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20th December 2015

Saudi snake to eat itself?

 

The Saudi dictatorship has found itself in the news for two contrasting reasons this week.  The first was the local elections in which women were allowed to stand as candidates and even allowed to vote.  The second was the announcement that the Saudis had formed a military alliance with 34 other Muslim countries to fight terrorism.  Something akin to the Nazis forming an alliance to fight fascism?

The UK government and media reported the first of these news items as ‘progress’.  That would be from the 18th to the 19th century perhaps in social terms?  The second got little coverage, even though the Saudis fall into the category of ‘dictators we like’, as they buy lots of UK weapons, are opposed to President Assad in Syria and the Iranian regime at all costs.

In what was only the country's third-ever elections of any kind, the monarchic dictatorship gave women the right to vote, as well as to seek election to office.  Nearly 1,000 women ran throughout the country, but while there were 1.36 million men registered to vote, only 130,000 women could vote.

While 21 women were elected, the extent to which this marks any kind of progress is questioned by many Saudi women themselves.  Some women, like Aziza Youssef, who made a name for herself in the campaign to push the Saudi government to lift its ban against women driving, do not see the election as a significant step.

"I'm boycotting the election," she says.  "In my point of view, it's putting backward the women movement for rights. ... This election is just — it's for the West, it's not for us. ... It's good for our picture in the West."

Her daughter, Sarah Alkhalidi, agrees that the elections do not mean much.

"I can't open a bank account for my children that takes money out of my paycheck and, like, for a savings account for them.  I can't do that — their dad has to do that," Alkhalidi says.  "So it's like the whole guardianship issue. ... Even if my guardian tries to renew my passport, I can't pick it up.  He has to pick it up for me.  So I feel like these issues are more significant and more — like they have more influence on my daily life."

Guardianship rules dictate how women move around in Saudi society.  They move with the permission of men, a father, a brother, a husband or a son.  Men also act as so-called guardians who oversee women's choices and escort them in public places.

The so-called Islamic military alliance, devoted to fighting global terrorism, has got off to an interesting start, with some countries not even realising that they were a part of it.  Pakistan for example has asked its Saudi ambassador to get details.  Similarly the governments of Malaysia and Lebanon found, to their surprise, that they had also been signed up.  Even more bizarrely, nations such as Uganda, Gabon and Togo, not known for significant Muslim populations, have been baffled by their inclusion in the so-called alliance.

Those actual Muslim countries, which are consciously a part of the alliance, do not include Iran or Iraq, major Shia Muslim nations, or Afghanistan or Indonesia.  The Saudis are keen to claim that this is not a strictly Sunni alliance against the Shia Muslim world but on the available evidence that is hard to believe.

Quite apart from anything else, it is unclear what the alliance is aiming to do.  The closest to a manifesto so far issued is that "nothing is off the table" and that the alliance will not only have a military component but also tackle terrorist funding and ideology.  Saudi Arabia has also gone to lengths to suggest that the alliance would not be limited to attempts to fight the Islamic State, but would focus on terrorism in general. 

However, there is widespread scepticism as to how much effort the Saudis put into fighting Islamic State anyway given that IS targets both Iraq and Syria, not exactly friends of the Saudis.  Also the tackling of terrorist funding and ideology would entail the Saudi snake having to eat itself, given the role of Saudi clerics in spreading fundamentalism around the world, based upon the ultraconservative Wahhabi school of Sunni Islamic thought.

The Saudi record on democracy, human rights and the rights of women does not make it an ally the West should be proud to be associated with, however many weapons it buys.

13th December 2015

Does this change everything?

 

With a flourish of the already famous green gavel, French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, declared the deal was done.  The historic climate change deal, agreed in Paris yesterday by 195 nations, truly must be seen as a breakthrough moment, especially after the failure to get any international deal following the failed 2009 Copenhagen summit.  The deal commits nations to hold temperature rises to “well below 2C and endeavour to reach 1.5C” with each nation making an individual commitment to reduce carbon emissions.  The deal also sees a commitment by developed countries to raise $100bn a year to help poorer countries.  This figure will progressively increase.

The Kyoto conference in 1997 established the principle that climate change was on the international agenda but did not get agreement to significantly reduce emissions or monitor the effectiveness of the proposed actions.  The United States, the world’s largest carbon emitter at that time, stood outside of the Kyoto protocols.

The Paris deal relied, first and foremost, on both the US and China, responsible for 50% of the world’s carbon emissions between them, being on board.  Without them there would effectively be no deal of any consequence.  For both the US and China coal fired power remains a major part of the economic energy mix and there will be a strong lobby in both nations to resist the pace of change implied by the Paris deal.

However, in both Washington and Beijing there is a recognition of the fact that failure to address climate change will have longer term environmental and economic consequences.  More pragmatically, there is a growing recognition of the economic opportunities which investment in new green technologies could bring.  In short, the market is waking up to the reality that there is money to be made from carbon reduction. 

While economics rather than altruism may be a key driver, the fact that a deal has been reached at all should not be underestimated.  The 1.5C target was a key negotiating point of many smaller island nations, whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels, and even with that target there will be no guarantees.  However, even cities such as Shanghai, and areas of the US such as Manhattan and Miami, would be threatened by sea levels rising uncontrollably, so the 1.5C target has wider appeal.

The current pace of carbon emissions means that, even with the pledges of Paris, reducing emissions to limit global warming to 2C by the end of the century will be a tough ask.  There will undoubtedly be difficulties and conflicting pressures on the way but Paris represents a starting point and an aspiration to which global leaders must be held, once the euphoria of having reached an agreement dies down and the day to day business of implementation begins.

The science on the relationship between carbon emissions and global warming remains imprecise.  As Stephen Harrison of the University of Exeter has noted,

“Keeping temperatures to manageable levels also assumes that we know what the precise link is between atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and the global temperature response.  We don’t know this, nor the nature of natural feedbacks in the climate system that might drive future warming.”

However, as Emily Shuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey points out,

“The ice core and observational records show so strikingly how as humans we have dramatically altered our global atmosphere in such a short time, with all the attendant risks to this and future generations.” 

This recognition is the starting point for the implementation of the Paris deal.  If we as humans have done so much to alter the global atmosphere, it is our duty to do something to address the damage caused.

The Paris deal is also an opportunity to draw the attention of global leaders to the issue of priorities and what other action can be taken for the wider benefit of the planet.  The cost of investment in green technology and renewable energy is often cited as a barrier, for example.  How much more productively could the estimated £100bn cost of replacing Trident nuclear submarines be spent?  How about £100bn investment in the area of renewable energy technologies, rather than on weapons of mass destruction?

Repeat this equation worldwide and the cost of developing new energy technologies may not look so ominous.  Politicians will cry that life is not so simple and money cannot simply be transferred between projects in this way.  They are wrong, it can and it must be.  Paris is a start but the fight to save our planet from all means of destroying it does not end there.  The pressure on all fronts must be sustained.

5th December 2015

Cameron’s pyrrhic victory

 

The UK press and media had it mapped out as a bad week for Jeremy Corbyn even before it started.  Massive numbers of Labour MPs would vote with the government on the proposal to bomb Syria.  The Shadow Cabinet was so split that a majority would not follow Corbyn’s anti-war line and Labour would be plunged into further internecine battles.  To cap it all Labour would just squeak home in the Oldham West by-election, only holding off UKIP by a whisker.

Yet again, the BBC and right wing press have been forced by real events to tear up the pre-arranged script.  The government did win the vote in the House of Commons to extend airstrikes to Syria but only 66 Labour MPs voted with them, far less than ‘anticipated.’  The majority of the Shadow Cabinet voted with Corbyn to oppose the extension of airstrikes.  In Oldham West the Labour candidate was returned with a thumping 10,000+ majority, even increasing Labour’s share of the vote to 62.1%, up from the 54.8% of the General Election.

In a by-election which UKIP leader Nigel Farage had dubbed a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the outcome was doubly satisfying.  Farage’s protests that the Asian population had too many postal votes, and this had somehow rigged the outcome of the poll, was clearly such sour grapes that even his usual cheerleaders at the BBC could not give it any credibility.

The BBC did their best to talk up the contribution of Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, to the debate on Syria, as evidence of an alternative centre of power in the Shadow Cabinet.  In reality Benn’s speech was high on rhetoric but lacking in substance, when it came to the questions of how the UK had been steered into such a ludicrous foreign policy impasse, or how to get out of it. 

The assault on Corbyn’s leadership will not end with the events of this week.  Benn may yet emerge as an alternative leader but he will only do so on the basis of leading Labour back into the dead end politics of the New Labour years, a fate which must be resisted.

The Syria debate did serve to bring the Tory leader David Cameron’s views into the light.  At a meeting of backbench Tory MPs the night before the vote he had described those who opposed airstrikes as ‘terrorist sympathisers’, a slur for which he has failed to apologise and which will follow him to the graveyard of his political career.

Only one hour after the vote, RAF Tornado jets took off from Cyprus and were immediately bombing Islamic State positions in Northern Syria.  It would appear that a respectable period of reflection upon the debate, the vote and its outcome was not required before the RAF were required to act.

One of the claims which allegedly swayed some on the Labour benches was the claim made by Cameron, and backed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), that 70,000 moderate Syrian opposition fighters were waiting to be unleashed following UK airstrikes.  This is the same JIC which claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which could strike the UK “within 45 minutes”.  The JIC dossier, now passed into legend as the “dodgy dossier”, was presented to Tony Blair in September 2002 and became the basis of the argument for the ill fated invasion of Iraq.

Quite where the 70,000 moderates have been while 12 other nations have been bombing Syria over the past year has not been explained, nor has the likelihood of their appearance at the sound of the bombs of the RAF.  Even Cameron has moved his view of the 70,000 in a short space of time from stating last week that,

“Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.”

to a position articulated in his speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday where he stated,

“The majority of the 70,000 are from the Free Syrian Army.  Alongside the 70,000, there are some 20,000 Kurdish fighters with whom we can work.  I am not arguing – this is a crucial point – that all of the 70,000 are somehow ideal partners.”

In plain English the 70,000 Syrian moderates are from the same school of fiction as the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

While the British debated their position in the House of Commons, in Northern Syria, where real people are being really bombed, the Turkish shooting down of a Russian fighter plane was perhaps the most defining moment of the week.  With Turkey being a NATO member the potential for this to become a significant flashpoint was real and may yet be the real turning point in the conflict.

While discussions continue the key players, Russia, Iran and NATO, remain some distance apart.  However the reality remains that negotiations will be the only way forward and continuing to talk, through the UN, remains the only route for a solution to the crisis in Syria.  In essence this was the position, not widely reported by the UK media, that Jeremy Corbyn was taking in his speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday, widely supported by the majority of people in the UK.  Perhaps Cameron and his cohorts should take note, their victory may yet turn out to be a pyrrhic one.

 

29th November 2015

Welfare pays for warfare

 

The media and establishment campaign to de-stabilise the leadership of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn shifted up a gear this week.  The week opened with the Strategic Defence Spending Review, proceeded through the Autumn Statement of Chancellor George Osborne and was underpinned by a rumbling debate on the ethics or otherwise of bombing Syria.  These three strands of political debate are intrinsically linked and the extent to which the media has emphasised certain aspects of them is a reflection of the ongoing fear of the establishment that politics in the UK may be undergoing a sea change.

The Strategic Defence Spending Review commits the UK to meet the NATO target of using 2% of GDP on the military.  The main winners from the review were the intelligence services, special forces and the Royal Air Force (RAF).  Following the recent attacks in Paris, staff numbers at the GCHQ intelligence agency and in the security services are to rise, by 1,900 in total.  The SAS and other special forces will get a further £2 billion for new equipment.  The RAF will get a £12 billion rise in its ten-year equipment budget, to £178 billion.

There is a £2 billion programme to buy nine Boeing P8 maritime-patrol aircraft and the submarine-borne Trident nuclear deterrent is to be renewed, at an estimated cost of £31 billion.  Opponents of Trident estimate that this cost will be nearer £100bn over the lifetime of the programme.

Army reorganisation will result in two 5,000-strong “strike brigades” that can be sent off to fight at short notice.  Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, claims that the new brigades will not come at the expense of Britain’s ability to deploy heavily armed forces , as in Iraq or Afghanistan.  However, it is clear that as far as Fallon is concerned, whatever form it takes, UK boots on the ground are not ruled out.

By remarkable coincidence, the extra £12bn handed out to the RAF in the defence review is precisely the amount George Osborne is planning to take from the poor as part of his review of welfare spending.  The much trailed and long awaited Autumn Statement, last Wednesday, came with  so much spin attached it was impossible not to feel dizzy by the end of the evening’s news analysis.

The headline news was that Osborne had scrapped the £4.5bn reduction in working tax credits, due to be implemented from next April.  However, the abolition of the tax credit reduction did not come with any reduction in Osborne’s target to cut welfare by £12bn.  The universal credit system, which will replace tax credits over the life of the parliament, will be extended in April and have a creeping impact upon families as the range of existing credits it replaces are phased out.  The biggest losers, lone parents, could still find themselves £2,600 a year worse off.

Forcing Osborne to back down from the working tax credit cuts is a victory but it is a short term one.  Vigilance will still be needed to combat the impact of welfare cuts over the coming years.  As Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated,

“Cancelling the tax credit cuts will be welcomed by low income working families in the short term.  But many working families will still find themselves worse off due to upcoming reductions in universal credit.  By 2020 families with children will be better off only if both parents work full time on the ‘national minimum wage’, something only a small minority of families can manage.”

These families and others may take some comfort in the knowledge that the £12bn taken out of their pockets is being spent on RAF fighters.  That, presumably, is Osborne’s hope.

The Autumn Statement was predicated upon the assessment of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) suggesting that Osborne had £27bn he was not aware of to spend, thus cushioning the short term impact of some of the cuts.  The OBR found the extra £27bn by recalibrating its economic model and finding that it had been underestimating future receipts from income tax, corporation tax and VAT.  Essentially the OBR is guessing that more money will be available in the future, than they had guessed previously.

The only problem is that the OBR has not guessed very well in the past.  Their assumptions are based upon stable growth over the next five years and no increase in interest rates from the bank of England until early 2017 at least.  Not exactly ‘bankers’ by any stretch of the imagination.  Will Osborne cancel a few jets if the money does not come through, or will he squeeze the poor a bit harder?  No prizes for guessing, even guessing better than the OBR.

Finally, David Cameron’s ongoing campaign to reinforce the UK’s position as an Islamic State target continues apace.  Jeremy Corbyn has quite sensibly written to Labour MPs outlining his anti-war position, emphasising the fact that the statement by David Cameron in the House of Commons did not lay out a convincing case, in military or political terms, or on the grounds of national security. 

For the absence of doubt, what Corbyn said in his letter to Labour MPs was as follows,

“In my view, the PM has been unable to explain the contribution of additional UK bombing to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian civil war, or its likely impact on the threat of terrorist attacks in the UK.

For these and other reasons, I do not believe the PMs current proposal for air strikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it.”

A wave of vitriol in the media has been unleashed following Corbyn’s remarks.  The failure of the backstabbing tendency on the Labour front bench to support Corbyn has led the right wing press to conclude that Corbyn is out of touch with his own colleagues.  The reality however is that Corbyn’s colleagues are out of touch with the Labour membership and the country as a whole.

Anti-war protests took place in major cities across the UK this weekend, while Tory ministers rang around Labour MPs in an effort to persuade them to support bombing, in a vote which may take place as early as Wednesday this week. 

The position on Syria may well be defining for many Labour MPs.  For those on the front bench it should be.  Those failing to support the anti-bombing position should be sacked and take their chances with constituency parties when it comes to re-selection.

Those calling for ‘strong leadership’ from Corbyn should get exactly what they wish for.

21st November 2015

Air strikes make targets of us all

 

If anything serves as an example of the British government’s desire to justify its unnecessary levels of military spending the ‘case’ for air strikes on Syria takes some beating.  At present air strikes in Syria are being conducted by the United States, France, Australia and, until recently, Canada.  The Russians recently added themselves to that list but their air power has at least been co-ordinated with Syrian and Kurdish ground forces to some effect.

Up until mid November this year the majority of airstrikes from the US led coalition had been conducted by the US Air Force, a staggering 6,353 of the 8,125 conducted to date.  Of the remainder, carried out by other coalition partners, only 146 were in Syria.  Air strikes began in August last year.  In the period since May alone Islamic State have captured key cities such as Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq.  We have seen the devastation caused by Islamic State in Egypt, Beirut and Paris in recent weeks.

Quite how the argument that more bombs, and in particular British bombs, stacks up as a strategy to prevent this ongoing slaughter is something of a mystery.  The French response to the killings in Paris last week was to immediately bomb the Islamic State ‘capital’ of Raqqa, to little great effect other than the French being seen to flex their muscles and respond somehow.

Using the diplomatic route the French, jointly with the US, have formulated  a resolution agreed by the United Nations, asking countries to,

“take all necessary measures, in compliance with worldwide law, in particular global human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of Isil [Isis] in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Isil … and to eradicate the safe haven they have established in Iraq and Syria”.  

However, the resolution falls short of providing a legal basis for military action against the so-called caliphate.  Nevertheless UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, sees the vote as an opportunity to advance the case for air strikes more vociferously, stating that

"I will continue to make the case for us to do more and to build support in Parliament for the action that I believe is necessary for Britain to take to protect our own security."

Pointing out the contrary view Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in an attempt to inject some sanity into the debate, is expected to use a speech today to point out that the UK being "at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars" had undermined British security.

Cameron is also likely to cite the position of the foreign affairs select committee chairman, Crispin Blunt MP, to support his position.  The committee had previously taken a position against air strikes but Blunt now claims that “we are facing a completely different set of circumstances” and that the preconditions for air strikes in Syria had now largely been met.

The reality of the situation was revealed by Blunt however when he added,

“In truth, the importance of UK air strikes and the UK’s eight additional planes is more political than military.  It is in honesty a micro military issue.  There is no great military necessity for the UK to be involved since planes are queueing up from a wide range of countries over the skies of Syria.  There is not a shortage of assets in Northern Syria but a shortage of targets.  But there may be a political requirement to be involved.”

In spite of this there will be Labour MPs voting for air strikes.  The Tories will no doubt beat their chests in the usual gung-ho fashion.  Jeremy Corbyn will be accused of being ‘soft’ on terrorism, while the right wing press will cheer Cameron on in his mission to make targets of us all.

15th November 2015

Chaos needs call to cohesion

 

Killing innocent civilians in cold blood has always been the most cowardly form of political statement.  It is cowardly when carried out in the name of national security and it is cowardly when carried out in the name of national liberation.  It is cowardly when carried out in the name of religious fanaticism; Christian, Muslim or Jew.

In any war situation there will always be ‘collateral damage’, a term that has almost become a euphemism for the  unnecessary targeting of civilians, but which in reality is a recognition of the fact that, in any conflict, accidents will happen.  By the same token, it has to be accepted that in any conflict most people are non-combatants.  The many young people attending a concert at the Bataclan Concert Hall in Paris, those going out for a meal to the local restaurant, whatever their thoughts about the crisis in the Middle East, or Islamic State in particular, did not deserve the brutal executions they suffered.

It has been a brutal two weeks, of which the killings in Paris are the latest manifestation.  The bombing of the Russian passenger plane in Egypt recently was followed only a few days ago by the less widely publicised killing of 49 people in a bombing in a Hezbollah controlled area of Beirut.  Over 400 deaths in the three incidents and many more wounded, Islamic State claiming responsibility for each.

It is a grim irony that the latest killings overshadow the West’s celebration of the non-judicial execution of the terrorist Mohammed Emwazi, dubbed ‘Jihadi John’ by the popular press, just a few days ago.  The Paris killings have also overshadowed the significant advances made by Kurdish troops in re-taking the city of Sinjar from Islamic State, opening up the possibility of moving towards a critical assault on Mosul, and cutting off key supply lines for Islamic State fighters.

Islamic State have made a point, in their statement on the killings, of stressing the role of the French in air strikes upon Islamic State targets in Syria, stating,

“France and those who follow her voice must know that they remain the main target of Islamic State and that they will continue to smell the odour of death for having led the crusade, for having boasted of fighting Islam in France and striking Muslims in the caliphate with their planes.”

The French President, Francois Hollande, has been equally robust in his response, stating,

“We will be merciless towards the barbarians of Islamic State.  Faced with war, the country must take appropriate action.”

For the moment that action has been to declare a national state of emergency, the first in France since 1961; deploy 1,500 troops to support the police in Paris; and to announce three days of national mourning for the victims of the attacks.

Islamic State have also released a video, calling on Muslims to continue attacking France with the exhortation,

“…you have been ordered to fight the infidel wherever you find him.  What are you waiting for?”

With regional elections scheduled in France in two weeks time, there is widespread fear that the right wing, anti-Islam, Front National will pick up even more votes than expected.  While campaigning in the elections has been suspended, out of respect for those killed, Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, spoke immediately after the killings, stating,

“We are living the horror…yesterday evening the centre of France was struck by an exceptional barbarity.  It was an escalation of Islamist terrorism and the sixth time this year that Islamists have attacked our country…Islamic extremism must be crushed.”

The rhetoric on all sides is in danger of bending the reality to suit its own purpose, rather than looking at ways to de-escalate the tension.

France is widely quoted as having the biggest Muslim population in Western Europe,  with an estimated 5 million Muslims in the community.  However, that figure assumes that all those living in France of North African descent are Muslim.  A poll conducted by l’Institut Francais d’Opinion Publique (Ifop) in 2011 found that only 40% of that number called themselves “observant Muslims” and only 25% attended Friday prayers.  Recent events in the Middle East may have led to more radicalisation amongst some but the numbers are unlikely to have shifted so dramatically in such a short space of time.

Tensions within the North African community in France in recent years have not been about religion but about the lack of jobs, police brutality and racial discrimination.  The attitude of the right wing has been to marginalise this community as ‘Arabs’ or ‘Muslims’ but they are a largely secular community born and raised in France.  Many have no affinity with the culture of their first generation immigrant parents but are equally disenfranchised from mainstream French society.

Such a group is ripe for radicalisation of one kind or another, without action to support them there is the danger that the Islamists could prevail.

There is the clear danger that, for the supporters of Le Pen, the call to crush Islamic extremism will be read as a call to crush the North African community in France and further entrench both informal and institutionalised discrimination.

International talks on the future of Syria and exploring ways to resolve the crisis resume in Vienna this weekend, with diplomats from twenty nations involved in the discussions.  The interventions of the West in destabilising both Iraq and Syria have provided the ground in which Islamic State has been able to spread rapidly over the past eighteen months. 

Chaos has created the opportunity for Islamic State to grab land and resources.  Cohesion of some kind must be the outcome of Vienna.  Adding UK planes to the plethora of air power already ranged at Islamic State targets, as some will inevitably call for, will only add more fuel to the fire.  The West may have to give up on its ill fated attempt to overthrow Bashir al-Assad in Syria and its opposition to the Russians playing a role in any agreement.  Failure to do so will only mean that the killings and the chaos continue in the Middle East and, increasingly, across Europe.

8th November 2015

Soft targets, hard talking

 

It can only have been a matter of time before the ruthless fundamentalists of Islamic State found a way to strike at a soft target, which would lead to hundreds of deaths.  It seems increasingly likely that  the Russian jet brought down this week,  after take off from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, was the target of a terrorist bomb.  Soon after the breaking news Isis in the Sinai Peninsula made the claim that they had planted the bomb and claimed that they would produce evidence to this effect.  While no direct evidence has yet been forthcoming, circumstantial evidence appears to support the group’s claim.

