Archive 2011

21st December 2011

A handout too far!

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are too cosy with the big corporations and may be letting them off with huge tax bills.  That is the claim of campaigning group UK Uncut and they are taking a case to the High Court in order to force HMRC to recover the money.  Goldman Sachs alone are thought to have gotten away with £20m. Vodafone, depending upon which reports you read are alleged, to have dodged the taxman to the tune of anything between £4.75bn – £7bn.  In total something in the region of £25bn in taxes is thought to be missing from the UK economy, much of it concealed by an insistence on “commercial confidentiality.”

Margaret Hodge, the Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said the system needed to be much more accountable. “It means the deals will be looked at in detail to see whether they were reasonable and were based on proper legal advice. Big money is involved with £25.5bn outstanding [in large business tax inquiries], yet the same people negotiating the deals are signing them off and hiding them from the public. The only way anybody knows if there is a question mark over a deal at the moment is when they are leaked to the Guardian and that is not a good state of affairs,” she said.

In spite of the alleged complications of the tax law complicated, the Vodafone case is straightforward. Vodafone bought the German firm Mannesmann for £112bn and channelled the loans it raised for the purchase through a subsidiary in the Luxembourg tax haven. It lent the money on to Vodafone’s German operation. Revenue inspectors were clear that the billions in interest payments Vodafone had built up virtually tax-free in Luxembourg should be liable for tax in Britain.  It was only when a senior HMRC official intervened that things changed and the taxation was ‘renegotiated’.

The inference seems to be that while your average tax collector is quite happy to make the big boys pay what they owe the word from on high, accompanied no doubt by a nod and a wink, is to come to an ‘accommodation’ around tax bills.  That no one is outrightly calling this process corruption should not come as a surprise but it does.  At the other end of the social spectrum, the single mother with two kids surviving on state benefits will get a good bashing from the Daily Mail and its holier than thou readership, so why not Goldman Sachs?

There is a widespread view that the UK is de facto turning itself into a tax haven.  While the settling of bills which occurs in Luxembourg, at a nice restaurant with a bottle of Chablis, has not quite reached these shores, lax enforcement in effect gives the tax dodgers the green light anyway.  There are no tangible benefits to this process.  There are no productive outcomes, there are no guarantees that the companies concerned with locate jobs or trade in the UK.

The benefits are, as ever in these situations, the intangible ones.  There may be a party donation, there may be a knighthood, there may be a better tax break, there may be benefits to dealing with the City of London rather than decamping to Paris or Frankfurt.  The excuse for the tax dodging rich is that they have wealth creating potential, that the moving of their intangible services and doubtful revenue benefits would somehow bring the economy tumbling.  Unlike the single mother on the sink estate, we have to keep the big corporations sweet.

Anyone failing to see the class distinction in this process should be booking a medical appointment at the earliest opportunity.  Sweetheart deals for the rich are not going to go down well when George Osborne is forcing Plan A for austerity upon the rest of us.

We are in the season of goodwill and sharing but some handouts are just a step too far!

More avantipopulo in the New Year!

All the Best!

11th December 2011

Cameron left naked outside the conference chamber

Is anything in the domestic political debate in the UK ever as baffling as Europe?  Once again the European question has dominated the week’s headlines, as David Cameron’s refusal to sign up to a new European treaty put him centre stage.  Cameron’s position has left the UK outside of the negotiating room in determining future economic policy in the EU.

Why does any of this matter?  If the eurozone countries want to negotiate amongst themselves to save the currency then fine, the UK will soldier on with the indomitable pound as it has always done; perhaps.  As ever, the question is invariably more complex and the root of the issue inevitably lies in the struggle for dominance of the major European capitalist powers, following the defeat of the socialist economies across Europe in the early 1990’s.

For Germany the major projects were both integration of the former GDR into the new ‘unified’ Germany and the expansion of German economic influence into the eastern European economies which emerged following the end of the Cold War.  German economic influence was key in accelerating the break up of the former Yugoslavia; drawing the Baltic states into the Deutschemark sphere of influence; and ensuring the re-division of Czechoslovakia.  A multiplicity of weak states looking for a strong partner suited the requirements of German economic expansion and ensured that, as these states eventually prepared their way towards EU accession, it would be on terms dictated by German capital.

Historically French influence had been in South East Asia and North and West Africa.  The UK retained the network of economic influence provided by the former Empire in the form of the Commonwealth as well as the financial clout of the City of London.  The defeat of the socialist economies meant that much of Europe was there for the taking of German capital.  The only likely competitor, the US, was slow on its feet with German economic investment in Eastern Europe outstripping the US by 4:1 as early as 1992.

The liberal intelligentsia, the Labour Party and the TUC in the UK largely heralded ‘Europe’ as a good thing, seeing it as a bulwark against the worst excesses of Tory governments in the 1980’s.  This approach resulted in an overwhelming consensus to support the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 which accelerated the process of creating a European Union and laid the basis for the single currency.  While the UK opted out of the single currency, in order to protect the interests of the financial speculators in the City of London, the constraints on public spending and the emphasis on inflation control, which were the core of the treaty were accepted.

The Maastricht Treaty in effect ensured that its signatories were part of a vast European monetarist experiment, with greater flexibility for finance capital and speculation at its heart.   The Liberals and Labour Movement were effectively bought off by the promise of social provision within Europe, the so called social chapter, which sought to harmonise workers rights within the EU.  However, given the main provisions of the treaty such benefits were largely illusory.  Freedom for capital also meant freedom to invest wherever labour rates were cheaper and greater profits could be accrued.

The past twenty years has, in effect, been a working through of these processes to the point where the political and economic clout within the EU is becoming ever clearer.  The French, seeing that the wind has been blowing in the direction of Germany, have effectively colluded in the Germanisation of the EU as they have not been economically strong enough to resist it.  While this is dressed up in the language of co-operation and partnership it is evident to all concerned who the senior partner is in the relationship.  The accession of greater numbers of states from Eastern Europe has resulted in the consolidation of German influence given the degree of economic reliance on German capital in these states.

The UK has always had an ambivalent relationship with the EU.  On the one hand there is the outright hostility of the little Englander Tory right, delighted to be in a minority of one, and currently cock-a-hoop that Cameron has ‘stood up  for British interests’.  At the other end of the spectrum there is the pro-European  liberal left who regard the EU as a lesser evil than the US, feeling a greater political affinity with the terminology of ‘co-operation’ and ‘union’, but continuing to collude in supporting the right wing economic agenda which EU membership implies.

The actual policy of UK governments for the past forty years has in effect echoed Churchill’s famous phrase that we are ‘in Europe but not of it’; retaining a foot in the EU camp; the illusion of the ‘special relationship’ with the US; and asserting the primacy of the City of London in international financial markets.  Much of this has been at the expense of UK jobs in the manufacturing sector and UK lives in the pursuit of imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The UK’s over reliance on the financial services and military sectors has drained the economy of investment in socially useful production.  Not a mistake the Germans have made in the same period, the car industry alone tells that story.

There have always been contradictions within the entire EU and eurozone project.  Co-operation is not naturally within the capitalist lexicon so in practice the process has been a struggle for supremacy.  The euro is increasingly a fig leaf for the former Deutschemark and the EU a European ‘commonwealth’ for German capital.  Sections of the British ruling class still regard the UK as a big enough player to stand up to Germany and retain clout outside of the new treaty arrangements.  Others recognise that being outside of the negotiating chamber will not defend the interests of the City of London, as Cameron claims, but in fact diminish them.

The consequences for the working class across Europe are not good in any event.  The new treaty will tie EU states more tightly to monetarist fiscal policies and restrict any freedom to invest to generate growth.  The UK’s Plan A for austerity, under Chancellor George Osborne, will proceed under largely the same terms.  As ever, the fate of the ordinary people of Europe lies in their own hands; curb the role of the speculators, argue the case for investment to grow; and break with the terms of a European treaty process which imposes ever greater restrictions on the people in each EU state to determine their own fate.

It may be just a whisper but it will grow; a socialist solution is the only way forward.

4th December 2011

Solidarity with the Palestinian people

This week marked the 64th anniversary of UN resolution 181 which divided the land of the Palestinians and led to the establishment of the state of Israel.  The day the resolution was passed, 29th November, is commemorated as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

The UN resolution divided Palestine to give 56% of the land to Jewish settlers and the remaining 44% to native Palestinians who at that point owned 93% of the land.  In reality even this division was not established.  Between 29th November 1947 and the 1st January 1949 the Israeli settlers destroyed more than 530 Palestinian villages, killing an estimate 13,000 and expelling 750,000, approximately half of the population.

Israeli leader, David Ben-Gurion, expressed the view at the time that the population “…composition does not provide a stable basis for a Jewish state” going on to state that,“There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60%.”  The policy of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Jewish settlers drove many Palestinians into the surrounding Arab countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Libya.  Many families have remained in refugee camps in these countries for the past 60 years.

The illegal Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 saw the demolition of a further 24,000 Palestinian homes.  According to statistics from the First International Conference on the rights of Palestinian Prisoners and Refugees, held in Geneva in March 2011, more than 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by the Israeli military since 1967, nearly 20% of the population.

The treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis is rightly condemned in international law and in countless UN resolutions, which the Israelis continue to flout, backed by the government of the United States.  It is tragic however, that in fleeing to neighbouring Arab countries, the Palestinians are not always accorded the dignity which their plight merits.

For example, in the region of 250,000 Palestinian refugees remain in Lebanon with over half squeezed into refugee camps which are not officially recognised by the state and do not receive any official access to utilities, medical assistance or employment rights.  In Lebanon the Palestinian population are prohibited from working in over 50 jobs and professions in direct contravention of international law, the Lebanese Constitution and the UN Declaration of Universal Rights.

Since 2001 the Lebanese government has refused Palestinians any right to own land and the refugee camps are increasingly sealed off by the Lebanese Armed Forces.  The government and most political parties pay lip service to the cause of the Palestinians but in reality refugees are condemned to living in the most appalling conditions without basic rights and dignity.

If the Arab Spring is truly to be a force for progress in the Middle East then addressing the cause of the Palestinians must be a priority.  For those governments with refugees that has to mean basic rights to jobs, housing and services as a minimum.  These are issues which can only be addressed by those respective states but international pressure in the Palestinian cause will help.

The wider question remains the role of Israel in the region, its illegal occupation of Palestinian land and its ongoing role as regional policeman for the US.  It is not only the cause of democracy in the Arab world which will be addressed by tackling these issues but the cause of both regional and world peace.  Without justice for the Palestinian people there is little hope of peace and justice for us all.

30th November 2011

Pay more, work longer, get less….

….that is the deal on offer for public sector workers in the UK and why over two million will be out on strike today in opposition to government plans to make them pay for the gambling debts of the City bankers who caused the 2008 crisis from which we all suffer.

The war of words which has been stepped up in the media over the past week has seen the government losing the battle to paint the dispute as the work of hardliners and militants misleading union members.   Grass roots trades union members have eloquently put the case in radio and TV interviews across the country, giving the lie to government claims that public sector pensions are gold plated, unaffordable or a drain on the taxes of those in the private sector.  As has been pointed out many times, private sector pension schemes also receive public subsidy.

There is a great danger that the proposal to increase contributions to pension schemes will lead to many already hard pressed lower paid workers simply opting out, thus jeopardising the viability of the schemes.  With two thirds of public sector employees being women the attack on pensions will affect them the hardest.  Most women in public sector schemes receive pensions of less that £6,000 per year with the average for a woman working in local government as low as £2,800 and in the NHS £3,500.

As if the attack on pensions were not enough Chancellor George Osborne, with breathtaking audacity, punished the poor even further in his Autumn Statement yesterday by promising that job cuts in the public sector would increase from 400,000 to 710,000; that pay increases would be limited to 1%; and a planned increase in child tax credits would be scrapped resulting in 100,000 children dropping below the government’s poverty line.

Extra spending on schools (free schools of course!) was announced along with support to tackle youth unemployment, a casualty of the withdrawal of the Future Jobs Fund a year a go anyway, plus infrastructure spending on roads, house building and broadband.   All very nice, in theory, but of the £30bn package for these measures the only money on the table is £5bn to be found from further public sector cuts.  Osborne is hoping that the private sector will make up the rest.

Osborne of course attempted to duck responsibility by pointing out that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) had revised downwards its estimates for growth in the UK economy to less than 1% per year over the next two years.  What Osborne failed to acknowledge was the fact that the slash and burn austerity programme of his government has contributed significantly to the inability of the economy to recover.  When the medicine is not working increasing the dosage is unlikely to be the cure.  This would appear to be self evident to most people but Osborne is unable to see that his prescription is the cause of the patient’s sickness.

Some things were missing from the Chancellor’s statement yesterday.  For example, there was no mansion tax on higher value properties.  Over two thirds of properties sold at over £1m in the UK avoid 5% stamp duty through the use of offshore company accounts.  Overall it is estimated that close to £100bn of taxation in the UK is evaded or avoided through financial loopholes.  The so-called Tobin tax on financial transactions, which Osborne fears would decimate the City of London, could raise millions and is supported by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, hardly wild eyed revolutionaries.

Tax the rich, tackle the tax dodgers, stop the escalating and unsustainable increases in boardroom pay, support public sector investment to grow the economy – there is always an alternative, there is always a Plan B, even within the constraints and restrictions of a capitalist economy.  Osborne sticks to Plan A not because there is no alternative but because he is ideologically committed to the course outlined.

Today’s industrial action is one step on the road to getting the message across to this government that enough is enough.  Hopefully it will send the same message to the vacillating labour leader Ed Milliband, that he needs to take sides instead of blaming both sides for the present dispute; he needs to avoid the errors of one of his predecessors, Neil Kinnock, and take the right side.

From Dave Prentis, General Secretary, UNISON

Ahead of the strike, I urge you to contact your MP and get them to back the call for fair pensions, and help prevent poverty in old age by supporting a parliamentary Early Day Motion – EDM 2228 – which warns of the dangers that the government’s proposals for public service pensions entail.

It’s easy to do: just click on this link, put in your personal details and follow the instructions.

And on 30 November itself, let us know what you’re doing.

Send us your messages on the day by texting us on 66644 – begin your message with the keyword STRIKE. Normal network charges apply.

You can send a message, which will be linked to an interactive map of the UK, on our website at or email our editorial team at

Send us your videos by uploading them to YouTube, and then emailing us a link to We may use them in our coverage of the day of action. You can also email your photos to us at the same address – or add them to Facebook at

And you can tweet on the day at – please use the hashtags #n30 #pensions #unison, but keep an eye on other hashtags which might be trending on the day and add those where you can.

Once again: thank you for your work so far – and let’s make 30 November a day to remember and one that ministers can’t ignore! For fair pensions for all, now and into the future.

27th November 2011

Changes are going to come

In spite of the best efforts of the Egyptian military and the reactionary Gulf States, acting through the Arab League, the people of Egypt are once again making their voices heard in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Contrary to the many claims, the toppling of Mubarek in February did not constitute a revolution in Egypt.  The former president was only the tip of a very deep iceberg which has frozen free expression in Egypt for at least three decades.

The departure of Mubarek was important but was of largely symbolic significance.  The constitution, power structures and military machinery which kept Mubarek in place remained intact.  The puppet cabinet, which has been steering the Egyptian ship of state in recent months, has been compelled to resign by the protesters once again gathering in Cairo.  The Cabinet was in effect little more than a device to allow the military to keep a lid on things while giving the transition to elections this month the veneer of democratic legitimacy.

As the most populous country in the Arab world, with a population of 80 million, the outcome of the change process in Egypt is profoundly important not just for the Middle East but the world.  For over 30 years Mubarek was a safe pair of hands for the West, protecting their interests in the region, agreeing a peace treaty with Israel and taking a reactionary line on the cause of Palestinian statehood.  As long as these objectives were delivered the West turned a blind eye to domestic human rights abuses by the Mubarek regime.

Of course, it was only a question of time before the Egyptian people decided that enough was enough but in doing so they have presented the West and Israel with a problem.  No self respecting Arab government is going to continue the de facto acceptance of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine.  The anti Mubarek protests have included opposition to his backers, the Western governments who tolerated his regime for so long, meaning that any new government may not be so keen to comply with Western demands.

To complicate matters further the emerging parliamentary election process is likely to leave the Muslim Brotherhood as the biggest single party, thus paving the way for a strong presidential bid next year.  The protesters in Tahrir Square are demanding the immediate move to civilian government.  The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have appointed a new prime minister to lead a government of ‘national salvation’ in an attempt to appease the ongoing protests.

While condemning the deaths in recent weeks to West is equally afraid of any outcome which changes the status quo in terms of the political balance in the region.  Demonising and orchestrating the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya was one thing; pushing for the overthrow of Bashir al-Assad in Syria may yet prove successful; manipulating the outcome of change in Egypt however can by no means lead to any certain results.

Uncertainty is indeed the order of the day for the Western economies, struggling to deal with the eurozone crisis in Europe and the ongoing debt problem in the United States.  Yet while the economies of the West gasp for breath the emerging economies of Brazil, India, China and Russia, the so-called BRIC nations, are becoming stronger.  In these countries GDP per capita, the best measure of individual wealth, has trebled in the past decade.  By 2010 Brazil had grown to become the seventh largest economy in the world, overtaking Italy.  That is not to say that these emerging nations are free from inequality and exploitation, they are not.  But in terms of their relative economic importance in the world, and for any conversation about how we change the world balance of forces in the 21st century, they cannot be ignored.

15th November 2011

Italians facing the full Monti

Having finally rid themselves of international playboy and possibly the most derided leader in the Western world, Silvio Berlusconi, Italians wake up this week to find themselves governed by a group of ‘technocrats’.  The ‘technocrat’ idea is the latest sleight of hand by the eurozone leaders intent on shoring up the wobbling currency with a view to ensuring Europe remains a safe haven for capitalist investment.  Mario Monti, a former “well respected” European Commissioner and “economics expert” is the man for Italy.

Technocrats, it would seem, have no politics, they merely institute a reform programme which is for the good of the country, the economy and the people.  By a remarkable coincidence it would appear that what is good for the Italian people, job losses, cuts in pensions, the sale of state assets, is precisely the programme which the self styled leaders of the free world had prescribed for Italy under Berlusconi.

