While church and charitable support is welcome, it should always be seen as a temporary measure on the road to tackling poverty and fighting for its eradication.

The welfare system was shaped in the post war period as a safety net, when full employment was an explicit goal of the left in general and accepted by the Labour Party in particular.  If the left now accept that full employment cannot be delivered under capitalism then the usefulness of the system must be questioned and the case for socialism made explicit.  There is no point in pretending that there is a fix in a system predicated upon exploitation and competition. 

As ‘moral missions’ go that would be one worth taking on, a moral mission with a political purpose.

16th February 2014

Swiss turn back the clock

Whenever the economy is going badly the question of immigration is back on the political agenda.  Across Europe the right wing parties, of varying descriptions and degrees of overt racism, are beginning to stir.  Their anti-immigration agenda has been given a boost from an unlikely source this week; Switzerland.  Not that the Swiss are inherently progressive, on the contrary, their political neutrality is as much a mask for an inherently conservative culture and an economy kept afloat by its banking interests.

However, the Swiss voted this week to scrap freedom of movement for European Union citizens, in a referendum engineered by the anti immigration Swiss People’s Party.  It was a close vote, with victory only secured by 50.3% of votes, but it was enough to oblige the Swiss government to cap immigration.  At what level immigration should be capped is not clear and the government has three years to turn the verdict into law so there is still time for debate about the details.

Nevertheless the Swiss find themselves in a difficult position in relation to the EU.  Although Switzerland is not formally an EU member, 60% of its exports go to Europe and agreements on the movement of citizens have allowed many EU nationals to work in Switzerland, as well as facilitating 450,000 Swiss living and working in EU countries.  Other aspects of the existing agreement with the EU include Swiss access to the single market and competing for public tenders.

Foreign Ministers across the EU have been quick to point out that the Swiss cannot have their proverbial cake and eat it.  Not subscribing to free movement of citizens brings into question existing aspects of the agreements with the EU.  German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeir, was characteristically blunt, stating,

“Cherry picking with the EU is not a sustainable strategy.  The Swiss have damaged themselves with this result.  The fair co-operation we have had in the past with Switzerland also includes observing the central fundamental decisions taken by the EU.”

While the Swiss begin the journey of re-establishing their relationship with Europe this week the vote has far wider ramifications, especially with EU parliamentary elections looming on the 22nd May.

The Swiss position is in fact not too distant from that advocated by UK Prime Minster, David Cameron, in calling for a cap on migration within Europe.  Such a call would form the basis of Cameron’s call for a referendum on EU membership, scheduled for 2017, if the Tories find themselves back in office after the 2015 General Election.

In terms of the wider European agenda the rise of the Front National in France, the Freedom Party in Austria and the continuing presence of UKIP in the UK are examples of the right gaining ground, on the back of immigration being used as an excuse for the economic crisis engulfing the continent.

The Left has historically adopted something of a muddled position in relation to the EU which is increasing becoming the battleground for the immigration debate.  The social gains, which freedom of movement and human rights legislation have brought, have been broadly welcomed by the Left as providing the basis for greater co-operation and understanding amongst the peoples of Europe.  Conversely the Left has tended to largely ignore the fact that in economic terms the EU is a monetarist club, which severely restricts the capacity of its members to utilise public expenditure to boost economic development.

The current crisis, in particular its impact on poorer nations such as Ireland, Portugal and Greece, is a direct result of these economies being squeezed to support growth in the richer Eurozone areas, especially Germany.  The economic crisis has helped to highlight these tensions, desperately covered up by the European Central Bank bail out package, but has been unable to resolve them.  The right wing are using the consequent crisis to try and maximise their appeal.

For the Left, arguing the case against the xenophobes in the up and coming elections will be vital.  However a platform which argues the case for a socialist Europe, of the people and for the people, would help to build a clearer vision of an alternative to the current offer.  The crisis in Europe cannot be separated from the crises in the respective nation states of Europe.  It is equally true that a solution for one needs to be part of a solution for all, a solution which addresses the needs of the people of Europe, not just its corporations and bankers.  