The Sinai desert area is a part of Egypt but has long had an ambivalent relationship with the metropolitan centre in Cairo, with its nomadic Bedouin population being regarded as second class citizens by the Egyptian elite.  The attractiveness of its beaches and the development of the tourism industry at Sharm el-Sheikh however has resulted in an influx of the Egyptian middle classes, looking to take advantage of the boom which the tourism sector has brought to the southern Sinai area.

It is estimated that traditional Bedouin inhabitants now number as few as 25% of the half million official residents of the area.  The exclusion of local people from deals to exploit natural resources, like oil and gas, has further exacerbated the sense of injustice in the area.

The Sinai has a long border with Israel, including a direct connection with the Palestinian Gaza strip, and its history as a smuggling route has seen it play a role in supporting the beleaguered people of that occupied area.  In this context the potential for resentment and opposition to the established order in Egypt and the wider Middle East has, paradoxically, found fertile ground in the desert of the Sinai.

According to Mohammed Sabry, author of Sinai: Egypt’s Lynchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare,

“There is only one umbrella group, Wilayat Sinaa (Sinai Province).  It simply brought together every militant jihadist in Sinai and from across Egypt.  They all dissolved within the greater umbrella of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which began operating in 2011 and pledged allegiance to Isis in 2014 to become recognised as the strongest branch of Islamic State outside of Syria and Iraq.”

The response of the Egyptian army to Islamic militancy in the Sinai has been characteristically brutal, with a range of reprisals and military operations, more likely to create a new generation of militants then root out old ones.

To suggest that the West has little grip on the situation and fewer ideas about how to deal with it is an understatement.  Since 2000 the US has based its Middle East thinking on an influential document, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, published by the neo-conservative think tank, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).  The document’s main tenet is that the US should  "seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership"  arguing in further detail that, "The true cost of not meeting our defense requirements will be a lessened capacity for American global leadership and, ultimately, the loss of a global security order that is uniquely friendly to American principles and prosperity.”

Central to the US approach in recent years has been the shift in the relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.  One year before the administration of President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, top officials from the US and direct representatives of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, were holding regular meetings in Oman.  Those discussions were the starting point for the agreement which has been reached over Iran’s nuclear programme recently and paved the way for Iran’s inclusion in the talks on the conflict in Syria, being held in Vienna.

Even this ‘new approach’ brings problems for the West however, as rapprochement with Iran runs counter to current allegiances with the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and the Israeli regime, both of which see Iran as a direct threat to their strategic interests in the region.

The call of the hawkish UK Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, for UK involvement in the bombing of Isis targets in Syria seems unlikely to add to the chances of peace.  If the destruction of the Airbus this week was an Isis response to Russian intervention in the conflict, it seems unlikely that the chances of UK citizens being targets will lessen with increased air strikes.

The suspension of all Russian flights to Egypt indicates that the bomb theory is increasing in credibility.  The US Department of Homeland Security has announced additional airport security measures.  In a setback for tourism in Egypt, France and Belgium have advised their citizens against travelling to Sharm el-Sheikh, from where the Airbus A321 airliner took off before crashing in the Sinai desert.  Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands have suspended flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh.

The resumption of talks in Vienna, on the future of Syria later this week, will clearly be overshadowed by the Russian Airbus incident.  While the West is keen to see the removal of President Assad in Syria this is unlikely to be a position supported by the Russians and Iranians.  It will require some hard talking but without some kind of deal in Vienna the only certainty is that the killing and bloodshed in the Middle East will continue.  Quite where that will end is, at the moment, anyone’s guess

1st November 2015

Only chains left to lose

 

The Tories’ poor bashing tendencies were rather bizarrely curbed this week by the unelected House of Lords.  While the respite may well be temporary, given the government’s track record in this area, the debate which has been generated over working tax credits has once again exposed the Tories as the government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

It is ironic that just a month after the Tory Party Conference, where George Osborne proclaimed the Tories as the party of working people, the shallowness of that claim has once again been exposed.  The Tories’ plans aimed to cut £4bn from the £12bn George Osborne is looking to cut from the welfare budget.  The impact of the proposals meant that 3.2 million families would lose on average £1,300 per year, over £100 per month, to support the Tories justification of the need to “get the economy straight”, according to Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan.

The furore in Tory ranks has been more about the pace of cuts rather than the fact of the cuts in principle.  Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, with one eye on Holyrood elections next May, has claimed that the cuts need to be introduced more carefully, stating,

“It is not acceptable.  The aim is sound, but we can’t have people suffering on the way.”

Davidson is basing her judgement on the assumption that the proposed national living wage policy, announced by George Osborne, will kick in and fill the gap left by working tax credits.  As leaps of faith go, given the current trajectory of the economy, that is a significant one and not something which is going to give those families struggling to make ends meet much succour.

It is no secret that the stated aim of the Tories is to generate a budget surplus on year to year spending and on capital infrastructure.  The top rate of tax would be lowered, effectively paid for by the poor.

However, many economists are coming to the glaringly obvious conclusion that making the rich richer does not do enough to re-launch the economy, if the rest of the population have little to spend.  Aggregate demand is the fancy term for it, total spending in the economy is a simpler way of putting it.

In spite of the analogy made famous by Margaret Thatcher, running a national economy is not like running a household budget.  There is no economic logic to running a budget surplus for the sake of it.  On the contrary, the finance needed to spend and invest in long term projects to ensure that transport, building and technical infrastructure is modernised cannot be found from in-year budget management.

Short of calling upon the Chinese, or other foreign governments to build nuclear power stations or other infrastructure projects, the money must come from central government as part of a long term plan for the public good.  That will mean the government having to borrow in order to spend money to build things.  That will mean employing people to do that work.  Those people will spend more money and pay more taxes, money which goes back to the government.

Economics, even capitalist economics, is a bit more complex than that but the basic principles are there.  Of course, that does not really concern Cameron, Osborne and their ilk.  Any claims they make to help “hard working families” or to support the “working poor” are a fig leaf for their real objective of making the UK little more than a tax haven for international financiers.

The ripples of change are there however.  The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, on a clear anti-austerity programme is one such indicator.  The House of Lords vote, even though for a mixed bag of reasons, is another.  The People’s Assembly movement continues to gather momentum.  A new People’s Movement has just been launched to focus on the living wage campaign.  The Tories will continue to press ahead with austerity for their own ideological reasons, there is certainly nothing inevitable about the ‘solutions’ to the crisis which they are proposing.

They may find however that, as they push the poor down further and make the burden of the crisis even heavier, the poor come to some conclusions of their own; that they have nothing to lose but their chains, perhaps.

25th October 2015

The Reds are here

 

There was a time, in the days of the Cold War, when the reds coming was the mantra to terrify every school child and justify a whole range of insupportable policies, such as building nuclear weapons and supporting oil rich dictatorships.  The reds of those days were the Soviet Union, the long established bogey men of the West, having had the audacity to carry out and sustain a revolution, before going on to build a state which became one of the world’s two superpowers.

A combination of internal pressures and incessant external propaganda saw the defeat of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, to be replaced by the gangster capitalism eventually headed up by Vladimir Putin, with the Russians as little more than a pale alternative to the machinations of the West on the international stage.

In the mean time the Chinese have been quietly busying themselves building an economy of their own.  The revolution in Russia came in 1917, for the Chinese somewhat later, in 1948, so the socialist world invariably looked to the Soviet state for leadership, as the trail blazer on the world stage.  With the defeat of the Soviet Union the gradual emergence of the Chinese, as the only thing currently resembling a socialist superpower, has been an increasing feature of the world economy over the past twenty years.

Increasingly for Western economies the Chinese are the reds whom everyone wants to do business with.  While the growth in the Chinese economy has slowed recently, rates of expansion remain at levels Western leaders would give their eye teeth for, and the market potential of over one billion people has business in the West drooling.

There is also the issue that the Western neo-liberal model of capitalism is running out of steam.  The banking crisis of 2008 continues to reverberate and, while pundits talk up recovery, there is little on the ground to suggest that Western economies are doing anything but struggling.  This is at a time when, for the past six years, central banks have been applying all forms of stimulus known to traditional economic models.

Larry Summers, former US Treasury Secretary, has suggested that the combination of lower interest rates, cheaper currencies and quantitative easing has nowhere left to go.  In fact Summers has recently stated that,

“Long term low interest rates radically alter how we should think about fiscal policy.  Just as homeowners cannot afford larger mortgages when rates are low, government can also sustain higher deficits.”

In effect, Summers’ call is for a boost in public spending to restart economic growth.  The IMF shares that view.  Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, is also critical of the over reliance on monetary policy in Europe.

So, whatever the reservations of the West about China’s economic model, human rights policy or reach into many developing economies, its sheer scale of presence on the global stage can no longer be ignored.  The week long state visit of Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to the UK culminated in a statement which commits both countries to build “a global, comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st century”, pledging to “enhance bilateral trade and investment” and to deepen partnership between the financial and private sectors.

Major infrastructure projects appear to have been part of the deal with the Chinese having a stake, though not clearly defined, in the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative as well as stating that the UK “welcomes the progressive participation of Chinese companies in its civil nuclear energy projects”.  A feasibility study to look into a China – EU free trade area has also been agreed.

The government have claimed that the likely benefit of the Chinese visit will be deals worth up to £40bn to the UK economy, although there appears to be some confusion over how that figure was arrived at.  It is certain that cheap Chinese steel on the world market has been of no assistance to the nearly 2000 workers made unemployed last week with the closure of the steel works in Redcar.

The commitment to nuclear technology, which seems to be little more than a glorified private finance initiative in which the Chinese cannot lose and the UK foot the bill, is at the expense of investment in renewable energy technologies.  The government has just cut a meagre £9 a year subsidy for wind and solar power by 87%, although the Chinese will get a guaranteed £92.50 per megawatt hour, double the usual price, for the nuclear deal.

Cameron and Osborne may be heralding their week long kow-tow to the Chinese leadership a success but it is yet to made clear how the people of the UK will reap the rewards in the long term.  Hopes appear to be being pinned on a ‘special relationship’, the benefits of which have proven dubious in other areas.  

How the political dynamics with the rest of the EU and how the relationship on the UN Security Council, the UK and China are both permanent members, develops will be interesting to watch.  Whether the Chinese are to be the saviours of Western capitalism remains to be seen, it is certain though that capitalism in the West feels it cannot do business without them.

18th October 2015

Act against the arms trade

 

Much has been made this week in the UK media of the decision by Prime Minister, David Cameron, to cancel a £6m contract to provide advice to the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia on how to run its prison services.  Justice Minister, Michael Gove, has been feted in some quarters, reviled in others, as a closet ‘liberal’ for being the architect of the cancellation.  Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond has allegedly accused Gove of naivety.

Anyone who witnessed the dismantling of comprehensive education in the UK under Gove in the last government would be hard pressed to endorse any ‘liberal’ credentials and, in the context of the government’s wider approach to relations with Saudi Arabia, cancelling a £6m contract appears to be little more than a smokescreen.

The prison contract cancellation is supposedly a reflection of the government’s concern over human rights abuses in the desert dictatorship but the wider relationship with the Saudis suggests that some crocodile tears may have been shed in the past week.

Since the Tories came into government in 2010 the UK has licensed £4bn of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.  The Stockholm based International Peace Research Institute estimates that the UK is the world’s biggest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, providing 36% of all Saudi arms imports.

The UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation (UKTI), a front for UK businesses looking to deal with the Middle East in general, has identified that the “global policing and security market has ballooned”, seeing political uncertainty and crisis in the region as a business opportunity.

UK business is meant to be conducted through the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) policy that, in its own terms, is meant to ensure that security and justice activities are “consistent with a foreign policy based on British values, including human rights.”

Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is seeking an independent review of OSJA and has written to David Cameron, stating,

“By operating under a veil of secrecy, we risk making the OSJA process appear to be little more than a rubber stamping exercise, enabling the UK to be complicit in gross human rights abuses.”

There is no evidence that Cameron has responded to this request although The Observer does report today that,

“The UKTI is offering grants to support businesses, including those selling security equipment, to take part in overseas exhibitions aimed at specific emerging markets, notably Saudi Arabia.”

As the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) point out, over 100 people have been executed in the first six months of this year in Saudi Arabia.  As CAAT state,

“The Saudi regime has an appalling human rights record, yet it remains the world’s largest buyer of UK weapons.  How many more people will be tortured and killed before the UK government finally says enough is enough?”

In terms of the wider politics of the region the UK continues to back the Saudis as a counter weight to the growing influence of Iran.  The Saudis have actively opposed the Assad regime in Syria, supplying weapons to the opposition, many of which have fallen in to the hands of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.  There has been more than a hint in some quarters that Saudi weaponry ending up with Islamic State has been no accident, with the fundamentalists seen as a further bulwark against Iranian influence.

At a time when the UK Parliament is moving towards a vote on increasing the chaos in Syria, by adding UK airplanes to the conflict, it is ironic that UK weaponry is already playing a major role in the crisis by the back door.  We can only hope that will be a consideration in any Parliamentary vote.

 More information on the Campaign Against the Arms Trade can be found at https://www.caat.org.uk/

 

10th October 2015

Baking for a better world

The Great British Bake Off has become something of a television institution in the UK in a very short space of time.  So much so, that the BBC estimated an audience of 14 million people watched the final on Wednesday night, when Nadiya Hussain emerged as the competition winner, much to the delight of the many millions watching.  It was clearly Nadiya’s baking skills which won her the coveted award but for many it was also her charm and personality which were a winning combination.  This may hardly seem remarkable but as an overtly Muslim woman, who wore hijab throughout the competition, Nadiya’s victory brought into sharp focus key questions of what is meant by both ‘great’ and ‘British’.

Inevitably there are two ends to this spectrum.  The right wing UK paper The Mail, and its sister paper The Mail on Sunday, positioned themselves at one end of the scale.  The Mail group has deviated little in its political line since the now infamous Hurrah for the Blackshirts! editorial by its owner Viscount Rothermere in January 1934.  From a stable blessed with this pedigree the following comment on the up and coming Great British Bake Off final, in the Mail on Sunday last week, by columnist Amanda Platell was characteristic,

“We are left with Muslim mum Nadiya Hussain, gay doctor Tamal Ray, and New Man Ian Cumming.  Poor Flora Shedden never stood a chance.  She was far too middle class – and was booted off this week after her chocolate carousel was deemed sub-standard.  Perhaps if she’d made a chocolate mosque she’d have stood a better chance.”   

There will no doubt be conspiracy theorists, those who regard the BBC as ‘too left-wing’ for example, who may wish to make something of the fact that the Great British Bake Off final was broadcast  on the last day of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, featuring the key note speech by Tory Party leader and UK Prime Minister, David Cameron.  It will certainly have attracted more viewers.

The real juxtaposition however is with the speech made by UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, last Tuesday.  May went out of her way to attack immigration as a threat to social cohesion in the UK, suggesting that migrants were causing British workers their jobs and that they were making it impossible to build a cohesive society, stating,

“Of course immigrants plug skills shortages and it is right we should try to attract the best talent in the world, but not every person coming to Britain right now is a skilled electrician, engineer or doctor.”

May went on to say that,

“For people in low paid jobs, wages are forced down…while some people are forced out of work altogether.”

going down the age old Tory route of scapegoating ‘foreigners’ for unemployment, in spite of the fact that the evidence suggests that immigration does not cause significant displacement from the labour market.

More significantly such comments are in themselves a threat to social cohesion by fuelling the sort of prejudice which gives rise to the ‘simple’ answers pedalled by the likes of UKIP and the BNP.  If this is May’s philosophy of ‘Britishness’ it has more in common with the nineteenth century than the twenty first and certainly has little that can be deemed ‘great’ about it.

Not to be left out David Cameron, in his conference speech on Wednesday, took on the subject from a different angle with a vitriolic attack on Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.  Cameron used the time honoured device of misquoting your opponent, then attacking what he is alleged to have said, to justify your own political point.

Cameron turned his fire upon Corbyn for allegedly claiming that the death of Osama bin Laden was a tragedy.  Plumping himself up to full self righteous ‘leader of the nation’ mode Cameron stated,

 “You only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a ‘tragedy’.  No.  A tragedy is nearly 3,000 people murdered one morning in New York.  A tragedy is the mums and dads who never came home from work that day.  A tragedy is people jumping from the towers after the planes hit.

My friends, we cannot let that man inflict his security threatening, terrorist sympathising, British hating ideology on the country we love.”

It is bad enough that this is bombast of the highest order, it is made worse by the fact that it is dangerous bombast from a political leader who should be seeking to promote social cohesion, not dissolve it.

What Jeremy Corbyn actually said is widely available but was not reported by the BBC when covering Cameron’s speech.  Needless to say, Corbyn’s comments were somewhat more nuanced than Cameron suggests.  In an interview with Iran Press TV, speaking about the extrajudicial killing of bin Laden, Corbyn said,

“I think that everyone should be put on trial.  I also disagree with the death penalty under any circumstances.  On this there was no attempt whatsoever, to arrest him, to put him on trial, to go through that process.  This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy.”

For the record it is also worth noting that Corbyn has made his position on how tragic the World Trade Center attack was, stating,

“The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy.  Tens of thousands of people have died.”

Quite what can be described as “security threatening, terrorist sympathising, British hating ideology” in any of Corbyn’s statements is only something David Cameron and his ilk can work out.  They certainly feel threatened by his plain speaking ability to connect with the British people, whatever their creed, colour or ethnic origin.

Like The Mail newspapers, the Tories are out of touch with the realities of what is truly ‘great’ and what is truly British in the daily lives of the people of the UK.  Speaking at the Durham Book Festival this weekend, writer and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, had a much clearer assessment.  The ability of the British people to welcome, absorb and adopt a diversity of former Empire cultures makes the UK unique in Western Europe.  Whatever the evils of Empire, and there were many, the contacts between ordinary people, able to share insights into their extraordinary cultures, is still a positive outcome.

A Muslim woman winning the Great British Bake Off will not change the world, but it may be a sign that the world can still be changed, for the better.

4th October 2015

No ‘good guys’ in Syria

 

Russian bombs in Syria are an outrage, it would seem.  Not United States or French airstrikes; not Saudi and Qatari equipped anti-regime opposition units; not UK funds, being poured in to support ‘moderate’ rebels but ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.  The Russians are, after four years of civil war and external intervention in Syria by all of the above, the bad guys.  This narrative is hugely convenient for the NATO military alliance and is being used as a smokescreen to get the West off the hook for the political and humanitarian calamity taking place in Syria.

For the ordinary people of Syria external intervention has merely been a precursor to catastrophe.  The initial opposition to the Assad regime was hijacked so quickly by external forces that it remains difficult to assess how much popular support it would have gathered.  The Assad regime is by no means a model of democracy, based as it is on a family autocracy which has ruled Syria for close to fifty years.  Syria’s Iranian ally, an Islamic theocracy that tortures, imprisons and exiles any real opposition, does not look much better.  Putin’s Russia hardly merits inclusion in the list of the most inclusive democracies on the planet.

In short, those forces ranged in support of the Assad regime and against Western intervention, hardly have clean hands.  Unfortunately, those who have taken it upon themselves to intervene in the Syrian conflict, the Russians are the only ones invited in by the existing government, do not fare much better.

Democracy in Saudi Arabia and Qatar is non-existent.  Turkey does have an elected government but also has an alternative agenda in settling its own score with the Kurdish independence movement.  The track record of the NATO led Western interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya does not augur well for the fate of ordinary Syrians.  The chaos following Western intervention in both Iraq and Syria has allowed Islamic State to take advantage of the weakness of both states and make its own push for territory.

For US President Barack Obama to suggest this week that intervention by Russia into this arena is a “recipe for disaster”, has more than a hint of ‘closing the stable door after the horse has bolted’ about it.  For those remaining in Syria and for the many making the treacherous journey to seek refugee status, ‘disaster’ has long since struck.

The disaster in the Middle East is the unravelling of nearly 100 years of Western foreign policy, which has sought to sustain ‘friendly’ dictatorships, in order to guarantee the flow of oil. 

Intervention by NATO has been selective and based upon support for regime’s or opposition groups sympathetic to the West.  Initial intervention in Afghanistan was in opposition to the communist regime in the 1970’s; in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, a dictator initially backed by the West in opposition to Iran; in Libya to support opposition to Colonel Qadafi, resulting in tribal chaos.  In Syria the intervention has been to back the opposition to Bashar al-Assad regime, not a Western ally.

Western troops have not been mobilised to support opposition in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Bahrain.  Little is done by the West to restrain the Israeli military machine in its crushing of resistance to occupation in Palestine.

Good guys?  Bad guys?  As ever, such over simplifications do not fit the Middle East.

Ultimately, there must be a political solution to the situation in Syria but more blood will be shed before that is reached.  The intervention by Russia is part of a wider struggle to assert influence and reshape the regional balance of power.  As the West loses its grip on the region, other forces are beginning to make their play.  A Russian backed alliance stretching from Iran, across Iraq and into Syria would form a powerful presence in the region.  In part, the Western intervention is aimed at resisting this, while at the same time seeking to minimise the influence of Islamic State.  The Sunni based Saudis, in alliance with the West, want to arrest the spread of Shia Muslim Iran.

At the moment there are no clear winners in Syria, the losers however remain the Syrian people.

27th September 2015

Scrapping Trident and cowardly generals

 

 

As the Labour Party prepare for their first conference under new leader Jeremy Corbyn, the establishment backlash against Corbyn’s election continues to rumble.  The most outrageous story of the week centres on the comments of an ‘anonymous’ Army General that if Corbyn became Prime Minister, committed to leaving NATO, scrapping Trident or reducing the military budget, there would be the “very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) condemned the remarks but ruled out the prospect of an inquiry, on the basis that it would be almost impossible to identify the culprit from the 100 or so generals serving in the army.  Whether this means the MoD think all 100 share this view, or that none of them would be brave enough to own up to it, is not quite clear. 

Given the extent of the remarks, widely quoted in the press, it would surely not be beyond the wit of the MoD to at least make a show of identifying the perpetrator.  After all, imagine the following being said about the military response to an incoming leader in any other Western democracy,

“You would see a major break in convention, with senior generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over vital, important policy decisions such as Trident, pulling out of NATO and any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.  The Army just would not stand for it.  The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that.”

Outrageous, anti-democratic, scandalous, worthy of a robust and assertive response at the very least!  You may well think.  The Ministry of Defence plumped itself up and let out a roar fit for the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz,

“These remarks are not helpful.  No one thinks it is a good idea for a senior serving officer to undermine a potential future government.”

Well if that doesn’t make those pesky generals quake and help us all sleep safely in the embracing arms of British democracy, nothing will.

Quite how the concept “to jeopardise the security of this country” is defined is at the heart of the anonymous general’s statement.  The illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a significant act of jeopardy to “the security of this country”.  Engagement in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have all contributed, directly or indirectly, to jeopardising “the security of this country.”  Invading Muslim countries gives Islamic fundamentalists the excuse they need to engage in acts of terrorism against UK military and civilian targets, in the name of holy war against the West.  The recent massacre in Tunisia is clear evidence of this.

In the eyes of the generals none of these military adventures have jeopardised “the security of this country” yet these very actions result in the UK military being a target, as well as “jeopardising the security” of civilian citizens doing little more than enjoying time on a beach.

The political and military establishment in the UK are desperate to sustain their role as world policemen, although junior to the United States these days, and maintaining an inflated military budget is key to this.  Every opportunity is taken to reinforce this view, from the events to commemorate the centenary of World War One, to the 70th anniversary of victory in World War Two and this week’s activities to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

When so many families are touched by the tragedy of wars, those long past and those present, it is difficult for politicians to argue that the way forward is to de-escalate our role in conflict, cut back on our military capability and prioritise diplomacy over weaponry.  It is also difficult because many jobs are tied up in the military industry and its supply chains.  The trade union movement is not united in its opposition to Trident for example, for precisely this reason.  Scrapping Trident is seen as a threat to jobs in the defence sector and it is a danger that unions will prioritise the immediate interests of their members over those of society more widely.