For a man with no politics and, if the media is to be believed, an honours degree in objectivity Monti looks all set to strip the terms and conditions of Italian workers with the same haste promised by Berlusconi.  No doubt the consequences will be the same.  It is unlikely that the Italian people are going to take any more kindly to being robbed by a bespectacled technocrat than they would by an aging media mogul.  Protests are promised.  It is hard to see anything other than a bumpy ride ahead.

Iran – tensions continue to rise

While the eyes of the world are focused upon the rising crisis in Syria, human rights and peace activists in the UK have expressed concern about the mounting tension between the USA and Iran recently.

In the past few weeks Israel has been sending out signals that it may bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.  While this in itself is provocative it is widely believed that the intention of the Israelis is to ensure that pressure remains upon the US and the world community to isolate Iran.

In response to this pressure the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress is currently considering a bill which will restrict anyone in the US government having any contact with any representative of the government of Iran.  Such a move would be unprecedented in wartime but is unheard of in peacetime.

The bill, if passed, would effectively prevent the US government from engaging in diplomacy with the Islamic Republic of Iran other than in circumstances which posed an “extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States”.

The bill comes against the background of comments made at last weeks’ G20 summit by Barack Obama and Nikolas Sarkozy that pressure must be kept upon Iran over the nuclear issue.  UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, also stated in relation to Iran that “Britain would not take any options off the table…”

At a time of such sensitivity for the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, human rights and peace campaigners fear that the ground for war against Iran is being prepared.  Following events in Libya and the current crisis in Syria the possibility of seeing Iran as the next regime change ‘issue’ to address in the region cannot be ruled out.

6th November 2011

Canned in Cannes

If anyone was in any doubt that the current crisis of the capitalist system is the greatest in over a generation then the events of the past week should have persuaded them.  The G20 summit in Cannes was set up to be the point at which the capitalist world bought more time for the creaking system.  The final communique should have talked about coming up with additional funds to bail out weaker eurozone economies; establishing the European Central Bank as the lender of last resort; and ensuring that the austerity plans forced upon the people of Greece and Italy in particular were implemented in full, whatever the consequences.

The political somersaults of Greek Prime Minister Papandreou threw the plan into turmoil from the off, with his announcement that the Greek government would hold a referendum on the austerity measures.  With his cabinet failing to back him, and following a terse few words from Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkosy, Papandreou backed off, not before markets had taken fright and tumbled however.

Talk of Greece leaving the euro is in the air, something which would have been deemed unthinkable by the eurozone leaders less than a month ago.  Now it is widely regarded as inevitable.  The Greek government managed to win a confidence vote in the parliament on Friday but that has not assuaged the desire of the Greek people to see justice.  The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) mobilised significant demonstrations in advance of the vote calling for a cancellation of the Greek debt, withdrawal from the EU and elections within 20 days to test the will of the Greek people.  Any elections will in effect be a referendum on the EU package in all but name.  There can be no doubt that the ruling parties will do all they can to mobilise support for the bail out in order to remain part of the eurozone club, whether this can be achieved must be in question.

While Greece has been the immediate pre-occupation of the G20 the real fears are for the situation in Italy or Spain to get out of control.  Italy is the eurozone’s third biggest economy and a sovereign debt crisis would suck in banks from across Europe to such an extent that recession would be inevitable.  The dangers in the current situation are not just the immediate ones of recession and austerity.  Similar circumstances in the 1920’s and 30’s proved fertile ground for the growth of the right wing leading to the intensification of racial pogroms, anti-communism and eventually war.  It is not beyond the bounds of possibility for the military to be ‘required’ to take the reigns should a major eurozone economy default and threaten the entire system.

Miliband misses the point

In the UK the contrast between resistance and vacillation is perhaps best shown by the respective responses of the members of UNISON and that of Labour leader, Ed Miliband.  UNISON members this week voted 3:1 in favour of industrial action on 30th November in defence of pensions in the public sector.  The GMB and Unite will also be supporting the action.  Major organisations, representing millions of ordinary people have made their voices heard, their opinions on the government’s austerity programme known.  As the nominal head of the wider Labour Movement you might expect that Miliband would take the opportunity, when writing in The Observer (6th November 2011), to point out the robustness of this response in the face of ongoing provocation by the government and media.

Instead Miliband focuses upon the demonstrations outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, suggesting that these protesters present a challenge to “the church and to business – and also to politics.”  Miliband presses on to make the distinction he made in his conference speech between “predatory capitalism, based on the short term, rather than productive, responsible behaviour which benefits business and most people in the long term.”   Miliband fails to recognise that capitalism in crisis becomes predatory in order to save its own skin.  What is ‘good’ in capitalism exists through the efforts of working people to win concessions through trades union action, whether that is better pay, pensions, health and safety rights, maternity leave or holiday rights.

Miliband makes the sort of generalised statements that it is impossible to disagree with; reduce youth unemployment, reduce student tuition fees, reduce executive pay.  This is all very well but these statements are nothing but platitudes without the muscle to back them up.  The protests outside St. Paul’s may well raise some awareness about the iniquities of the system; that is no bad thing.  However, thousands of working people voted this week to lose a days pay in order to demonstrate their opposition to austerity and being made to pay for the bankers’ crisis.  They may yet have to do more if they are to succeed.  That is something which the leader of the Labour Party should at least deem worthy of a mention.

31st October 2011

Young people occupy the high ground

‘Occupy’ has become the word of the moment with the trend to protest against the excesses of capitalism, by camping out in a major city centre or iconic church location, being too much to resist for increasing numbers of young people.  While the protesters in ZuccottiPark in New York may lay claim to first use of the Occupy brand they were by no means the first to pitch their tents.  Los indignados in the Spanish capital Madrid have been on the streets since the spring protesting, in particular, against excessive levels of youth unemployment, currently 46% in Spain.   It is estimated that similar activity is taking place in 900 cities around the world.

Across Chile young people are occupying schools in demand of free university education putting pressure on the billionaire president Pinera to give hope to young people across Chile.  While the initial demands of Chilean youth focused upon Education they have widened out to incorporate further demands culminating in a two day general strike two weeks ago.

In the UK most attention has been on the London protest at St. Paul’s Cathedral,  which betrays a strangely British twist with the resignation left, right and centre of senior clerics over the handling of the protest by the church authorities.  The Christian church is very much an integral part of the capitalist state in the UK and St. Paul’s is the epitome of that relationship.  So, while the protesters are only camped out there because they could not make it to the stock exchange they are, albeit unwittingly, still pitching their tents on capitalism’s lawn.

The various outbreaks within the heart of capitalist financial centres resemble the occupations initiated in Tahrir Square in Cairo which led to what has been dubbed the Arab Spring by the media.  Interestingly the media do not seem as inclined to   pronounce an ‘Occupy Autumn’ in the offing based upon the assumption that these protests are in Western democracies, rather than Arab dictatorships.  However the lack of access to democratic change is at the heart of both sets of protests.  The difference in the West however is that  the dictators are largely faceless, hiding within the banks, the mysterious credit rating agencies and the myriad of European institutions which have a say in the fate of the Euro.

Much of the criticism of the protesters has focussed upon their lack of clear leadership or clear demands.  In the long run this will be a weakness if the protests are to move beyond opposing the outcomes of capitalist greed and towards demanding changes in society.  At present, in the UK at least, there is no suggestion that any significant class consciousness is developing although protests in Greece and Chile are more clearly informed by alternative models of economic organisation.   However, the fact that protests take place in St. Paul’s and near Wall St. still has a symbolic significance and raises a wider awareness that something is rotten at the heart of capitalism, giving the hope that more of the population may just wake up and smell it.

Euro struggle continues

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, this week admitted to the Bundestag that “We are in an existential crisis”, going on to state that “If the euro fails, Europe fails.”  Pitching the stakes this high Merkel persuaded the German parliament of the need to bail out the struggling currency one more time.  The eurozone leaders subsequently arrived at a deal to increase the bail out fund to a trillion euros while persuading the Italians to screw down the public sector harder and faster in order to bring down their 1.8 trillion euro debt.  If Italy fails, the euro fails could well be the tagline for this one.

With G20 leaders meeting on Thursday this week it is by no means obvious that the euro is in the clear.  Jonathan Moynes, at Capital Economics, has said,

“We now expect the economy to stagnate in 2012, with a high chance of a technical recession.  But a rapid escalation of the eurozone crisis could see a slump to rival that seen back in 2008 and 2009.”

The emphasis upon austerity rather than growth continues to see the strategic mismanagement of Western capitalism, caught in its own contradiction of needing to co-operate to escape the crisis, yet being trapped in its inexorable tendency to compete.   The eurozone continues to struggle with the reality that monetary union is not a union of equals and under no situation imaginable is the Greek economy ever going to perform at the same level as the Germans.  A bailout of some kind somewhere down the line was inevitable.

The UK Chancellor, George Osborne, has famously stressed than there is only Plan A, that would be A for austerity, in dealing with the present crisis.  However, writing to The Guardian on Saturday, 29th October, 100 leading economists call for a Plan B stating,

“We urge the government to adopt emergency and common sense measures for a Plan B that can quickly save jobs and create new ones.  A recovery plan could include reversing cuts to protect jobs in the public sector, directing quantitative easing to a green new deal to create thousands of new jobs, increasing benefits to put money into the pockets of those on lower and middle incomes and thus increase aggregate demand.”

The entire G20 gathering on Thursday could do worse than to take note, for Plan A is clearly going nowhere.

5th October 2011

The party’s are over

With the party conference season reaching its conclusion you may think that we would be able to reflect upon some pearls of wisdom from our party leaders, illuminating the way forward for the country in a time of crisis.  Indeed Vince Cable for the LibDems suggested that we “now face a crisis that is the economic equivalent of war”.  In spite of a rallying cry worthy of the front page of Socialist Worker, Mr Cable did not offer any more solutions than the ageing Trotskyist tabloid.  Sadly, not much which has happened over the past month suggests that, in spite of the depth of the national and international financial crisis, there is likely to be any radical thinking from the main political parties.

The Lib Dem Conference was so lacking in bite that even party leader Nick Clegg was moved to comment at a question and answer session, “Heavens! What docility! It’s like a North Korean party conference.”  This is somewhat ironic coming from a man for whose party fifty-eight per cent of people who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election would not again. A quarter of former LibDem supporters have allegedly swung to Labour. Nick Clegg is the least popular Lib Dem leader ever, beating a record David Steel has held since 1988 by 4%.

However, the LibDems are, notionally at least, in government.  From that point of view this is a party conference like no other because, as we all know, the watchword when in power is ‘don’t rock the boat’.  In Nick Clegg the LibDems have a leader who will not rock any boats he may be captaining, even vice captaining.  In spite of their week in Birmingham being spent saying how much meaner the government would be without them, the LibDems still come out looking like the little Tories they are.   LibDem talk of fairness and recovery is all smoke and mirrors.  They know that the cuts hit the poorest households disproportionately and rises in VAT do the same.  At the next election the voters will be waiting.  They probably know that too.

So to Liverpool with Labour where Ed Miliband’s speech as leader was almost wrong footed by the big cheer he got from announcing “I am not Tony Blair…”.  It was a low rumble of boos around the conference hall actually but that would have little dramatic effect!  The point Miliband was making was that he is his own man, not Blair, Brown or, to the disappoinment  of some, his brother David.

Miliband attacked “fast buck” capitalism, boldly pronounced himself the man “willing to break the consensus rather than succumb to it”, and was prepared to concede that New Labour “had brought good times, but this did not mean we had a good economic system. We changed the fabric of our country, but we did not do enough to change the values of our country.”  Miliband was looking to capture the popular mood of opposition to the banker generated crisis by suggesting that the country needed a society in which the hard-working grafters are rewarded and the closed circles at the top of society are broken up.

He said: “We have allowed values which say take what you can, I’m in it for myself, to create a Britain that is too unequal. The people at the top taking unjustified rewards is not just bad for the economy. It sends out a message throughout society about what values are OK. And inequality reinforces privilege and opportunity for the few.”

In spite of being a poor speaker Miliband has made some attempt to return Labour’s rhetoric to the core values of looking out for those who are unable to look out for themselves and waging war on privilege.  The means to deliver these ends were, however, somewhat unclear and on occasions downright contradictory.  The promise to stay on the deficit reduction case seemed to miss out on the impact of that strategy for poorer families, while the up and coming public sector action over pensions did not warrant a mention.

Within the wider Labour movement Miliband is still just about getting the benefit of the doubt, not least for the stand taken on the Murdochs and the phone hacking scandal.  More concrete policies to help working people will be needed however if Miliband is to collect the keys to No.10 in 2015.

Finally, to the Tories in Manchester where the cat was well and truly let out of the Human Rights bag with Theresa May’s speech on deporting illegal immigrants.  Not only had no one told Justice Secretary Ken Clarke about the policy, the old hush puppy went on to ridicule the Home Secretary in no uncertain terms for her assertion that a Bolivian immigrant had been given leave to stay on the grounds of having a pet cat.

The serious focus of May’s speech is article 8 of the Human Rights Act which allows appeal against deportation on the grounds of the right to a family life.  The response to May’s speech is probably best left to Tara Lyle, Policy Adviser at Amnesty International UK, who said in an official statement:

“Theresa May is tangling herself up in contradictions in her apparent attempt to play to the crowd.

With one hand she acknowledges that human rights legislation does not make the right to a family life an absolute, and then says that she is going to legislate to make sure that it is not an absolute right in the future.

The notion that rights are blunt and inflexible is not correct. The Human Rights Act is often made into a pantomime villain. In fact it is a list of protections that apply to every person in our society.”

David Cameron meanwhile used his leaders speech to concentrate on, leadership, what else? “In these difficult times it is leadership we need to get our economy moving”, he blithely asserts, following up with the proclamation that Britain is not “on a path of certain decline” before rounding off with, “I know we can turn this ship around.”

Attempting to bury once and for all the previous day’s cat debacle, Cameron emphasised the British canine spirit stating,

“Remember, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Overcoming challenge, confounding the sceptics, reinventing ourselves, this is what we do. It’s called leadership.”

Having left Theresa May to tub thump over immigration Cameron took on another Tory favourite, health and safety rules, as an example of how Britain was being held back. “This isn’t how a great nation was built,” he said. “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with armbands on.”

The final rhetorical flourish was grist to the mill of the Tory faithful but empty tosh for most of us,

“We have the people, we have the ideas, and now we have a government that’s freeing those people, backing those ideas. So let’s see an optimistic future. Let’s show the world some fight. Let’s pull together, work together. And together lead Britain to better days.”

If the government was doing any of those things it would be a start.  Clearly Cameron is a victim of his own propaganda.  Unfortunately for us, so are we.

25th September 2011

Palestinians press for their own ‘Arab Spring’

The statement by Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the UN this week that,

“Palestinians should first make peace with Israel, and then get their state.”

is remarkable not only for its breathtaking hypocrisy but the audacity of making such a pronouncement at the United Nations itself.   The Israeli army has been occupying the West Bank and Gaza, in breach of UN resolutions, since 1967.  So called ‘settlers’ have been establishing Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, often causing entire Palestinian villages to disappear as a consequence, throughout that period.

The so called ‘defence barrier’ which Israel continues to construct, allegedly to keep out suicide bombers, cuts into huge chunks of existing Palestinian land and effectively claims them for Israel, contravening the UN agreed borders for Palestine known as the green line.

Last weekend was the 29th anniversary of the massacres, in 1982, by Israeli backed militia at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps for Palestinians in Lebanon, which resulted in the murder of 3000 men, women and children.    Many died in the joint Israeli-Lebanese ‘interrogation centre’ with bodies loaded onto flatbed trucks and taken to the Golf Course, just 300 yards away, where Israeli bulldozers dug pits.  Many families still do not know the fate of those who ‘disappeared’ during the massacre.

The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, in March 2010, confirmed the right of families to have full disclosure of events resulting in the disappearance of victims, including knowing their exact fate and whereabouts.  While Israeli officials have repeatedly said that they have detailed records of what happened inside the camps in Lebanon, they have refused UN and international demands to hand over these records.

The Israelis will no doubt cite the use of suicide bombers by the Palestinians as defence against their military tactics.  It is true that suicide bombings at cafes and bus stops have resulted in the deaths of Israeli civilians in the past.  Liberation struggles do not always get their tactics right and targeting civilians, as opposed to economic and military targets, should never be deemed acceptable.  That is a debate which the Palestinians and their leaders have been engaged in but there is not always unity on the outcomes, given the different perspectives of Fatah and Hamas, the principle Palestinian factions.

However, the presence of Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority at the UN this week is perhaps a reflection of the changed balance of thinking in the Palestinian camp.  Fundamentally, the Palestinians have a just cause.  While guerrilla tactics may make life uncomfortable for some Israelis some of the time, they are unlikely to defeat an army that has the fourth largest firepower in the world and is prepared to use it.

President Abbas submitted his request to the UN for the recognition of a Palestinian state urging the security council to back a state based upon the pre-1967 borders, that is, before the Israeli occupation.  He said the Palestinians had entered negotiations with Israel with sincere intentions, but blamed the building of Jewish settlements for their failure.

“I also appeal to the states that have not yet recognised the State of Palestine to do so,” Mr Abbas said.  “The time has come for my courageous and proud people, after decades of displacement and colonial occupation and ceaseless suffering, to live like other peoples of the earth, free in a sovereign and independent homeland.”

The process began with Mr Abbas presenting a written request for a State of Palestine to be admitted as a full UN member state to the UN secretary general.  Until the last minute, Western diplomats tried and failed to stop the Palestinians making the request.

The UN security council will discuss the Palestinian application on Monday.  To their ongoing shame the United States have already signalled their intention to veto the application.  US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stated this week that the road to peace lies through Ramallah and Jerusalem, not New York, giving clear confirmation of the long standing pro-Israeli line of the United States.

The Palestinians did not make this submission expecting to be successful first time around.  The failure of the so-called peace process however has necessitated a new approach and, as a result, the question of Palestine is front and centre on the international agenda.  The Israeli propaganda machine is on the back foot and the just cause of the Palestinians has the initiative.