 

9th February 2014

Israel – boycott demands build

Boycotting Israeli goods is back in the news and moving up the political agenda this week for two reasons.  The first is due to a political clash between the US and its Israeli allies.  The second and, even more unlikely, is due to the actions of American actress Scarlett Johansson.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has warned that the slow pace of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could both damage Israel’s capacity to be a democratic state and result in more pressure for boycotts.  Speaking at an international security conference in Munich last weekend Kerry stated that,

“The risks are very high for Israel.  People are talking about boycott.  That will intensify in the case of failure.  We all have a strong interest in this conflict resolution.  Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100%, cannot be sustained.”

The US State Department was keen to emphasise that Kerry was not advocating the use of boycotts against Israel but that he was anticipating that the call would come from others, if Israel remained intransigent in negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, did not go as far as one of his more right wing ministers and suggest that Kerry was being used as a “mouthpiece” for anti-Semitic views.  Netanyahu did however suggest that boycott campaigns would only “push peace further away”, going on to state that,

“No pressure will force me to give up the vital interests of the state of Israel, above all the security of the citizens of Israel.”

Peace talks, which resumed in July last year, have shown little sign of movement and a US “framework” is expected to be presented in the next couple of weeks to kick start negotiations.  The pressure for boycott action grew last week when the Danish Danske Bank announced the severing of ties with Israel’s biggest bank, Bank Hapoalim, which has financed Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in breach of international law.  More generally, pressure within the European Union has been building to address the question of illegal Israeli settlements.

The Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been gradually developing a broad coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), churches and trade unions to pressurise EU governments over their failure to act on the issue.  The boycott movement is also gathering greater grass roots momentum in the US.

The sanctions issue was certainly boosted by the profile of Scarlett Johansson, who this week quit her role as an Oxfam goodwill ambassador, due to the conflict of interest with her sponsorship of the company SodaStream, which has a factory in an illegal settlement on the Israeli occupied West Bank.  While the question of sanctions is always a complex one Johansson’s decision to support the soft drinks company rather than her role with Oxfam does not appear to be the most ethical.  Johansson has cited a “fundamental difference of opinion” with Oxfam over the charity’s opposition to trade with Israeli settlements.

The BDS however claim that the momentum is with the boycott campaign.  BDS founder, Omar Barghouti, stated that,

“…the political atmosphere has changed towards enforcing international law.  Israel’s impunity is being eroded.  BDS is growing tremendously and that is affecting decision makers everywhere.  We are changing the discourse.”

There is some evidence Barghouti is right, with Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley last year losing 14% of their income due to UK supermarkets refusing to take their products.

While some opposition to a boycott has been expressed by Palestinians who work for SodaStream there is evidence of support in other quarters.  Activists have occupied an abandoned village, Melh al-Ard, in the Jordan Valley and have called attention to their plight by calling upon international supporters,

“…to stand with the demands of the Palestinian people and boycott all Israeli companies that work in the Jordan Valley and profit from Palestinian natural resources.”

The justice of the Palestinian cause is undeniable and the fact that Secretary of State Kerry has weighed in to try and break the deadlock must give some chance of progress.  If the EU and others who have sat on the fence, too afraid to be accused of anti-Semitism to criticise the Israelis, are prepared to move, the possibility of progress in the Middle East may become a reality sooner rather than later.

2nd February 2014

Fighting the right battles

You may well have heard of Ed Miliband but may not have heard the name Owen Jones.  They have both been making their opinions known this week in different ways.  One of them has called for the Labour Party to change its relationship with the trade unions, reduce the power of the union ‘barons’, and give more influence to individual Labour Party members.  The other has argued that the media in the UK do not take seriously the plight of the poor and disenfranchised and that opposition to the present government’s policies should mobilise around a nine point Agenda for Hope in order to change things.