In order to win this argument Corbyn needs to tread a fine line between the threats of the generals and the concerns of the defence workers.  Scrapping Trident should be an opportunity to unite both sides of this particular line.  Off the record, many generals acknowledge that Trident is of purely symbolic rather than any practical military value. 

Getting rid of Trident should not, in itself, present a threat to the scale of conventional military forces, which it is widely accepted we will continue to need.  Reassurance that scrapping Trident does not mean scrapping conventional defence should satisfy enough of the generals to at least open up the debate.  At the same time a planned programme of re-investment in socially useful job creation, working hand in glove with defence sector workers to identify alternatives to manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, should also be feasible.

Scrapping Trident is a worthy and necessary objective but it must be seen to be part of a planned strategic process, rather than being portrayed as a kneejerk reaction.  It will not be easy but the end will be worth it.

20th September 2015

Europe – last resort of the desperate

The calamitous consequences of the past century of Western policy in the Middle East continue to unfold, as thousands of migrants are forced to seek sanctuary from war zones in affluent Europe.  The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which divided up the region following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the first World War, laid the basis for the current exodus.  Subsequent interventions, to support a wide range of oil rich dictatorships who would be sympathetic to the West, characterised the twentieth century approach to the region.  The unravelling of Western patronage as the people of the Middle East have sought to find their own voices, in a variety of forms including militant Islam, has been one of the pressures leading to the current crisis.

In addition, the well documented Western military interventions in recent years have exacerbated the widespread feeling that the Middle East has been little more than a resource rich supplier for the West.  While a handful of rich sheiks and oligarchs have benefitted from such an approach, the reality for the peoples of the region has been quite different, with little in the way of democratic or financial benefits flowing their way.

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 was arguably the turning point.  After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, suddenly the radical Islamist groups had found a new cause and a new fight.  They learned new tactics and the dream of a caliphate that would spread across the Arab and Muslim world began to take shape.

As al-Jazeera journalist, Imran Khan has noted,

“Angry that the US had invaded another Muslim country, money and weapons were donated in huge number from Muslim countries by individuals who might never have thought about donating to a cause that was violent in nature.  Once irrelevant, al-Qaeda became a threat again, and for the first time the group found a foothold in Iraq.”

The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Syria have built upon the ongoing displacement of millions of Palestinian refugees, to swell the numbers of those who have lost their homes, their livings and often their families, as the tide of political and economic restructuring sweeps the Middle East.

While the Western media focus has been upon the thousands who have made their way to Europe many more refugees are in the countries surrounding the key areas of conflict in the Middle East.  Lebanon, a country of just under 6m people, has absorbed an estimated 2 million recent refugees to add to the thousands of Palestinians, many of whom have been there for sixty years.  A further estimated 2 million refugees are displaced into the other countries of the Middle East, many escaping the conflict in Syria and the prospect of a draconian form of Islam imposed by Islamic State.

An estimated 350,000 refugees and economic migrants are currently the focus of the crisis in Europe, a continent of 500m people, so presumably capable of absorbing such relatively small numbers. 

However, for most refugees, to flee to Europe is very much a last resort.

Culture, religion and language are all alien and, as recent events in Hungary, Serbia and Croatia have shown, there is no promise of a warm welcome.  Even the ostensibly magnanimous action of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in opening the doors to Syrian refugees, was seen to have many caveats once the surface was scratched.

Europe clearly needs to come to an agreed position of accepting the need for a quota system, to give those refugees who find their way to Europe safe haven.  However the wealthy Gulf States, beneficiaries of Western military support and providers of oil and other resources, continue to apply strict rules in relation to refugees, in spite of many taking to social media to suggest that they have a duty too. 

The apparent failure of Muslim governments to look after fellow Muslims is already being exploited by extremists' propaganda as they allege that this is further evidence of current Muslim rulers' "apostasy" and disdain for the "ummah", arguing that only their Islamist state or caliphate can provide for Muslims' welfare.

With conflicts in Libya and Yemen currently ongoing, but not yet adding to the steady flow of refugees in the region, the problem is only likely to get worse.

Addressing the current refugee crisis and dealing with the humanitarian issues is only the beginning.  Addressing the rise of Islamic State and the causes of that rise, in the form of the economic disparities and inequalities in the region, is a longer term proposition. 

The fate of the region is in the hands of the people of the region and the defeat of Islamic State will only be complete when the people of the Middle East are leading that rout.  To that extent recent activity in Iraq is promising, with mass protests having gripped the country since the end of July, of which the Iraqi Communist Party states,

 “The popular uprising has come as an expression of the explosion of people’s anger as a result of the failure of governments of the sectarian-ethnic power-sharing system, both at the federal and provincial levels, and the inability of governments to run the country, serve the interests of the people and the country and provide the bare minimum of security and services for a decent dignified life, as well as failing to effectively combat terrorism and its instruments, including the terrorist organization ISIS (Daesh).”

Action from within, and international solidarity for such action, are the first steps in the return of the Middle East to the people of the region, with progressive governments committed to serving the interests of the people.

12th September 2015

Corbyn clinches it; the gloves are off!

 

The right wing entryist clique, which has been extending its grip over the Labour Party for the past thirty years, suffered its first major setback today with the election of veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.  This represents a serious blow to the Oxbridge set who see the Labour Party as an alternative career in politics and gives hope to those for whom the convergence of Labour and Tory policies over the past decades has alienated them from politics.

The media conspiracy against Corbyn has been gathering momentum as the likelihood of his success became clear in the past month.  Questions have been raised about his association with left-wing groups; his support for liberation movements; his defence of those who are unemployed or forced into welfare; and his opposition to billions being spent on weapons of mass destruction, in the form of the Trident nuclear submarine programme.  

While all of the other candidates dithered and equivocated Corbyn set out a clear position in opposition to the Government’s anti-people austerity programme.  This is what has engaged so many new people in the political process, not the machinations of the left or the trade unions, as the right wing media would have us believe.

Corbyn’s response to all of these attacks, from both the media and the other leadership candidates, has been to stand firm and defend what has clearly been a principled position on key issues of concern to the British people.  The expressions of pique from the camps of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are testament to their failure to read the mood following the election defeat in May.  The test of Corbyn’s approach has been the extent to which his campaign has enthused thousands of new supporters, many of them young people, to join the Labour Party, to engage them in political debate and to take them seriously.

While the Tory front bench have been sneering behind their well -manicured hands at the prospect of a Corbyn victory, the guard did slip recently when George Osborne suggested that Corbyn would be a threat to national security because of his opposition to Trident.  Osborne’s outburst represented the first sign that the ruling circles in the UK may take the prospect of a Corbyn victory seriously and that it may threaten their cosy consensus with the Labour careerists.

The leadership victory is of course merely the first step.  Reactionaries within the parliamentary Labour Party are already plotting to undermine a Corbyn leadership and are alleged to have had ‘informal discussions’ after Parliament returned from recess this week.  Many of the reactionary group have been stating that they would not serve in a Corbyn Cabinet assuming, somewhat prematurely, that they would be invited to do so anyway.  A Cabinet without Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, or even Andy Burnham, would hardly be a disaster.

The press in the UK has euphemistically termed the reactionaries within the Labour Party as ‘modernisers’, hence the assertion in the Independent newspaper yesterday that,

“Modernisers fear that the left would seize the levers of power in the party while Mr Corbyn is leader – giving more control over policy to its annual conference and national executive committee and less influence to the Parliamentary Labour Party.”

Outrageous indeed!  A party that must be responsive to its membership and those elected to its NEC, rather than being controlled by those selected to be its Members of Parliament.  Who would contemplate such a thing?  Clearly not Labour’s so-called ‘modernisers’ that’s for sure.

The coming weeks will undoubtedly see a major battle to bring the Labour Party back to its true role of representing the needs, hopes and dreams of working class people.  The firepower of the right wing media will be ranged against the Left.  The Tories will do their best to caricature such a Labour leadership as a threat to ‘the nation’.  The defeated heirs of Blair and Mandelson will wring their hands about Corbyn’s unelectability and how the Left have hijacked their project, failing to realise that this is not a hijack but a rescue mission.

Perhaps for the first time in thirty years in British politics, the gloves are off!

4th September 2015

Cutting through the nuclear smokescreen

The focus upon Iran’s nuclear programme in recent years has seen the issue of human rights in the Islamic Republic take second place in the West.  Now that a deal on the nuclear issue is on the table, the pressure for domestic political reform in Iran needs to be stepped up.  

The protracted negotiations, involving Iran and the P5+1 group of nations, which concluded in Vienna in July, appear to have secured a deal which is both acceptable to the West and the regime in the Islamic Republic.  In exchange for closer inspection of Iran’s nuclear centrifuge production and limitations on its domestic nuclear energy programme, the West will begin the process of lifting the economic sanctions, which are crushing the Iranian economy.

As ever with any deal on such a scale, there is a quid pro quo.  The assistance of Iran and the Shia militia it supports in Iraq and Syria has been vital for the West in tackling the rise of Isis.  While co-operation between the Islamic Republic and the West has not been formally acknowledged, there is considerable evidence to support the reality on the ground.  It is clear that such co-operation would be undermined by an Iran buckling under the weight of economic sanctions.  The momentum to find a path to a nuclear deal has therefore been accelerated.

While the Iranian regime has been smiling to the West it has been less flexible in its dealings with internal pressures.

In fact, the response to internal dissent has intensified over recent months as trade unionists, political activists and human rights campaigners face increased harassment from the regime. 

In May, the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) launched an appeal calling for the release of trade unionists jailed in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The appeal took the form of a letter to Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013, on a platform of greater reform and transparency in Iran. 

The CODIR statement was also linked to the demands for economic reform in Iran, calling upon President Rouhani,

“…to fulfil the promises he made during his 2013 election campaign to act on the legitimate demands of Iranian workers for a decent living wage and the right to form, join and belong to a trade union of their choice.”

Since July 2014, large groups of workers, including miners, auto workers, teachers and nurses across Iran, have taken to the streets and demonstrated outside the Iranian Parliament to demand their rights, as set out in international conventions. 

CODIR Assistant General Secretary, Jamshid Ahmadi, underlined the significance of keeping the fate of trade unionists in Iran in the public eye.

“Over the years we have received many reports of workers and trade unionists being arrested, imprisoned, fired and deprived of their livelihood,” he said.  “Many trade union activists are serving prison sentences for the sole 'offence' of being trade unionists and campaigning for decent wages and improved working conditions.  We hold that no workers should be detained in prison for demanding their internationally accepted rights.”

ILNA (Iran’s Labour News Agency) is the only news agency authorised by the Islamic Republic of Iran to provide limited coverage of labour related news and developments.

However, on 20th June this year, the entire ILNA labour affairs group were sacked on the spot by Chief Executive, Massoud Heydari.  Preceding the mass sacking the web site of ILNA had stopped covering labour news for 2 days.  There was no official statement by ILNA for this decision.  News in the social media sphere within Iran revealed however that there had been major disagreements between ILNA’s labour affairs group and the management, especially on editorial interference, gagging orders and pressure for self-censorship.

A letter from the sacked journalists, released by CODIR, substantiated social media claims that management interference in how news was covered was key to the dispute.  In particular, the protest by workers from the Farsit Daroud factory on 18th June was characterised by management as being unjustified because the demands were excessive.

As the sacked journalists asserted in their letter, “we as the journalists are not in a position to pass judgement on the legitimacy of the workers’ trade union protests…our duty is to publish this news”.  

The journalists indicated that the most important aspect of their dispute with management concerned the setting up of a trade union body within ILNA, in order to advance legitimate demands for paid overtime, shift payments and holidays.  Two days after management received a letter outlining these demands, signed by all ILNA’s journalists, editors and typists, the mass sacking occurred.

As CODIR has emphasised previously, the action against trade unionists is part of a coordinated policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to maximise pressure upon activists, their colleagues and family members in order to silence them and pressurise the trade union movement in Iran.

It is vital, at this time when the eyes of the world truly are upon Iran, that the success of the negotiation around the nuclear issue is not used as a smokescreen to hide the limitations of the Islamic Republic on the domestic front.  Trade unionists, political activists and human rights campaigners must maintain the pressure upon the Iranian regime and press for the freedoms their colleagues languishing in Iran’s prisons deserve.

The full version of this article is available in the current issue of Iran Today, published by the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian people’s Rights (CODIR), available at www.codir.net

23rd August 2015

Tsipras bails out


The transformation of Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, from alleged left wing firebrand to darling of the international banks was completed this week.  The signing of a third memorandum, or ‘bailout’ for the Greek economy marks a remarkable departure from the anti-austerity posturing of Syriza at the time of its election earlier this year.  The writing was always on the wall when Syriza eschewed any coalition of the Left for an alliance in government with the right wing nationalists of ANEL and insisted, without any prompting, of their continued support for both the EU and NATO.

Tsipras has called snap elections for the 20th September which are, in effect, a referendum on the terms of the new deal with the EU, European Central Bank and the IMF, the so-called ’troika’ with whom Greece has been negotiating.  In the terms of the new deal the government  is burdening the people with a new loan worth €86 billion, accompanied by savage measures including the further reduction of  people’s income; new heavy taxes; the maintenance of ENFIA (the new property tax);  a significant increase of VAT on items of mass popular consumption; the reduction of pensions; the implementation of a new and more draconian social-security regime, the gradual abolition of EKAS (supplementary pensions for poor pensioners); and increased privatisation of state assets.  

If this package is not austerity then it is hard to see how else it can be described?

Inevitably, the same blackmail tactics are being used to browbeat the Greek people as those that have been deployed repeatedly for 5 years now in order to make them accept austerity measures.  If the memorandum is not accepted, the argument goes, a new even harsher memorandum or state bankruptcy, via an exit from the Eurozone is likely and would be even worse.  On each of the previous two occasions austerity has been presented to the Greek people as the “lesser” evil but has inevitably led  to the greater evil.  The SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government today is using the same tactics and rhetoric.

The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) has once again made clear its opposition to austerity and reinforced its critique of the tactics of Syriza stating,

“The KKE from the beginning argued and demonstrated that SYRIZA did not want and was not able to prepare the people for the confrontation against the memoranda and the monopolies, both Greek and European, precisely because it has no orientation for resistance and conflict.  On the contrary, it did what it could to keep the people passive, so that they would sit and wait to cast their “protest vote” in the elections.  It deceived the people that it could pave the way for pro-people changes, inside the predatory alliance of the EU.”

In calling the election for September Tsipras has claimed that he felt “ a moral obligation to place this deal in front of the people, to allow them to judge…both what I have achieved, and my mistakes.”

Syriza itself, in any case a loose coalition of forces, has split over the issue with 29 MPs leaving to form the Popular Unity party headed by former energy minister, Panagiotis Lafazanis.  In its initial pronouncements, the new party has pledged to oppose austerity and leave the Eurozone, “if necessary.”

Lafazanis has insisted that,

“The country cannot take more bailouts.  We will either finish off the bailouts, or the bailouts will finish off Greece and the Greek people.  The country cannot breathe and stand on its feet unless a big part of the debt is cancelled.”

Whatever the outcome of the election on 20th September the fate of the Greek people will be in the hands of the European banks, more than in the hands of those who may be voted into parliament.  Without a massive shift in the balance of power in Greece, in favour of the working people, the illusion that growth and prosperity for ordinary people can be found within the capitalist EU alliance will persist.

The KKE has called for all anti-austerity forces to take to the streets and oppose the new memorandum while demanding real people’s power in Greece, through the formation of a strong labour movement and people’s alliance.  It may sound like a step too far for some but for the Greek people, there may be little else left to try.

16th August 2015

Cuba /US - small steps towards normalisation

The official ceremony opening the U.S. embassy in Cuba took place on 14th August, although the embassy has been functioning as such since 20th July.  Hundreds within the grounds and surrounding area witnessed what has been described as a historic event.

The flag raising ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Havana was led by Secretary of State, John Kerry, and constituted the official opening of the diplomatic mission.  Special participants were James Tracy, Mike East and Larry Morris, the three Marines who lowered the flag in 1961.  The three carried the U.S. flag raised in front of the building located on Havana’s emblematic waterfront.

Embassy Charge d'affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis welcomed the U.S. delegation, as well as the Cuban, led by Josefina Vidal, the Foreign Ministry’s director for the United States, commenting that the day marked a new beginning in the two countries’ relationship.

The Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco recited his poem “Matters of the sea-Cosas de mar,” followed by Kerry’s remarks, in which the Secretary of State emphasised that the time was right for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The formal opening of the embassy, and Kerry’s visit to Cuba, concludes the first phase of efforts underway to normalise relations, announced on 17th December by Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama.

Kerry’s visit is the first by an American Secretary of State since 1945, in the period before the revolution, when the island was little more than a playground for prostitution for the American corporations who bled the economy for decades.  Without any apparent irony, Kerry used his speech to call for “genuine democracy” in Cuba.  With the US corporations now gearing up to bankroll a successor to Barack Obama, in a presidential election in which less than 50% of the people usually vote, the Cuban people could be forgiven for not taking any lessons in “democracy” from the United States.

The Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parilla, held a joint meeting with John Kerry and discussed the next steps, as the countries move toward normalising relations.  Rodríguez said that, to begin this next stage, agreement had been reached to establish a Bilateral Commission to identify questions which can be addressed immediately, as well as more complicated issues which have accumulated over the past 50 years.

In this context, Rodríguez indicated that in the coming weeks, representatives from the two governments will meet to establish the working framework for this Commission.

Referring to the speech made by Kerry at the U.S. embassy’s opening, the Cuban Foreign Minister said that despite differences, a bilateral dialogue and increased collaboration between the two countries is possible, reiterating that Cuba is willing to talk, accepting the fact that it will be difficult to reach agreement on some topics.

Rodríguez emphasised that during his meeting with Kerry at the Ministry’s headquarters, he had reiterated Cuba’s call for an end to the blockade as an essential step towards normal relations, in addition to the return of territory illegally occupied by the United States at Guantánamo Naval Base.

He likewise noted that progress must be made on the issue of compensation for damage caused to the Cuban people by 50 years of an aggressive policy of economic blockade.  Rodríguez reaffirmed Cuba’s commitment to re-establishing relations based on respect for the country’s sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs.  Despite the differences, he said, it is possible for the two governments to establish constructive relations, which will be different from those of the past.

A few days before the Embassy opening, participants at the 6th Assembly of Caribbean Peoples, which took place in Main Camp in Curacao, approved a statement in which they demand that the President of the United States, Barack Obama, put an end to the economic, financial and commercial blockade of Cuba.

Representatives of trade union, political, feminist, environmental, campesino and youth organisations from 12 countries of the area also called on Obama to return the territory illegally occupied in Guantánamo to the Cuban people.

The Assembly recognised the material and human resources provided by the governments of Cuba and Venezuela to promote the wellbeing and socio-economic development of Caribbean countries, a project that began ten years ago thanks to the solidarity of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.

(With thanks to Granma – Official Voice of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee for detail in this report – find out more at http://en.granma.cu/)

9th August 2015

Don’t Leave Nagasaki

Little Boy pushed his way to the front,

Had to be first in the queue.

Fat Man groaned as the boy shoved past,

‘Hey son, I was there too.’

 

In the cold war light the atomic flash

Turned people to shadows on the floor,

Shedding thousands of tears in the seventy years,

Since opening the nuclear door.

 

Don’t leave Nagasaki burning

With the shame of this regret

Don’t leave Nagasaki wondering

Why no justice yet?

 

At The Hague they try war criminals

So the world can understand,

But there is no space to try the case

Of the melting of Japan.

 

The United States stands for freedom,

The United States stands for law.

Is there anyone outside of the United States

Who believes that, anymore?

 

Don’t leave Nagasaki burning

With the burden of this war crime.

Don’t leave Nagasaki thinking

That there could even be a next time.

 

 

Note

 

“Little Boy” was the name given to the atomic bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. “Fat Man” was the name given to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later, on 9th August 1945.  An estimated 70,000 people died in each of the bombings.  Tens of thousands more have died subsequently from burns and radiation.

 

 

2nd August 2015

Roots of migrant crisis missed

Governments across Europe are wringing their hands over the migrant crisis, which is on the agenda of the EU and in every European parliament.  Scenes of chaos from Calais this week have given this issue a particularly Anglo-French feel, although Greece and Italy have featured recently as key points of entry for those fleeing poverty or persecution in North Africa.  On one level the solution is quite simple; stop bleeding the economies, or fighting proxy wars in North and Central Africa, so that the population can settle and thrive.

In all of the heat generated by the discussion in Europe, it is forgotten that the wealth of European nations has been built upon the enslaving of Africans; exploitation of their labour and natural resources; and stringent military and political control over many African nations, to the detriment of their development.

The distorting impact of European support for apartheid in South Africa has been well documented, in terms of the inequalities in that particular country.  South Africa was also the dominant political economy in the south of the continent, which meant that the distortions of the South African economy were reflected in those of the surrounding countries of Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and beyond.  South African military intervention in those countries was also a distorting factor, only resisted by the strength of the liberation movements and, in the case of Angola, external support from Cuba.

While the apartheid regime policed the south of the continent a series of unstable dictatorships ruled the central and western areas of the continent, usually linked to their former imperial paymasters for economic support.  Relative stability in certain parts of East Africa historically relied upon strong links with former colonial powers, primarily the UK and France.  Recent activity by al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya has seen a change in the perception of this part of the continent.

The unravelling of North Africa has been documented in the so-called Arab Spring, with the decline of dictatorships formerly supported by the West having been replaced by dictatorships either more ambivalent to the lure of the West or part of a degeneration into historical tribal warfare.  The continents biggest country, Nigeria, remains locked in a conflict with Islamic extremists Boko Haram in the north, while attempting to establish coherent democratic processes across the country

Little of this, across a huge resource rich continent, speaks of stability, security or prosperity for the majority of Africans.  The lack of investment in a public health infrastructure or universal education, by elites concerned that their power would be undermined, has meant that poverty and disease remain prevalent in huge parts of the continent.

The lack of equity in relationships with former colonies is fertile ground for the various forms of Islamic extremism which have been able to take root in parts of Africa, from al-Qaeda, to al-Shabab, to Boko Haram and recruitment to Islamic State from across North Africa.  The appeal of such groups is limited to the few so, against this background, it is little wonder that people trafficking to prosperous Europe has become a roaring trade across Africa and the Middle East as people look for a better life.

It was typical of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, this week in commenting on the migrant crisis to turn it into an opportunity to say how well the UK economy is doing, stating,

“You have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs…”

This is not quite true.  Of the 180,000 migrants who have reached Greece or Italy by sea this year only a few thousand have made their way to Calais.  In the first four months of this year over 250,000 people claimed asylum in an EU member state of which only 7,000 claims were made in the UK.  Nearly 40% of applications were made in Germany.

While the right wing press are quick to demonise the illegal immigrant hanging from the back of a lorry bound to the UK from Calais, the reality is different.  Most estimates suggest that 80% of illegal immigrants are likely to be those who have come to Britain legally and overstayed, certainly more likely to be Australian than Eritrean.  Those currently arriving in the EU, in Greece and Italy, are predominantly Syrian with some Eritreans, Afghans, Somalis and Iraqis, fleeing civil war, violence and oppression of one kind or another.

David Cameron may not like to hear it, and the Daily Mail may not rush to print it, but the migrant crisis in Calais goes deeper than unleashing “more dogs”.  The sooner the West admits to the need to address the causes of the migration crisis rather than simply addressing, somewhat poorly, the symptoms, the more chance there will be of finding a solution.