The week at the UN was also notable for the first speech there by UK Prime Minster, David Cameron.  His speech contained the interesting observation that,

“The UN has to show that we can be not just united in condemnation, but united in action, acting in a way that lives up to the UN’s founding principles and meets the needs of the people.

“You can sign every human rights declaration in the world, but if you stand by and watch people being slaughtered in their own country, when you could act, then what are those signatures really worth?”.

In the full flush of the NATO led civil war victory in Libya, Cameron was alluding to that situation and the wider Arab Spring.  It will be interesting to see how he applies this principle to the situation of the Palestinians, who have had to endure “being slaughtered in their own country” for decades, with the West doing little more than selling the Israeli army more effective weapons.

We watch with interest.

Extreme Rambling – Mark Thomas

If you have not caught the Walking the Wall tour by commedian and activist Mark Thomas there are a final few dates up and down the country, finishing up in Aberystwyth on 29th September. If you have not seen the show do try and catch one of the remaining performances. There is also a December show at The National Theatre in London on 23rd December.

Mark’s book Extreme Rambling was published in April 2011 and charts his walking of the Israeli ‘defence barrier’ which effectively isolates and controls huge sections of the Palestinian population of the West Bank.

For more information check out

19th September 2011

A spectre is still haunting Europe

In the Manifesto of the Communist Party published in 1848, Marx and Engels wrote the famous opening line,

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.  All the Powers of old Europe have entered into an alliance to exorcise this spectre…”

In spite of the defeat of the Soviet Union and an end to the twentieth century Cold War, somewhere behind the crises faced by the current powers in Europe the spectre of communism still lurks, for if capitalism fails, what is the alternative?

It will not, of course, be articulated in this way.  We are variously experiencing a crisis of late capitalism, a eurozone crisis, a debt crisis, in short any kind of crisis that suggests that a solution is somewhere just out of reach and, that with enough effort, politicians and economists will find it.

Capitalism has of course proven itself to be a resilient system and, at whatever the cost to the poor and ‘wretched of the earth’, it has survived.  Yet there is an increasing sense that the international post war division of the world is truly unravelling and not just in the former socialist economies of Eastern Europe.

The United States and Western Europe, self styled leaders of the free world, are struggling to maintain a level of economic stability that has largely kept them free from any social disorder significant enough to threaten their economic systems for the past fifty years.  There have been changes.  The Civil Rights Movement in the US in the 1960’s for example being perhaps the most significant, the overly romanticised Paris Spring in 1968 probably the least.

Structural change though has not been on the agenda because the system has always managed to keep enough of the people happy, enough of the time.  The current crises, however we choose to characterise them, are testing this proposition to the limit.  A census report last week revealed that 46 million Americans are living in poverty while 20% of Americans control 84% of the country’s wealth.  Just 400 families have the same net worth (financially) as the entire bottom 50% of the US population.  To suggest that this is preposterous is an understatement but variations on these figures will almost certainly hold true for much of Western Europe.

President Obama’s American Jobs Act, which aims to inject a $450 bn stimulus into the US economy, is a valiant effort to stem the tide but the rednecks of the Tea Party on the Republican right are set to prevent it from even leaving the starting blocks.  Obama’s strategy of taking the package to the people in order to circumvent this may stir up a degree of populism in US politics not seen since his election campaign.  It will be interesting to see where it leads given the disillusionment of many who backed Obama with the outcomes of his presidency to date.

In the UK there will be many who agree with certain religious convictions that ‘the poor are always with us’; however, we not only have to recognise that there are more of ‘the poor’, but more of us than ever at risk of joining their ranks.  Conversely the meritocracy upon which capitalism, in the UK especially, has been able to measure itself is that of home ownership.  Research by First Direct bank, published last week, indicates that since 1990 the average housing deposit in the UK has risen from £6,793 to a remarkable £65,924.  In the same period house prices have quadrupled while average household income has grown just two and a half times.

To compound the problem, which has resulted in first time buyers getting older as they save longer for a deposit, rents are also increasing.  Last month rents rose by the fastest amount in a year to put the UK average at £713 a month and just over £1,000 in London.  Under these circumstance the hope which has been held out to young people of getting on the housing ladder, as a metaphor for climbing the social ladder, looks increasingly out of reach.

At the sharp end in Europe finance ministers have heaped the pressure upon Greece to accelerate its privatisation programme and implement deeper spending cuts before a vital bailout payment of €8bn is handed over.  Talk is in the air once again of the break up of the eurozone, with either the Germans going it alone and leaving everyone else to get on with it, or the stronger economies ditching the weaker, Greek, Portuguese, Irish, Italian and Spanish economies and leaving them to take their chances.  Given the extent of the exposure of banks across Europe to these economies, including the UK, such a step would indeed be drastic.

Finally on the subject of the economic crisis two articles from The Guardian last week are worth reading in full.  The first, from 13th September 2011, is by Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and can be accessed here,

The second, from 18th September 2011, is by economics editor of The Guardian Larry Elliott and can be found here,

Those spectres are still haunting Europe but there is no indication that they have been exorcised yet.

13th September 2011

Banking reform…….eventually!

The long awaited report by the Independent Commission on Banking by Sir John Vickers turns out to be a bit of a damp squib.  We, the taxpayer, have spent more than £65bn on the bailout of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyd’s following the bank meltdown of 2008 but it is going to take until 2019 to implement Vickers’ recommendations.  Plenty of time for one government or another to wriggle out of or dilute the commitments, some might say.

At the heart of Vickers proposals is that to ringfence the high street banking operation from the investment banking side.  In common language this should mean that the money a bank loses in gambling debts should not be covered by those who have steadily built up their ISAs or paid their mortgages. As Vickers put it, “If retail deposits were not used for investment banking, it would go a long way in dealing with the issue.”

Whether banking operations can be kept apart in this way as part of the same company is of course a moot point.  If the investment arm is going bust will the retail arm just sit and watch?  More to the point would any Chancellor, now or in the future, just sit back and watch?

The ICB report at 358 pages is by no means short on detail and the fact that the banks have squirmed even slightly at its publication is a positive sign, to coin a phrase, ‘if it wasn’t hurting it wouldn’t be working.’

The real issue however remains one which Vickers was never going to address, which is the over reliance of the UK economy on banking and the financial services sector.   Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s new managing director, pointed out recently that the assets of UK banks are five times that of the country’s gross domestic product.  So, in common language once again, if the banks go under we all go with them.  The bail out in 2008 was based upon precisely this situation and whether Vickers proposals can ultimately save us from a recurrence is unlikely.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, claims to be supporting the “march of the makers” by setting up enterprise zones, cutting national insurance for small firms taking on staff and promoting local enterprise partnerships.  The top rate of income tax is wobbly but still in place, in spite of those claiming it is a brake on investment.  Yet the feeling that the government is closer to the banks than business, small or otherwise prevails.

There are tensions brewing in the coalition over these very issues with Vince Cable and Osborne not seeing entirely eye to eye.  It will be interesting to see how much of this difference comes to the fore in the coming political party conferences.

Left, right? Right, left?

We all know the saying that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.  It might be more apt to rephrase this to suggest that the left wing does not know what the right wing is doing, at least in the UK at present.  The bizarre thing is that the right have been sounding increasingly left wing in their pronouncements.  No less than Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore has been stating,

“It turns out – as the left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few.”

Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times has suggested that,

“Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth and angered by corruption.”

The Spectator magazine, hardly a bastion of left wing thinking has been taking issue with the “undeserving rich.”

All of this should gladden the hearts of those of us waiting to hear the pronouncements from Labour leader Ed Miliband at the TUC.  It should whet our appetites for the coming debate at the Labour Party conference where opposition to the ‘undeserving rich’ must now surely be taken for granted and tackling the ‘internationally connected elite’ a duty of all citizens, card carrying or otherwise!


The tenth anniversary of the bombing of the World Trade Centres in New York has been covered wall to wall in recent days so most things will have been said.  It was interesting to note the comments of former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice over the weekend however,

“For 60 years the United States sought stability at the expense of democracy in supporting authoritarian regimes.  But we should have known better.”

Rice does not go so far as to suggest outright that 9/11, or something like it, was the logical outcome of years of poorly conceived US foreign policy but she heavily infers it.   Some lessons may be sinking in.  Let us hope that a return to Republican government does not occur in next year’s US elections, or the little advantage Obama brings will surely be lost.

4th September 2011

Defence cuts hardly bite

Political slogans are very often of their day and do not always travel well.  However, in the current climate one or two could do with a good dusting off and revisiting.  Peace, bread and land became the slogan under which the Bolsheviks led the successful overthrow of the Tsarist despotism in 1917, in three key words encapsulating the immediate demands of millions.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament successfully popularised the jobs not bombs slogan in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to draw attention to the contrast between mass unemployment and the wasteful spending on weapons of mass destruction.  May Day demonstrations throughout the country have extended this further to incorporate peace, health, homes and jobs as their key demands.   We could do a lot worse than suggest that these items are at the top of any current political agenda or future election campaign.

A very nice amble down memory lane, you may be thinking, but where does this get us in considering the issues of the day in what purports to be a topical political blog?

The more astute amongst you will probably have spotted that at the very least it takes us to the topic of the cuts in the armed forces and the reaction to that, with a passing mention for the future of the NHS and the outcry about that.  As ever, the link between spend on  weapons of mass destruction and socially useful spending, for example on hospitals and healthcare,  needs to be made clear because most politicians and much of the media will tell us that there is no link; but of course there is.

Ironically, in its present defence review, the government is planning to make cuts in the armed forces, reducing numbers from around 176,000 to 160,000, with an overall budget cut of 8% in the next four years.  As ever in these exercises much is made of the degree of ‘natural wastage’ i.e. people retiring who will not be replaced, which will take up some of these numbers but there will be genuine job losses and soldiers looking for jobs.  One idea with considerable currency at present is to draft soldiers into schools, as the organisation and discipline of the army are, allegedly, the same requirements needed for teaching!

British foreign policy, whatever the government, has been based on the assumption that significant levels of armed force are required for active intervention and for nuclear deterrence.  Even official estimates put the cost of replacing the Trident nuclear submarine fleet at £20bn.  Such thinking of course brings unimaginable glee to the arms manufacturers who will happily sell jets to the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia (and their like) all day, as long as the UK government deems such sales to be in the national interest.

Yet cost overruns in defence procurement make the Edinburgh tram farrago look like a model of good financial management.  Last year alone the National Audit Office estimated that £6bn of equipment had ‘gone astray‘, enough for six Edinburgh trams systems!  The NAO refused to sign off the Ministry of Defence’s accounts for the fourth year in succession stating that there are ‘systematic and deep rooted’ problems with the department’s asset management system.

Even with the proposed reductions in budget the UK defence spend will run to 2.6% of GDP, well above the NATO objective of 2% for member states, and putting the UK behind only the US and China in the defence spending league table!

In spite of these realities the government is in danger of being hoist on its own petard.  Having talked up the armed forces to get Iraq bombed, Afghanistan invaded and Libya into civil war, the proposed reductions are not going down well in the Wootton Bassett’s of this world and beyond.  Do not be surprised if the current crop of generals being wheeled out by the BBC to oppose the cuts do not win some concessions.

The real debate however is why we need this level of military expenditure in the first place?  As ever, the powerful grip upon successive governments of the arms manufacturers is one thing.  The failure of successive governments to reject an interventionist foreign policy for the UK is another.  Foreign policy adventures can make Prime Ministers look tough and decisive.  The famous Falklands factor did it for Thatcher and PMs have been in thrall to the idea ever since.  Blair in Sierra Leone and Iraq, Cameron in Libya.

It is an altogether longer haul to fix the economy or address the underlying social tensions in the UK. That link with the NHS, or any other socially useful public spending should be obvious.  The more we spend on arms, the less we have to spend on other areas of essential service, simple as!  Government talk of belt tightening and austerity is one thing but when their priorities for what the nation requires are so out of step with reality their imploring sounds hollow.

There is of course a flaw in the argument, or at least in its translation into reality.  Many families have been affected by the loss of loved ones in recent wars.  The Help for Heroes charity has become firmly established as part of the national consciousness.  Politicians are not going to be easily persuaded to suggest that these sacrifices were in vain, or that the forces many of these young people served in are not as valued as they once were.  This is very emotive territory.

However, until the defence spending review is accompanied by a serious defence policy review, which really gets to grips with the UK establishment’s deluded view of its role in the world, we will continue to have defence cuts which, in spite of the brouhaha, are largely cosmetic.  We will continue to have cuts in the NHS.  We will continue to have riots and social unrest.

Jobs not bombs?  Bring it on!

29th August 2011

Double dip looms on the capitalist rollercoaster

As we know all too well, when the US economy sneezes the world catches a cold.  The US banks’ policy of lending 125% mortgages to people who had little or no chance of repaying them led to the sub prime mortgage collapse in 2007/08 and the recession we have been struggling to recover from ever since.

In spite of occasional optimistic talk the general economic trend remains gloomy, not least in the US itself where the Bank of America is struggling to survive as its share price tumbles.  The extent of the fall is such that the bank’s shares have tumbled in price from $11 in June to just over $6 this month, wiping $65bn off the market value of the corporation.

Commentators in the US are understandably concerned.

“It does sap investor confidence to see a bank of this stature struggling so mightily,” said David Dietze of Point View Financial Services in New Jersey.  “It casts a shadow over the entire financial sector and puts a negative spin on the growth picture,” according to Nick Kalivas of MF Global Research in Chicago.

Interesting use of the term ‘spin’ here as the growth picture in reality, however one tries to ‘spin’ it, does not look good.  The sale of US homes plummeted to their lowest level in five years in July.  Ironically it is the glut of cheap second-hand properties, arising from high levels of foreclosure, which is depressing the demand for new homes.  Banks are holding on to many of the homes they have repossessed in case prices are forced down further.

The speech by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in Kansas on 26th August, did little to allay fears this week, acknowledging that,

“Importantly, economic growth has for the most part been at rates insufficient to achieve sustained reductions in unemployment….”

As Bernanke recognises, the housing sector has been a significant driver in the recovery from most US recessions since World War II but in this instance the recession,

“…besides being extraordinarily severe as well as global in scope, was also unusual in being associated with both a very deep slump in the housing market and a historical financial crisis.  These two features of the downturn, individually and in combination, have acted to slow the natural recovery process.”

While committing the Federal Reserve to do all it could in banking terms to achieve fiscal sustainability Bernanke nevertheless stressed the need for a job creation package on the basis that,

“In the short term putting people back to work reduces the hardships inflicted by difficult economic times and helps ensure that our economy is producing at its full potential rather than leaving productive resources fallow.”

This is quite a statement for a dyed in the wool free market capitalist and suggests that even in the US there is a recognition that the road to recovery cannot come without public sector intervention to put people back to work, at least in the short term.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Chancellor George Osborne remains determined to stick to his austerity programme in spite of ongoing economic evidence to suggest that while there is pain, there is little gain.  The latest CBI retail survey, for example, found that 46% of retailers suffered a fall in sales in the first half of August with less than a third seeing increased turnover.  Hiring by private companies according to recruitment agency Hays, has tapered off with fees in the first quarter growing by just 8% compared to 28% six months earlier.  Not surprisingly, fees from public sector recruitment are set to slump by 34%.

While the government’s strategy of public sector job cuts is predicated upon the private sector taking up the slack, the evidence from Hays would suggest that there is still a long way to go before there is enough confidence in the private sector to see a recruitment surge.

With the ongoing crisis in the eurozone adding to the mix it is little wonder that even the International Monetary Fund is beginning to worry that austerity across the board may not pave the road to recovery, with slow growth leading Stephen King at HSBC to describe the world as a “frozen economic tundra.”

The question of significant public investment and planned economic growth of course remains off the agenda as the system tries to save itself within its own terms.  Whether those terms remain acceptable to those who have to suffer their consequences indefinitely remains to be seen.

The news from the US this week has been dominated by the impact of Hurricane Irene on the east coast.  It seems that while the hurricane may have blown itself out to tropical storm level there is still some momentum in the economic backlash which could affect the rest of the world.  Double dip recession is the capitalist economies worst fear but with the root causes of the crisis not being addressed, even in capitalist terms, the slide towards further decline may not be arrested.

23rd August 2011

That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it…

Millionaires, having contributed to messing up the lives of the people of Tottenham decided to add insult to injury last week by turning up to survey the damage first hand.  Prince Charles, the UK’s next unelected Head of State, and his wife Camilla took a day out of their itinerary to tour the riot spots of London on Wednesday.

Having diverted some of his not very hard earned millions to helping young people, through the Prince’s Trust, Charles clearly feels uniquely qualified to pontificate upon the motivation of young people engaged in rioting.  While Charles did make the pertinent point that,

“…people join gangs because it’s a cry for help and they’re looking for a sense of belonging.”

he did not suggest that the poor example of getting money for nothing, because of the family you were born into, was an issue that ought to be addressed by way of showing an example to young people.  Indeed the tragic irony of the situation seemed to pass by both Charles and Camilla entirely.

Not to be outdone by his Dad the popular choice to pip Charles to the top job, young William, dragged the missus out to Birmingham to do a bit of post riot flesh pressing.  As the royal firms new ‘glamour’ brand William and Kate brought a dash of youth to the establishment’s outpouring of community interest.  One young woman, interviewed for the BBC news was even moved to comment,

“It was nice of them to take the time out to come along.”

thus tragically missing the point that it is the public who are paying for the royal’s privileges so “to come along” was, in fact, the very least they could do.

The magistrates courts meanwhile have been making a sterling job of making the law look like the proverbial ass with a sentencing approach that would shame a first year law undergraduate.  This is not a view confined to the left of the political spectrum.  Lord Macdonald, leader of the prosecution service in England and Wales for five years, suggested that the courts were in danger of  a “collective loss of proportion” and of passing jail terms lacking “humanity or justice.”  Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile sounded a further warning note, arguing that “just filling up prisons” would not be a solution for the long term.