The first call is from Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party, the second from Owen Jones, a journalist from The Independent, who’s full Agenda for Hope article can be found here http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/owen-joness-agenda-for-hope-we-want-a-fairer-society--and-heres-how-we-can-achieve-it-9086440.html    

As the clock ticks towards the General Election in May 2015 it is tragic that the Labour leader not only picks the wrong fight but picks the worst time to have it.  As the impact of austerity continues to ensure the lives of those in the lowest paid jobs, worst housing and poorest communities is governed by fear and uncertainty, where is the voice calling for an end to this uncertainty coming from?  It should of course be coming from the Labour Party and in particular from Ed Miliband as its leader.

The Independent probably does not have many readers amongst those whom Jones is suggesting we show solidarity but most of Miliband’s utterances will make the news, increasingly so as the election gets closer.  What Miliband chooses to prioritise is important as it helps set the political agenda and news agenda in the run up to the election.

It is naïve to suggest that the media is at Miliband’s beck and call, on the contrary, the predominantly right wing press will do its best to shift the ground away from the real issues of austerity and the responsibility of the banks for the recession.  Every opportunity will be taken to characterise the Labour manifesto as one which is economically incompetent and anti-competition.  This bias is a given in British politics, even with the relative weakening of the anti-democratic Murdoch empire.

It does not mean however that Miliband should play into the hands of the media by suggesting that internal Labour Party issues are the ones which are the most important to tackle at this point in time.  Even if Miliband’s intention is to highlight the lack of transparency in the funding of the Tories, or the links between Tory Party donations and the honours list, this is not something the media is likely to run with compared to internal divisions in Labour.

Whether the Agenda for Hope outlined by Jones is the best set of policies around which to mobilise or not it certainly has some merit.  It has the merit of outlining some areas of policy change which would deliver tangible benefits for ordinary people.  It sets out the need to address core issues such as housing, the economy, public ownership, tax avoidance, workers’ rights and childcare.  It may not be the full deal, some mention of international solidarity and combatting myths about immigration could be added, but it is a start.

Such an agenda is certainly more likely to get the backing of a majority of British voters than doing the Tories’ dirty work for them, by undermining the trades unions relationship with Labour and keeping political debate way from the real issues.

As Jones concludes in his article,

“The gentlemen’s agreement of British politics, which ensures that political debate is kept on the terms of the wealthy and powerful, has to end.  But our history shows that change is never given: it has to be demanded.”

The right wing media will do all in their power to ensure that the debate leading up the next General Election diverts our attention away from the real issues of power and control facing our society.  

Let us not give them more ammunition than they already have.

26th January 2014

Spot the difference

Ed Balls, Labour Shadow Chancellor, this week made a big speech in which he made two promises.  The first was to reinstate the 50p tax rate for those earning over £150,000 a year.  There is much debate about this in economic circles.  Will it raise money for the Exchequer?  Will it make any difference to those earning that much, who can find ways to duck and dodge the taxman anyway?  Will it simply hand the Tories a stick with which to beat Labour, whom they regularly accuse of being wedded to a ‘tax and spend’ philosophy?

In reality all governments tax and spend, that is what they do.   The debate is about who they tax, and by how much, and what they then spend the money on.  This brings us neatly to Ed Balls’ second, slightly less headline grabbing promise; to run a budget surplus by 2020 by keeping a tight control on public spending.  For good measure Balls promised to begin cutting the national debt during the course of the next parliament.

According to Balls,

“The latest figures show that those earning over £150,000 a year paid almost £10bn more in tax in the three years when the 50p top rate was in place than when the government conducted its assessment of the tax back in 2012.”

The alternative view is put by Katja Hall, policy director at the CBI, who claims that,

“We don’t believe that a 50p income tax rate is the right way to raise the money, because that puts talented people off coming to the UK to invest and create jobs.”