26th July 2015

Corbyn calls the shots

Just a few weeks ago, the idea that lifelong Leftie and perennial backbencher, Jeremy Corbyn, would be shaking the political establishment in the UK would have appeared to be the stuff of dreams.  Yet he is little more than a whisker away from becoming the next leader of the Labour Party.  The accepted wisdom amongst the political literati at Westminster is, not so much that Corbyn’s message has resonance with the Party and the public, but that the other candidates are failing to get their message across, leaving the field clear for Corbyn by default.

It is ironic that this argument is exactly that which the Labour establishment use when criticising the Left’s assessment of the General Election result.  The Left, goes the argument, cannot accept the political reality of Labour’s defeat and are blaming the electorate for ‘getting it wrong’ by not voting for the platform offered by Ed Miliband.  This is a gross caricature but is the same argument dressed up in new clothes when looking at the leadership contest.  Labour Party activists are lining up to vote for the ‘wrong’ candidate, how can they be so foolish?

The Labour leadership has for so long been an apologist for the City of London; signed up to the US led NATO military alliance; accepting of the need for ‘austerity’ as outlined by George Osborne; and scared of being characterised as defending those on benefits, that it cannot believe it when someone comes along and simply challenges these things.  They find it hard to believe that there is also a huge constituency out in the country who will support Corbyn’s stand on these issues and may even be persuaded to vote for a Labour Party that puts them front and centre.

In tackling this phenomenon the sophistry of the politically sophisticated is simply breathtaking.  Corbyn, they argue, is attracting support from ageing diehard Lefties, looking for a last hurrah before the stable door is bolted, and the naïve young activists who do not know any better.

Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer (27/07/15) is the epitome of this tendency, commenting  that,

“Things inevitably feel different to younger generations, for whom Margaret Thatcher and the Militant Tendency are history that they never lived.  The young have been shaped in reaction to the experience of New Labour in power and the failure of Miliband Labour to unseat the Tories….To younger audiences, I can see why the Piped Piper of Islington can sound like a refreshingly idealistic change from the robotic mantras of besuited career politicians.”

Rawnsley may have added the ‘robotic mantras of besuited parliamentary journalists’ to the last sentence but perhaps he had a ruthless editor.   

It may come as something of a shock to Rawnsley and his ilk but, if they paused to look out of their study window, they may find that large parts of the country have suffered profoundly after five years of austerity.  There is no indication that those who have suffered over the past five years are set to fare any better in the next five.

It may be that the discouraged, the disaffected and the dispossessed see in Corbyn someone who will stand up for them.  It may be that the upsurge in support for Corbyn within the Labour Party is not a misdirected idealism but a recognition of the fact that five more years of Tory government will decimate the little that post war Labour governments did achieve.  This is caricatured as Labour resorting to the politics of protest rather than the pragmatism required to regain power. 

However, whatever Tony Blair and his current incarnation, in the form of Liz Kendal  may think, Labour in government exercised very little power.   They won three elections, and were undoubtedly in office, but in reality the power remained with the banks and corporations of the City of London, as ever, to whom Labour gave more latitude and freedom than ever.  Blair has said that he saw himself as the heir to Thatcher.  It is difficult to come up with an assessment more damning than that.

The reality is that the political establishment view Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, even the SNP in Scotland, and growing popular movements across Europe, with trepidation.  They see, in even these relatively tame expressions of opposition to austerity, a threat to the established order.  Even a slight shaking of the tree is a worry for them. 

Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership of the Labour Party will not change the realities of politics in the UK overnight.  In such a position Corbyn and his supporters will be demonised by the BBC and the rest of the right wing media, as a threat to the state.  Right wing Labour will licks its wounds but re-group and look to challenge Corbyn before the 2020 election.  It will be messy, it will be unpredictable and there can be no certainty about the outcome. 

However, a Corbyn victory is the best chance there has been in some time to galvanise the Left in British politics around an alternative vision for society and re-energise the interest of the young and old in politics across the UK.  The grass roots are stirring around the People’s Assembly movement.  As unlikely as it may have seemed at little while ago, Corbyn may yet be poised to give popular opposition to the Tories a figurehead.

19th July 2015

One true blue nation?

The one-nation rhetoric, from Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, following the Tory election victory in May, was always going to be a smokescreen.  The Tories are only ever interested in keeping on board enough of the working class vote to get them elected.  That means that if enough people are in work, enough of the time, and anyone on benefits can be demonised as a scrounger, there is a reasonable chance of hanging on to office.  Whatever the high-falutin rhetoric of the pundits, that is the story of the last election.

Having successfully pulled off that confidence trick on the nation, it would be unlike Cameron and Osborne to leave it there.  The so-called emergency budget of 8th July further reinforced the message that work should pay and benefits are for the lost, the lame and the losers.  The language was not quite so blunt.  Much talk of ‘hard working families’ filled the air.  Raising the lower earnings limit on taxation was heralded as a great leap forward.  More childcare places a startling innovation.  A higher minimum wage touted as evidence of Tory commitment to the working poor.  The limit on benefits came down from £26,000 to £23,000 for those in London and £20,000 for those outside.

All very well if the economy is delivering the jobs to absorb those who require them, at rates of pay capable of providing them with a living wage, but the evidence is not promising.  Job creation remains slow and in largely insecure, low paid areas of the economy; private sector investment is still limited as banks and companies sit on cash mountains and await the outcome of the Eurozone crisis; public sector investment is not prioritised and major infrastructure projects are delayed as Osborne promotes ‘austerity’ as the route to growth.

The recently announced Trade Union Bill compounds the fact that Tory one-nation rhetoric is little more than hot air, with a crackdown on trade union rights described by a number of leading trade unionists as  “more savage than even many activists were expecting.”

The proposals contained in the Trade Union Bill include:

•strikes would be unlawful unless 50 per cent of those being asked to take action vote in the ballot

•in key public services (education, health, fire, transport, border security and energy), there must be a 50 per cent turnout, and 40 per cent of all those eligible to vote must back the strike

•unlawful picketing would become a criminal offence

•unions would have to renew any strike mandate within four months of the first ballot

•the rules banning employers from hiring strike-breaking agency staff would be repealed

•unions to give employers at least a fortnight’s notice before the start of any action

•new limits on the amount of time any public sector workers can spend on trade union activities

•union members would have to opt-in to paying a union’s political fund.

The application of such restraints is not proposed for those making investment decisions in companies, or those deciding to which political party to donate company funds.  The eligibility to vote restrictions will not apply in local, parliamentary or European elections.  The current Government enjoy their position with the active backing of only 24% of the electorate.

It is assumed that the “opt-in to paying a union’s political fund” will automatically reduce how much unions have available to contribute to the Labour Party.  In the short term this may well be the case but the plan could backfire if the Labour Party address the concerns of union members to such an extent that they actively do support their policies.  Quite how likely that is, given the current array of leadership candidates is a moot point, but the race is shaping up to be more interesting than at first expected.

Ultra-Blairite, Liz Kendall, darling of the right wing media, is struggling to get nominations from Constituency Labour Party branches.  Front-runners Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are doing better but not showing as strongly as they would like.  The wild card is Left Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, who is garnering more support than expected from constituencies and trade union activists, keen to see Labour return to its roots. 

This had prompted the Daily Telegraph to, ironically, call upon Labour to elect Corbyn as leader as he would, in their view, be ‘unelectable’ in a General Election.  It has also got the softer Left leaning press worried that their misplaced assessment of Labour’s defeat, that they need to appeal more to the middle classes,  may not be bought into by many party members themselves.

It will be interesting to see how the contenders for the Labour leadership address the Trade Union Bill as it progresses through Parliament.  Jeremy Corbyn’s position at least, will be clear.  Corbyn’s position on the call by the TUC and anti-austerity campaigners, for a demonstration outside the Tory party conference on 4th October, is not difficult to predict.  The worrying thing is that there is no guarantee that leadership front-runners Burnham or Cooper will be there.

13th July 2015

Power from the barrel of a gun

The Greek people face a terrible choice as they look down the barrels of the gun pointed at them by the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank.  They face the prospect of death by further austerity measures, in a new ‘bailout’ deal, or death by expulsion from the Eurozone and a return to the drachma.  It is even possible that they may be hit by both barrels and exit both the EU and the Eurozone in one fell swoop.  Sections of German capital would like this, preferring not to carry the burden of weaker economies within the single currency.  The French, playing the part of capitalists who believe in social responsibility, are trying to keep Greece in the Eurozone and the EU, albeit on draconian terms.

The Greek people, if one is to believe the media, have had their say in the 5th July referendum in which they voted ‘No’ to the terms of the bailout then on the table from the EU, only to find themselves, several days later, being asked to say ‘Yes’ to terms worse than the original offer!

In the debate leading up to the referendum vote, Dimitris Koutsoumpas, General  Secretary of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) had warned the government,

“…the KKE clearly pointed out to you that you were calling on the people to take part in a referendum with a “yes” or “no” that only had superficial differences, as both the “yes” and the “no” meant the acceptance of a new memorandum, perhaps worse than those we have already seen.”

It now transpires that this is the case and the Greek people, thinking that they had voted against continued austerity, are likely to be faced with even greater austerity if  a third memorandum and ‘bailout’ terms are agreed.

The real tragedy for the Greek people is that they are being led down a path of illusion by so-called left wing forces in the form of the Syriza led government.  Characterised as far Left by the Western media, Syriza has nonetheless consistently taken positions which support continued EU and NATO membership.  Negotiations around the third memorandum or bailout have focussed upon restructuring Greek debt so that payments are spread over a longer period, the argument being that there will be more resources left to re-build the economy.

However, with the economy having shrunk by 25% in the past five years it is difficult to see how increases in VAT, more public sector wage cuts and a further squeeze on pensions is going to lay the basis for growth.  In fact, these sound remarkably like the austerity based policies which have failed the Greek people for the past five years.

The current Greek government may well accept these terms as the price for, what to them is the holy grail, of remaining in the Eurozone.  The EU finance ministers and banks may not pull the trigger because Greek exit from the currency would send out negative signals to the market and potentially undermine confidence in the euro.  The only guaranteed losers in either scenario are the Greek people, the only winners, in the short term at least, will be the EU banks and finance houses.

In the longer term the question is just how much austerity can the Greek people take.  After them how much will the Spanish, Italians, Portuguese or Irish tolerate?  The contradictions inherent in the EU will not go away, indeed they are only likely to increase as the struggle for markets in Europe continues.  The United States, the Far East and China will all be eyeing developments in Europe with interest waiting to step in where the euro project fails.

Until the EU is truly a Europe of the peoples, rather than the Europe of the bankers, there can be no long term solution to the crisis.  Where the Greeks go today, much of Europe may follow tomorrow.

 

 

5th July 2015

 

Middle East – the people must be united       

 

Further discussions between the Western P5+1 group and the Iranian government are to resume in Vienna on Tuesday.  The talks are aimed at restricting the development of Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West claims is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.  Iran has been steadfast in its claim that the programme is purely for the purposes of energy generation.  The carrot held out to the Iranian regime is that of relief from Western sanctions, which are crippling the Iranian economy.

 

The bigger picture inevitably includes the Israelis, who regard Iran as a major regional threat, and have periodically threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear plants.  The Israelis remain quiet about their own US backed nuclear programme which, in regional terms, is a far greater threat than anything the beleaguered Islamic Republic can muster.

 

More widely still the conflict in Syria and Iraq, with the Western forces ranged against the Islamic State (Isis), is one in which the West have covertly courted Iran’s backing.  The government in Iraq is of the Shia Muslim variety, as are the Iranians, while Sunni Muslim Isis has received covert support from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.  The fact that the Gulf states and Saudis are also Western ‘allies’ does not appear to be a contradiction for them.  If Isis can in any way dislodge the Shia government of Iran, that would suit them.

 

For the West a formal accommodation with Iran could allow for a more concerted push against Isis, at the more extreme end of the Sunni spectrum, while still keeping the oil rich Gulf states and Saudi Arabia on board.  Re-asserting strategic hegemony, in a region which is falling apart due to the botched interventions of the West, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, remains a key goal of the US, NATO and the European Union states.  There is not a clear path to such a goal and strange alliances will continue to be a feature of the dynamics of the region for some time to come.

 

For the population in the Middle East the realities on the ground remain grim.  The Palestinians continue to be besieged by the Israelis, with periodic bombing excursions with little international sanction.  The consequence of the collapse of Libya is a mass of warring factions vying for control.  Iraq and Syria are under threat from Isis.  Afghanistan is set to see the return of the Taliban to some role in government.

 

The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) have this week drawn attention to the fact that journalists in Iran have been sacked for reporting on labour disputes in the country as the government seeks to keep a close grip on internal dissent.

 

ILNA (Iran’s Labour News Agency) is the only news agency authorised by the Islamic Republic of Iran which is allowed to provide limited coverage of labour related news and developments.  On 20th June, the entire ILNA labour affairs group were sacked on the spot by Chief Executive, Massoud Heydari.  Preceding the mass sacking the web site of ILNA had stopped covering labour news for 2 days.  There has been no official statement by ILNA for this decision. 

 

CODIR has released a letter from the sacked journalists which substantiates social media claims that management interference in how news was covered was key to the dispute.  The journalists indicate that the most important aspect of their dispute with management concerned the setting up of a trade union body within ILNA, in order to advance legitimate demands for paid overtime, shift payments and holidays.  Two days after management received a letter outlining these demands, signed by all ILNA’s journalists, editors and typists, the mass sacking occurred.

 

CODIR also revealed news this week of the detention of Ismail Abdi, a member of the board of the Teachers Union.  Abdi was detained on 21st June, when attempting to pass through the border crossing into Armenia.  Officers at the border prevented him from leaving the country and confiscated his passport.

 

Abdi was travelling through Armenia on his way to visit Canada to participate in the annual Education International Annual conference.  Instead he was asked to report to Evin prison.  Mr Abdi has been in trouble with the authorities of the Islamic Republic over the protest by teachers demanding better salaries, improved conditions of service and job security.  Nearly 70 teachers accompanied Mr Abdi when he attended the session to answer questions by the authorities.  They were worried that the authorities may attempt to arrest him, fears which turned out to be justified.

 

Since last July, large groups of workers, including miners, auto workers, teachers and nurses across Iran, have taken to the streets and demonstrated outside the Iranian Parliament to demand their rights, as set out in international conventions. 

 

The voices of the people of the region do exist and have been voiced in a joint statement recently signed by the Tudeh Party of Iran, the Lebanese Communist Party, the Communist Party of Sudan, the Iraqi Communist Party, Progressive Tribune – Bahrain and the Kuwaiti Progressive Movement.

 

Part of the statement provides the following analysis,

 

“It is now evident that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel have reservations about the US policy of accommodating an Iranian powerhouse with significant influence in certain parts of the region. One consequence of this situation has been a sharp upsurge in the proxy wars in a number of countries of the region and in particular Syria, Iraq and Yemen with catastrophic human, economic, cultural and environmental consequences.

 

In our view this drive to ethnic and religious conflict, war and terrorism in the region, if not challenged and brought to a halt, could rapidly engulf other countries with unimaginable consequences.  We believe that the communist parties of the region have a historic responsibility to campaign against attempts to divide any country of the region along ethnic and religious lines.”

 

The joint statement shows that there are many in the Middle East opposed to the religious and ethnic division of the region and in favour of uniting the people of the Middle East in common cause.  Continuing to support them in these efforts is more vital now than ever.

 

 

28th June 2015

Isis feeds on democratic void

The weekend headlines in the Western press are filled with the horror of the 37 tourists massacred on a beach in Tunisia by a single gunman.  In France, the security alert has been raised to its highest level following the discovery of a decapitated body, which appears to have been linked to an attempt to blow up a US gas company factory.  Buried more deeply on the inside pages is the news that, on the same day as the other attacks, 27 people were killed in an attack on the Imam al-Sadiq mosque in Kuwait.  The common theme amongst all three attacks appears to be a connection with Islamic State (Isis).

The attack on the mosque in Kuwait City is perhaps the most significant in terms of the long term course of developments in the Middle East.  Stirring up Sunni/Shia sectarianism is part of the Isis game plan.  The attacks on tourists and in France should not be underestimated.  However, Isis has already signalled its readiness to attack soft Western targets, with the attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia earlier in the year and the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.  A further attack was only a matter of time.  In the general narrative against which Isis sees its role in the world, the sub-division of the Middle East following the First World War into a number of artificial states, controlled by Western powers, is at the root of the various crises in the area.

While it is impossible to entirely disagree with this analysis the solution proposed by Isis, to set up a caliphate, which will effectively take those living under it back to a form of medievalism, is not the solution.  However, the position of Isis remains that the West and its citizens are legitimate targets in the holy jihad to redress the injustices of Western imperialism as they see it.

It is not that Isis have entirely avoided Muslim targets.  Their advance across Syria and Iraq has seen the extension of their influence across both countries, inflicting terror upon the Shia Muslim population and dealing brutally with those who do not adhere to their interpretation of the Sunni Muslim faith.  On two consecutive Fridays in May this year, Isis claimed responsibility for two attacks in Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia, in Dammam, resulting in four deaths and in Qatif province, where 21 people were killed.

As the Muslim world enters the holy month of Ramadan Isis spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, has called for further strikes which would lead to greater blessings in the afterlife.  Kuwait has been identified as a target due to the significant Shia population, an estimated 30%, although the population is predominantly Sunni.  Kuwait  is also home to a major US air force base and has supported US air strikes against Isis.  On the same basis the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, all of whom have contributed to the strikes against Isis targets, may find themselves in the firing line.

The fact that the Gulf state dictatorships are Western backed is not lost on people within those countries who struggle to gain a democratic foothold in the face of autocracy and repression.  While the flight of Western citizens to support Isis gains the headlines in the West, the fact remains that hundreds of disaffected young people in the Middle East see Isis as a means of self expression not afforded them in their own countries.

An estimated 800 Kuwaitis have travelled to join Isis.  Tunisia, the heart of the so-called Arab Spring, has supplied more Isis recruits than any other Middle East state, with 3,000 estimated to have made the journey to support Isis.  The suicide bomber in Kuwait City last week was a Saudi citizen.  There are known Isis supporters in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.  The Isis promise of something better is an illusion but to the disaffected across the Arab world it may appear to hold out more hope than the lack of opportunity faced at home.

In spite of this there are voices suggesting that the military advances across Syria and Iraq over the past year may not be sustainable.

Isis needs to win over the Sunni population in areas under its control by striking a balance between its radical religious platform and traditional Arab nationalism.  It also needs to subdue Iraq's Shia population, or at least, force them to leave Sunni areas to Isis to control.  Isis has so far shown no inclination to transform itself into a nationalist Sunni insurgency.  It has ruled vast Sunni areas since last June but millions of Sunnis have left their homes and refuse to return.  Others are taking arms to fight Isis in the name of Iraqi nationalism.

The Iraqi Shia, for whom Isis is an existential threat, are not interested in a compromise with Isis fighters.  The Iraqi state, under their control, still enjoys legitimacy and support.  If their frontline militias can sustain their overwhelming firepower and motivation in the fight against Isis they still sense that victory is possible.

Isis has survived setbacks and may well make new advances but its ability to sustain a nation state or even victory in the war remains very much in the balance.  The extent to which it can develop such capability may rely on its supply of recruits from the West and other Middle Eastern countries.  The extent to which that supply continues may depend upon the degree of engagement young people feel in the democratic process in those countries.  For now, many continue to fall a long way short.  That must change if the ideological as well as the military battle against Isis is to be won.

21st June 2015

Beware of bankers bailouts

The maxim ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ harks back to the hero of The Odyssey by Homer.  The wily Odysseus outmanoeuvred the Trojans by constructing a wooden horse, which he offered to them as a gift after ten years of war.  The Trojans accepted the offering only to find that the gift was filled with Greek soldiers who proceeded to sack the city of Troy.  The modern day Greek people may feel that they are currently on the receiving end of such a bargain, as the IMF and EU bailouts for their economy serve only to plunge it more deeply into crisis.  Beware of bankers offering bailouts may be their watchword.

Like the Odysseus of myth, the international bankers portray themselves as friends but are only interested in the plunder they can exact.  While €240bn has been spent on supporting the Greek economy since 2010 an estimated 90% of that figure has gone to international banks as interest payments.  The scope for the Greek government to invest in and rebuild its economy, driven to the brink of bankruptcy by overlending bankers in the first place, has been limited to say the least. 

As negotiations between the Syriza government and the EU reach a critical point an impressive demonstration in Athens and large rallies in Thessalonica and 58 other cities took place on 11th June.  These demonstrations sent the message that anti-people measures will meet strong resistance.  The mobilisations, which were organised by the All-workers’ Militant Front (PAME) and supported by 700 trade unions and other popular organisations are seen as a launching pad for the escalation of the struggle.

Dimitris Koutsoumpas, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), made clear the demonstrators demands stating,

“At this moment, we are struggling for increases in salaries, pensions and benefits, for the consolidation of collective labour agreements, for the return of the minimum monthly salary to 751 euros and of course for the abolition of all the anti-people laws, so that there can be a real recovery of the people’s losses and so that the unemployed are supported in a substantial way.”

The EU and the IMF have made sure that they have looked after their own since the banking crisis of 2008 and done everything in their power to stabilise their financial institutions.  The fact that this stabilisation has been largely at the expense of the people’s of the EU is a fact that is beginning to hit home across the continent.  Greece alone has seen a 25% drop in gross domestic product; a 28% reduction in public sector employment; a 28% drop in food consumption; and a 61% drop in the average pension.  If this is being ‘bailed out’ the people of Greece may well wonder how bad the alternative can be.

In the UK, in London, Glasgow and Liverpool yesterday (20th June), hundreds of thousands took to the streets in anti-austerity protests co-ordinated by the People’s Assembly. 

The People’s Assembly is planning an unprecedented four-day protest outside the Tory conference in Manchester later this year, with a national demonstration to be staged on 4th October as part of the follow up to the successful turnout this weekend.  It is anticipated that protests on specific issues will follow in order to keep up the anti-austerity momentum.

 

Significantly, the only Labour leadership candidate at the protests this weekend was veteran left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn MP.  While it is widely accepted that Corbyn has little chance of winning the contest it is important that his presence on the ballot paper will allow some progressive policies to be aired as part of the debate.

 

More important still will be the extent to which extra-parliamentary struggle, in the form of the protests co-ordinated through the People’s Assembly, can continue to pressurise both the Labour leadership and the Tory government.  The presence of many trade unions and activists yesterday underlined the continuing strength of workplace pressure and the importance of solidarity across the Labour movement.  The popular protests need to shift the terms of the debate way from the little Englander agenda of the Tories and emphasise the impact of Tory policies upon the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.

 

In short the objective must be, if austerity is all that the government can offer the UK, then by a combination of action inside and outside Parliament, the UK is rendered ungovernable well before the scheduled election in 2020. 

 

Anti-austerity action is happening across the EU and re-energising people in political debate.  Far from being on the periphery of Europe, the actions of the Greek people may be central to its future.

 

 

14th June 2015

Fighting enforced austerity

The election of Ada Colau as the Mayor of Barcelona is another step in the growing disaffection of people across Europe with the enforced austerity of the European Union and the central banks.  Colau is the spokesperson for Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) which articulates a broad platform in support of community engagement, participatory democracy, tackling corruption and rejecting austerity.  As a founding member of Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), Colau came to prominence in 2009 following the banking crisis of 2008 as an activist on housing issues.

The coalition Colau heads may only hold 11 of the 41 seats in the assembly in Barcelona but her victory in the Mayoral contest is symbolic of a shift which is recognised across Spain as a challenge to the established orthodoxy.  Left orientated parties also have established themselves in Madrid, with Manuela Carmena as Mayor.  Left leaning Compromis retain a foothold in Valencia, as do Zaragosa en Común in Zaragosa.