David Cameron of course continues to pedal the line that the riots “were not about poverty” and he has had some assistance from the BBC and other news media in attempting to justify this.  Anyone in front of a magistrate who could be discovered to have so much as a GCSE or a part time job have been trumpeted as ‘evidence’ that individual rather than social evil was at work here.

The Guardian (Friday, 19th August 2011) somewhat debunked this myth however by analysing around 1,000 cases going through the courts and finding that just 8.6% of defendants either had jobs or were students.  The general picture to emerge from the analysis was that the court data showed that it was the young, poor and unemployed who predominated with 66% being under 25 years of age.

Taken a stage further The Guardian overlayed the addresses of defendants with poverty indicators mapped through the Indices of Multiple Deprivation.  While it may come as a shock to David Cameron, it will be no surprise to most people that 41% of suspects live in the top 10% most deprived parts of the country or that 66% of neighbourhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010.

The figures produced by The Guardian were borne out by research carried out by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR).  The IPPR found that in the worst affected areas youth unemployment and child poverty were higher than the national average and education attainment was significantly lower.  So, no qualifications, no jobs and little hope.  Still, a good job it is “not about poverty” otherwise these issues may need to be addressed.

Libya – beyond the endgame

At the time of writing it would appear that the NATO strategy of escalating a localised uprising into a fully fledged civil war in Libya may be coming to its conclusion with the pro-monarchist rebels having entered Tripoli.

Reports this morning were confused however with Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam reportedly in the hands of the rebels yesterday, then giving a news briefing to the international press and clearly at liberty this morning.  Even the BBC have been cautious about the rebels claim to control 90% of the capital.  However, latest footage from al-Jazeera suggests that rebels have entered the Gaddafi compound in Bab al Aziziya.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is waiting in the wings to put Gaddafi and his family on trial once they are captured and they will no doubt file a long list of crimes to which they will have to answer.  Whether the ICC will measure NATOs stated aim of bombing Libya to protect civilians against the actual outcome is another matter.  Some estimates put the number of civilians killed as a result of NATO bombs at 20,000 with more than 8,000 bombing sites.

There can be little doubt however that it is only a question of time before the Gaddafi regime is finally toppled.  How the National Transitional Council and their NATO allies manage the transition and satisfy the competing interests within the coalition, united so far in its opposition to Gaddafi, will be the real test.

13th August 2011

The storm is yet to come

It should come as no surprise that the statement to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, on Thursday failed to recognise the root causes of the violence which swept England last week, let alone propose measures to address those causes.  Under the guise of increasing individual responsibility the Tories have, for the past forty years, been pushing a social agenda which aims to actively encourage disunity in our communities.

This agenda is reflected at all levels, from the sale of Council housing; to the lack of investment in manufacturing to sustain jobs; to the cuts in local government which result in reduced services at a local level for the most vulnerable.  Plans to give the private sector more access to the NHS will accelerate this trend with a future reliant on private healthcare plans leading to a two tier health service.

Access to education for those in deprived areas is difficult enough.  Under the guise of parental choice middle class parents ensure that their children go to the best schools, with the best opportunities, while young people in working class areas end up with what’s left, the twenty first century equivalent of the old style secondary modern.  Even that is overstating it however.  The old secondary moderns could usually direct young people to jobs and apprenticeships, not always highly skilled but nevertheless socially useful work, which would give young people a stake in society.  Let us not even mention the iniquities of the private education system.

Working class access to the British university system has always been a struggle but will be made ten times more difficult with the increased tuition fees to be introduced next year.  Even young people with high academic abilities from poorer areas will think twice before entering university in future, with debts levels likely to rise to £53,000 upon graduation (check source).

Tottenham, the area in London where riots exploded last week, has the highest unemployment in London.  Youth clubs have been closed to meet a 75% cut in the youth services budget.  In Britain today if you are black you are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than if you are white.  In London as a whole the wealth of the richest 10% is now 273 times that of the poorest.

David Cameron, if he is aware of this reality, chooses not to face it, stating,

“This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.”

The remedy for this cultural malaise is, according to Cameron, to introduce more discipline in schools; deal with the most disruptive families and take tough measures in the criminal justice system.

Continuing the theme set by Home Secretary, Theresa May, in her initial response to the violence, Cameron essentially sees the problem as one of criminality and thuggery.

“At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs,” says Cameron, “Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes.”

The sound of stormy applause from the ranks of the Daily Mail and its readership was palpable.

The way in which street gangs operate, how they terrorise and feed upon the vulnerable in working class areas is not news.  But street gangs are not a cause, they are a consequence.  When Cameron says it is not about poverty it is about culture, he is wrong because poverty breeds a culture where groups of young men look for ways to find meaning in their lives and create an identity, individually and collectively.

Street gang culture across the globe is a consequence of poverty within huge urban areas of significant wealth – London, New York, Paris, Rome – it is a consequence of deprivation compounded, usually, by racism and a profound lack of opportunity for young people to escape.   Actual economic poverty is reinforced by a poverty of aspiration, in many cases sucking young people into a downward spiral of crime and drugs.

Street gangs do not emerge and function in this way in the affluent parts of these cities, or in circumstances where young people have a sufficient stake in society that they feel they would have something to lose by going down that path.  Street gangs are an outcome to the culture of poverty and their existence is a reflection of the poverty of our culture.

Thirty years ago riots erupted on the streets of Brixton and Toxteth, major confrontations occurred between the police and the black community.  Pioneering reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson echoed much of the frustration of black youth in the UK at that time.  Much of his verse resonates today but one line in particular continues to haunt,

“How can there be calm, when the storm is yet to come?”

For all of the froth and vitriol poured out over the past week, for all of the anger and destruction played out once more across the UK, the storm is not yet here.  The tragedy is, that faced with this reality, David Cameron, with the solid backing of the UK House of Commons, failed to do anything about it.

9th August 2011

Capitalism isn’t working (1)

It is stating the obvious to point out that the world economy is in turmoil.  It should also be apparent by now that no-one has a grip on what is going on or the means to come up with any feasible solution in the short term.

In the United States any hope that the deal to raise the deficit ceiling would settle markets has been dashed, as credit agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the US’s AAA credit status to AA+.  In spite of the fact that this does not alter anything that is actually happening in the US economy it means that investors (the popular euphemism for speculators) lose confidence and place their bets elsewhere.

This in turn means the cost of borrowing for the US government rises so it has to pay more in interest, meaning it can do less than it had planned to reduce its debt burden.

The picture is the same in Italy and Spain, the critical economies in Europe at present.  Lack of confidence in their ability to pay their debts means interest rates go up, making it even harder for them to pay their debts in time, a vicious circle if ever there was one.  So, even though Silvio Berlusconi has promised to punish Italian workers more, by making deep cuts in services take effect from 2013 rather than 2014, this may not be enough to save the Italian economy from default.

The same scenario is played out in all of the eurozone’s struggling economies, including Portugal, Ireland and Greece.  European Central Bank restructuring and bail outs are not having an impact because there is no parallel strategy for growth.  Cutting and cutting and cutting eventually does lead to cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Without investment, jobs and workers with enough money in their pockets to buy things, there can be no recovery.

Those who are the loudest advocates of spending cuts, from the lunatic fringe of the Tea Party in the US, to the Chancellor George Osborne in the UK, are also the biggest advocates of low taxes.  Yet without a reasonable level of taxation, coupled with an effective crackdown on tax dodgers, the levels of investment needed to fuel recovery will never be achieved.

Whatever the ideologists of the right say, the private sector is not the engine of the economy.  Without the transport infrastructure, public health and education systems provided by the state the private sector would barely be out of the starting blocks.  Imagine if those services had to be delivered by the private sector, each with its competing spheres of interest; chaos would ensue.  Even in a capitalist economy the state plays a role in providing the framework necessary for the economy to develop.  It can even step in and save companies which, under the rules of the capitalist game, should simply be allowed to go to the wall.  How else do we, the public, own so much of Lloyds, RBS and Northern Rock?

Capitalism isn’t working (2)

If any proof were needed of the failure of capitalism to deliver, then the riots on the streets of London and elsewhere over the past three nights ought to be evidence enough.

Why is London burning?  Simple, if you are Home Secretary Theresa May, it is purely down to criminality and thuggery.  Who are these criminals and thugs?  The sons and daughters of the middle classes who can spend their summers in France? Not likely. The sons and daughters of the corrupt cops at the top of the Met? Not yet.

Could they be the sons and daughters of working class families without hope or aspiration?  The sons and daughters of 13 years of New Labour, when the opportunity to redress the balance of power was missed in favour of kow-towing to the bankers in the City of London.  The 13 years when the gap between the rich and the poor in the UK widened.

The chance to make a dent in the 18 years of Tory rule which preceded it, tearing up jobs and communities as it went, was passed up by the Blair and Brown governments.

The destruction of local businesses over the past few days, built up by people with little opportunity and life savings is a tragedy.  The fracturing of trust in local communities which breeds fear amongst older people and resentment towards the young is appalling.  The events of this week will have changed many people’s lives and shattered others; they will not deserve this to have happened to them.

That does not mean that the political class in the UK deserves to be let off the hook though.  Parliament has been recalled for Thursday to discuss the crisis. Cameron is flying in from Tuscany, George Osborne from the USA, even Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman are weighing in.  The debate must get beyond the ‘criminals and thugs’ diversion to the crisis in our society, the crisis which makes attacking the police and looting shops look attractive to many of our young people.

The criminals and thugs are out there, the killers of Stephen Lawrence still walk the streets, but the real crime is the waste of young lives because they do not have the right contacts, postcode or skin colour.  Unless the underlying issues which give cause to burning and looting are addressed the lid will only stay on for so long until things boil over again.

War Crimes

6th August 1945 – Hiroshima

9th August 1945 – Nagasaki

31st July 2011

Libya – the West starts looking for the exit

The debacle of the Western intervention in Libya deepened this week on a number of fronts.  UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has joined France and other members of the invading powers in recognising the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate government of Libya.  Quite what the legitimate basis for this recognition, by the UK or anyone else, may be is unclear.  The NTC does not control Libya nor is there any way of determining the level of support it  has amongst the Libyan people.

So far as one can assess the NTC is a coalition of pro-monarchist, anti-Gaddafi factions which may not even have sustained support beyond Benghazi without the assistance of massive NATO air power.  Even with that air power the fact is that Gaddafi’s forces remain in control of Tripoli and the surrounding area at the very least .  The NTC claim that there is a  secret resistance waiting to rise up once their forces reach the capital and Gaddafi’s removal will then be swift.

However, the NTC seem to have been having trouble with some secret resistance of their own in recent days.  The killing of Gaddafi defector, and rebel army commander, General Abdel Fatah Younis this week was shrouded in mystery until it was eventually revealed that he was murdered by rebel soldiers, his body dumped on the outskirts of Benghazi.  There are only two scenarios which can explain this.  Either the NTC leadership believed Younis was a double agent and ordered his execution, although dumping bodies on the city outskirts is not the best way to begin governing a country, or rogue forces within the NTC carried out the killing.

Neither scenario gives any confidence that  the NTC is a force to be trusted at the helm of a powerful oil rich nation.  There is already a clamour from rebel leaders to be able to access Libyan assets, currently frozen by the West, with the UK leading the charge to release an initial £12bn.   Quite how such assets would be spent, and the degree to which inter-factional fighting would intensify over such a sudden rush of resources, is anyone’s guess.  It would be remarkable if the Libyan people were to come out ahead however.

Hague also announced this week that the UK would find a solution in which Gaddafi stepped down from power, but remained in Libya, acceptable.  This is a clear shift in the UK’s previous ‘Gaddafi must go’ stance and is recognition of the fact that NATO has effectively reached a stalemate position.  There are growing calls for a ceasefire in Libya as the only feasible basis from which a negotiated settlement can be achieved.  UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon is one of those calling for such an approach.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins this week meaning a significant de-escalation if not complete halt in the fighting.  There is also the small issue of the deadline for the  UN resolution giving cover for air strikes coming up to its deadline in September.  Across the US, UK and other NATO members what little public support the intervention had is dwindling.  Military costs escalate while at home people are being asked to tighten their belts.

The NATO domestic public may not have any love for Gaddafi but there is no indication that they have taken the National Transitional Council to their hearts, certainly not in any way which would suggest that sustaining the military intervention and associated costs is likely to be a vote winner.  This, for most politicians, is the bottom line.

The next month may provide the opportunity for NATO’s politicians to take a more considered look at the likely outcomes in Libya and cut their losses.  The only way to test the support of any of the current factions will be to lay the basis for democratic elections.  The only way to get there will be via a ceasefire.  The only ceasefire likely to be acceptable in Tripoli is one that does not have Gaddafi’s departure as a pre-condition.  This swallowing of pride may be the price the West has to pay.

Olympics – still a year away!

Hard to believe with all the brouhaha that it is still a year to go before the London 2012 Olympic Games.  There seems to have been a media event per week for so long that you could be forgiven for thinking that the Games are really just an excuse for keeping up the profile of Boris Johnson before the London Mayoral elections next May.

Credit where it is due though. In enthusiastically congratulating the organising committee on getting various stadia and Olympic paraphernalia up and running, Boris did suggest that we should call a snap Olympics and catch everyone else napping, a witty line if nothing else.

The propaganda push over the next year however is to convince us all that these Olympics belong to the nation, not just London.  This may take some doing.  Of the £6.2 bn in contracts available from the Olympic boom a mere £100m have been won by companies in the North East for example.  More than 50% of contracts have ended up in London or the South East.  The fact that there are still £350m of contracts to bid for is not going to redress this.

Then there is the team name – Team GB.  Whatever, happened to the UK, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?  Maybe the folly of partition has finally been recognised and Ireland has been re-united?  I think not!  If all else fails there is of course the torch relay (everyone will be within an hour of it at some point); live screens in various cities; good old fashioned watching it on the telly; or scrapping the whole staycation nonsense and getting out of the country.  You have a year to plan!

25th July 2011

Norway – right wing contagion spreads

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?  It would appear that if he is a white, right wing, Christian evangelist prepared to kill over 70 people in Norway, a terrorist may become a deranged lone gunman.  It is not difficult to characterise someone who carries out such a heinous act as crazy or deranged.  The issue can become about the individual rather than the bigger picture and the need to challenge the extreme right.

Anders Behring Breivik, who has confessed to the bombings in Oslo and the mass shootings at Utoya island, is nevertheless pleading ‘not guilty’ on the grounds that the killings were necessary to defeat liberal immigration policies and prevent the spread of Islam.  He describes his actions as ‘gruesome but necessary’.

It needs to be made abundantly clear that, not only was this an act of terrorism, in every sense of the word, but that the main terror threat in Europe as a whole is not from the Middle East but from the extreme right.  The xenophobia and Islamophobia, which Breivik uses as a cover for his actions are just the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.  Its depths are reflected in the growth of far right parties across the continent.  Its depths are reflected in the popular press whipping up hysteria about asylum seekers.  Its depths are reflected in the growth of racism and intolerance across the states of Europe.

This is not a reality that international leaders are quick to acknowledge.  The right wing in most European states, and in the United States, have wrapped themselves in the national flag and appealed to the baser instincts of people to unite against the “other”.  Post 9/11 the definition of that “other”, in the form of the Muslim world, has been sharper than at any time since the Cold War with interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya being tolerated under the broad ‘war on terror’ umbrella. At the same time reactionary and right wing states, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are not only tolerated but actively cultivated, due to their strategic role in protecting Western ‘interests’.

Complexity is anathema to both popular journalism and political demagogues.  It is easier to define the world in terms of good and evil than to try and analyse the inter-relationships between the powerful Western world and the largely impoverished and disenfranchised Muslim world, which have resulted in conflict.  It is easier to shut out the “other” than to understand their point of view and look to address what is common rather than emphasise what is different.

For the likes of Breivik there will always be an “other” and there will always be a spurious justification for the kind of attack carried out over the weekend.  For those opposed to racism, fascism and xenophobia the time to speak out is now.  The right wing cannot be allowed to assume the default position as the defenders of so-called national values.  The role of the right in contributing to society’s dysfunction and breakdown needs to be exposed.  If we need to look for the ‘enemy within’, to borrow a phrase, we need look no further.

US deficit talks continue

While Eurozone leaders seem to have done enough this week to settle markets in the short term and persuade investors that the euro will not collapse imminently, the US continues to totter on the brink of default, not a pleasant prospect.

At the core of the debate is the level of the US debt limit which currently stands at $14.3 trillion.  In broad terms, the Democrats around President Obama want cuts in public spending combined with tax rises in order to balance the books.  The Republicans, or at least those in the hard right Tea Party, are looking to intensify the cuts without any tax rises.

Without a deal the US may default on its debts by 2nd August, which would set the world economy in a tailspin and lead to the biggest depression since the 1930’s.  The smart money is still on an 11th hour deal.  We will certainly know if that does not come about.

Famine in Africa

The United Nations has formally declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia, where a child is dying every six minutes.  UNICEF is the main provider of life saving food for malnourished children in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Contributions can be made by telephone 0800 316 5353; online at; or text FAMINE to 70099 to give £10.

17th July 2011  

Media fiddling while Rome burns

The past fortnight has been one of those remarkable periods in politics when things move more quickly than anyone could have anticipated and even the 24 hour news culture we live in is left catching its breath to keep up with events.   It would have been a bold commentator who  foresaw the tottering position the Murdoch empire now finds itself in two weeks ago.  The closure of the News of the World; withdrawal of the BSkyB bid; the resignations of Rebekah Brookes and Les Hinton; and the appearance of Brookes along with Rupert and James Murdoch in front of a House of Commons committee yet to come.

National newspapers over the weekend have been  carrying full page apologies from Murdoch for the actions of the News of the World.  Promises abound.  ‘Full co-operation with the police‘, for example, not too much to ask  as the rest of us have to comply with that; ’compensation for those affected’, again the least that could be done but, to be fair, not a usual feature of the Murdoch modus operandi; and, ’committed to change’,  with the internal Management and Standards Committee of News Corp committing to root and branch reform.  File under, ‘believe it when we see it’ for now.