The CBI view seems at best overstated given the universal acceptance that the 50p tax rate is more of a symbolic position than a major money earner.

The real story is the one hidden slightly behind the 50p tax rate headline and that is the commitment Balls has made to run a budget surplus through control of public expenditure.  In government speak ‘control’ only ever means to reduce.  To reduce public expenditure usually means to hit the services and cut the benefits which are necessary to the most vulnerable sections of society.

There are, as ever, many ways to skin the proverbial cat, even the cat of public expenditure.  Central departments of government have suffered much less by way of cuts than local government.  This is the case even though they continue to indulge in wasteful procurement which would be shouted from the rooftops if it happened at a Council level.  Information technology procurement from the NHS to the Army has seen public money wasted on inefficient and unworkable systems.

The massive investment in the Olympic Games, while creating a mini boom in the South East, has not spread the joy nationwide.  A recent survey suggested that a net seven jobs had been created in North East England, for example, as a result of the Games.  Overseas military commitments are being wound down at present, and reductions made in the armed forces, but a commitment not to replace the Trident nuclear submarine system is still conspicuous by its absence.

The need for new affordable homes is acknowledged across the political spectrum but the freedoms for local Councils to create more housing are still tentative and need to be encouraged more actively.  The HS2 high speed railway, subject to much debate seems to be less capable of delivering economic benefits evenly than investment in local railway infrastructure, which can link regional centres more effectively.

A programme of public expenditure, correctly packaged as public investment which will benefit people’s lives and support the economy, is a strategy which the Shadow Chancellor needs to consider seriously.  Unless he does, Labour will be limited to aping the Tories on key questions in relation to the economy, to the point where voters will not be able to tell the difference.  Worse still, to the point where there may not be any difference.

 

 

19th January 2014

Preparing for tests ahead

The economy is back.  Not that it has ever been away but it is now moving to its favoured centre stage position as the main UK political parties position themselves for the run in to the May 2015 General Election.  There are some rehearsals along the way of course, not least local and European elections to be held on 22nd May this year, but these are rarely good proxies for General Election behaviour.

For a start turnouts are notoriously low in both the local and Euro election sphere with voters displaying apathy, incomprehension, or both.  A turnout of 30% is usually heralded a success, hardly a real test of voting intention.  Local elections do have their local issues, local personalities and the local party machines to fuel them, so are more likely to see division along traditional party lines. 

The elections to the European Parliament however are, in the UK at least, something akin to a by-election, where even the lunatic fringe stand a chance and the handful of voters who turnout are as likely to go for the bonkers option of UKIP as anything else.

This is certainly the fear of the Tories, who have been catapulting to the right on immigration and EU membership for some time to try and head off the UKIP threat.  While less specifically under threat from UKIP policy, Labour are more concerned that a ‘plague on both your houses’ line from voters will suck the few votes there are in the UKIP direction.  With proportional representation being the preferred method for Euro elections the UKIP fringe will not be hampered by the first past the post method of a UK General Election and could well gain seats.

The other trial run preceding the General Election is of course the Scottish independence vote which is scheduled for September this year.  Labour are probably the more concerned about this one as a Scottish secession from the union and, as a result, from the Westminster Parliament, would render Labour virtually incapable of achieving office again.  Without its Scottish quota of MPs Labour would be significantly diminished.

While the Tory writ barely runs north of the border, the commitment in principle to the union of the United Kingdom remains dear to the hearts of many Tories.  There is also the question of the revenues from North Sea oil to consider and the parking bay for Trident nuclear submarines at Faslane to wrestle with.  Beyond that Alex Salmond’s  promises to keep the Queen, the pound, membership of NATO and remain a part of the EU makes the offer to Scots look decidedly like independence-light, rather than the full blooded reversal of the 1707 Act of Union which is being heralded.