With the well established Izquierda Unida (United Left) in Spain also polling close to 1 million votes (4.7%) in recent local elections it is clear that the movement for change in Spain is more than a blip.  In several other cities Left wing coalitions, which also include Podemos, are set to govern.

Colau has begun her tenure with a populist emergency plan, which will see the Mayoral salary cut from €140,000 to €35,000 with official cars abolished and pressure upon bankers to explain evictions in the city.  There is also increasing pressure within Barcelona to deal with the negative impacts of tourism.  While the industry has brought significant benefits over the years, estimated at €12bn per year supporting 100,000 jobs, there is a growing view that local people are being priced out of the city by developers looking for opportunities to increase hotel and tourist apartment developments.

Colau has made inequality one of the key elements of her platform pointing out that,

“In the past four years the difference between the most rich and the most poor of the city has increased by 40%.  An unequal city is a city that can be broken easily, it’s an insecure city.”

In common with much of Spain unemployment in Barcelona is high, especially amongst the young.  Addressing this will not only be a significant challenge but one which cannot be addressed at a local level.  To that extent the concerns raised by the range of Left wing parties in the recent municipal elections will need to be carried to a national level later in the year and into action at a European level.  In both instances, there will be resistance.

As the success of Syriza in Greece illustrates, a party can come into government on an anti-austerity platform.  However, the Syriza experience also illustrates how hard the bankers will dig in their heels at even the mildest threat to their profits.  The negotiation with Syriza over recent months appears to have been little more than the European bankers and IMF hoping the Greek government will crack or, failing that, calculating how much of a loss to the eurozone a Greek exit would mean.  As it stands it appears that a Greek exit may be seen as a price worth paying.

From a Greek point of view Syriza may also be calculating that this would be no bad thing.  Since the first so-called bailout of 2010 the Greek economy has contracted by 20% while unemployment has risen from 12% to 26%.  The Greek repayments are largely fuelling credit on loans to German banks, so any bailout funds are not directly stimulating the economy anyway.

Enforced austerity is not working in Greece.  It is being increasingly rejected by the people of Spain.  Whatever George Osborne may think, being elected on 37% of the popular vote is hardly a mandate to force more austerity upon the people of the UK.

Austerity as a response to the banking crisis is a failed response to a failure of the market system itself.  Depressing public expenditure only leads to a reduction in private incomes, less demand for spending and thus less jobs in the economy.  Less jobs means less income for the Exchequer and so the spiral continues inexorably downwards.  Osborne’s obsession to avoid borrowing has gone a step further as he proposes to bind governments, not just to budget balances, but budget surpluses during “normal times”.  Quite who decides when times are “normal” is a moot point.  Whether or not there is any prospect of normality on the horizon, the struggle against the failed policies of austerity must continue.

7th June 2015

End Austerity Now – the people assemble

The Syriza movement in Greece and Podemos in Spain have been gaining a lot of profile in recent months due to their anti-austerity positions.  In Greece this is given added profile because Syriza are now in government, albeit in a rather bizarre coalition with right wing nationalists.  While the UK has been absorbed by the recent General Election campaign and the Labour Party now embarks upon its search for a new leader, popular stirrings have been afoot in the form of the growing People’s Assembly movement.

What is the People’s Assembly?  In its own words, taken directly from its website, www.thepeoplesassembly.org.uk its claims are as follows:-

The People’s Assembly:

 

1.  Is a broad united national campaign against austerity, cuts and privatisation in our workplaces, community and welfare services, based on general agreement with the signatories’ Founding Statement.

 

2.  Is linked to no political party, committed to open non-sectarian working and dedicated to supplementing, rather than supplanting, trade union, student, pensioner and community opposition to austerity measures.

 

3.  Is based on affiliation by individual supporters, unions nationally and locally, anti-cuts campaigns, and other student, pensioner, unemployed, disabled people’s, women’s, Black people’s, youth and LGBT campaigning organisations.

 

4.  Aspires to support, encourage, coordinate joint action, and facilitate a transfer of experience rather than to command.

 

5.  Encourages the establishment of new local campaigns and/or People’s Assemblies.

 

6.  Organises newsletters, a website, twitter, Facebook and social media, meetings, conferences, lobbies, rallies, marches, demonstrations and other events.

 

7.  Vehemently opposes all proposals to “solve” the crisis by discrimination or scapegoating on  grounds of disability, race, religion, ethnic origin, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation or identity.

 

8.  Liaises closely with similar movements in other countries resisting austerity measures.

 

9.  Encourages a wide debate on how to protect the welfare state and develop an alternative programme for economic and social recovery.

 

The organisation already claims to have over 70 groups established in the UK and is currently mobilising for a national demonstration against austerity on 20th June in London. 

 

Given the extent of doom and gloom on the Left in the UK, following five years of Tory led coalition and the prospect of five years of unbridled Tory government to come, the People’s Assembly has to be seen as a welcome development.  The organisation’s positions are further elaborated in the People’s Charter and People’s Manifesto documents, both of which give an overview of an alternative economic platform, rejecting austerity and arguing the case for more public investment  to regenerate the economy.

 

With the Tories moving swiftly to take advantage of the post-election disarray in the wider Labour Movement, including a budget planned for 8th July, the People’s Assembly call to action comes at the right time.  With the backing of key trade unions and progressive MPs the steps taken so far could be the basis for a wider popular movement, which is actually addressing the needs of the people.

 

How the media report the 20th June action, if at all, will be interesting to watch.  The BBC is unlikely to become a cheerleader for a popular movement of the Left as readily as it did for the right wing UKIP.  In any event the conventional channels of media will not be the ones which make the People’s Assembly work or not.  Like Syriza and Podemos, the success of the People’s Assembly will depend on the extent to which it can tap into the day to day concerns of ordinary people and to articulate those concerns by alternative means. 

 

If the People’s Assembly can begin to establish some real grass roots success, building upon addressing people’s real needs, ultimately there will be nothing the BBC or the right wing press can do to stop it.

 

Support for the 20th June demonstration will be a real start.

 

End Austerity Now - National Demonstration - Saturday, 20th June

 

Assemble 12pm, Bank of England (Queen Victoria St) City of London

Nearest tube: Bank

March to Parliament Square

Organised by The People's Assembly

http://www.thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/calendar

 

 

31st May 2015

Blue collar blues

The Conservatives are promising to be the party of working people.  The Queen’s Speech this week outlined a range of measures, which they claim to be the cornerstones of blue collar Conservatism.  How well did they do in their efforts to capture the aspirations of the blue collar voter?  Here are some highlights.

Welfare benefits – the cap on the total amount of benefits a household can claim is down from £26,000 to £23,000.  All very well, if employment is available and workers have the skills to move into the available jobs.  No indication however that the Tories will prioritise full employment, just bash the poor.  Child poverty in particular looks set to increase as a consequence.

Extremism – a new bill to ban so-called extremist (even if non-violent) groups and Ofcom will get further powers to act against channels which broadcast alleged “extremist content”, although quite who defines what is ‘extremist’ is yet to be determined.

Investigatory powers bill – this is already dubbed the ‘snooper’s charter’ and will give police and the security services access to personal e mail and text activity and internet browsing habits.  Quite where this one ends is anyone’s guess but it is clear that the security services will effectively have carte blanche to spy on anyone they choose, whether suspected of a crime or not.

National insurance contributions/finance bill – this follows up on the Tories election promise not to increase income tax, national insurance or VAT.  Ostensibly popular but one which gives the Chancellor little room for manoeuvre in addressing the changing economic fortunes of the economy in the next five years.

Cities and local government devolution bill – dressed up as more power to the regions but effectively a dilution of the powers of local government and transferring of responsibility for areas such as transport, policing and economic development to a quasi-regional tier of government.

Scotland Bill – more on the devolution question but particularly as it faces the Scots, with a promise to implement the Smith Commission proposals but which does not satisfy a newly emboldened SNP contingent in the House of Commons.

European Union referendum bill – one to buy off the Tory right wing and try to tempt back the defectors to UKIP.  Cameron wants this one out of the way as soon as possible to settle the EU question.  Like the referendum in Scotland last year however it will do no such thing.  A victory for a ‘yes’ vote will entrench those opposed to the EU even further and encourage them to make life difficult for the government in the House of Commons.  A victory for the ‘no’ camp will entrench those who want to stay in the EU even further and encourage them to make life difficult for the government in the House of Commons.  How much of this becomes popular support for either camp on the streets of the UK will be interesting to see.

Housing Bill – extending the so-called ‘right to buy’ to around 13 million housing association tenants.  As charities, housing associations will be forced to sell their assets, which could lead to some interesting legal situations.  Imagine if right to buy extended to private landlords!  Housing charities and most other sensible people see the whole thing as a recipe for disaster, which will do nothing to address the housing crisis or encourage further affordable homes to be built.  The Tories will press on regardless; await the mess.

Trade union bill – more anti-democratic attacks upon trade unions lined up in this one with votes for strike action having to achieve a turnout of 50% to be legal.  No plans to apply the same rules to local, parliamentary or European elections though, as we would have very few representatives in many of our public institutions.  Also, no plans to apply the same rules to the boards of companies or to company shareholders.  Any hint of bias here?  Same applies in this bill to the political levy trade union members can currently opt out of paying.  The Tories are saying there should be an opt-in, meaning a likely reduction in funding for the Labour Party.  Will company shareholders have the same say over political donations to the Tories?  We will see…..

GMB general secretary, Paul Kenny summed this one up saying,

”It’s one rule for the Tory slush fund, hedge funds and another for trade union members.  It is not sustainable to allow the elite and companies unfettered and unlimited rights to fund the Tory party while shackling the bodies that have funded the political opposition to them for more than a century.”

While the Tories are at pains to tell the nation how ‘blue collar’ they have become the realities tell us otherwise.  Once the Tories’ election victory was confirmed, more than £100m of central London property was sold in 24 hours, with estate agents working through the night to cope with the interest from wealthy buyers.  Labour’s mansion tax was not going to happen and the tax loophole for non-doms had  been preserved. 

Oxfam reported recently that the five wealthiest families in the UK are richer than the poorest 20% of the entire population.  Nothing in the Queen’s Speech looks set to make any difference to that statistic.

One area that the Tories have seen some sense on, at least in the short term, is that of repealing the Human Rights Act and bringing in a so-called British Bill of Rights.  Repeal of the HRA is complicated due to the tie up with the obligations of the UK under the Convention of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights.  Even some leading Tories appear to have twinge of conscience about that, or at least they acknowledge the legal difficulties.  It may just be that, with all of the other controversy the Queen’s Speech is likely to stir up, they feel they simply have enough on their plate for the time being.

24th May 2015

Defining aspirations

Is it too soon to say, less than a month after the UK General Election, that the Labour Party will not win the General  Election in May 2020? Pose the question differently, is anyone on the Left of British politics prepared to bet their house on a Labour victory?  Not many takers, you can be sure of that.  ‘Outrageous pessimism, sir!’ is the cry, ‘everyone knows that a week is a long time in politics, a lot can change in five years!’  This is true, of course, but if a lot is to change, a lot must be done to make it happen.

The analysis of Labour’s defeat has concentrated on the character of Ed Miliband’s leadership, as determined by the UK media; the generalised notion that the Labour campaign was not sufficiently pro-business, a line repeated this week by leadership candidate Yvette Cooper; and the equally generalised  idea that Labour did not appeal to people’s aspirations. 

The reality of the election outcome does not reflect such a straightforward assessment of the reasons for defeat or the way back to power.  The Tory 12 seat majority was won on less than 37% of the vote.  Labour lost votes to both the SNP and the Greens to the left, and to UKIP on the right, but still advanced in London and the big cities.  If the small town little Englander’s were Labour’s Achilles Heel this is not something that was not already known before the campaign.  There are certain parts of England where Labour votes will never stack up.

The logic, you might think, would be to analyse why the Green vote increased, why disaffection drove many working class voters in to the arms of UKIP and what the SNP did to virtually sweep the board in Scotland.  Some of the outcomes of such an analysis may reveal incompatibilities.  The pro-Green vote will certainly be more pro-Europe and less anti-immigration that the average UKIP voter.  The national question in Scotland currently has a momentum which is not entirely class based but the haemorrhage of Labour’s vote in its traditional heartland certainly is.

However, Labour has always been a coalition of its core working class vote; the unemployed, disaffected and disenfranchised by capitalism; and the intellectual Left, whose commitment comes not because of their personal poverty but because they are fired by a strong sense of social justice.  Is the building of such a coalition on offer from any of the candidates for the Labour leadership?  The question is, sadly, rhetorical.

Yvette Cooper promises to  go “beyond old labels of left and right” by claiming that Miliband’s pitch was anti-business and anti-growth and that Labour should support further cuts in corporation tax.  The other heavyweight contender, Andy Burnham, claims that Labour’s mansion tax had merely spoken to “the politics of envy.”

There is no polling evidence to suggest that these policies lost Labour the election.  On the contrary, evidence suggests that being tough on big business cheats, as well as being tough on austerity, were popular policies.  The fact that a Labour victory may have meant big business footing more of the bill for the austerity crisis it largely caused, is of course the real story.  However, if Labour’s leadership contenders are on the back foot in relation to big business now it does not augur well for the coming parliament.  With five years of opposition ahead it would do Labour well to get a backbone and do some opposing.

All politicians want to appeal to the aspirations of their people, before proceeding to paint these aspirations in colours of their own choosing.  The reality however is that the aspirations of the people do not change fundamentally.  The Bolsheviks were swept to power in the Russian Revolution in 1917 not because the Russian people were great readers of Marx, Engels or Lenin, most were illiterate, but because their slogans spoke directly to the people’s needs; peace, bread and land.

Throughout the UK, demonstrations to celebrate May Day, have for decades found variations on this basic formula.  In Newcastle upon Tyne the slogan ‘peace, health, homes and jobs’ adorned banners for many years.  The post-war Labour government delivered on just these themes. 

Are people’s aspirations today fundamentally any different?  Top of the list would be job security, a decent wage, good schools for the kids, somewhere decent to live, health care that is accessible and freedom from the threat of terror or war.  The candidates for the Labour leadership should listen less to the Tory press and the whining of failed business leaders.  The above list gives plenty of scope for a coalition of the core constituency to which Labour needs to appeal.  It may even excite the odd little Englander, but do not bet the house on it.  

17th May 2015

Myths and reality

While the Labour Party prepares for a long hot summer of internecine warfare, Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, is licking his lips like the cat that got the cream and preparing to unveil another budget on the 8th July.  Central to the budget will be Osborne’s strategy to intensify the austerity drive, primarily by slashing a further £12bn from the welfare budget, with child benefit being the most likely candidate for reductions in some form, along with working families tax credit.

Ironically, the budget, along with the first wave of policies anticipated in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech,  will all be presented under the banner of blue collar conservatism, an attempt to re-brand the Tories as the party of ‘hard working families’.  The welfare cap reduction from £26k per annum to £23k will be heralded as part of this drive, as will the proposals to get tough on so-called benefit tourism, making access to UK benefits tougher for other EU citizens.

With the Royal Charter of the BBC coming up for renewal during the course of the present parliament, new DCMS Secretary, John Whittingdale, will be charged with exorcising the BBC of its alleged ‘left wing bias’ and reshaping the organisation.  As the state broadcasting corporation, the BBC does a sterling job in reflecting the overarching political orthodoxy of the day.  Any ‘left wing’ imaginings are largely in the imaginations of the Tory right wing, never at home with the social conscience some of the BBC’s journalists periodically display.

The same misguided thinking is evident in the approach of the government to the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the proposal for its abolition.  As ever, such proposals are based upon misinformation, prejudice and bigotry, including the bizarre assertion that the HRA was imposed on the UK by the European Union.  A useful summary of the issues around the HRA is available from the civil rights organisation Liberty and can be found here:-

https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/human-rights/what-are-human-rights/human-rights-act/human-rights-act-myths

Like the myths that the government is economically prudent, supports wealth creation and saved the country from the Labour induced crash of 2008, the idea that the HRA is somehow external to UK law and an imposition, which prevents the UK from dealing with terrorism, is patently nonsense.  However, the drip feed of stories to the popular press, which suggest that the HRA is responsible for everything from pornography in prisons to early prisoner release has created a climate in which any new bill drafted to replace the HRA will inevitably be selective in its approach.

It will be interesting to see how the new found blue collar conservatism of the Tories extends to support for workers being paid the living wage.  With an estimated £11bn of taxpayers money going to ‘in-work benefits’, to top up poverty wages, the burden of ‘austerity ‘ could be borne by employers dipping into their pockets to allow people enough to live on in the first place.  The Treasury might even recoup some additional tax to balance up that £12bn benefit shift it is looking for.  Just a thought.

The usual targets for austerity bashing over the past five years have been local authorities, who have collectively made budget reductions of £20bn since 2010, in the region of 40%, to bail out the Tories friends in the banks, the real perpetrators of the 2008 crash.  This time round however the Chancellor may have to think twice before simply putting the squeeze on hard pressed Councils.  The Conservative controlled Local Government Association (LGA) have warned of the consequences of further cuts.  In a letter to The Observer (17/05/15) endorsed by 375 local authorities the LGA state that,

“Further local government funding reductions over the next five years is not an option.  The new government must consider the consequences that further cuts, without radical reform of the way public money is spent, will have on the services that bind our communities and protect the most vulnerable.”

The LGA go on to say that the outcome of public sector cuts is to simply displace spend into other areas, such as the NHS, which then have to pick up the pieces when local Councils are not able to care effectively for the most vulnerable.  We will see how far Chancellor Osborne is persuaded by this argument, it has not washed in the last five years, but in the coming five years even deeper cracks in local services will begin to show.

An EU referendum seems to be on the cards sooner rather than later, with even Labour leadership candidates suggesting 2016 would be better to settle the question once and for all.  A tough renegotiation of the UK/EU relationship, with stricter controls on immigration, seems have been bought into across the political spectrum, another myth accepted as reality that the Tories can chalk up as a victory.

Still, in spite of all of this, we appear to have £100bn spare to spend on weapons of mass destruction, in the form of Trident nuclear submarines.  At least we will all be safe from harm.

 

9th May 2015

Back to basics the only way for Labour

The Liberal Democrats melted down even further than anyone could have hoped.  The Scottish Nationalists virtually swept the board in Scotland, heralding more talk of devolved powers and constitutional crisis.  The Labour Party failed to do as well as under Gordon Brown in 2010 and registered its worst election result since 1987, securing only 232 seats.  All of these facts were big surprises in the UK election on 7th May but the biggest surprise of all, after five years of unrelenting austerity, was the delivery of a majority for the Conservatives with 331 seats in the new Parliament.

The Tory surprise element was compounded by the fact that all of the opinion polls preceding the vote suggested that the UK was heading for another hung parliament, with weeks of wrangling before a government could be formed.  The polls, it turned out, were spectacularly wrong and it was not until the exit poll, announced on the BBC at 10pm on election night, that anyone had a hint that a Tory victory was a possibility.  Even that poll only suggested 316 seats for the Tories, an underestimation as it turned out.

So, how did so many pundits read the signs so wrongly for so long? 

The answer seems to lie in a number of factors, one of which was the aggressive targeting of marginal seats by the Tories, where the contest was primarily with the LibDems.  In total 15 seats, which pollsters suggested would be LibDem, fell to the Tories.  Such an outcome could be understood, as the LibDems have revealed themselves to be little more than Tories in sheep’s clothing over the course of the 2010-15 parliament.

More worrying for Labour however, was that 40 seats which pollsters projected as being Labour, fell to the Tories.  This, added to the meltdown in Scotland, with Labour losing all but one of its seats meant that the chances of Ed Miliband getting his hands on the keys to No 10 quickly collapsed.  In addition UKIP, while only winning 1 seat came second in 118 seats, many to Labour, and gained over 3 million votes.

Given that UKIP essentially represent a strand of right wing Toryism, fronted by those unable to make it in the actual Tory Party, it is of some concern that so many working class voters were persuaded by their message.

In terms of vote share, the two main parties showed little change on 2010 with Labour up 1.5% to 30.4% and the Tories up 0.5% to 36.9% of the national vote.  The LibDem share of the national vote collapsed from 23% in 2010 to a mere 7.9% in 2015, effectively helping the Tory bounce in the South of England marginals especially.  Leadership resignations from Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband confirmed the scale of the Tory victory.

Throughout the campaign the push from the Tory right, UKIP and the national media has contributed significantly to an agenda focussed upon the politics of fear; fear of immigration, fear of the European Union, fear of economic instability, fear of a Labour government supported by the SNP.  In addition, the Tories have succeeded over the past five years in pinning the blame for the banker fuelled economic crash of 2008 on the Labour government at the time. 

However much Labour denied that overspending caused the crash, the ‘deficit deniers’ claim was made to stick by a compliant media.  Lord King, the former governor of the Bank of England, and Sir Nicholas Macpherson current permanent secretary to the Treasury, both agreed with Labour’s analysis but Daily Mail headlines and BBC leaders did not scream out these facts.

The media in the UK are always a massive factor but are never the whole story.  In Scotland, the views of the metropolitan elite were of little consequence to a population fed up with austerity, unemployment and the bedroom tax, and opposed to spending billions on weapons of mass destruction in the form of Trident nuclear submarines.  Add to that the perceived distance, both geographically and philosophically, of Westminster from Scottish concerns and the SNP were able to overturn a Labour Party only capable of offering a Tory-lite version of the future.

There are already calls that Labour needs to re-capture the votes of the ‘aspiring middle classes’ if it is to win in 2020 and that a leader in the mould of Tony Blair is required.  The numbers would suggest however that the working class vote, taken for granted with spectacular consequences in Scotland, is in need of some attention from the Labour Party.  Pandering to middle class metropolitan concerns will get you so far but if Labour does not take a more back to basics approach to its core support, it will not be as far as Downing Street.

1st May 2015

Miliband burns his bridges

The latest leaders’ debate in the UK General Election on 30th April produced what could well turn out to be its most decisive moment.  When pressed over whether a deal with the SNP would be on the cards, if no party gained an overall majority, Labour leader Ed Miliband was unequivocal.

“Let me be plain.  We’re not going to do a deal with the Scottish National Party, we’re not going to have a coalition, we’re not going to have a deal.

Let me just say this to you – if it meant we weren’t going to be in government, not doing a coalition, not having a deal, then so be it.  I am not going to sacrifice the future of our country, the unity of our country.  I’m not going to give in to SNP demands around Trident, around the deficit or anything like that.

I just want to repeat this to you: I am not going to have a Labour government if it means a coalition with the SNP.”

There are not many ways to read this statement.  Miliband would rather see David Cameron back in 10, Downing St than negotiate an anti-Tory coalition with the SNP.  There is no other conclusion.

This position is decisive for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, Miliband clearly sees “the future of our country” as being safer in the hands of the deficit obsessed, anti-welfare Tories, or a Tory led coalition, than in a government he would lead with SNP support.

Secondly, it illustrates that Miliband and his advisers are clearly in denial about the position in Scotland.  They cannot accept that they have lost the confidence of many voters because they have only offered Tory-lite policies, while the SNP have appealed to working class concerns.  If Miliband thinks his position will terrify voters back into supporting Labour he is miscalculating massively.  Scottish voters are siding with the SNP because they are being offered a vision they understand, articulated by a leader with charismatic appeal.

Thirdly, the particular terms of Miliband’s rejection of the SNP are revealing.  He is not going to “give in to SNP demands” around Trident, a £100bn burden on the nation; the deficit, which all parties want to reduce but simply differ over timing; or the “unity of our country”, a concept the SNP clearly do reject but which all parties in Westminster will have to come to an accommodation with, sooner or later.  The closest thing to a progressive coalition the people of the UK could hope for from this election would be a Labour / SNP alliance of some sort.  The leader of what could be the biggest party in Parliament has ruled it out.