Talk of revolution is in the air and Ed Miliband has finally found an issue which has allowed him to land some significant punches on David Cameron, given the latter’s particular proximity to the Murdoch gang.  This is all to the good and Miliband is to follow up with a call to review the extent of media ownership as it currently stands, with Murdoch’s existing 37% share being challenged as too much, and a target figure of 20% being mooted.  Anything which stops the trend towards media monopoly is to be welcomed and with the LibDems coming off the fence on this one the possibilities for reform are there.

Whether any of this constitutes a revolution however is another question.  The return of the people to Tahir Square in Cairo this week is a testament to the dangers of calling the slightest moves for change ‘revolutionary’ when they are, in fact, no more than slight moves towards change.   In Egypt’s case the ruling generals have done little more than remove the previous figurehead Mubarek, without implementing any substantial reform of the system which kept him, and them, in place for decades.  This sleight of hand having been rumbled, the people are back out demanding that the pace of change goes further, faster.  The extent to which the 80 million strong population of Egypt can truly move towards democratic or revolutionary change will determine the power of the wider ’Arab Spring’.

In the same way we should not overstate a restructuring of media ownership which leaves Murdoch with ’only’ 20% while other media conglomerates and multinationals control the other four fifths.  The decline, or indeed complete fall of Murdoch will be a victory of sorts, as was the removal of Mubarek, but it will not change the fundamental basis of ownership which keeps the powerful few in control of the mass communications media.  For all the changes that have accompanied it, the power of the internet, twitter or individual blogging has a long way to go before it can really contend with the agenda of the multinationals.

While the struggles of the Murdoch empire has indeed been a significant story, flying beneath the radar somewhat this week has been the ongoing eurozone economic crisis.  While the recent danger of a Greek default had euro and UK banks jittery the Greek economy constitutes only 3% of the eurozone’s output.  By contrast this week the fears for the single currency have been focussed upon Italy, which contributes 20% to the output of the eurozone, in short, one of Europe’s bigger fish.

The Italian Parliament this week agreed an austerity package which included the familiar selling off of local authority owned companies, higher health costs, lower pensions and increased tax revenues.  The aim is to eradicate Italy’s budget deficit by 2014 so the state can begin to pay off its debts, currently running at 120% of GDP – the highest in the eurozone outside of Greece.  It does not require a degree in economics to figure out that this is going to be a tough task which will put Italian workers under immense pressure over a short space of time.

The stress tests by the new European Banking Authority on Friday revealed that eight banks are vulnerable and need to raise £2.2bn to protect themselves from possible losses.  This combined with the crises in Greece and Italy has led to European council president Herman van Rompuy calling an emergency summit for Thursday this week.  The banks will be watching the summit closely, as criticism grows of the eurozone approach of utilising sticking plasters rather than radical surgery, by those who desire a radical overhaul of the currency.

The austerity drive forced upon the people of Europe by the banks cannot continue indefinitely.  The system is clearly creaking and at some point must crack.  With the variety of capitalist tricks rapidly being used up it may be that the time for talk of revolution is fast approaching.  That would certainly make the front pages, whoever owns the press.

11th July 2011

Hacked to pieces?  If only…..

The only modicum of sympathy one can feel in the whole News of the World (NoW) phone hacking scandal is for the victims.  While it took public outrage at the hacking into the phone of murdered school girl Millie Dowler to galvanise the politicians into action, the practice at NoW had clearly been known to the Metropolitan Police and others for many years.

The scandal is of course being portrayed as one of journalistic ethics but the real story is the corruption at the heart of the British political class, who have colluded in the growth of the Murdoch empire in order to ensure favours are bestowed upon them by the press he controls.  The networking opportunities afforded by an invite to a Murdoch News Corp bash have for many years been more hotly desired than any Buckingham Palace garden party.

Leaders of the major political parties have without exception rubbed shoulders with Murdoch and his cronies, although a special mention must be reserved for David Cameron who regularly goes hacking in the Oxfordshire countryside (riding horses to you and me) with Murdoch’s chief lieutenant, Rebekah Brooks.  Cameron’s appointment of Andy Coulson, formerly Brooks’ boss at the NoW, to be his chief spin doctor is well documented.

While political capital can be made out of suggesting Coulson’s appointment was an error of judgement it was, in reality, a case of finding one of your mates a job.  No doubt Cameron would be the first to condemn such practices on the shop floor.  Given the rumblings around the NoW there must have been at least a whiff of danger in appointing Coulson but Cameron will no doubt have calculated that the power of the Murdoch empire was unlikely to be seriously threatened.  Being big mates with Rebekah no doubt reinforced the PM’s belief that nothing significant would stick to him.  Time will tell how much does.

The final issue of the NoW last Sunday was greeted with the rather bizarre collusion of the journalistic profession in singing the praises of a great institution of investigative journalism and what a sad loss it would be to the fourth estate etc. etc….Wake me up but is this not the same Sunday weekly that has been at the forefront of guttersnipe journalism, hand in hand with its daily stable mate, The Sun, for over forty years?   Have these papers not been at the forefront of perpetrating soft porn, racism and anti trades unionism over the same period?  Have the Murdoch papers not been the biggest fans of the UK going to war, whatever the cause, whatever the consequences? Finally, and by no means least of all, is the NoW not currently embroiled in a phone hacking scandal which contravenes any last vestige of ethical credibility the journalistic profession has left?

Let us be clear, the loss of the News of the World is only a loss to Rupert Murdoch’s profit margins, there is no need for the rest of us to shed a tear.

We now have the spectre of Murdoch’s bid to take over BSkyB being put to the ‘fit and proper’ test in relation to the extent of media control Murdoch will have in the UK.

This should not take long as it is clear to all and sundry that the Murdoch gang are not ‘fit and proper’ to run the local chippy (apologies to chip shop owners) never mind the biggest chunk of TV and newspaper control on offer in the UK.  Then again Rupert does throw a good bash and what would Dave do if Rebekah stopped popping round….?

Who needs to find jobs for your mates when you can give them the telly and papers into the bargain.  At least there might be some use for the latter down the chippy.

Paying for the bankers crisis

Public service workers in Southampton are currently in the forefront of the struggle to resist Council workers footing the bill for the bankers’ gambling debts.  Unless they accept changes to terms and conditions proposed by the Tory run Council, they are being threatened with the sack.  This is one to watch.  If Southampton get away with it, Councils across the country will be on the case.

Terms and conditions are under threat in all local authorities.  Council leaders will bleat (yes, exactly like sheep) that if they don’t cut here they will have to cut services further.  Yet there is an alternative – don’t cut, join together and force the Tory led coalition to fund the gambling debts by collecting a bit more tax from their mates.  Will it work?  The way things are heading there may be little to lose by trying.

27th June 2011

Lacklustre leadership limits Labour

It has become an almost universal law of politics that if any group of employees are forced into strike action to defend wages, terms and conditions or pensions, the leadership of the Labour Party will not support them.  This position was perfected by Neil Kinnock during the Miner’s Strike of 1984/5 when he not only opposed the action but consistently attacked the NUM leadership and sided with the Tory press in their spurious campaign for a further ballot mid-strike.

Unfortunately Ed Miliband, in response to action by teachers and civil servants planned for the 30th June, appears to have opted for the default position of condemning the action unions have been forced to take, rather than condemning the government for forcing them into the position of having to consider it.  As the unions have pointed out repeatedly, independent analysis of public sector pensions suggests that they are affordable now and in the future, with costs falling in the long term.  There is also the danger that a mass opting out of pensions in the public sector could undermine the entire scheme if staff judge contributions to be too high.

The situation is finely balanced and a contribution from the leader of the Labour Party pointing out some of the salient facts about public sector pensions, especially tackling the age old red herring that they are ‘gold plated’, would have been more helpful than the finger wagging response we have seen.

A robust response to the call from Education Secretary, Michael Gove, for parents to enter schools and supervise children when teachers are on strike, is also clearly needed.  The man in charge of our children’s education is clearly unaware of the legalities of child protection and Criminal Records Bureau checks before anyone is allowed access to children.  He would do well to read up rather than going in gung-ho on the anti-trades union ticket.

Miliband’s response to the strikes this week is bad but his analysis of what is needed to engage people more effectively in the Labour Party is a cause for deep concern.  Miliband’s assessment betrays his liberal middle class thinking and fails utterly to understand the role of the Labour Party in the context of the wider labour movement.  He says,

“I want to open up the leadership to the party and the party to the country.  In a society that is changing so fast in so many ways, we cannot continue as we are, with essentially a closed structure that was formed a century ago.”

The abolition of old, anachronistic structures can of course be a good thing but House of Lords reform and abolition of the monarchy are not on Miliband’s radar.  Instead he is proposing to,

  • determine issues for discussion at Party conference through public petition;
  • invite organisations such as Greenpeace and others to speak at Party conference as “registered consultees”;
  • open up links between local Labour Party branches and union levy payers;
  • have a network of supporters who do not wish to become members; and
  • all MPs and councillors to be signed up to a code of conduct committing themselves to be in regular touch with the public.

On the face of it such proposals seem both reasonable and inclusive.  They allow more people to have a say in policy and direction.  They allow the Labour Party to be a broad church of ideas reflecting the changes in society.  They are, to all intents and purposes, the model for a European style social democratic party.  The down side of this is that such a party is likely to have a diluted relationship to the organisations, such as trades unions and co-operative societies, which formed it.

Miliband’s talk is of broad church and coalition but this is the essence of the Labour Party and how it was formed, as the political voice of that coalition of the unrepresented and disaffected.  It may be that this happened a century ago, the real tragedy is that after all of that time it is still needed and that so many still need to defend their jobs and pensions against employers determined to reduce them.

What Miliband’s formula is short on is the decisive missing ingredient – leadership.  All of the breadth and partnership in the world does not necessarily coalesce into an alternative vision for society or fire people with the sense of purpose required to make them feel that they can not only change the existing order, but that such change is sustainable.

Labour’s detachment from its roots has seen the Scottish Nationalists recently lay claim to much of the traditional Labour vote in Scotland.  Unless this can be recaptured the chances of Labour building a road to Westminster, let alone a road to socialism, will be slim.  Modernisation is fine, if it means that you are creating an organisation that will be more efficient and effective in achieving your objectives.  Cutting loose from your history however is not the best way to clarify those objectives, especially at a time when a core purpose and decisive leadership is more needed than ever.

19th June 2011

Beware of euro-geeks predicting rifts

The adage to ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ might be one to be aware of in the coming weeks. With the Greek economy bleeding due to trying to keep pace with the German-Franco dominated euro, the 110bn euro package agreed a year ago (at very favourable repayment rates for the banks, thank you) looks likely to be doubled in the near future.  In short, most Greeks will be unable to afford gifts given the austerity measures, public sector cuts and pay reductions which the EU and IMF will see forced upon the Greek people.

For reasons the bankers cannot understand the Greek people are not taking their medicine lying down and are giving the ’socialist’ government of George Papandreou a hard time.  Papandreou has responded by attempting to form a grand coalition to implement the cuts package and keep Europe’s bankers appeased.

While the Greek government looks to cut the wages of public sectors workers and target the poorest sections of society the real gap in its ability to deliver on the current austerity programme is that of tax collection.  It is estimated that 40bn euros was owed in back tax in 2010.  In addition investors are deserting Greek banks to invest abroad, almost 60 bn euros, a quarter of the countries gross domestic product, has left the country since the current crisis began.

For most people of course repatriating capital is not something they are even remotely familiar with.  Shifting £60 between banks can be trouble enough never mind 60bn out of the country, so it is clearly those with the knowledge, connections and wealth who are doing this.  The outcome of course is to plunge Greece into a deeper crisis and for Europe’s bankers (how much of the 60bn are they keeping ’safe’?) to call for more cuts, privatisation and austerity.  As Greek trades unions have pointed out, how is the sale of state assets, in all probability to foreign companies, going to help the Greek economy and Greek workers?

Well they would say that wouldn’t they, you cry!  How about the Centre for European Reform based in London  then, not bearers of red flags on the streets of Athens by any means.  Their chief economist, Simon Tilford, this week said of Greece,

“It is the most any developed economy has ever done in such a short space of time and they have been pilloried for not having done enough.” (New York Times 19th June 2011)

It is of course a tricky balancing act for those European banks who have loaned to Greece and are now exposed if the Greeks default.  They want to press for repayment but dare not press too hard in case the Greek economy goes down taking them and the eurozone with it.  The deal hammered out between Germany and France at the weekend appears to give the banks some breathing space with the European Central Bank playing a role in supporting the euro rather than Greece’s current creditors losing out.  All of this may placate the international money markets, for the time being, but will it be enough to buy off the people of Greece, still very much at the sharp end of the crisis?

The General Secretary of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), Aleka Papariga, made the position clear at a rally in Athens at the weekend, she stated,

“The crisis in Europe is deep, especially in Ireland and Portugal.  They predict problems for the Italian economy and that the crisis in Spain will sharpen. Consequently all the peoples will pay, and so it is not a matter of a form of renegotiation of the debt….”

In the UK the Bank of England, with its new financial policy committee (FPC), is preparing the ground for the consequences of a Greek default.  The main issue is not so much Greece itself as the signals a Greek default sends to Ireland and Portugal where UK banks are more heavily involved and where any ripple effect could have much more significant consequences.  The Bank may be  unaware that they share this view with the Communist Party of Greece, although from quite different perspectives!

Danny Gabay, of City consultancy firm Fathom, expressed the collective uncertainty of the banking sector this week stating,

“We have absolutely no idea where this is going to end until somebody pulls the plug.  I don’t know what the FPC can possibly do about this: there are no levers we can pull except ‘sell, sell, sell’, but who’s going to buy?” (The Guardian 18th June 2011).

Protests in the UK have not yet reached the levels of those in Greece but the rumblings are beginning.  Unions and government have been in discussion over public sector pension reform and the retirement age for some time.  To describe such negotiations as ‘sensitive’ would be an understatement.  Why then would Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, blab in a speech to the IPPR that public sector pensions were to be whacked and the retirement age increased?  Either the man, famously described by Harriet Harman as a ‘ginger rodent’, is an idiot or he wanted to torpedo the negotiations and appear ‘tough’ for his Tory puppet masters.

Whatever the reason the hoo-ha has begun and the PCS and teaching union strikes set for the 30th June look set to be just the start of public sector unrest in the coming months.

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that the only really gold plated pensions in the public sector are not those earned by the cleaner at your aunt’s care home, or the spotty teenager keeping your local gym open on a Sunday.  No, surprise surprise, you need to be in the House of Commons to enjoythat privilege.  After only 15 years service you can build up a pension of £24,000 as an MP.  Taxpayers apparently contribute three times more to the pension pot than MPs do themselves.  If the unfortunate member should kick the bucket then the spouse receives a lump sum of four times the MPs annual salary and an annual income of five eighths of their pension.  In common with some public sector workers, MPs can often have two jobs, not sure that’s for the same reasons though.

13th June 2011

Who Cares?

The unfolding crisis in the care sector over recent weeks involving private provider Southern Cross has highlighted one of the clear outcomes of putting an essentially not for profit function into the hands of the private sector; the two do not fit.  The provision of health care, the care of the elderly, the running of major utilities and the nationalisation of key industries were all introduced for good reasons following the end of the Second World War.

Firstly, the international capitalist crisis and depression, which culminated in the war in the 1930’s, demonstrated that capitalism as a system was not fit for purpose.  Secondly, the post war Labour Government, fired by socialist ideals, backed by a strong trades union movement and intellectually active Communist Party, subscribed to the belief that state control was a step on the road to greater control of the services people needed to have an equitable quality of life.

Since 1979 however, the Right in British politics have been allowed to perpetrate the myth that the basic model of the state provision of services is less effective than private sector provision.  In true grocer’s daughter style, Margaret Thatcher sold the myth and tragically much of the Left bought in to it.  By the late 1970’s it was easy to see how Thatcher was able to sell on this particular pup.  The public sector was looking shoddy, the Left had run out of intellectual steam or was heading towards the blind alleys that would eventually lead to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (then the LibDems), Eurocommunism and the tragedy of New Labour.

Rather than take the bull by the horns, and take up the challenge of renewal and reinvestment in public services and manufacturing, the Labour Government of the mid-1970’s went cap in hand to the IMF thus setting in train the process of ‘structural adjustment’ the Thatcher crowd was only too happy to continue.  That adjustment essentially required the dismantling of the gains of the welfare state and the ideological trashing of the raison d’etre behind them.  So, Council housing = bad, home ownership = good; public health care = bad, private care = good; nationalisation = bad, privatisation = good; profit came very much before people.

Thirty years on and the same show is playing out before us in the case of Southern Cross.  At present 31.000 people live in 750 homes run by Southern Cross around the UK.  The company is struggling ostensibly because its annual rent bill amounts to £230m and income has been hit due to reduced fees from struggling local authorities.  Even though the company has unilaterally cut its rent payments by 30% it has not convinced its landlords of this tactic and talk of the company’s break up is rife.  Company boss, Christopher Fisher, has apologised for the “uncertainty and concern” caused to residents by the current situation but this is scant compensation when you are, in effect, under threat of your home being repossessed.

The company has already announced 3,000 job losses in the past week and is struggling to comply with the improvement orders which the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has served on 30% of its homes.

Yet even this is a smokescreen for the real story behind Southern Cross which is that as a company owned substantially by a private equity fund its financial arrangements, including the identity of its owners, is not a matter for public record.  Unlike public limited companies (plc), where a company’s shares are traded on the stock exchange and standards of accountancy and transparency have to be met, private companies do not have to meet these obligations.  Private equity relies much more on raising capital from debt rather than investment so it is also inherently less stable as a business model.  The Southern Cross model has involved the selling off of free hold properties which were then leased back to the company at rates it is now struggling to afford.  Wall St buy-out company, Blackstone, led by billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, appear to have done especially well, having sold its interest in Southern Cross in 2006 for almost £500m thus tripling its original £162m investment.

Such wheeling and dealing may be regarded by some as acceptable in certain circles under certain circumstances, but in the provision of care for the elderly?  As Paul Kenny, General Secretary of the GMB trades union has said,

“More is known about the Mafia than about the antics of private equity.  This is a financial exploitation process that does not care if it exploits elderly people in care.”