So, to the economy.  With all of these tests ahead the strangest of promises have been emerging.  George Osborne wants to see the minimum wage rise to £7 an hour, in line with inflation.  Not usually a friend of the poor, Osborne is clearly conscious that the ‘party of the rich’ tag, which the Tories have never shaken, will be no guarantee of them winning the next election.

Ed Miliband wants to reform the big banks, in an effort to persuade voters that Labour not only understand the economy but know what should be done with it.  This line may have had more credence if Labour had been more vociferous in blaming the 2008 crash on the banks’ gambling.  Instead, the Tory line that it was all Labour’s fault, continues to have more traction.

Everyone now wants to ‘control’ immigration and to ‘reform’ welfare, all of which euphemistically means pandering to the prejudices of Middle England as stoked up by the Mail and Express.

With official retail figures showing that spend increased by 2.6% in December compared with November, well up on the 0.5% predicted, George Osborne will no doubt take this as justification of the recovery being underway.  Whether the public can continue with such a spending surge in the months to come however remains to be seen.

 

12th January 2014

Divide and rule

Race and immigration are back in the headlines in the UK this week, fuelled by the decision that Mark Duggan was ‘lawfully killed’ by UK police, a shooting which led to rioting on the streets of London and other cities in the summer of 2012.  Duggan was being trailed by police who believed he had a gun and was bent on criminal activities.  It would seem that while Duggan may well have had a gun, he appears to have hurled it a good twenty yards before being shot dead. 

As is often the case police and eye witness accounts are contradictory and often confusing.  What seems to be in no doubt is that the gun was some way from Duggan before he was killed.  Quite which aspect of this saga make it ‘lawful’ is the point the Duggan family will continue to pursue. 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the incident relating to the death of Mark Duggan, there can be little doubt that most of those who took to the streets of Tottenham in protest at his death will not have known him personally, much less the thousands who took to the streets of cities across the UK.  This suggests that the incident involving Duggan hit a much deeper nerve amongst sections of the British population, especially those who are young and of a black or Asian ethnic origin.

The roots of institutional racism run deep in Britain, fuelled by a certain breed of politician and certain sections of the media.  Those with long memories will recall the ‘rivers of blood’ speech made by right wing Tory, Enoch Powell MP, in 1968 which sparked a debate about issues of ethnicity and cultural integration which has continued to rage.

There should be no doubt that this debate is invariably a question of colour prejudice, however it is dressed up.  Migration into the UK has historically been far higher from the ‘white’ Commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand than it has ever been from the African and Asian former colonies of empire.  There has not been a general tendency to demand the repatriation of ‘Aussies’ and ‘Kiwis’ however amongst the self-styled defenders of ‘the British way of life’, whatever that may be.

The policing of black and Asian communities in the UK has been different and institutionally racist for decades.  The growth of the National Front in the 1970’s was countered by the rise of Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League and a broad recognition by many that the contribution of people from different ethnic origins, especially in the cultural field was a benefit to the wider culture of the UK and redefined the ‘British way of life’ in a positive way.

While such organisations succeeded in taking the edge off the most extreme elements of far right propaganda, day to day policing in black communities has still been characterised by ‘sus’ laws, stop and search powers and deaths in custody to a far higher degree than for the ‘white’ population.  The lack of vigour with which the murderers of Stephen Lawrence were pursued has become the touchstone of police indifference in this area.

The government’s new Immigration Bill, aimed at limiting the rights which Romanians and Bulgarians enjoy under EU law, fits neatly into the pattern of scapegoating which has characterised national policy on this issue for half a century.  While the manufacturing base of the economy burns, the government fiddle the figures to make it look as though so-called ‘benefit tourism’ is the greatest of all ills.  Keep enough people looking in the wrong direction enough of the time seems to be the tactic.