Where does that leave us?

Election arithmetic is a dangerous game but the following scenario is plausible.  Of the 650 seats on offer the SNP win 50 in Scotland.  As things stand, Labour will not go into coalition with them and the SNP will not have anything to do with the Tories.  That leaves 600 seats left from which a government could be formed.  An assortment of UKIP, the Ulster Unionists, Plaid Cymru and Greens could win 20 seats, keeping the numbers round and the maths simple.  The Lib Dems, with a fair wind, could retain 30 MPs.  That would leave 550 seats between Labour and the Tories.  For either one of them to form a majority coalition they would need at least 300 of those seats.  Assuming they could even reach that tally, the Lib Dems will once again end up in the decisive, balance of power, position.

Public opinion may shift dramatically in the coming week.  The numbers above may not add up.  If they do though, is a pro-Trident, pro-Nato, pro-austerity Labour Party propped up by the Tory-lite Lib Dems the best the British people can now hope for on the 7th May?  It certainly looks like it.  Even then it’s a long shot.  David Cameron is not likely to be putting in that call to the removal men yet.

26th April 2015

The Tories’ three card trick

Promoting yourself as the party of the rich, for the rich, who will govern in favour of the rich, is not the way to win more than a handful of votes.  This presents problems for the Tories at election time so stratagems have to be devised in order to give the Conservative Party at least the veneer of popular appeal.  The approach taken by David Cameron and his hapless cronies in the 2015 General Election in the UK has been to pronounce themselves to be the party of working people, the party to represent ‘hard working families’.   It is a strategy remarkable in its audacity.

It is the culmination however of the approach taken by the Tories in government over the past five years.   While the LibDem involvement has given the fig leaf of Coalition to the governance of the UK, it is nonetheless the Tories who have been steering the economy, setting the tone and pushing through the harshest cuts to the public sector and welfare provision for a century.

The claim of economic competence in particular has been the biggest confidence trick the Tories have attempted to perpetrate upon the UK population in the past five years.  However, there are significant signs that voters are not falling for it.  Coming to office in 2010, following the bankers generated economic crash of 2008, the Tories were able to quite easily and quickly ‘blame the other lot’.  The crisis was all the fault of the previous Labour government, who were clearly economically incompetent, and George Osborne’s  Plan A for austerity was the only way out of the situation.

In fact, the economy in 2010 was on the brink of a recovery in output, which the austerity programme choked off by focussing upon deficit reduction rather than investment in growth.  The increase in VAT and cut backs in capital spending virtually brought the economy to a standstill.  The job losses and reduced income for the Exchequer which followed, meant that growth in the UK economy did not return until 2013.  Economies generally tend to grow during a recession as there is plenty of spare capacity and interest rates can be kept low without risking inflation.  Since 1945 the average growth rate of the economy has been 2.5%; since 2010 it has averaged only 1.5% a year.

This may sound like it is at least better than nothing, travelling in the right direction but as Larry Elliott, economics editor of The Guardian, points out,

“…most of the growth has been the result of a rising population rather than higher productivity.  Growth per head has been nugatory, which explains why real incomes have been squeezed.  It may also explain why voters are resistant to one of the Conservative party’s favourite soundbites, namely that the “long term economic plan is working”.”

The basis of the savagery of Osborne’s Plan A was to eliminate the budget deficit in the period of one parliament.  By 2012, when it was clear that the plan was not working, Osborne revised his targets and claimed that deficit reduction would be achieved in two parliaments.  Although not officially marketed as Plan B this is, in effect, what Osborne embarked upon, with a strategy of ramping up the housing market through the Bank of England’s funding for lending scheme and the Help to Buy initiative.

The outcome of Plan B has been noted by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) as follows,

“Strong growth of residential investment and ongoing growth in house prices and property transactions leave households’ gross debt to income ratio rising back towards its pre-crisis peak.”

In other words, people are in danger of being financially stretched to the point of breaking, with the economy heading once again for crisis when the housing bubble bursts.

The economic confidence trick which the Tories have been playing over the past five years has also been to shift the terms of the debate about economic policy.  Before 2010 tackling the budget deficit was never a significant goal of economic policy.  In a nation as rich as the UK some degree of deficit could always be tolerated as part of the price of investment and controlling inflation.  Increasing productivity and raising living standards has traditionally been a key objective of economic policy, narrowing the gap between rich and poor has even had the occasional mention.

The extent to which this shift has become a reality was noted in a recent New Statesman article by Simon Wren-Lewis, professor of economics at Oxford University, who observed that,

“It also helps that the BBC can be easily intimidated.  When its former economics editor Stephanie Flanders dared suggest that a lack of productivity growth might be a problem, Iain Duncan Smith made a formal complaint.”

The upshot of the past five years is neatly summed up by Larry Elliott once again,

“Manufacturing and construction output have yet to regain their pre-recession levels, while the service sector has expanded the number of low pay, low skill jobs.  Britain now has a triple deficit problem: a budget deficit of 5% of national income; a balance of payments deficit of 5.5% of national income; and a productivity deficit that means output per hour worked is 30%lower than in rival nations.”

A real three card trick from Chancellor Osborne!

The sleight of hand that the Tories hoped would see them back in Downing Street is looking decidedly dodgy, hence the resort to questioning Ed Miliband’s prime ministerial qualities or demonising Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.  Having relied on the economic competence story to justify the votes of those beyond the circle of bankers, land gentry and the rich who will vote for them anyway, the Tory narrative is looking a bit thin.  The final two weeks of the campaign should see it finally evaporate.

19th April 2015

Defending socialist Cuba

As the news of a rapprochement between the Cuban government and the United States makes headlines across the world it is worth noting that the illegal activity of the US against the Cuban people has deep roots.  This week marked the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs debacle, on 17th April 1961, when the United States’ attempt to quash the Cuban revolution was fought back.

The decision by the United States, on 14th April 2015, announcing its intent to withdraw Cuba from its list of state sponsors of international terrorism, is long overdue and was greeted by the Cuban government as follows,

“The Cuban government recognizes the just decision taken by the President of the United States to eliminate Cuba from a list on which it never should have been included, especially considering that our country has been the victim of hundreds of acts of terrorism that have cost 3,478 lives and disabled 2,099 Cuban citizens.”

The following article, reproduced from Granma – the Official Voice of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee, was published this week and re-affirms the socialist path of development of the Caribbean island.

April 16, Cuba reaffirms its socialist character

Fifty four years ago, on April 16, Fidel declared the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution, which the people ratify today as the country embarks on a profound transformation to develop a prosperous and sustainable socialism.

The country is currently focused on updating the nation’s economic model in a process involving all social actors, looking to boost production and promote development.  Cuba cannot, however, forget the events which marked the month of April in its history.

On April 15, 1961, enemy aircraft camouflaged with Cuban military logos bombarded a Havana airport and an air base in the locality of San Antonio de Los Baños, south of Havana, as well as an air field in eastern Santiago de Cuba.

These air raids marked an escalation in U.S. aggression toward Cuba, to defeat the Revolution.  These and other actions, designed and financed in the United States included the bombing of the ship, La Coubre, the burning of sugar cane plantations, armed raids by speedboats against coastal settlements, bomb attempts against government and public facilities, all with a large number of victims.

To that point in time, the Cuban government had passed important legislation, such as the land reform, while a large contingent of young people were carrying out the Literacy Campaign throughout the island.

On April 16, during the burial of the victims of the previous days’ air raids, the Cuban people flocked to areas near Havana’s Colon Cemetery, where Cuban flags were waved from balconies and flowers thrown to the streets.

Fidel addressed the massive demonstration at a busy corner near the cemetery, saying, “This is the socialist and democratic revolution of the humble, with the humble and for the humble….and for this revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble we are determined to give our lives.”

Referring to the U.S. administration, Fidel said what Washington could not withstand was the fact that Cubans made a socialist revolution right before the eyes of the United States.

With his statement, the Cuban leader was declaring the socialist character of the Revolution, just hours before a U.S. organized mercenary invasion took place at the Bay of Pigs, on the southern-western coast of Cuba.

Fidel accused the U.S. of blocking the peaceful development in Cuba, of destroying the people’s economic resources, and killing Cuban citizens.  He also demanded that the United States assume responsibility for such aggression.

“These events will teach us.  These painful events will illustrate and show, perhaps more clearly than any previous ones, what imperialism really means,” said Fidel.

Images of the people raising guns spoke for themselves, clearly reflecting support for the road to be taken from that moment on by the revolutionary process - still unfolding on this Caribbean island nation.

For more information on Cuba go to http://en.granma.cu/

12th April 2015

Trident will bleed the NHS

Election muscle flexing in the UK this week came in the form of the debate about Trident nuclear submarines, or rather the lack of it.  This was certainly true of the two prime ministerial contenders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband.  The positions of the Tories and Labour, on the question of retaining the UK’s so called ‘independent nuclear deterrent’, are exactly the same; spend the money and damn the consequences.  Not that such phrasing made it into the speech of either party leader this week but it should have.

Trident nuclear submarines are not independent.  As part of the NATO military alliance the UK is not in a position to press the nuclear button without the say-so of the US President.  Whichever way you spin it, relying on the Head of State of a foreign power to decide on whether or not you can use your own weapons would not make it as a definition of ‘independent’ in any dictionary.

In the post Cold War re-alignment of the world it is also difficult to see how the nuclear option represents, in any real sense, a deterrent.  In the post war arms race, which saw nuclear weaponry stacked to the point of mutually assured destruction (MAD) in the 1980’s, the deterrence argument played to the gallery at the gatherings of Tory faithful.  Quite what comfort was to be had in the knowledge that, if we go they go with us, is hard to fathom but the deterrence mantra was routinely linked to security for the UK and protection from the so-called Soviet threat.

For those who hanker for the relative certainties of the Cold War period, building up the Russians as the new threat to peace in Europe is one strand in the continuing argument for deterrence.  The EU and NATO manufactured crisis over Ukraine is part and parcel of the demonising of Russia, with the intention of justifying a new arms race in the West.  The anti-Russia hysteria has not quite reached the dizzy heights of 1980’s anti-Sovietism but there is time yet.

The realities of the 21st century are of course quite different to those of the late 20th century.  Any threat to ‘Western security’ is more likely to come from cyber attack, suicide bombing or random acts of terrorism than it is from an itchy finger on the nuclear button in the Kremlin.  Quite what role Trident will play in ‘deterring’ such actions is unclear to say the least.

The headline figure for the replacement of Trident is estimated as £25bn but CND calculate that over the lifetime of the system costs would be in the region of £100bn.  That is £25bn to build, then £3bn per year for the next 30-40 years, figures which have not been disputed.

As CND have stated quite succinctly in their campaigning literature,

“At a time of huge cuts to public spending, people are quite rightly questioning why more than £100bn of our money should be spent on a Cold War weapons system which even senior military figures have described as “completely useless”.  Next year the NHS faces a £2bn funding gap, while £3bn will go on Trident.  That doesn’t sit well with people.  With further cuts in the pipeline, Trident is set to be a major issue at the next election: and local people want to know where the candidates stand.”

For the big parties, what Trident is perceived to buy is nothing to do with defence or deterrence.  Trident buys prestige.  It buys a place at the UN Security Council as one of the five permanent members, all nuclear armed states.  This is, in itself, a 20th century historical anachronism but not one that any of the big five (US, UK, Russia, China, France) are likely to want to see challenged.

Trident also feeds the profits of the military industrial complex in the West, the network of military and aerospace manufacturers, who have no qualms about bleeding the NHS to fund weapons of mass destruction, as long as their shareholders benefit.

CND has worked with organisations, including the Communication Workers Union, Nuclear Information Service, Pax  Christi, Scientists for Global Responsibility and War on Want to establish the Rethink Trident network.  Launched on 20th September 2014, Rethink Trident brings together a host of organisations and individuals from trade unions, faith communities, cultural backgrounds and campaigning organisations who are opposed to Trident.

As part of their activities, CND has organised a People’s Ballot on Trident, follow the link here http://act.cnduk.org/lobby/77  to cast a vote.

Finally, in spite of the big party consensus on the subject of Trident, the Tories’ Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, sought to make a fight of it.  He claimed that Ed Miliband could not be trusted with the security of the UK as he had stabbed his brother in the back to win the Labour Party leadership.  Presumably the Tories have a clause preventing siblings standing against each other in internal election contests?

Fallon, whose remarks were subsequently supported by David Cameron, compounded his stupidity by suggesting that, as a consequence of his ‘backstabbing’ activities, Miliband would do a backstairs deal with the SNP to rid the nation of Trident?  If only…..

Fallon’s comments have had the benefit of focussing attention upon the extent of the Tories’ negative campaigning and their general weakness in defending their position.  That augurs well for the election outcome.  If Labour can be persuaded to take a progressive position on Trident, that would augur even better for all of our futures.

6th April 2015

Finding a real alternative

The leaders’ debate televised last week, involving leaders of the main political parties contesting the UK General Election, crystallised many of the contradictions of the current election campaign in the UK.  It may have been coincidence but the most progressive positions were clearly taken by the three female leaders, with Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) well ahead followed by Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) and Natalie Bennett (Greens) a close third.  Of the primary contenders to be in 10, Downing Street, Ed Miliband for Labour clearly out punched a weak David Cameron, defending the Tory record, while Nick Clegg (LibDem) and Nigel Farage (UKIP) trailed in at a largely irrelevant sixth and seventh.

The performance of Sturgeon in particular came under the closest media scrutiny  and won the widest public applause.  Those outside of Scotland were able to assess Sturgeon directly, free of the usual right wing media spin, while SNP supporters north of the border felt vindicated in their support for her as leader.

Unsurprisingly, it was not long before a thinly orchestrated smear campaign emerged, not surprisingly through the Tory supporting Daily Telegraph.  The right wing broadsheet claimed to have evidence that, in a meeting with the French Ambassador, Sturgeon had claimed that she would rather see David Cameron re-elected as Prime Minister, as Ed Miliband was not prime ministerial material.  Naturally, the UK media was quickly abuzz with the story, which Sturgeon was equally quick to refute.

In her defence the SNP leader was able to call upon the French Ambassador herself, who claimed no such exchange had taken place, and the Ambassador’s aide, who minuted the meeting, and supported both the French Ambassador and Nicola Sturgeon’s version of events.  In most cases this would be conclusive evidence that the story was a plant and that the media should be investigating the who and why of such a direct smear attempt.  Instead, the UK state broadcaster , the BBC, continued to run with the story as one in which Sturgeon had a case to answer.

The response of the Tories and Labour was equally predictable.  The Tories seized upon the suggestion that Miliband is not prime ministerial material by taking a line of ‘we told you so’.  Labour, rather sadly, took the bait and went with the media line that this was ‘evidence’ that a vote for the SNP would allow David Cameron into No.10 by the back door.  Not only that, Miliband took to the media to castigate Sturgeon for the ‘revelation’.

Both Cameron and Miliband have their respective reasons to fear the SNP.  For Labour it must now be clear that the anti-austerity, anti-Trident, pro-public service investment message of the SNP campaign has resonance across the UK, not just in Scotland.  They would do well to catch up with it.   For the Tories the fear is that such a message will give the SNP enough Westminster MPs to hold the balance of power and, to coin a phrase, allow Miliband into No 10 by the back door.

Labour have ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP.  The SNP have ruled out any scenario which would let the Tories back into office, if they have the MPs to prevent it, even down to voting against a minority government Queen’s Speech, if the Tories are the largest party but do not have a majority.

Depending on the balance of votes an unholy trinity of the Tories, LibDems and UKIP could even be a possibility.  None will admit to it at present but faced with a Labour / SNP alliance their respective brands of opportunism could easily surface.

Unless voting intentions shift significantly in the next three weeks a hung parliament is just about the only certainty in British politics at the moment.  Nicola Sturgeon has taken a clear position and asked Labour to support an anti-austerity alliance to keep the Tories out.  Labour are set to lose many seats to the SNP in Scotland anyway.  Ed Miliband cannot get into Downing Street without their support.

Labour need to understand that austerity is a choice; buying Trident nuclear submarines is a choice; supporting  the public sector is a choice.  Of course Labour will be demonised in the media for taking a progressive position on these issues but the media will demonise Labour and Miliband anyway, there is no point in pretending otherwise.

A Labour / SNP alliance on the 7th May will not be a revolution in British politics, although the media would no doubt paint it that way.  It would however wrest the agenda back from the banks and corporations, for whom the Tories are running the economy, and give some hope to those who have been paying for a crisis they did not create.  If the majority of British voters are prepared to vote against the Tory led coalition, the least they deserve is a real alternative.

29th March 2015

On your marks…..

The official starting gun for the already seemingly interminable UK election will be officially fired this week.  The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 allows for the dissolution of Parliament 25 days before polling day. The parties are then out of the traps and on their way to polling day on 7th May.   There can be no doubt that the outcome of the 2015 election will be the most difficult to call for over 50 years.

The post war hey day of the two party system when elections would usually, though not always, deliver a hefty majority for either Labour or Conservative appear to be long gone as the class identities which those parties relied on become less clearly defined.   

That, at least, is certainly true when it comes to Labour.  Born from the trades union movement and the struggle of working people for better pay, terms, conditions and Parliamentary representation, the Labour Party was established to represent the interests of the working class.  While much sociological debate is expended to define precisely the concept of class, and obfuscate the issue with new terminology, there remains a majority of the population who have nothing but their labour to rely on to earn a living.

Whether that labour is spent in a call centre or a coal mine does not change the objective relationship of the worker to the means of production, over which they have no ownership or control.  The coal miner has historically been more powerful than any call centre worker is likely to be, as mining produced more direct wealth than telephone answering, but the loss of a job would put either on the breadline.

The Conservatives have always been the party of the ruling class and those who aspire to be part of that charmed circle.  To that extent they have suffered from less of an identity crisis than Labour.  As well as those with the real wealth and power, the Conservative appeal continues to be with the petty bourgeois small business owner and the working classes taken in by the notion that a vote for the Tories is a vote for their ‘betters’.  As the overt party of the establishment the Tories continue to exude an air of smugness associated with their sense of entitlement.

This may well come from the ideological victory of Conservatism in the post war period being sealed by the pronouncement of three time election winning Labour leader, Tony Blair, proclaiming himself as Thatcher’s heir.

The Labour Party under Ed Miliband seems to be making some effort to turn the ideological tide but it is so far up river that even the mildest radical statement is pounced upon as evidence of a left-wing conspiracy in Labour ranks.

Ironically, the territory which Labour has abandoned across large parts of the UK, has been seized upon in Scotland by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), who look set to sweep a large proportion of the 59 seats on offer north of the border.  While the SNP makes no apology for its longer term objective of secession from the UK, the prospect of a 50+ strong contingent of SNP representatives at Westminster will make both Labour and the Tories sit up and take notice.

The SNP has built its programme around a reduction in austerity cuts, abolition of the bedroom tax, opposition to the wasteful spend on Trident nuclear submarines, and increased spend on public services.  To say that this is making the Daily Mail and its readership see red is an understatement.  It is also a clear statement that the tug of war on the right wing between the Tories and UKIP is not the only fault line in UK politics.

If the UK really is Better Together, then all of the voices around the table need to be heard.  The much heralded ‘economic recovery’ may be reaching the traditional Tory heartlands in the south but it is not making headway in Scotland or the North of England.

It is no coincidence that while the issue of the future of the UK is seen in nationalist terms, the reality remains a class one.  The referendum in Scotland last September rejected independence, yet SNP membership has soared since the vote, as the SNP offer working class Scots a vision Labour is failing to match.  The real lesson of the Scottish referendum is not that the break up of the UK is on the agenda at this election but that class is back as an issue.

The Conservatives have no problem defining which side of that divide they are on, they never do.  The SNP have discovered that nationalism and class politics are not mutually exclusive and are positioning themselves in the anti-austerity, anti-nuclear vanguard.  South of Berwick however an SNP vote is not an option. 

Labour need to grasp the baton on behalf of the working class and make that dash to the finish line.

22nd March 2015

Israeli right hangs on

The outcome of this week’s general election in Israel has been widely acknowledged as a blow to the already faltering peace process, as Benyamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud emerged as the party with the most seats in the Knesset.  With 120 seats on offer, the 30 won outright by Likud, ahead of the 24 won by the centre-left Zionist Union, give Netanyahu a position from which a coalition of the hardline right will be fashioned.

Those who will join Netanyahu’s reactionary alliance include Jewish Home led by Naftali Bennett, ultra nationalist and pro-occupation in its outlook.  Kulanu, a centre right party led by former Likud finance minister, Moshe Kahlon is also likely to form part of the coalition.  There are also a clutch of ultra-orthodox religious parties, winning enough seats to gain a foothold in the Knesset, who would form part of an anti-Palestinian alliance to keep Netanyahu as Prime Minister.

Perhaps the one glimmer of light in the election outcome was the emergence of the Arab-Jewish Joint List, which took 14 seats, making it the third largest group in the Parliament.  How great an impact the group can have remains to be seen but its presence gives the lie to those who suggest that the right in Israeli politics speak for the entire nation.

The right had to stoop low to gain its victory, with Netanyahu proclaiming on polling day that, “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves”, suggesting that the right needed to get out and vote in case the outcome was not in their favour.  That the Arabs voting in “droves” were the 20% of the Israeli population who, as citizens, are perfectly entitled to vote gives an insight into the thinking of Netanyahu, that those Israeli citizens who are Arab are essentially the enemy within.

As Netanyahu’s position hardened, closer to the poll itself, he not only declared himself opposed to a two-state solution to the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories by the Israelis but also in favour of continuing settler occupation of Palestinian land, as part of the creeping takeover of Palestinian territory which has been going on for over 40 years.

Immediately following the election Netanyahu did back track, stating that,

“I don’t want a one-state solution.  I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.  But for that, circumstances have to change.”

As the main barrier to any efforts to broker a peace deal in recent years it is difficult to see the circumstances under which Netanyahu would actively promote a just settlement which would recognise the legitimate boundaries of a Palestinian state.  His campaign rhetoric even brought an unusual rebuke from Israel’s staunchest ally and chief weapons supplier, the United States, with the White House critical of the “divisive rhetoric” used by Netanyahu in the campaign.

The Palestinians have responded by taking action of their own, in pursuing a case at the International Criminal Court to have the Israeli government charged with war crimes for its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.  As senior PLO official, Yasser Abed Rabbo made clear,

“Israel chose the path of racism, occupation and settlement building, and did not choose the path of negotiations and partnership between us.  We must complete our steps to stop security co-ordination and go to the Hague tribunal to move against settlements and Israel’s crimes in its war on Gaza.”

It is also possible that the Palestinians will seek to increase the international isolation of the Israelis by returning to the UN Security Council with a resolution condemning the occupation of Palestinian lands.  A previous resolution in December last year was rejected at the UN.  Whether the UN will this time have the bottle to support the Palestinian cause will be an interesting test of international justice.

19th March 2015

A budget to buy votes

The introduction of fixed term parliaments in the UK was always going to mean that the budget immediately before the General Election would be aimed squarely at the voters with any cracks in the economy, of which there are many, papered over.  The budget speech by UK Chancellor, George Osborne, yesterday did exactly that.  Five years of brutal public sector spending cuts, drastic welfare reductions and the creation of a low pay, low skills economy were brushed aside  as Osborne donned his rose coloured spectacles and waxed lyrical about the UK’s ‘achievements.’

However, as TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, was quick to point out,

“The chancellor’s Britain, where happy people skip to their secure jobs to celebrate their rising living standards, is not one that many will recognise.”