With most of the staff of Southern Cross overworked and under paid the proposed cuts are likely to make life more difficult for them and those in their care.  Vince cable, the Business Secretary, has ruled out government intervention to help those in need in the short term, presumably the elderly do not have the same strategic significance for the economy as the banks.

The Southern Cross scandal is of course only the tip of an iceberg.  The cuts in the public sector, which are currently beginning to bite, will expose further the weakness of the approach of this government in particular.  However, it will also expose the new consensus that the private sector can deliver in areas of public need without accountability or regulation.  They cannot and they should not be allowed to.  Rather than argue over which Miliband would be better than the other, the Labour leadership needs to focus on the real issues facing people and articulate a real alternative.

3rd June 2011

George fiddles but the economy still burns

There have been a lot of distractions from the real business of the economy recently and the government are making the most of the reflected shine from Barack Obama, sending apache attack helicopters into Libya and anything else that comes to hand to keep people from looking at what is going on in the back yard.

Of course, if you are in the back yard you are all too well aware of what is happening.  In fact, not only your back yard but your entire house might be under threat if you have suddenly found yourself out of work.  Last week a massive 4,500 people found themselves in that situation with 500 jobs going at Barclays across the country, Lloyds Banking Group shedding 360 jobs and the Royal Bank of Scotland pitching 690 into the pot.

Everyone hates the bankers, as we know, but you can bet your bottom dollar (or any convertible currency) that the ones losing out were the not the ones walking away with the big bonuses.  Not unless the latter day Sir Fred Goodwin’s are staffing call centres, debt management centres and insurance offices.

The biggest collapse of the week though was the Focus DIY chain with 3,000 jobs lost in one fell swoop after administrators had failed to find a buyer.  Noticeably these losses are all in the private sector which rather puts a spanner in the works of the government’s strategy for public sector jobs cuts.  Remember that gem?  A reminder then.  Chancellor George Osborne reassured us all, at the time of the comprehensive spending review last October, that the loss of public sector jobs would be more than made up for by the expansion in the private sector his economic policies would encourage.

It would be a laugh if it were not so tragic.  The tragedy is compounded by the fact that George’s city mates do not even seem to agree with him.  Take Howard Archer, for example, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, he said,

“The private sector isn’t going to be able to absorb all the public sector job losses.  Not only are there going to be a lot more job losses in the public sector but the private sector  is also likely to see an increase in redundancies because consumers are really tightening their belts.”

It is often said that paying consultants is like handing over cash to someone who then tells you what you already knew.  On that basis Archer is clearly earning his money in the ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ department, it is just that George cannot seem to figure it out.

It may be that we should feel a little sorry for George because his mates in the banks have also let him down.  They were meant to be lending to small and medium businesses to help them grow, thus propping up George’s plan.  This was part of a wizard deal called Project Merlin.  The government agreed to shelve extra taxes on executive bonuses and the banks said they would lend out more money to get the economy going.  Targets were set, backs were slapped, bubbly was quaffed and all looked set to deliver George a result.  Only the banks missed their lending targets by more than £2bn.  George is threatening to get tough; we shall see.

The fact that no one is making anything is balanced off by the fact that no-one is buying anything either.  Household spending this month went down by 0.6% to a two year low, while business investment overall declined 7.1%, only boosted at the end of 2010 apparently by a rush to buy private aircraft (£1bn in the last three months of 2010!) ahead of the VAT increase in January, hardly a sustainable strategy for growth, even for George.

In its half yearly Economic Outlook the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), basically a capitalist super club, suggested that the UK would trail most other leading industrial nations in recovering from the 2008-09 downturn.  The OECD expects unemployment, officially at 7.9% at the moment, to rise to 8.3% by 2012 with growth remaining pretty flat at around 1.8% by the same year.  The medicine for all of this, according to the OECD, is to raise interest rates.  Quite how this will stimulate a boom in borrowing, spending or the housing market is something of a mystery given the weakness of the UK economy.  However, the Bank of England appear, for the moment, to be having none of it but the debate on the monetary policy committee continues.  We watch with interest.

Gil Scott-Heron 1949 -2011

The sad death of US performer, musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron cannot pass without comment.  His recent comeback album I’m New Here, his first in 16 years, was received with justified acclaim last year, effectively bringing Scoot-Heron out of retirement and back to the stage.  His oeuvre has been one which always railed against injustice from apartheid in South Africa (Johannesburg) to Reaganomics (B Movie) to the troubled history of the US (Winter in America).  As a performer Scoot-Heron was both innovative and uncompromising.  What he lacked in commercial success he more than made up for in political integrity.  Too few performers can make that claim.

22nd May 2011

Israeli freeze in the Arab Spring

One of the remarkable strengths of the state of Israel has always been its sense of identity and purpose.  The mission of the state is clear and while not all Israelis, nor indeed all Jews worldwide, subscribe to the Zionist orthodoxy there is enough support within Israel itself for most mainstream politicians to sign up to some version of it.  In essence this means subscribing to the idea of a strong Israeli state, well armed defences forces and clear borders for those forces to defend.

The enemy can be characterised as the Arab world in general, of which the Palestinians in particular are regarded as the most heinous, and the general trend towards Islamic fundamentalism as represented by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the groups it supports, directly or otherwise, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

The perception of an existential threat to the state of Israel is ingrained within the political DNA of the nation.  It is against this background that the apparent brazenness of Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, must be seen this week.  In an audience with the most powerful elected politician on the planet, Barack Obama, the Israeli PM not only rejected the president’s suggestion of a return to the internationally recognised 1967 borders, as the basis for a peaceful accommodation with the Palestinians, he proceeded to lecture the president for ten minutes on Jewish history as justification.

Netanyahu’s position is of course indefensible to most rational observers.  His argument that Israel cannot observe the international rule of law because the ‘demographics’ have changed in relation to the borders is the kind of argument only a zealot could put forward.  The ‘demographics’ have changed only because of the illegal Israeli occupation and the equally illegal policy of ‘settlement’ of Palestinian land.  Settlement is of course a euphemism for theft on a grand scale including the eradication of entire villages from the map in order to facilitate Israeli home building.

To describe the Israeli actions against the Palestinians as genocide may be regarded as provocative but there can be no doubt that thousands have been brutally displaced, murdered and terrorised over the period since 1967 and earlier.  Why has this been permitted by the international community?  Why is the fourth biggest army in the world allowed to direct its full might against an enemy armed with little more than sticks, stones and the occasional outdated SCUD missile?

The simple answer is that this has been part of the policy of the US for ensuring stability in the region.  Just as the US has propped up a myriad of Arab dictators to keep the lid on dissent within their countries, in order to facilitate the flow of oil, Israel has been the eyes and ears of Washington in the region.  The defence of Israel relies upon US dollars and US arms contracts just as much as the defence of the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia.

Ironically, the unravelling of this policy in the Arab world is playing into the hands of the Israelis.  Arab demands for Palestinian autonomy have largely been neutered for four decades because of US largesse to corrupt regimes.  However, the uprising against such regimes brings with it a degree of opposition to outside interference and the potential for fundamentalist governments on the Iranian model to emerge.  As far as the Israelis are concerned this could tip the balance in the region more decisively in favour of support for the Palestinians and increase the threat to Israel itself.  Whether Netanyahu will have said anything as explicit as this to Obama is not clear.  However, he knows well enough that even a relatively liberal US president will not tear up the alliance with Israel while so much uncertainty prevails elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring is not leading to clear alternatives to the governments currently in power as religious, political and tribal divisions begin to surface in the opposition.  In Egypt there is a sense amongst Coptic Christians that they may be on the outside of any settlement agreed by the Muslim majority.  In Libya the opposition may be united against Gaddafi at present but clan differences between the East and West of the country still make some form of partition the most likely outcome.  Even in the relatively homogeneous Tunisia differences have emerged between the more liberal and secular coastal areas and the more conservative, religious areas inland.

Netanyahu may be playing a dangerous game in attempting to call Obama’s bluff but he is a wily politician who is prepared to play the long game in defence of Israeli interests.  Obama’s attempt to reconsider US policy in the Middle East is to be welcomed.  However, he may need a second term if he is to have the time to get to grips fully with the Israel/Palestine question and that is by no means guaranteed.

16th May 2011

The march of the New Right

In times of economic crisis it is always good to have a scapegoat, someone to whom you can turn to lay the blame for the economic woes of the country, or even the world.  At different times in the twentieth century the Jews or the Communists usually filled this role.  Neither credibly fit the bill in the first part of the twenty first century although both groups still have their detractors.  Anti-Semitism and anti-Communism may not exactly go hand in hand but they are closely allied when you look at the groups who perpetrate both.

So, who is left?  Well at the beginning of the twenty first century we are, somewhat bizarrely, back to the language of the crusades with Muslims re- surfacing as the major threat to world peace, economic stability, the safety of your children and anything else you can think of to be worried about.

As we move into the second decade of the century the term Muslim itself seems to be undergoing something of a transformation in the media and therefore popular imagination.  In fact anyone fleeing violence from North or sub-Saharan Africa who finds themselves washed up on European shores, literally or metaphorically, can pretty much fit the bill.

This is not without a certain degree of irony as many of those finding themselves in such a plight are fleeing the war in Libya, turmoil in Tunisia or civil conflict in the Ivory Coast.  The West has some degree of responsibility for all of these scenarios but the treatment of refugees from Libya, a country which the West has pushed to civil war, is particularly scandalous.

The first sight of European land for many Libyans and others from North Africa is the Italian island of Lampedusa.  Not surprisingly the right wing government of Silvio Berlusconi is not taking the influx well, although numbers are relatively low.  The Italian government however does face a dilemma. It wants to get rid of the migrants without granting thousands of visas. However, visas for migrants into the EU must be processed in the country of arrival under the Dublin Convention of 1990.  Therefore, in order to pass migrants on to other EU member states, the Italians must first grant asylum status and permission to reside in Italy.

The Italian government are not treating those fleeing violence in Africa as refugees requiring humanitarian care but as a security problem which needs to be deported back to Africa as swiftly as possible.  The Italians may be at the forefront but similar issues are emerging in France, where many French speaking North Africans would naturally gravitate, and Spain which has a significant Moroccan diaspora.

The practical consequences of this attitude are beginning to show.  The Schengen Agreement, which allows for free movement of citizens across (most) EU borders is now directly threatened.  The French and Italians have been leading the line in the EU for a ‘relaxation’ of Schengen, in effect a tightening of border controls and a reinforcement of the security led rather than humanitarian approach to asylum seekers.

Last week the French and Italians were outlflanked by the Danes who unilaterally re-introduced checks at their borders with Germany and Sweden.  The move was a consequence of the tail wagging the political dog in Denmark.  The Denmark People’s Party is a minority partner propping up a minority government but insisted on the re-introduction of border controls as a condition of support for the coalition.

Thje situation in Denmark is a warning sign however that the thinking of the enmerging New Right in Europe is being translated into policy.  Part of the reason for the French and Italian responses is to do with electoral pressure from the right.  In France the revived National Front under the leadership of Marine le Pen continues to grow,while the Northern League in Italy continue to apply pressure upon Berlusconi.  Elsewhere the True Finns in Finland, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Austrian Freedom Party and Hungarian Jobbik party are all examples of the far right making progress in the face of economic chaos and recession.

In this context asylum seekers, economic migrants, people of different colour and different religions become easy targets for the jingoism of these self styled defenders of the ‘faith’, ‘state’, ‘race’ or whichever totem they think will maximise their appeal.  The bulwark against these views has always been a strong Left wing prepared to expose the racism of the right and put the arguments for a wider solidarity based upon class interests.

As things stand there is a gap in the market.   The social democratic left as represented by the Labour Party in the UK, the Socialist Party in France and the Social Democrats in Germany show little sign of doing anything other than rolling with the economic concensus and its implications for immigration policy across Europe.  The Western European Communist Parties have not historically been the most militant and at present do not appear to be strong enough to make more than a limited impact.

Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness of the injustices of the current system, especially amongst young people, and an acceptance and tolerance of different cultures borne of their practical experience of the world.  Ways of harnessing this energy and enthusiasm must be found if the early decades of the current century are not to repeat some of the errors of the last.

8th May 2011

Where to after bin Laden?

Expect the unexpected is perhaps the only truism in politics.  The assassination of Osama bin Laden by  the US government was one such unexpected moment this week.  That event and the potential outcomes have been dominating the news ever since.

Amongst the many issues emerging from the death of bin Laden the most immediately significant is the implication for the ongoing presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan.  The invasion in 2001 was predicated upon the assumption that bin Laden was being supported if not actively hidden by the Taliban, not in itself an unreasonable assumption, even if the conclusion that committing vast numbers of troops was questionable.

It has been suggested that the Taliban may actually take heart from the death of bin Laden, if his death leads to disarray in al-Qaeda.  President Obama stated quite clearly earlier in the week that,

“We’re making progress in our major, our central goal, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that is disrupting and dismantling – and we are going to ultimately defeat al Qaeda.  We have cut off their head and we will ultimately defeat them.” (New York Times 8th May 2011)

This has led some commentators to suggest, and perhaps even the Taliban to hope, that NATO withdrawal, scheduled for 2014, will be accelerated.  The focus of the Taliban has always been Afghanistan while that of al Qaeda has been one of global jihad.  While their paths and interests have crossed, they are not intertwined.  By the same token the US has put so much store by the killing or capture of bin Laden that justifying an ongoing presence in Afghanistan, to an already sceptical public, may prove difficult.

The future of the US and Pakistan’s relationship is also critical.  DavidCameron hit the nail on the head when he accused Pakistan of facing both ways on terrorism.  Most Western governments clearly believe this but have not blurted it out.  Cameron tried to back track but the phrase was out and it stuck.  It is hard to understand why the US did not inform Pakistan of the operation against bin Laden unless they were of the same view as Cameron.  Pakistani support for the Taliban has long been a sore point.  The discovery that bin Laden had been on Pakistani soil for some years was clearly the final straw.

As a nuclear power Pakistan is important as a regional superpower but given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism within its borders it is clearly an unstable ally for the West.  How the relationship with Pakistan is handled and the withdrawal from the unwinnable war in Afghanistan is managed may yet define Obama’s presidency.

The standing ovations associated with the operation against bin Laden will soon lose their lustre if the US continues to be public enemy number one in the Muslim world.  The killing of bin Laden plays to the domestic gallery but there is a long way to go if there is to be any significant change in the core objectives of US foreign policy.

The United Kingdom – beginning of the end?

Election time in the UK on 5th May and the major winners were undoubtedly the Scottish Nationalists who managed to engineer a political coup d’etat of major proportions by securing a majority in the Scottish Parliament.  The Scotland Act, which brought in devolution, devised a voting system combining first past the post and proportional representation in such a way that a single party majority at Holyrood was widely regarded as a virtual impossibility.

A number of factors combined to produce this outcome.  Not least was the skill and judgement of Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, in ensuring a focus upon Scottish issues in an election to the Scottish Parliament.  The collapse of the LibDem vote due to their alliance with the Tories in Westminster was widely predicted North of the border where the Tory brief does not run.  However, the failure of Labour to capitalise on the LibDem’s unpopularity was not anticipated in spite of the lacklustre performance of their leader Ian Gray.

The result in Scotland is bad for Ed Miliband but the implications are even worse.  A Labour government in Westminster is not possible without the working class base the Scottish labour vote has historically provided.  It is possible that Scottish voters will behave differently in a UK wide election but this is not a strategy which can be relied upon.  Alex Salmond has enough political skill to know that keeping the referendum in his locker until he has gained concessions from David Cameron is his best strategy for consolidating the SNP vote.

First noises from the Miliband camp already suggest that he is on the wrong track to redress the outcomes of the 5th May.  Trying to woo the LibDems away from the Tories has been suggested as Miliband’s next move.  This would be an unmitigated disaster, drawing Labour further from its roots and reinforcing a diluted LibLab-ism which would not address the core issues faced by working class communities.  It would certainly not be a recipe for winning back the bedrock Scottish support that Labour has relied upon.

David Cameron would no doubt wrap himself in the Union Jack and proclaim himself a Unionist to the core if pressed.  However, could he live with an independent Scotland not sending any MPs to Westminster?  How much he is prepared to concede to Alex Salmond might begin to give us the answer to that question over the next couple of years.

2nd May 2011

Thousands take to the streets

This weekend has been one in which thousands of people have been out on the streets in a massive show of solidarity, unity and togetherness.  The extent to which such gatherings have been reported has of course varied.  For many people across the world this weekend was significant because 1st May is International Worker’s Day, celebrated for over 100 years and an annual opportunity for workers from all parts of the world to recognise their common issues and to unite to celebrate their achievements.

It may be that the reporting by the British media of these events has passed some readers by.  It is therefore worth checking out the link below to get a sense of what has been happening on the streets of cities around the world this weekend, as ordinary people have taken to the streets demanding justice and equality.

The contrasting street demonstrations in the UK over the weekend probably say a great deal about the state of the nation.  A modest 10,000 strong demonstration was reported to have taken place in Trafalgar Square yesterday, somewhat dwarfed in scale and in press coverage by the events two days earlier of the Royal Wedding.

That event was indeed breathtaking in its scale.  As a celebration of the entrenched position of the monarchy in British public life it was hard to beat.  As a demonstration of the profound grip the monarchy as an institution still has on much of the nation it was remarkable.  As a marketing exercise in the continuing reinforcement of the monarchy as an institution, sold as being fundamental to the stability and security of the nation, it was huge.

The mobilisation of the state TV network, the BBC, and its major commercial rival, ITV, with the declaration of a public holiday to mark the event, ensured that the British state focused its resources unashamedly on the task in hand.  While workers across the world prepared, with more modest means, to mark their progress in achieving peace, justice and equality the UK put on a show of privilege, divine right and entrenched inequality like no other.  “No-one does this like the British”, was a fitting verdict on the day; no-one does it like the British ruling class, that is!