A recent poll for the Runnymede Trust, reported this week on Channel 4, suggests that the government and the right wing press may not be getting things entirely their own way however.  The poll found that 78% of respondents, from a mix of ethnic backgrounds, believe that the media portrayal of ethnic minorities fuels discrimination.  Amongst people of Pakistani descent this figure increases to 94%, while amongst white respondents alone 76% expressed concern that media coverage encouraged racism.  Amongst those from Eastern Europe responding to the poll 89% thought media reporting contributed to racism.

Whether any substantial change will come about directly because of this one survey or even the outcome of the Mark Duggan case is doubtful.  That does not mean however that campaigning should not continue or that prejudice should go unchallenged.  On the contrary, now more than ever, the issue of racism has to be addressed at both the community and institutional level.  The wider issue remains that racism is a tool used to divide and rule; it is used to scapegoat minorities; and it is a device to distract us from the real power relationships in society.

Who benefits from racism, xenophobia and prejudice?  Is it the poor, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised?  Not likely.

5th January 2014

New year, new pay deal?

There is a story that Henry Ford, at the height of production of the famous Model-T, took one of his trade union reps around his factory.  Ford was proudly proclaiming the benefits of the assembly line and increased mechanisation, asserting that the use of robots would eventually eradicate the need for the trade unions members to produce the cars at all.  The trade union leader listened politely to Ford’s pontificating then merely commented drily, “And will these robots buy the cars as well?”

It was ever thus for the apologists of capital.  They may strive all night to cut labour costs, drive down their overheads and maximise profits for their shareholders.  When the morning comes however they still need people out there to have the disposable income to buy what they are producing, whether it is a car, a washing machine or the latest piece of electronic technology from Apple etc.

There is a point up to which people can fuel purchases of these goods through the use of credit but those bills drop through the letterbox eventually and, without a monthly pay cheque going into the bank, there is only so much creative accountancy the average individual or family can get away with.

The demand for better pay and improved working conditions is of course one of the raison d’etre of trade unions  but even capitalist economists are beginning to see that without some improvement in pay the much trumpeted UK boom is in danger of fizzling out.

People with more money will, on the whole, tend to spend.  That may be on big items such as houses, regular desires such as holidays, or renewing the family car.  It is also the case that the high street retail and service sectors benefit from more money in the average punters pocket, as does the arts and entertainment sector.  Generally speaking spending power in the economy gives employers the confidence to invest in and renew capital, in order to improve production and pursue new markets.

In the past year, consumer spending has increased, hence the talk of economic recovery.  However this has been in a situation where inflation has been running at 3% but the rise in average earnings has been closer to 1%, leading economists to conclude that spend has come from savings.  A bit like buying on credit, spending from savings can only go so far before there is a need to replenish supplies.  That is the point at which confidence will only come from a sustained increase in pay.

The coming year is seen by many economists as the one in which the employer investment side of the equation needs to kick in.  Cash rich companies can still take advantage of historically low interest rates and replace ageing capital stock.  The confidence to do that however will only come from the sense that consumers will continue to spend.  The conundrum to solve is that consumers will be more likely to spend if they feel they have decent pay levels and job security.

The Tory coalition has engaged us in a race to the bottom in terms of pay, terms and conditions, especially in the public sector.  The spending targets for local authorities and the NHS in the coming years suggest that this trend may be set to continue.  Whether it will result in the election outcome the Tories desire is another matter, especially if driving down wages in the public sector drags the rest of the economy with it.

As ever however, there are some winners.  Senior staff at Goldman Sachs in London were reported recently to have received average pay deals of £2.7m in 2012, up 50% on 2011, figures only revealed at all due to new EU disclosure rules.  Banks are preparing to hand out their 2013 bonuses in the coming weeks and it will be interesting to see how far above the average workers 1% their pay deals turn out to be.  Whether the 115 bankers at Goldman Sachs benefitting from such largesse will be enough to save David Cameron’s bacon come the next election is doubtful.  The difference in pay and expectations however is yet another example of where the priorities for the present government lie and who is looked after, even in the toughest of times.

Let’s aim to make 2014 a happy new year for the many, not just the few.