It will certainly not be recognised by those at the sharp end of the £12bn worth of welfare cuts which have been made over the past five years, or the likely victims of the further £12bn of welfare cuts yet to come.  Given that half of welfare spending is on pensions, which will be protected from the welfare cuts, that will mean a disproportionate burden falling upon those who are the most vulnerable, particularly the poor and the young.

It is, as ever, all about political choices.  Osborne is presiding over an economy which is presently benefitting from the windfall of lower oil prices, cheaper borrowing costs and higher than expected economic growth but has chosen to protect Whitehall departments rather than help those on welfare. 

Exactly how the Chancellor will tackle the welfare budget remains unclear.  Interviewed on Radio Four’s today programme this morning (19th March) he failed to identify exactly where the axe would fall.  Given that the predictions for housing benefit suggest it will rise from £17bn in 2008-09 to £27bn by 2018-19, with the 962,000 claiming the benefit   set to rise to 1.2m  by 2018-19, the detail of Osborne’s proposals are eagerly awaited.

The austerity programme in the public sector is set to continue with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) being widely quoted as stating that,

“One important consequence of all this is that implied public services spending is on a rollercoater profile through the next parliament, with deeper real cuts in the second and third years than we have seen to date followed by the sharpest increase for a decade in the fifth.”

Quite what base any sharp increase will be from, given the level to which the public sector will be reduced, is another matter and may simply be a means of holding out hope in advance of the next General Election, scheduled for May 2020.

The bells and whistles of the help to buy ISA, a penny off a pint of beer and the freeze on fuel duty may be the headline grabbers Osborne was looking for, but the reality remains that Britain still has its biggest current account deficit since 1845 and that manufacturing and construction output are both below where they were at the beginning of the recession.

The banks got something of a bashing, with £5.3 bn to be raised from the industry in the next five years, but this is hardly commensurate with the damage they have done to the economy as a consequence of the 2008 financial crash.

Whether Labour can land any political blows in relation to the budget remains to be seen.  In his response to the budget, interviewed on the BBC, Labour Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, was unconvincing and was easily steered into a position of accepting that Labour would not reverse anything proposed in the budget.  The opportunity to make a decisive link to the bigger picture and the blight which the austerity programme has wreaked across large swathes of the country was missed.  As long as Labour fight shy of making popular but decisive proposals, to nationalise keys areas of transport, hit the unearned income of the rich harder and to tackle the growing scourge of youth unemployment more decisively, the electorate are likely to see them as a pale shadow of the current government.

How the debate on the budget unfolds over the coming week will effectively be the start of serious election campaigning as we move towards 7th May.  If Osborne’s plans are not to be implemented, Labour needs to make sure that the alternative is both louder and clearer.

 

14th March 2015

Teachers take action in Iran

The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People's Rights (CODIR) has reported this month that further action has been taken by teachers in Iran, following an unprecedented strike by thousands of teachers for two consecutive days in January.  On both occasions, action has been organised to protest against hardship, job insecurity and the economic policies of the Iranian regime.

In what has been hailed as the biggest workers protest in recent years in Iran, more than 100,000 teachers held coordinated rallies in Tehran and other provincial capitals earlier in March, demanding better pay and conditions. Teachers across the country stayed away from classrooms.  Their representatives held protest rallies outside the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, and provincial offices of the Ministry of Education.  

Teachers are concerned that the government is planning to limit their salary increase to below the rate of inflation.  In the draft budget presented to the parliament for the financial year 2015/16 the budget of the Ministry of Education is seriously limited.  This is at a time when the budget for favoured departments, such the Islamic Guards Corps, has increased by 60%.

Protesting teachers were also demanding health insurance for teachers, respecting the right of teachers to engage in trade union activities and calling for the release of a number of teachers who are serving long prison sentences for engaging in trade union activities.

Privatisation is an ongoing concern of teachers as the government seeks to meet IMF requirements to deregulate the economy.  As part of its restructuring programme, during the next ten years, the Islamic Republic intends to significantly reduce the number of school teachers and reduce the status of teaching through drafting in retired teachers, university graduates and volunteers to fill any gaps.

In a recent letter of solidarity with teachers in Iran, Christine Blower, NUT General Secretary stated,

"Today in Iran teachers are faced with threats against their pay and pay progression. They are faced with difficult working conditions, job insecurity and privatisation in education. Furthermore, there is little room for dissent and trade unions voices are silenced. Nonetheless we stand in solidarity with the teachers of Iran."

CODIR has called for support for the teachers in Iran and asked for other trade unions to also show their support by writing to the Iranian teachers' organisation to show solidarity.

CODIR Assistant General Secretary, Jamshid Ahmadi, stressed the significance of the ongoing action by teachers,

"As we have said before, teachers in Iran find themselves living on the breadline at a time when education to support the future needs of the economy is vital. Keeping teachers on low pay and cutting their numbers so dramatically underlines the lack of vision in the Islamic Republic and their inability to forge a path independent of the strictures of the IMF."

As CODIR has emphasised previously, the action against teachers is part of a coordinated policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to maximise pressure upon trades union activists, their colleagues and family members in order to silence them and pressurise the trade union movement in Iran.

For further information go to www.codir.net

8th March 2015

Holding up half the sky

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD) and there can be no doubt that the position of women in the West has improved significantly since the day was first recognised in 1908.  The day came about as a result of working women New York in the United States taking to the streets to demand better pay, terms and conditions.  It was taken on board as an international day when a proposal by German socialist, Clara Zetkin, tabled at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910, was unanimously agreed by the conference delegates.  From 1911 onwards the day has assumed a truly international character.

In the Soviet Union and former socialist countries, IWD was a national holiday, something which has continued in many of the former Soviet republics as well as in Cuba, China and Vietnam, amongst others.

While the focal point of IWD is to celebrate the many achievements of women, there is inevitably an acknowledgement that not all the desired aims of those fighting for equality have been achieved.  While the visibility of women in positions of influence and power has increased in the West in general, there remain fewer women than men as MPs across Europe, fewer women in leading business positions and fewer women with positions of influence in the media.  Women’s pay remains, on average, less than that of men.

In the UK the state supported Church of England regards itself as progressive, having just allowed women to become Bishops after hundreds of years.  In the Catholic Church the prospect of a female Pope is not even contemplated, while the position of women in Islamic culture remains both subservient and secondary.  Political prominence has been achieved by women in the West, not least Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany and increasingly Marine Le Pen in France.  Hillary Clinton is being tipped as the next US President, she would be the first woman to hold the office.  However, these examples merely serve to illustrate the fact that women in prominent political positions is no guarantee of progress towards equality, either for women in particular or society in general.

It should also be pointed out that, while women enjoyed greater prominence in the workforce in the Soviet Union and former socialist countries, they rarely found their way to leadership positions.  The same is true of China today where the higher echelons of the Communist Party are hardly an advertisement for gender balance, in spite of Mao’s acknowledgement that ‘women hold up half the sky.’

Nevertheless, the progress of gender equality is inextricably linked to the struggle for economic and social equality in society as a whole.  Whatever concessions are won from capitalism, in terms of women’s voting rights and any progress on pay issues, the nature of the system is such that progress is always under threat.  As well as the anachronistic position of the Church of England on women Bishops, the outdated system of Monarchy in the UK retains succession through the male line, serving to underline its irrelevance to progress more than is already obvious. 

The Church and state in the UK are imbued in gender prejudice and as models for wider society are backward looking and reactionary.  So far the media in the UK have succeeded in keeping the Church and Monarchy ‘above politics’ insofar as they are not generally regarded as targets for political debate.   Such opposition as is voiced is usually characterised as unrepresentative or ‘extreme’.  However, as the debate around the role of the nations of the UK takes on new and previously unanticipated directions, it is likely that the institutions which support the status quo will come under greater scrutiny. 

The extent to which such institutions, supported by the media and the wider political superstructure, defend entrenched class interests and impede progress towards economic and social justice will become more apparent.  Only when such questions are asked, and the need for a socialist republic based upon equality of opportunity, regardless of gender, race or ethnic origin is realised, will significant steps towards equality be made.  In the meantime any degree of change is better than none.  Any steps, which illustrate that the contribution of women to society is of equal value to that of men need to be taken.  We then need to unite to build upon such gains and ensure that they are taken further.

1st March 2015

Newcastle Unites Against Racism

The first ever UK rally of the far right Pegida group took place in Newcastle upon Tyne yesterday, with the neo-fascists mustering a mere 300 supporters, while a counter demonstration,  organised under the Newcastle Unites banner, saw 3,000 people take to the streets of the city.  The attempts of the Pegida UK organisers to suggest that the group is not far right in its views was given the lie by the  clear right wing sympathies of those huddled in Newcastle’s Bigg Market to hear the proclamations of bigotry from the platform.

Police in the city held a clear line to keep the counter demonstrators apart from the Pegida rally, which would have been easily overwhelmed by the weight of numbers on the Newcastle Unites protest.  Local and national media have been unable to deny the clear difference in numbers but have been reporting up to 400 at the Pegida event and as low as 1,000 in opposition.  However, the TV pictures from both events clearly support the assertions of many present, and organisers, that the Newcastle Unites activists outnumbered Pegida by close to 10:1.

With the event being the first organised by Pegida outside Germany, it was vital that a clear message was sent to those seeking a platform for racism and Islamophobia that  they were not wanted in the UK or in the North East of England.  The history of exposing the neo-Nazi sympathies of the National Front, the neo-fascist bigotry of the British National Party and the ongoing anti-European bombast of UKIP, is strong on the Left in the UK and representation from across the country was evident at the protest against Pegida in Newcastle.

Significantly, the protest brought together a wide age range of representatives from across political parties and those from a range of religious faiths.  Whatever the differences in belief of those attending the protest, they were united in their opposition to the racism and bigotry on offer from Pegida.

Pegida started life in Germany, in particular in the city of Dresden, and is an acronym for the Patriots of Europe Against the Islamisation of the West.  The rise of Pegida is symptomatic of the growth of right wing groups in certain parts of Europe, as the economic crisis arising from the 2008 economic crash, results in a lashing out in certain areas against easy scapegoats.  The rise of Pegida is the culmination of a wave of arson attacks by neo-Nazis on refugee shelters, which began in Germany in the 1990’s and have resulted in the progressive tightening of laws protecting the rights of asylum seekers in Germany.

That Pegida should arise in Dresden in particular, one of the major cities of the former GDR (German Democratic Republic), is not entirely surprising.  Since the GDR was annexed into the new unified Germany 25 years ago the citizens of the East have had to suffer unemployment, hardship, and a rising cost of living.  The German economic miracle remains one primarily made in the West of the country, rather than being evenly spread.  Preying upon the dissatisfaction this situation breeds, neo-Nazi groups and anti-Islamists such as Pegida have sought to take advantage by putting the blame for economic ills at the door of immigrants, rather than the banks and corporations running the economy.

This is the oldest divide and rule trick in the book and one which is being carried out with increasing efficiency in many parts of Europe, in particular by the Front National of Marine Le Pen in France.  The fact that Le Pen is being talked of as a serious contender for the French presidency should give cause for concern across the continent.  Le Pen has a superficially plausible message about being against the corporations, against the bureaucracy of the EU and for ‘the people’.  Yet the problems facing the French are primarily, according to Le Pen, to do with mass immigration.

The rhetoric of opposing the banks and the EU is merely a smokescreen for the real anti-immigration message which is at the core of the Front National’s position.  In a recent interview with the BBC Le Pen stated that the world is divided into “nationalists and globalists”, siding herself with the nationalists looking to address the interests of  ”the people” in their particular country.

What Le Pen failed to acknowledge were internationalists, those who are opposed to the EU of the banks and the corporations, but would welcome a Europe of mutually supportive socialist states, which would be open to migrants, opposed to racism and would truly be run in the interests of and by the people.  The basis of such an approach is a Marxist one, anathema to the likes of Le Pen and Pegida, but the only approach which would give truly people based government and drive the neo-fascist agenda underground.

The very important demonstration in Newcastle this weekend laid down an important marker for Pegida and its like in the UK.  However, in the UK and the rest of Europe, there is still more work to be done.

22nd February 2015

Greeks bail out

Anyone on the Left who was still under any illusion that the Syriza led Greek government is little more than a trusty capitalist supporting social democratic party, in the traditional mould, should have had their eyes opened this week.    All talk of Syriza representing a hard Left tilt at the power of capital in Europe has been exposed, as negotiations over the Greek debt and bail out terms conclude with the Greek people being no better off than they were before.  Worse still, there is little prospect that things will improve.

The so called troika of foreign lenders, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Union (EU) were the focus of much energy during the Greek election campaign, with Syriza promising that it would tear up the memoranda that the previous right wing Greek government had agreed, and which was responsible for the austerity forced upon the Greek people.

The so called bailout, amounting to €240bn, has resulted in the Greeks having to suffer soaring unemployment and collapsing economic output.  The vast majority of the funds have gone straight back in repayments to private sector speculators,  including French and German banks, largely responsible for the bleeding of the Greek economy in the first place.  Austerity as a stimulus to growth is not working elsewhere in Europe, as the ECB recently agreed €60bn a month money printing programme demonstrates, so there is no reason to believe it would work in Greece.

Syriza had a strong mandate, in terms of popular support in the elections and the evidence of economic stagnation across Europe, to back the case for debt cancellation and an even playing field for the weaker economies of the Eurozone.  Instead Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis,  offered from the start that,

“Greece is a permanent and inseparable member of the European Union and our monetary union.”

Syriza has stated  that it agrees with 70% of the “reforms” included in the original troika memoranda and disagrees with 30%, which it describes as “toxic”.  Further still, it has stated that it will not act unilaterally, but will seek a new agreement with the lenders.  The only difference appears to be that this time the new agreement will not be called a memorandum, but a programme, agreement or bridge.  To add to the absurdity, the lenders will no longer be the ‘troika’ but the ‘institutions’.  Finally, the bailout becomes the Master Facility Agreement.

These semantic somersaults disguise nothing in reality of course.  The deal on the table for the Greek people is exactly the same as it was before.  The Greek economy will be supervised by the troika.  The Greek government will submit detailed reform proposals for their inspection.  Syriza will not engage in reforms which may threaten “fiscal sustainability”.  The coup de grace is that the Greek government will accept financial support “on the basis of the conditions of the current agreement.”  That will be for four months, not the six months the Greeks had requested.

The tone was set earlier in the week when German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schӓuble, stated that whatever platform Syriza had been elected on, they had to honour the commitments of the previous Greek government to the terms of the bailout.  Quite what this means for democracy in the EU is an interesting point, if any agreement signed by one government is there in perpetuity, whatever the programme of any incoming government.

What the Greek people will make of the deal remains to be seen.  Having been elected on an anti-austerity programme, selling more austerity back to its supporters will not be easy for Syriza.  The final acts in the drama initiated by the Greek general  election have yet to be played out.

The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) sum up neatly the next steps,

“Thus, the Greek people and the other peoples should not fall into the trap of being separated into “merkelists” and “obamites” and divided in a struggle under “false” flags. They have to organize their struggle and demand the recovery of the losses as regards their income and their rights. They should demand the solution of all workers’ and people’s problems according to their contemporary needs. They must struggle for the way out that will bring hope: the socialization of the monopolies, the disengagement from the imperialist unions of the EU and NATO with the people holding the reins of power.  This will pave the way for the only timely and realistic path that leads to the true emancipation of the people: the construction of a new, socialist society.” 

15th February 2015

Black ties, white noise

Let’s face it, no-one is really surprised that international banks, such as HSBC, would indulge in a bit of advice to the rich, helping them to avoid paying tax.  Not many will be surprised that, even presented with the evidence of such activity, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) did not spend a lot of time chasing the rich around the world to cough up what they owe.  If we are honest, the only surprise is that the banks and the tax dodgers have been caught at it.

However, the scale of the concealment of cash by HSBC’s Swiss bank seems to have been sufficiently eye opening for even the most craven apologists of the secret bank account system to acknowledge that there has to be a fall guy.  For the time being, HSBC is it.  Leaked files, revealed this week that secret accounts were held for people alleged to have been involved in drug running, corruption and money laundering operations.  Other areas of interest appear to have included bankers who had looted from former Soviet states, cash from cocaine smuggling in the Dominican Republic and the proceeds arising from the doping of professional cyclists in Spain.

The revelations came through the French daily, Le Monde in collaboration with the UK based The Guardian and have generated some interesting responses.  The Chairman of Le Monde’s supervisory board Pierre Berge has attacked the newspaper for “informing” on those exposed in the HSBC files, sparking a stormy debate on press freedom in France.  A similar line was taken by Matthieu  Pigasse, Head of Lazard bank in Paris, who claimed  that,

“There is a balance to be struck between disclosing information that is in the public interest and falling into a form of fiscal McCarthyism and informing.”

Quite which elements of the rich dodging tax, not to mention international criminals using unnamed accounts to launder the proceeds of crime, that are not in the public interest,  Pigasse does not make clear.  What is evident however is that those who previously felt they had a safe haven, free from the taxes which are the obligation of the majority, are finding their position of privilege under scrutiny.

In the UK the political fallout has inevitably focussed upon the historic party of the rich, the Tory Party.  Former Tory Treasurer, Lord Fink no less, backed down from a threat to sue Labour leader Ed Miliband for accusing him of tax avoidance for the very reason that he had to admit he had avoided paying taxes.  His defence, as reported by the London Evening Standard, was summed up quite neatly as “..tax avoidance, everyone does it.”  Further mitigation was offered by the good Lord in the claim that,

“What I did was at the vanilla, bland, end of the spectrum.”

So, a little bit of tax avoidance is okay it would seem!

Not content with getting themselves embroiled at the sharp end of an international tax dodging story, the Tories’ reputation for ineptitude was compounded by their black tie winter ball, a fundraiser for the posh to boost the Tory General Election war chest.  With £12m in the coffers, and the capability to outspend every other party combined at the General Election, the Tories nevertheless proceeded to squeeze their supporters just a bit more, to be on the safe side.

Prospective contributors were invited, in an auction style event to bid for, a trip on a private jet to the Greek islands; the use of a luxury 12 bed chalet in France; a pheasant and partridge shoot; or a spot of shoe-shopping with Home Secretary, Teresa May; amongst many other delights.  When Chancellor George Osborne argues to continue the austerity programme, because we are “all in it together”, events like these reinforce the reality that some are not quite so deeply “in it” as others.  Tory claims that Labour being supported financially by the trade union movement is in any way undemocratic are also exposed as being thin.

The Tory lack of judgement in fiscal matters is reinforced by the fact that former HSBC executive chairman, Stephen Green, was not only made a peer by the Tories in 2010, he was then elevated to a position in government as Trade Minister.  By 2012 US Department of Justice officials had uncovered sanctions busting and money laundering activity at HSBC which led them to claim the bank’s culture was “pervasively polluted” by such activity, clear something which had not just started after the departure of Green.  The US scandal resulted in a fine of $1.9bn after the Senate committee report revealed, amongst other things, that Mexican and Colombian drugs cartels had used HSBC to launder at least $881m.

All of this has given Labour leader, Ed Miliband, the opportunity to land some pre-election punches, characterising David Cameron as being strong on the weak but weak when it comes to dealing with the strong and pointing out in a speech yesterday that there is “one rule for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else.”

Quite how far the debate on tax avoidance has yet to go remains to be seen but any hopes David Cameron may have had of sweeping it under the carpet have been dealt a blow by the Treasury Select Committee, who will be calling HSBC and HMRC officials to give evidence.  Whatever that may reveal, the case for ongoing austerity is certainly a lot weaker than that for spreading the pain a bit more evenly.

7th February 2015

Ukraine – peering over the edge

Having generated the crisis in Ukraine, through a combination of political and diplomatic manoeuvres, Western politicians are now attempting to set themselves up as peacemakers.  At yesterday’s talks in Moscow, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and French President, Francois Hollande, took the initiative to meet with President Putin to find a way through the current crisis and bring the leaders of Ukraine back from the brink.  With many US senators openly calling for the US to arm the Ukrainian government, the success or failure of the Merkel/Hollande mission could be the difference between reinstating a ceasefire and all out war.

At a conference in Munich today the focus will be on a new blueprint agreed at the talks in Moscow involving Putin, Merkel and Hollande. The aim is to reach a solution to the crisis before it turns into a major east-west confrontation.  It is expected that the new plan is likely to be based on the failed September Minsk ceasefire and peace accords, which the West accuses Moscow of failing to adhere to.

Whatever the detail of the Minsk accords, the real issues in Ukraine are rooted in the attempt by the US and EU to draw the country into the orbit of the West, by pushing both EU and NATO membership.  Russia has been subject to punitive sanctions, having been characterised by the West as the aggressor in the Ukraine, while its intervention in relation to the Crimea has been positively mild, compared to the engagement of the West in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya.

While President Putin’s style, characterised by Seumas Milne of The Guardian recently as “oligarchic nationalism” is clearly not to everyone’s taste, it is hard not to disagree with his assessment that the US has tried to dominate the world through “unilateral diktat” and “illegal intervention”, disregarding international law and institutions if they got in the way.  Putin’s assessment  that the result of this process has been conflict, insecurity and the rise of groups such as Isis, with the US and its allies “constantly fighting the consequences of their own policies”, is also hard to disagree with.

To that extent, the view of the Ukraine crisis in many parts of the world is that of Russia acting as a counterweight to the unilateral power of the US.  While the hawks in the US may call for more weapons to be poured into the hands of the volatile Ukraine government of President Poroshenko, others recognise that the US is already straining to contain Isis, in Iraq and Syria, without committing itself to additional engagement in Ukraine.

The Merkel/Hollande initiative may be the first sign in the West that a negotiated solution is the only way forward and that the long term strategic interests of the West may lie in having Russia as a strategic ally, rather than an enemy.  It will be interesting to see how negotiations unfold.  

Bob Marley

"I tell you what: some people got everything;
Some people got nothing;
Some people got hopes and dreams;
Some people got ways and means."

 

Survival - Bob Marley

 

Yesterday (6th February) marked the day on which Bob Marley would have been seventy years old.  Marley died at the age of 36 leaving behind a legacy of music and militancy that inspired many when he was alive and arguably more since his death.  Widely regarded as the first third world or world music superstar, Marley consistently railed against injustice, poverty and imperialism.  His musical legacy is testament to this, described by author and lecturer, Vivien Goldman, as,

“A musician who laid his life on the line for his beliefs, expressed in songs a child could hum….”  

Marley’s legacy is not without ambivalence however.  Rooted in the Rastafari religion, Marley’s message is imbued with the belief in the deification of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, regarded as the second coming of Christ by those who follow the creed.  Whether the people of the impoverished nation he ruled for forty five years would see Selassie in such glowing terms is open to dispute.

However, the essential nature of Marley’s music, its roots in the poverty he knew in Trench Town Jamaica, remain a progressive element in his work.  Popularising the independence struggles of African nations, attacking apartheid in South Africa and arguing against the destruction of the planet marked him out from many of his contemporaries and ahead of most songwriters of today.

As a legacy goes, that is still something not many can match.

1st February 2015

One step forward, two steps back?

The widely anticipated outcome of the Greek parliamentary election last Sunday resulted in the Syriza party gaining 36.3% of the vote against the 27.8% gained by the right wing New Democracy (ND)Party.  ND has overseen the austerity programme in Greece in recent years, in partnership with social democrats of PASOK, whose vote fell from over 12% to 4.7% of the popular vote.  The fascist Golden Dawn vote was down slightly but still at a worrying 6.3% while, more positively the Communist Party of Greece (KKE)saw its vote increase   from 4.5% to 5.5%, giving it 15 members of parliament.  The right wing Independent Greeks, whom Syriza have chosen to go into coalition with, saw their vote drop from 7.5% to 4.8% of the electorate.