The day did have its own bizarre sideshow elements to it.  Apart from spotting the invited dictator there was, spot the monarch who no longer exists.  Examples here included King Constantine of Hellenes (Greece to us plebs); King Simeon II of Bulgaria; King Michael I of Romania; all of whom are no more then private citizens as the people of Greece, Bulgaria and Romania live in republics which do not recognise these ‘monarchs’.  Never let the will of the people get in the way of the British royal family though.  Top prize however did have to go to Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, where not only the monarchy but the entire country has ceased to be.

There was the usual oxymoronic talk of the monarchy being modernised. The bizarre claim was made that because the second in line to the throne is marrying a ‘commoner’ the monarchy is becoming more democratic.  Of course much of the cost was borne by the Queen (who pays her wages?) while £10m for security and bunting came from other public budgets.  The payback, we are told, is that many more tourists will visit Britain as a result and there will be payback in the long term.  The actual evidence from previous royal shindigs does not actually support this assertion which, in any event, is not a good argument for having a royal family.  There is no shortage of tourists at the Palace of Versailles even though the incumbents have long since departed.

An unexpected reason to take to the streets was afforded the citizens of the USA today with the announcement that CIA forces had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.  This is undoubtedly a major propaganda coup for the US internationally and for Barack Obama domestically, with his ‘American-ness’ under attack from the demented billionaire Donald Trump, who may yet emerge as a Republican candidate for the presidency.

Word has it that when he took office Obama instructed the CIA that the capture or killing of bin Laden was its number one mission.  That al Qaeda will seek some form of retribution for this loss is in little doubt, although its operational capability does appear to be on the wane.  Whether the US adopts the sort of gung-ho approach under Obama that it did under Bush would appear to be unlikely but cannot be ruled out.  Even the most rational can crack under the pressure of the US presidency.

As the so called Arab Spring continues to unfold however, in Syria, Libya and Egypt in particular, it is vital that the interests of the people of these countries come to the forefront.  The ‘revolution’ in Egypt has not produced any fundamental shift in the economic levers of power, with the generals who ran things under Mubarek still in control.  Libya is ripe for either partition or occupation by the West as the Gaddafi regime crumbles but the opposition remains fragile.  The situation in Syria is more difficult to read but unless the Assad regime can reform quickly there is likely to be more bloodshed.  Strangely, both Israel and Iran have an interest in maintaining the status quo in Syria; Israel for fear of a more hardline regime which may reclaim the Golan Heights, Iran to maintain influence with its Shia Muslim allies.

The outcomes across the Arab world remain unpredictable but there is undoubtedly more change to come.  The killing of bin Laden will add to the mix but the momentum is such that it unlikely to be decisive.  It may be however that by the time of the next British royal wedding there may be a few less dictators masquerading as monarchs left to invite.

25th April 2011

The miserable little compromise of coalition

As the AV campaign slumbers on towards the 5th May vote Nick Clegg may well be regretting having previously described the alternative vote as a “miserable little compromise.”  The phrase pops up regularly on purple placards waved by students wearing Nick Clegg masks whenever there is a report on the subject of AV on the BBC News.  Is the dear old Beeb subliminally trying to influence the outcome?  Perhaps, at least if they could get off the subject of the Royal Wedding and concentrate on matters of actual importance, you might think so.

The irony is of course that the longer the AV debate continues the more obvious it is becoming that the “miserable little compromise” refers less to AV but more clearly describes the Coalition government itself.  Typical perhaps that Clegg should pin the right phrase on the wrong target.  The week began with the unusual, but wrapped in light hearted banter, sight of David Cameron lining up with Labour war horse John Reid for the No Campaign, while Ed Miliband was flanked by LibDem war horse Vince Cable for the Yes Campaign.  So far so good, although the masked students remained the only sign of Nick Clegg, in spite of his colours being nailed firmly to the Yes mast.  Rumour has it that Miliband refused to share a platform.

Clegg did pop up mid-week however, being gently harangued by an assembly of LibDem activists pleading him to have a spat with David Cameron.  It was clear that they were desperate to be able to sell some credibility on the doorsteps as they fight for their seats leading up to the local election vote on the 5th May.  Clegg, more comfortable in his role as coalition glove puppet then engaging with the members of the party he leads, smiled, simpered and simply side-stepped the question.

The LibDems are of course a party with a strong opportunist history.  The right wing Social Democrats, who split from Labour in the early ’80’s, ushered  in a further decade and a half of Tory government by weakening Labour at that time.  Their fusion with the then Liberal Party (a “miserable little compromise” indeed!) to create the LibDems was a natural step for  a group of failed politicians (David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and the other bloke) looking for a vehicle through which to stretch out their careers.  This tendency towards “miserable little compromise” is still reflected in the current LibDem leadership in the shape of Nick Clegg who has demonstrated that virtually no compromise is too far to keep a seat at the Cabinet table.

This is not the only strand of opinion in the LibDems history however.  The merger with the SDP was not universally welcomed, any more than the current coalition with the Conservatives has been.  Many Liberals see themselves as part of a wider anti-Tory movement and would, on many issues, still align themselves broadly with the ‘left’.  Historically the involvement of Liberals in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, CND and community campaigns reflects this, while current activism around green and environmental issues attracts many LibDems of this ilk.

In Scotland, where the 5th May vote is not only on the AV issue but for Scottish Parliamentary seats, a coalition of Labour and the LibDems is seen by many as the only way of keeping the Scottish Nationalists at bay.  The prospect of  the LibDems facing one way at Westminster and the other at Holyrood would summarise perfectly their schizophrenic politics.

The current AV campaign has already given us George Osborne criticising the Electoral Reform Society for donating to the Yes campaign and thereby supporting electoral reform.   Energy Secretary Chris Huhne (supporting Yes) has described his Tory Cabinet colleague Baroness Warsi (supporting No) as descending to the “politics of the gutter.”  Perhaps taking heed of his local activists Clegg, in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on Thursday, denounced the current first past the post system as indefensible,

“…the old politics of tribalism backed by dinosaurs on all sides of the political spectrum.”

By this point the gloves were clearly off within the LibDems as Vince Cable weighed in with,

“It’s time for the progressive majority in the country to rise above this narrow tribalism and support this reform because we need to make sure the progressive majority wins elections in this century and  not the Conservatives as they did, by the back door, for two-thirds of the last century.”

This may be the kind of rough and tumble that the Coalition can survive, although Vince Cable’s discomfort with the whole set up seems to grow by the week.  However, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne upped the ante further over the weekend by suggesting that there could be a legal challenge to the No campaign because of their claim that the move to AV will need new counting machines costing £250m.  Huhne went on to express his concern that  colleagues supporting  No were “…making claims which have no foundation in truth whatsoever.  If they don’t come clean on this I am sure the law courts will.”

Clegg, Cable and Huhne are clearly adopting  a high risk strategy, gambling that their current “miserable little compromise” with the Tories can be put under strain  in the short term, in the hope that the AV Yes campaign will be successful.  The prospect of this leading to more miserable compromises in the future, whether with Labour or the Tories, remains their best hope of government influence.  Whether voters are likely to trust the LibDems in sufficient numbers again to make this argument more than academic remains to be seen.  Either way, success for the No Campaign spells trouble for Nick Clegg as LibDem leader, while success for the Yes campaign will equally bring David Cameron’s leadership of the Tories under scrutiny .

It is right to suggest that AV is a “miserable little compromise”, more than that, it is a miserable attempt to con voters into thinking that it is somehow ‘fair‘; it should be rejected.  By the same token, the cracks in the somewhat more significant “miserable little compromise” of the Coalition are beginning to show.  The outcomes of the AV vote, local elections in England and the parliamentary vote in Scotland on the 5th May are likely to widen the cracks in the Coalition; let’s hope the damage is irreparable.

18th April 2011

‘Good’ immigration, bad politics

Immigration is one of the best things about the UK.   Unfortunately, most of our politicians either do not believe this to be the case or are too scared to say so because of the ‘anti-immigration’ orthodoxy which prevails in political circles.  In the worst cases politicians use immigration as a tool to perpetuate divisions and actively stir up racial hatred.  We of course expect this from the far right, it is their stock in trade.  Yet mainstream politicians are by no means immune from the disease and although they may have a less virulent form than the Nick Griffin’s of this world, they are still prone to be carriers of infection.

Let us, for example, go straight to the top, the Prime Minister, David Cameron.  Speaking to supporters in Romsey last Thursday (14th April), Cameron played the immigration bogey card by proclaiming that he wants “good immigration, not mass immigration.”  Cameron immediately sets up a false dichotomy upon which to construct the rest of his argument.  If you want to check out the whole text go to

The Prime Minister states that “nothing is more important to this government than growing our economy, creating jobs and prosperity across our country” but does not appear to see any contradiction with the view that, “I believe controlling immigration and bringing it down is of vital importance to the future of our country.”

Why is that?  The clear implication behind these statements is that immmigration is detrimental to economic growth, that uncontrolled levels of ‘mass’ as opposed to ‘good’ immigration are a drain on the economy.  Is this the case?  The PM may have been well advised to check the facts.

According to a government study in 2007 migrants contributed about £6bn in output growth to the economy in the previous year.  The Low Pay Commission found that between 1997 and 2005 immigration in the UK made a positive contribution to the average wage increase experienced by non-immigrant workers.  Students from outside the EU make up 1 in 10 of those at British universities, paying much higher tuition fees than British students, an average of £20,000 per year.  Would our universities survive without these students?

In a recent speech, in Munich, Cameron stated that immigrants should “speak the language of their new home”, clearly not anticipating the announcement by Fabio Capello that 100 words of English were all he required to do his job!

The contribution made to British culture by migrants from all over the world are too legion to mention,  whether in sport, the arts, cuisine or the wider culture.  Difference exists within our society but de-mystification and building cultural bridges are the only ways to tackle these issues.   Demonising people because of their race, colour or religion will only exacerbate division and fuel the sense of legitimacy which the far right feel when these issues are aired.

It is of course no surprise that Cameron should make such a speech at this time.  Politicians do not make these choices at random.  With job cuts now kicking in; youth unemployment hitting the million mark; the cracks in the Coalition showing over the Alternative Vote campaign; the immigration issue is one on which it is easy to look tough and appeal to the latent bigotry of middle England.

There is no doubt that migration will at different times put pressure upon local services and mean adjustments have to be made to accommodate new communities, whether those from different parts of the EU or those fleeing from persecution.  These are realities that we must respond to as a society if we are to be truly tolerant and welcoming to migrants.  Immigration will ebb and flow, people do actually leave Britain too, and that reality is a contingency we should be prepared to deal with.

It is ironic however that the PM’s call for immigrants to take English lessons should come at a time when his government have cut the funding for these classes, which the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages estimate “..could mean that about half of all…students in some cities will be shut out from attending lessons.”  This view is backed up by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education which estimates that of the 180,000 or so places on offer at present up to half are at risk.

Perhaps Cameron is anticipating that his ‘good’ immigrants will all arrive with perfect English skills.

10th April 2011

Portugal joins Ireland and Greece, squeezed by Europe’s piggy bankers

The European Union is essentially a capitalist club designed to ensure the domination of the strongest economies, keep inflation low and keep the lid on public expenditure.  For the 17 countries within the eurozone this situation is exacerbated by the fact that the fate of their economies is dictated by the European Central Bank (ECB).   Talk about the free flow of labour and the importance of the European cultural project are just a fig leaf for the fact that the EU is essentially about the free movement of capital and the freedom of the banks to dominate the economic terrain.

The UK is of course once removed from this process, having not joined the eurozone and retained the pound.  The UK is nevertheless signed up to the main tenets of the EU monetarist approach and participates  in the emergency fund managed by the European commission.

This week’s ‘bail out’ for Portugal, following those for Ireland and Greece, simply underlines the fact that the euro project is little more than the big boys exploiting the rest.   The 80bn euro package for Portugal is just short of the 85bn euros agreed for Ireland and is light compared with the 110bn euros for Greece.  In Portugal the centre-left government of JoseSocrates has collapsed due to the harshness of austerity measures already imposed but these have been described by OlliRehn, the economic and monetary affairs commissioner, as just the “starting point” for the austerity measures which are required.

Tensions are rising within the EU.  Former Portuguese Prime Minister, Mario Soares, this week accused  Germany of dictating policy to the rest of the EU, stating that  all EU member states “…are dominated by Germany and Chancellor Merkel who has forgotten what Germany owes to the European Community and now considers herself to be the owner of Europe – supported by her ally, President Sarkozy.”

Soares may well have a point.  As we all know from our personal mortgages, the critical factor in being able to pay back loans is the level of the interest rate.  In the same week as the loan to Portugal has been agreed the ECB decided to increase interest rates in the eurozone from 1% to 1.25%, the first increase since 2008.  ECB president, Jean-ClaudeTrichet, even hinted of more rate rises to come.  Investors believe that borrowing across the eurozone could be as high as 2% by the end of the year.

The consequences of this process are highlighted by the City consultancy Fathom who point out that the loans to Portugal, Ireland and Greece all track the European Central Bank’s lending rates.  A series of interest rate rises, argue Fathom, could send these economies into default.  As reported in The Observer (10th April ),

“If the ECB continues to tighten the policy, the impact is clear: default is more or less inevitable,” says Fathom director DannyGabay.  “Greece is clearly on an unsustainable path.”

Fathom go on to point out that while the bigger EU economies are beginning to show some signs of recovery following the credit crunch, higher borrowing costs will only widen the schism between the weaker and stronger economies.  Much of the debt owed by the three countries currently in the bailout zone is owed to the banks in the EU’s stronger economies, thus the demand for repayments will push the eurozone countries apart, rather than hold them together.  Given the consequences of the cuts the weaker countries are facing there is likely to be increasing public pressure to leave the euro in an attempt to regain some control over national economies.  GerardLyons, chief economist at Standard Chartered, is of this view, stating,

“I think it’s likely that we are heading for a two-speed euro.  This is their cleansing operation to get back to where they hoped to be in the first place.  The consequence may be that some countries decide to leave.”

Time will tell, but the Eurozone project is facing one of its toughest tests yet.  Whether the weaker economies can sustain themselves will be a subject for major debate but they are barely getting the crumbs from the table of the capitalist club as things stand.  The time may yet be drawing close when the countries in the second class euro carriage realise that they have little to lose but their economic chains.

Cutting the Arts

Some of the requirements of blogging include being erudite, witty, incisive and original in commenting upon the topics of the day.  Sometimes though, you just have to hold your hands up and admit that someone has already got there and said it more effectively.  On the subject of cuts in the arts there are two examples to cite.

Firstly, film director Mike Leigh, interviewed by Miranda Sawyer in The Observer (10th April),

“Do you have any sympathy for a government that has to make cuts in arts funding?

No, I don’t.  I think they’re stupid from A-Z.  People don’t have to do anything.  There is no doubt that there are cuts to be made, but politicians arrive at their decisions from their world view.  And this government’s world view is warped and a massive distance from one that would make them understand the need for creative activity.  Creativity is a life-blood for people.  We’re not talking about life-blood for artists – although, of course, it is that – we’re talking about communities, people.  Also, I am chairman of the board of governors of the LondonFilmSchool and as far as I’m concerned, all further education should be free.”

Secondly, although a day earlier, in The Guardian (9th April), a new poem by CarolAnnDuffy was published entitled ‘A Cut Back’ – see below.

A Cut Back

(after LouisMcNeice)

by CarolAnnDuffy

It’s no go the LitFest, it’s no go up in Lancaster,
though they’ve built an auditorium (still quite wet, the plaster)
a bar, a bookshop, office space … well, they won’t need wheelchair access.
All we want is a million quid and here’s to the Olympics.

London’s Enitharmon Press was founded in 1967,
but David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine are writing now in heaven,
with UA Fanthorpe, John Heath-Stubbs; dead good dead poets all.
The only bloody writing now’s the writing on the wall.

It’s no go the national art, it’s no go cake with icing.
All we want are strategic cuts, it’s no go salami slicing.

It’s no go the Poetry Trust, it’s no go in East Suffolk;
Aldeburgh’s east of Stratford East. As Rooney says, oh f-fuck it –
because it’s no go First Collection Prize, it’s no go local writers.
We’ve been asked to pull the plug, the rug, by coalition shysters.

National Association of Writers in Education?
No way, NAWE, children and books, the train’s leaving the station.
It’s no go your poets in schools, it’s no go your cultures.
All we want is squeezed middles and stringent diets for vultures.

It’s no go the pamphlet, the gig in Newcastle no go.
All we want is a context for the National Portfolio.

Three little presses went to market, Flambard, Arc and Salt;
had their throats cut ear to ear and now it’s hard to talk.
They remember Thatcher’s Britain. Clegg-Cameron’s is worse., the least of which is verse.

It’s no go the avant-garde, it’s no go the mainstream.
All we want is a Review Group, chaired, including recommendations.

StephenSpender thought continually of those who were truly great;
set up the Poetry Book Society with TSEliot, genius mate.
But it’s no go two thousand strong in the Queen ElizabethHall.
Phone a cab for the Nobel laureates as they take their curtain call.

It’s no go, dear PBS. It’s no go, sweet poets.
Sat on your arses for fifty years and never turned a profit.
All we want are bureaucrats, the nods as good as winkers.
And if you’re strapped for cash, go fish, then try the pigging bankers.

3rd April 2011

Health reforms – Lansley takes the rap

Former Labour Health Secretary, Alan Milburn has not , unlike his erstwhile colleague Stephen Byers, described himself as a ’cab for hire’ since leaving office, ready to use his influence on behalf of the private sector.  If anything he has managed to position himself as the ‘go to’ guy for objective analysis on issues of health and social mobility.  Indeed he is currently the government’s adviser on social mobility.  He has even been asked by the government to apply for the post of chairman of the NHS Commissioning Board, the new arms length body due to run the NHS, following the reforms proposed by current Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley.

With Lansley’s proposals currently in the committee stage in the House of Commons and a landslide of professional opinion, from hospital orderlies to the BMA, questioning the wisdom of the changes, Alan Milburn’s intervention this week (Contest, not concession – The Guardian 29th March) will not have been welcomed by the Health Secretary.  Milburn quite rightly points out that, according to the latest annual British Social Attitudes Survey, public satisfaction with the NHS has never been higher, begging the question, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”.