These figures reflect a number of things.  Firstly that the to and fro of Greek politics, between the ND and PASOK, is effectively over.  Secondly, that while the right wing in Greece is still able to garner a significant number of votes, there is a distinct appetite for a different approach to the economy.  The combined ‘left’ vote of Syriza and the KKE is comfortably over the 40% mark and ostensibly represents a desire for change.  Thirdly however, the bizarre composition of the coalition in Greece signals only a conditional ‘victory’ for the anti-austerity forces and reinforces fears, voiced by the KKE, that Syriza may not be as radical as the capitalist press would have the European public believe.

Whether the Syriza government is capable of being moved to a position which is actually a radical one, in relation to withdrawal from the EU and NATO, remains to be seen.   However, its short term success will certainly be judged by the extent to which its policies can improve the lives of ordinary Greek people, who have suffered under the austerity programme of the past five years.  The current position of Syriza remains that it does not want to leave the euro or default on its debts.  How hard a line the Germans and Europe’s central bankers take may determine whether Syriza is forced into making tougher choices that it wants to, sooner rather than later.  Which way it jumps, right or left, may be the point at which a decisive shift comes.

The anti-austerity ball is certainly rolling across Europe, with Podemos in Spain mobilising 100,000 supporters in the centre of Madrid yesterday to a rally addressed by Podemos leader, Pablo Inglesias, sending out a message of anti-austerity and anti-corruption.  With municipal, regional and general elections all coming up in Spain this year the progress of Podemos, which has only been on the political scene for the past year, will be watched closely by the EU hierarchy.

However, like Syriza, whether Podemos is offering a genuine alternative to the iniquities of the banker dominated EU, or merely riding the crest of a popular backlash against austerity is the real question.  Neither are offering a truly radical analysis of the cause of the crisis across the EU and capitalist world; neither is taking a decisive position against the ongoing military interventions of NATO; and neither is taking a decisive stand against the distorting and reactionary influence of the United States at the United Nations.

There is also a trend amongst capitalist economists in Europe, which advocates greater investment for growth, as opposed to austerity, on the basis that it will lead to greater profitability for capital in the long term.  Such voices may be regarded as ‘wet’ by those who advocate structural reform, usually a euphemism for reduced pay, terms and conditions, but they do illustrate that there is not uniformity within the ranks of capital about the best way forward.  Allowing Syriza and Podemos to shift the ground slightly, while not fundamentally challenging the power of capital, may be seen as an acceptable price to pay if it breaks the current spiral of decline in the Eurozone.

It is certainly true that challenging the institutions of capital, whether economic or military, in the forms of the EU and NATO, is only one part of the struggle.  Ownership and control of the economic and military agenda, led by governments of the people, acting in the interests of the people, is the only solution in the long term.  It would be a miracle if any of the general election outcomes in 2015 deliver change on that scale.

25th January 2015

The illusion of ‘inclusive capitalism’

The World Economic Forum took place in Davos, Switzerland this week.  It is a gathering of the world’s big economic players to analyse the international economic situation and propose solutions to the world’s economic ills.

This year the Davos glitterati have discovered inequality and they think it may be a bad thing.  At least they seem to think that too much of it might be a bad thing.  There was no hint from Davos that economic equality is on the agenda, just that things being too unequal can not only make capitalism look bad but can also be a bit tricky when it comes to selling goods.  A poorly paid workforce has little in the way of disposable income so cannot afford to buy things, unless they use credit and we are living through the consequences of that.

The fact that capitalism is a system based upon exploitation and therefore has inequality built into it, was not up for discussion.  The best option on offer was so called ‘inclusive capitalism’, championed by Barack Obama amongst others, as a means of ameliorating the suffering of the poor by making sure that the crumbs from the table, upon which they feed, are slightly bigger than usual.

The occasion for the hand wringing was the publication of a report on Inclusive Prosperity, from an international commission chaired by Harvard professor Larry Summers and Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls.  The report does indeed show that capitalism is not working.  The income growth of the bottom 90% of the workforce in industrialised countries is slowing, while actually falling in the UK and US.  Austerity is stunting economic growth, a familiar reality in the UK.

The report also suggests that unrestrained executive pay is a bad thing and calls for the return of stronger trade unions and collective bargaining.  The report appears to have influenced Barack Obama’s State of the Union comments in which he asked how much longer can we ”accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well” before going on to outline a set of tax increases on high incomes.

In the week of the Davos conference the charity Oxfam reported that, according to figures gleaned from Credit Suisse, by 2016 the combined wealth of the world’s richest 1% will overtake that of the remaining 99% of the world.  The richest 1% currently own 48% of world’s wealth.  Next year that figure will exceed 50% for the first time.

Globalisation and the technological revolution are to blame, it would seem, as more goods can be produced with less workers.  Such changes in the past have been accompanied by the demand for a shorter working week and an increase in leisure time, rather than wholesale sackings and communities on the scrapheap.  However, even such progress will only turn the tide temporarily. 

Capitalist production is not coherently planned and is inherently competitive.  This inevitably leads to increased monopoly and crises of over production, where supply outstrips demand for a particular product and its price collapses.  The global oil price reducing by 50% in the past six months is a classic example.  Less demand from both China and the US has left too much oil on the market and the price collapse has followed.

In addition the austerity frenzy which has gripped the UK and the Eurozone, following the 2008 economic crash, does nothing to encourage growth within a capitalist context and leaves consumers penniless to buy products. 

The best outcome from Davos may be that capitalism, once again, attempts to draw back from its worst excesses, tries to cushion the blows for those worst off and, in public relations terms, tries to present itself with a human face.

Unfortunately, history has shown that leopards do not change their spots.  Whatever short term fixes the ‘inclusive capitalists’ come up with this time they will not be enough in the long run.  The tendency of the system to reward the rich and penalise the poor will continue to prevail.  Until such time as the relationship to the means of production, ownership and power are changed the struggle for real equality, socialist equality, must continue.

18th January 2015

Syriza - Greeks bearing gifts?

With Greek parliamentary elections scheduled for 25th January there is much media heat being generated about the prospect of the left wing Syriza party coming to power with a mandate to renegotiate the Greek debt.  Two years ago the tone of the pro-capitalist press was bordering on the hysterical when talking about Syriza, seeing them as far left, anti-capitalist, anti-EU and a threat to the interests of the bankers and industrialists running the Eurozone.

That tone has now been modified due to the repositioning of Syriza itself, to a position where the party hopes to negotiate an agreement with Germany and other creditors,  that would allow Greece to remain part of the single currency.  Since 2010 the Greeks have received 252bn euros as part of the bailout package agreed with the Troika of the European Central Bank, the IMF and the European commission.

It sounds like a lot but only 10% of that money has gone into supporting the Greek economy directly.  A staggering 90% has gone to the banks and hedge funds in Eurozone countries and in debt repayments and interest to creditors.  The so-called bailout has not stemmed the tide of austerity, which the Greek people have had to suffer, nor has it provided the funds for investment required to turn the economy round and create jobs and tax revenues.  Instead, the bailout money has effectively gone back to line the pockets of those who created the crash in the first place.  As ever, it is austerity for the many which is bailing out the few.

It is estimated that if it was not for having to pay interest on its debts, Greece would not be living beyond its means.  The reality for the Greek people remains stark however.  Unemployment is currently running at 25%, with GDP down 30% since before the crisis, and debts at 175% of GDP.  The Syriza call for an international creditors conference for Greece is increasingly gaining traction as it is recognised within the Eurozone that if there is no negotiation about the debt, the Greeks will be likely to default anyway.

Economists in the Eurozone are also coming round to the realisation that austerity may just be the ‘cure’ that is doing the patient more harm than good and that, even from a capitalist point of view, stepping back from the brink of a Eurozone departure may be the way forward.

The opposition in Greece is by no means united around the Syriza position, which would effectively retain Greece inside the Eurozone, albeit with a newly negotiated status, but still effectively beholden to the banks, hedge funds and the ECB for its economic choices.  The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) has been particularly vociferous in its criticism of Syriza, who it sees as having taken advantage of the popular wave against austerity to promote a position to the left of the ND-PASOK right wing government, but not radical enough to justify the support of the Greek people.

In a recent statement the KKE made its position quite clear pointing out that,

“Both the coalition government of ND-PASOK and SYRIZA, despite their differences, deceive the people, promising the same thing: that if the capitalist economy is strengthened, the people will benefit.  They are lying.  Any form of capitalist recovery will be based on the ruins of the workers’-people’s rights, it will not provide decent work for the millions of unemployed.  The so-called “comparative” advantages for the reconstruction of the country’s economy that are invoked by SYRIZA are related to the potential for big business to achieve even greater profitability.”

http://inter.kke.gr/en/articles/Appeal-of-the-Central-Committee-of-the-KKE-concerning-the-parliamentary-elections-on-the-25th-of-January-2015/

With the expectations of the Greek people running high an election outcome which delivers little more than ‘more of the same’ will be unlikely to sustain popular support for very long.  The KKE may find that its consistent and principled anti-austerity message is one which finds increasing resonance.  Even a negotiated write down of Greek debt, negotiated by a Syriza government after next Sunday, may be insufficient to stem the anti-austerity tide from flooding across Europe.

11th January 2015

Nous sommes tous Charlie, mais……

(We are all Charlie, but….)

The killings in Paris, which have dominated the Western news media for most of the past week, cannot be condoned.  The operation to assassinate journalists and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo office, followed by the taking and killing of hostages at a Jewish supermarket have, quite rightly, resulted in international condemnation.  The hundreds of thousands turning out on the streets of Paris today will be a further illustration of the desire of ordinary people across, Paris, Europe and the world, to live in peace and freedom.

The impact of the killings has had particular poignancy for many in France, as the victims were household names, part of the culture of political satire within French civil society, a safety valve that could challenge the often pompous outpourings of the political establishment and provide, through the use of humour, an alternative take on the politics of the day.  Perhaps the nearest equivalent in the UK is the magazine Private Eye, with its gentle establishment mockery occasionally metamorphosing into a more hard hitting challenge to some of the hypocrisies which characterise national politics.

Whether it is Charlie Hebdo, Private Eye, or the cartoons which feature in many newspapers and journals, the right to challenge, caricature, poke fun at the political and religious establishment, within the framework of the law and mores of society must be upheld.  Freedom of speech is never a straightforward, black and white issue, but in broad terms it is held that political and religious icons are fair game for some mockery, whether they be the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ, the Pope, the Monarchy, the President or Karl Marx.

Iconoclasm is a measure of the degree to which a society has confidence in itself and its ability to use rational argument as a vehicle for debating the issues of the day.

Again, this is not without contradiction.  It is a crime in the UK to deface the coin of the realm, as it bears the image of the Queen, who is both Head of State and Head of the Church of England.  Mocking the Pope or the Catholic Church will not go down well in parts of Ireland, Italy, Spain or France.  Literature, TV and film are often areas in which the establishment is challenged and the limits of ‘free speech’ tested.  The Monty Python comedians in the UK, now widely held up as national treasures, were reviled by many upon the release of their film, The Life of Brian, which mocked some of the core tenets of Christianity.

However, while the boundaries may be tested, most accept that the pen, rather than the sword, is the method through which such discussions should be resolved.

The line of course must be drawn at work that openly advocates racial hatred or attacks individuals for their religious beliefs.  Scapegoating those with a different skin colour or different belief systems is not acceptable and is the last resort of those looking for easy solutions to complex problems.  Attacking mosques and demonising the Muslim population in Europe will not solve the issues behind the killings in Paris.

For the same reason, political commentary and satire cannot be expected to shy away from issues because they are difficult or challenging.  The extent to which the Jewish people suffered in the holocaust, for example, does not excuse the illegal actions of the present state of Israel in occupying Palestinian land.  An attack on Benjamin Netanyahu, his government and the actions they sanction however, is not an attack on the Jewish people, whatever Netanyahu may say.

The actions of the present government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in systematically arresting torturing and executing political prisoners, must be condemned.  Holding the leaders of the Islamic Republic to account is not, however, an attack on either Islam as a religion or the Iranian people as a whole.  Like the Israeli example, it is an attack upon the political actions of the leaders of these nations, which are unacceptable and should be exposed.

Not every US citizen can be held to account for the Vietnam war, the CIA backed coup d’etat in Chile, the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan or the bombings of Libya and Syria.  These are the actions of governments, which must be challenged, both internationally and by their own people.  If those challenges are not happening, then every effort must be made to explain why they should be, and the consequences if they are not.

Not every UK citizen can be laden with guilt for the atrocity exhibition that was the British Empire, on which the sun never set and the blood never dried, though we do have a responsibility to recognise the reality of this history and to make sure it never happens again.

It is history however, which informs much of the activity which resulted in the atrocities we have seen on the streets of Paris in the past week.  The press and politicians have been keen to characterise the killers as deranged, as maniacs, lunatics on a killing rampage.  Such evidence as has emerged does not point in this direction.  Those involved appear to have been part of a carefully planned operation, linked, directly or indirectly to al-Qaeda but certainly taking the oppression of the Muslim world by the West as its starting point and justification.

For certain political trends in the Arab and Muslim world the propensity of the West to invade, bomb and occupy its way across the Middle East, in the name of protecting ‘Western’ interests, is reason enough to resort to acts of terror.  The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are no more representative of the Muslim diaspora than the actions of NATO and Western governments represent the collective view of the peoples of Europe and the US.  However, there can be no doubt that European Union and United States foreign policy in the recent past has been a major factor in radicalising many young people and adding to the threat of recrimination from those who advocate violence as the only way forward.

Just as the 9/11 attack in New York did not come ‘out of nowhere’, nor did the attacks in Paris this week. 

The leaders of the ‘free world’ will be marching in Paris with the Chilcott inquiry into the invasion of Iraq unpublished;  with Edward Snowden unable to return to the United States due to his leaking of classified National Security Agency secrets; with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange effectively imprisoned in the Ecuadoran embassy in London; with Israeli nuclear weapons capability still being officially denied, yet known to everyone;  and with the collusion of the West to sustain the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, reinforced only two weeks ago at the United Nations.

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo, and those caught up in the supermarket killings in Paris, are the latest victims in a conflict, which has no easy solutions.  Unless the West looks to put its own house in order and governments are truly held to account for their actions, this week’s victims in Paris will not be the last.  That means a radical re-examination of foreign policy towards the Middle East and developing world, a commitment to the principle of the right of nations to self-determination, and an undertaking to base relationships with other states on the principle of peaceful co-existence.

Whether the leaders of the West can commit to such principles, then actively work to make them happen, will be a measure of how many more victims there have to be before any resolution is possible.  

5th January 2015

Fissures open up

In The Collapse of the Second International (1915) Lenin famously outlines the symptoms of a revolutionary situation, the most famous of which is

“…when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule in an unchanged form; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ‘upper classes’, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class which causes fissures, through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth.  Usually, for a revolution to break out it is not enough for the ‘lower classes to refuse’ to live in the old way; it is necessary also that the ‘upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way.”

Lenin is also clear that not every revolutionary situation results in a revolution.  Much depends upon the balance of forces at the time and the leadership qualities of the working class movement, critically its ability to show decisive leadership.  Lenin’s polemic of a century ago was aimed at the Socialist Party leaders across Europe, who passed worthy resolutions condemning the impending war, but then sided with their respective bourgeois governments once the war was underway.

The General Election scheduled for 7th May in the UK does not take place in conditions of revolutionary change, or the immediate prospect of it.  However, in considering the international situation there are significant changes which suggest that the ruling class, considered globally, is at the very least, struggling to live in the old way.

Firstly, there is the retreat from the unwinnable war in Afghanistan by NATO forces, formally completed just weeks ago.  In spite of the massive commitment of troops and resources to the conflict the Taliban remain a key force in many parts of the country.  Over ten years of occupation was not enough for NATO to impose itself upon one of the world’s poorest nations.  If the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam war was the first nail in the coffin of the idea of US military invincibility, the outcome in Afghanistan surely nails the lid shut.

Across the world, in the Middle East in particular, while Western military force is still to be feared it is no longer considered unbeatable.  Apart from being unable to enforce the position in Afghanistan the West has not succeeded in pacifying Iraq and is under pressure from the Islamic State across Iraq and Syria.  The growing confidence of Islamic fundamentalist groups and the increasing difficulty of installing pro-Western regimes in the Middle East will continue to threaten Western ‘interests’ and add to the volatility of the region.

The West’s major client state in the Middle East, Israel, looks increasingly beleaguered and continues to rely upon its chief backers in the UN, in the form of the US and UK, to keep legitimate demands for Palestinian statehood at bay.  Last week, in the UN Security Council, a vote supporting a resolution calling for an end to the Israeli occupation within three years, was only lost due to last minute pressure being brought to bear upon Nigeria, by the US, to abstain in the vote.

The second key change has been in the world economic situation since the financial crash of 2008, which has seen austerity as the order of the day across the Western economies.  Stirrings of opposition to the austerity programme are beginning to show in both Greece and in Spain, where popular movements of the Left are gathering support.  The snap election in Greece, scheduled for the 25th January, triggered due to the failure of parties to agree a president, offers the most immediate test.

Bailouts to Greece from the so-called troika of the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have amounted to £188bn over the past two years but have come with harsh terms.  The left wing anti-austerity coalition Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, is seeking to write off the Greek debt of nearly £300bn and renegotiate the terms of the bailout.

The war drums have already begun as the international money markets try to frighten the Greek people into voting differently and prevent the exit of Greece from the Eurozone.  However, after six years of recession, resulting in 1.5 million people unemployed, 3 million facing poverty and many unable to pay their bills or heat their homes, the appetite of Greek voters for more hollow promises from Europe’s leaders is not great.

Syriza are promising instant debt relief, food relief and homes and electricity for those hardest hit by the austerity programme.  That such promises are even necessary in an area as conspicuously wealthy as the Eurozone is in itself a damning indictment.  If Syriza win in Greece the fear in the EU is that the Spanish Podemos party  might take the same route in elections later in the year.

In this context it is no surprise that the first shots in the UK General Election have already seen Labour characterised as ‘too left wing’ and unable to handle the economy.  The Labour programme will of course be a modest adjustment within the terms of capitalism but will still be attacked with the vehemence reserved for a call to popular uprising.  The reality is that the Labour Party is not left wing enough but will still need to articulate an alternative to the Tories that has some credibility if they are not simply going to surrender the election.

That may mean a closer look at what happens in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.  The economic crisis cannot be written out of the manifesto of any party.  The “fissures, through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth”, cannot simply be papered over.  If the Left is not able to seize the moment when it arises, there are those that will.

2nd January 2015

 

Workers assert their rights in Iran

 

posted by Morning Star in Features

 

www.morningstaronline.co.uk

 

As international sanctions exert a tightening grip on the Iranian economy it is the workers who are paying the price. Jane Green assesses their response.

 

 

The coming to power of Hassan Rouhani in the Iranian election of June 2013 was sold, both nationally and internationally, as a turning point in the politics of Iran.

 

Rouhani was heralded as a liberal, someone with whom the West could do business, someone who would negotiate a satisfactory deal on the disputed nuclear projects undertaken by the theocratic regime — hence an end to international sanctions — and liberalise social practices in Iran.

 

Good for the people, good for the economy, was how the picture was painted.

 

Eighteen months into Rouhani’s tenure the promises made at the time of his election are now coming back to haunt him. There is no indication in social practices in Iran that the tide has turned.

 

Trade unionists continue to be arbitrarily arrested. Women continue to be persecuted for dressing and behaving in ways deemed to be “un-Islamic.” Young people engaging in activities on social media networks face arrest and prosecution.

 

Economically the picture is no better. Sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, aimed at exacting concessions from the regime regarding its domestic nuclear energy programme, continue to have a disproportionate impact upon the economy.

 

The rapid decline of the price of crude oil over the past year, a commodity upon which the economy of Iran is heavily reliant, has squeezed the revenues coming in to the Iranian exchequer even further putting greater pressure on its beleaguered workforce.

 

As a result, in recent months, workers in Iran have increasingly engaged in a wave of strikes which have challenged President Rouhani and his administration.

 

Strikes have a variety of origins but are often due to the failure to pay back payments — at the Haft-Tappe sugarcane factory and complex, Bandar Imam Petrochemicals, Gilana tile factory and the Assaluyeh natural gas company for example.

 

Other major issues of concern to workers include mass scale redundancies, worsening work conditions and attempts to intimidate labour activists and workers representatives.

 

The reality is that, while Rouhani has promised to increase domestic production in Iran, strikes across the country demonstrate the limits of his promises.

 

The miners’ strike at Bafgh in central Iran, which took place in 2014, had echoes of the pits, jobs and communities slogan of the 1984/85 miner’s strike in Britain.

 

At Bafgh 5,000 workers have gone on strike twice. Several workers have been arrested and the presence of the police indicates that these strikes have become a serious issue, only resolved with the government’s retreat.

 

These strikes also reveal workers’ fears over privatisation.

 

The miners initiated the strike on May 17 in opposition to the sale of the mine’s shares to the private sector. This transfer followed the decision of Iran’s minister of industry, mines and trade, Mohammadreza Nematzadeh, to transfer control of the mines to the private sector.

 

Since 2000, more than 70 per cent of this mine’s shares had been sold. The announcement, in May, concerned the remaining 28 per cent of shares. The strike initially lasted until June 24, ending after issuing the government with a two-month ultimatum to reconsider its position.

 

However, toward the end of August, just before the end of the ultimatum period, arrest warrants were issued for 18 workers, with some being taken into custody.

 

On August 19 the miners staged a second strike to protest at the arrest of two of their colleagues, Ali Sabri and Amirhossein Kargaran.

 

On August 31, a political-intelligence mission representing the government entered Bafgh to negotiate with the workers. Three days later, after the release of the arrested workers and the cancellation of the private-sector transfer, the strike ended.

 

Significantly, the strike had the full backing of the people and local government officials including the city council and even the Friday imam. This broad base of community support was critical for its success.

 

The opposition to the ongoing privatisation of the mine was based upon the experience of Iranian workers in other sectors where asset stripping, closure and job losses have been the order of the day.

 

More recently 150 workers took action at the Arak Pars Wagon factory following the dismissal of the workers’ representative by the management board. In addition 750 more workers went into the factory but refused to start work in protest against management’s action.

 

Earlier this week, the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI) declared its full support and solidarity with workers engaged in this industrial action and called for the reinstatement of their workers’ representative.

 

It has been reported that, after a week of action, workers were successful and their council representative’s dismissal was overturned on Sunday December 28. This was in spite of threats from the Revolutionary Guards and the intervention of state forces to try to break the action.

 

As a result of these and other actions the government is stuck. The continuing sanctions are crippling the economy. The neoliberal economic policies of the regime are worsening the situation. The pressure on workers has become increasingly worse.

 

Codir’s assistant general secretary, Jamshid Ahmadi, met in November with the leadership of the IndustriALL Global Union in Geneva to discuss the worsening situation of the workers in all industrial sectors. He reported that “the catastrophic economic situation in Iran and the policies of the regime have taken away the protection of labour law from workers… millions of Iranian workers have grievances against their employers for unpaid wages, for being laid off and for other violations of their basic rights.”

 

Ahmadi further explained: “In Iran, arrests and detentions take place on a regular basis; workers are frequently arrested for supporting the right to organize workers and for building independent trade union structures. Torture is routinely used to extract confessions, and political prisoners are systematically denied medical care.”

 

Codir continues to mobilise public opinion and, in particular, trade unions internationally to stand in solidarity with the Iranian workers as they struggle for human and democratic change in Iran and for the Iranian regime to abide by the internationally accepted norms and ILO conventions.

 

Jane Green is the National Campaign Co-ordinator of CODIR, Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights. For further information on events and developments in Iran contact codir_info@btinternet.com or visit www.codir.net