Milburn does not condemn the proposals out of hand.  He likes Foundation hospitals for example and is in favour of cutting waste.  In relation to the latter however he does point out that,

“Abolishing Primary Care Trusts and creating more GP consortiums to replace them hardly sounds like a recipe for reducing bureaucracy.”

On the same theme Milburn is in favour of “Getting family doctors to own the financial consequences of their prescribing, treating and referring decisions…” but also points out that giving GPs control over £80bn of public money may not be the most efficient and accountable way to improve the service.

It is in the penultimate paragraph of his article that Milburn hits the nail on the head however, pointing out that,

“The bigger question is whether these reforms can meet the challenge from an explosion in chronic diseases such as diabetes.  That calls for policies that integrate services rather than fragment them, and for more focus on prevention.  It argues for patients being empowered to take greater charge of their health.  This is the future health policy agenda.”

There will no doubt be those arguing that Milburn could have said and done more of this when he had the job, perhaps so.  The fact remains that this critique, coming from a ‘safe’ pair of hands, is unlikely to make Andrew Lansley feel any more comfortable.  With Ed Miliband and Shadow Health Secretary, John Healey, set to outline Labour’s alternative vision in the next couple of weeks, the stage is set for them to build further upon the growing anti-government feeling in the country, as demonstrated in the TUC’s anti cuts rally in Hyde Park lat weekend.  Let’s hope that they make the opportunity count.

As if the Health Secretary were not under enough pressure his proposed reforms have become the unlikely subject of a rap hit on YouTube.  Bin man by day and rapper by night, Sean Donnelly aka MC NxtGen, may not have the political gravitas of Alan Milburn but his 200,000+ hits probably outstrip circulation of The Guardian on a Tuesday and certainly reach an audience largely untouched by the worthy liberal daily.   The latest twist in this tale, as revealed in The Observer (3rd April), is that the film clip was funded by UNISON – who says that trades unions cannot embrace new ideas!  Apparently Donnelly may soon feature on a BBC3 programme and has been asked by Channel 4 to write a rap on the royal wedding – can’t wait!  In the meantime got to and put Andrew Lansley rap into the search box – you will not be disappointed!

King of the South (in waiting)

It appears that Royal Wedding fever is a southern, Conservative phenomenon.  Apparently Liverpool, population 435,000, has only had applications for 4 Royal Wedding street parties (1 per 108,750 citizens) while Winchester, population 41,420, has had a staggering 23 applications (1 per 1,800 citizens).  Hard to believe that those miserable Northerners can be so ungrateful!

Could it be that while much of the country will be happy to take the extra day off work, whatever the reason, there will be too many North of the Wash with too many days off work on their hands, due to government slash and burn economics to cut the deficit?  Who knows?  Still, as long as those rich darlings are happy…….

27th March 2011

The Budget…

Chancellor ‘Boy’ George Osborne delivered a budget on Wednesday of such predictability that the most memorable aspect was the manufactured soundbite claim that he had “put fuel in the tank of the British economy”.  Although Osborne cancelled the 5p per litre duty increase, scheduled for April, the much publicised 1p cut in fuel prices was accompanied by a 3p per litre VAT increase.  As economic re-fuelling goes this, along with a 2% cut in corporation tax; an extra £600 personal tax allowance; and a few enterprise zones hardly constitutes a recipe for economic lift off.

The Chancellor’s penchant for rhetorical flourish has, as usual, resulted in him overlooking some of the more salient facts.  For example, the Office for Budget Responsibility has downgraded its forecast for growth from 2.1% and predicts that the economy will only grow by 1.7% this year.  Why is this significant?  Slow growth means that more will need to be spent on welfare benefits and unemployment.  It is estimated that this will add a further £10bn to borrowing each year for the rest of this parliament.  Will the VAT increase to 20% introduced in January and the loss of thousands of public sector jobs, which will begin to have an impact next month, really help the economy grow?  The unemployment level for under-25 year olds is close to 1 million, is that a recipe for success?

The reality is that the government is beginning from the wrong premise.  They start from the belief that too much regulation has been restricting development and entrepreneurship.  Bizarrely there is a belief that easing planning regulations will encourage development that is both beneficial and acceptable to local people.  However, it is interesting to note that even major development companies have recognised the potential contradiction in the government’s position.  JohnBrooks, Director of Planning at DTZ, one of Britain’s biggest property firms stated,

“The success of these changes will ultimately rely on local people accepting development in their back yards, and the government could be the architect of its own demise if its drive to empower local communities pulls the rug from under its pro-growth agenda.”

The general consensus is that Osborne’s ‘neutral’ budget is yet another missed opportunity for economic stimulus through public investment.  By remaining tied to the austerity programme announced last October the budget is, of course, anything but ‘neutral’.  It continues to represent a major attack on jobs, communities and prospects for development.

….the price of war….

While Wednesday’s budget continued the trend of economic noose tightening characteristic of the Tories, no mention was made of the cost of bombing Libya.  Some of these costs include:-

Ÿ         The four RAF Tornado GR4s based in Italy cost £35,000 per hour once in the air;

Ÿ         The ten Typhoon fighters, operating from Italy, cost £70,000 an hour to keep flying;

Ÿ         The submarine HMS Triumph based in the Mediterranean is costing £200,000 per day;

each Tomahawk cruise missile fired costs £500,000 – 10 had been fired by Wednesday last week;

Ÿ         The navy frigates HMS Cumberland and HMS Westminster come at a cost of  £90,000 per day;

Ÿ         DC-10 refuelling aircraft are £35,000 per hour;

Ÿ         Sentinel ground surveillance planes are £25,000 per hour;

Ÿ         Sentry long range radar and command and control aircraft are £33,000 per hour.

The list goes on but the estimated daily cost of the UK’s contribution to bombing Libya is between £2m – £3m per day.  Quite how the government justify this in terms of the economic austerity programme remains to be seen.  The best stab from George Osborne on Tuesday was that “the Ministry of Defence’s initial view is that (the cost) will be in the order of tens of millions not hundreds of millions.”  Small comfort to those whose local Surestart centre or local youth project are about to close down.

Sadly the House of Commons covered itself in shame on Monday evening by voting by 557 votes to 13 to support the war.  This in spite of opinion polls putting opposition to the war at 43%, compared to 35% in favour, and the fact that in the UN vote there was no support forthcoming from Russia, China, Brazil, India or Germany, all of whom chose to abstain.

While the UN Resolution 1973 gives sanction for the bombing raids to protect civilians, the ground is quickly shifting.  Defence Secretary Liam Fox suggested earlier in the week that there may be circumstances under which Colonel Gaddafi would become a legitimate target, thus opening up the prospect of the UK government endorsing political assassination as a tool of international diplomacy.  The defence of civilians argument is in itself a fig leaf.  As SeamusMilne has pointed out this week (There’s nothing moral about Nato’s intervention in Libya – The Guardian 24th March ),

“By attacking regime troops fighting rebel forces on the ground, the NATO governments are unequivocally intervening in a civil war, tilting the balance of forces in favour of the Benghazi-based insurrection.”

In reality there can no more be an external military solution to the civil war in Libya than there can be to the conflict in Afghanistan, there must be political dialogue and negotiation involving the Libyan people and their representatives.  The UN would do well to look towards this route rather than being sucked into the gung-ho militarism of the UK, US and France.

…and the march.

At least a quarter of a million people descended upon London yesterday to join the TUC initiated march against cuts in public services.  Catching the BBC news coverage you would be forgiven for thinking that most of them had graffitied banks or occupied Fortnum and Mason.  BBC News 24 was live in Hyde Park for Labour leader EdMiliband’s speech then cut to Oxford St. where an anarchist led splinter group threw flairs and paint.

UK Uncut appeared to be in the forefront of the Fortnum and Mason occupation.  Direct action is, of course, a vital and necessary part of the tactics of political protest.  It does not however take a rocket scientist to work out that media attention will easily be diverted from the main message by a few anarchists in balaclavas, or that those images will be the ones dominating the news headlines and the Sunday papers.

The fact that the TUC called this demonstration is to be applauded.  The organisation is historically conservative (with a small ‘c’) and will no doubt have been pushed by its more progressive members to go this far.  The trades unions which constitute the TUC, and represent real people in real threatened jobs, can play a vital part in widening the base of opposition to the government’s austerity programme by highlighting the impact it will have upon these people and their communities.

The balaclava brigade can be busy every other weekend of the year, the TUC will not get upwards of quarter of a million people on the streets too often.  We need to make sure that the reason why they have done so, and done so successfully, gets through so that ordinary people understand there is a fight back and the government realise that there is an opposition.

20th March 2011  

UN falls for no-fly zone con

It is remarkable how brazen the hypocrisy of the West has been this week in dealing with the desire for democracy in the Arab world.  On the one hand there has been the entry of 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops into Bahrain early in the week.  The tear gassing of protesters by the 200 year old Bahraini dynasty was merely greeted with a call for “restraint on all sides” by the United States.  Yet the Obama administration has given Saudi Arabia the green light to take on the role of regional policeman.  Why?  Because the US are clearly afraid that the process of Arab reform may unleash Shia Muslim support backed by Iran.  As Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary made clear earlier this week,

“There is clear evidence that as the process (of Arab reform) is protracted, particularly in Bahrain, that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems.”

Setting to one side the fact that Gates fails to cite any such “clear evidence”, this statement is a stark indication of the reality of where US fears lie.  Those same fears are shared by the Sunni Muslim dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, keen to suppress the protests of  both the Shia majority in Bahrain and the significant Shia minorities in Saudi itself.  The Saudi regime has declared protest as un-Islamic, has a ban on political parties and holds an estimated 8,000 political prisoners, yet remains a regime with which the West can do business.

In stark contrast UN Resolution 1973 authorises the no-fly zone over Libya giving Western forces licence to do anything short of put troops on the ground to protect citizens of Libya from Gaddafi’s forces.  Quite why the people of Libya deserve more protection than the people of Bahrain would, on the face of it, be the question here if the answer were not so obvious.  The West is happy with the regime in Bahrain, host to the US fifth fleet and a significant financial haven for Western business.  Letting such a regime fall to the unpredictability of democratic reform would threaten this balance.  The calculation is that the Libyan opposition, on the other hand,  cannot be any less pro-Western or volatile than Gaddafi, therefore intervention, to promote ‘democracy’, can be justified.

The UN resolution does not authorise ’regime change’ in Tripoli but it is clear that the West will stop at nothing less.  Indeed there is no logic to the strategy currently being pursued unless the West is able to secure the removal of Gaddafi and a more Western friendly government in Libya.  Putting the lives of Western military forces at risk will only be acceptable to the electorates in the US, UK and France if there is an outcome which can be sold as having clearly benefited the West.  The Arab League states supporting the action do not have to worry about such inconveniences as an ’electorate’, given their largely anti-democratic make up.

As many pundits have already pointed out however there are dangers.  Not least is the prospect of differentiating between Gaddafi’s and rebel troops from 30,000 feet.  Secondly, do the Libyan rebels in Benghazi recognise the difference between a  Western jet and one of Gaddafi’s?  There is no reason to believe they should.  What does ‘success’ look like; has anyone defined this for the western mission, short of regime change?  To say that these things are unclear is an understatement.  In the end will the West look like the supporters of  democracy in the region or merely defenders of their own economic, political and military interests?   The pro-war rhetoric may make Western leaders feel good in the short term but in the long term it will once again sound hollow.

Budget for jobs? – not likely!

Ruthless cuts will not save the economy, the bankers are to blame for the crisis, not the last Labour Government.  Who says?  Well, interestingly, Bank of England Governor, Mervyn King, and CBI boss Richard Lambert.  However, the Tories are having none of it.  The government insists that too much regulation is the cause of the country’s ills and that  greater de-regulation, which prevents civil servants “loading costs onto business”, is the way forward.

The economic model which led to the 2008 crash was one based upon the failure to regulate the financial sector sufficiently.  The casino approach to the economy, which the government seems to be at pains to defend, is exactly why the  economy is in such a fragile state.  The war in Libya will no doubt push up oil prices further, although the US are encouraging the Saudis to pump more to meet demand, and central bankers across Europe are threatening to push up interest rates in response to higher energy and food prices.

Public investment to promote economic recovery needs to be at the heart of the budget, not greater de-regulation and more freedom for fat cats in the city.  It will be a small miracle if George Osborne delivers what is required in Wednesday’s budget.   The TUC national day of action against the cuts in London on Saturday, 26th March will be the public’s first chance to give a clear response.

13th March 2011  

No-fly zone, no answer

The latest call to establish a no-fly zone over Libya came from the Arab League this week.  Following the calls from David Cameron in the UK and Nicholas Sarkozy in France the Arab League position would appear to give the tactic some credibility; but does it?

A no-fly zone would be a declaration of war on Libya, there is no other way to characterise it.  To be effective such a zone would not only involve policing air space over Libya, it would mean a pre-emptive strike on the Libyan air force and anti-aircraft positions in order to render the skies safe enough for NATO jets to patrol.

The call coincides with an increasing lobby for Western intervention in Libya to “prevent Gaddafi from butchering his own people” (Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer 13th March).  The argument goes that the West cannot stand idly by while this dictator is allowed to bomb the opposition unhindered.  There are however a number of questions to consider here.  An opposition that is anti-Gaddafi does not necessarily means that it is a progressive opposition.  The adoption of the old monarchist flag as a symbol casts immediate doubt upon the intentions of the rebels.  The speed with which sections of the West, notably the UK and France, have looked to recognise the opposition suggests that the desire for a regime more compliant than Gaddafi, rather than the interests of the Libyan people, is a more likely driver.

Fuelled by the relative success of protests in Egypt and  Tunisia the Libyan opposition clearly felt that their moment had come.  Initial success in Benghazi seemed to justify their hopes.  However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the rebels had underestimated both the firepower and the support which Gaddafi still commands in key areas, not least Tripoli.  An army of relatively poorly armed volunteers can be forgiven such a misjudgement but surely the Western powers knew better?

The question is of course rhetorical.  The Libyan government are using teargas made in Britain, Mirage F-1 planes recently upgraded by the French and C-130H Hercules transport planes from the US.  Before recent events unfolded the US were on the brink of delivering 50 refurbished M113 troop carriers, only recalled by Congress on the grounds of human rights abuses in Libya.

At present the Western position is split.  The US remains cautious about further overseas commitments while the Germans have been resolutely against intervention.  If there is to be any consistency at all in the position of the international community there has to be a role for the UN and for some attempt to mediate between the opposing parties in Libya.  If Gaddafi cannot be defeated by the Libyan opposition a Western occupation will be no better a solution for the Libyan people.  The West has leverage in terms of the oil trade, the arms trade and trade in general with the  Libyan regime.  There is no indication at present that any attempt at such negotiation has been made.

The vigour with which sections of Western opinion are calling for intervention in Libya will be watched with interest in other parts of the world.  Where is the no-fly zone over the West Bank and Gaza where the illegal Israeli occupation has blighted the lives of the Palestinian people in contravention of UN resolutions for over forty years?  As the Ivory Coast slides towards civil war, with defeated president Laurent Gbagbo hanging on to power, where is the support of the West for the opposition?  Noises about armed intervention in Iran have been made in certain US circles but no call for a no-fly zone over Iran to support the opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been made.   Where is the call for a no-fly zone over Saudi Arabia to protect those suffering under that Western supported dictatorship?

The point of course is that Western ‘principles’ are, as ever, selective.  Propping up corrupt dictatorships has been the stock in trade of Western foreign policy for almost a century.  Across the Middle East that policy is beginning to unravel.  The people of Egypt and Tunisia are by no means out of the woods.  In the short term the people of Libya are paying a heavy price but revolutions made by the people, for the people are the only ones which will succeed.  Western intervention in Libya will not deliver that.

6th March 2011  

Pills, prescriptions and the alternative vote

It’s official.  It’s grim up North and we are all taking pills for it.  Aldous Huxley called it ‘soma’ in his classic Brave New World, although the term generally in use today is ‘antidepressants’.   According to evidence gathered by The Guardian (5th March) prescribing rates in PCT areas in Blackpool, Salford, Redcar and Cleveland, the highest prescribing areas, are three times higher than in Kensington and Chelsea, bottom of this particular league table.

It is interesting to note that other London boroughs with high levels of deprivation, such as Brent and Camden, figure nowhere near as highly as their Northern counterparts.  There is evidence to suggest that this may be due to cultural differences in those areas resulting in ’depression’ not being so easily detected but there would also appear to be less inclination for GPs to leap to a medical solution.  Investment in ‘talking therapies’ or Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) is the NHS solution, launched in 2007, and aimed at training more therapists qualified to address issues.

It is not difficult to predict a likely upsurge in the requirement for these services given the state of the economy and the likelihood of further job cuts, especially in the North.  Economic depression, personal depression, is it any surprise the two go hand in hand?

Barnsley might be a good place to start assessing the consequences.  Already in the top ten prescribers, you could be forgiven for thinking that more pills would be needed in the town, if only for Liberal Democrats.  Judging by the Thursday by-election result, where the LibDems came sixth and lost their deposit, there are no LibDems in the town so more ‘soma’ will not be necessary.  A delivery is on its way to NickClegg, however.

Labour winning in Barnsley is hardly headline news but it is nevertheless encouraging to see the LibDems being trounced.  As partners in a government no one voted for, carrying out a set of policies which were in no one’s manifesto, vilification is the least the LibDems deserve under the circumstances.

It will be interesting to see how national policies affect voters’ loyalties when it comes to local election polling on 5th May.  Community activism, knowing the ward, being close to voters concerns, these have been the bedrock of LibDem philosophy and arguably the basis on which they have gained control over some seemingly unlikely Councils in recent years, not least Newcastle upon Tyne.  It would be remarkable if those gains were not reversed in May and the LibDems reduced to their usual position of shouting from the sidelines.

The 5th May will also see the vote on the alternative vote (AV) system for elections in England.  Proponents (the Yes campaign) argue that it is more democratic because you can rank candidates in order of preference and the second votes of unsuccessful candidates are shared until someone reaches the magical 50% + 1.  This does not help those of us who struggle to find one decent candidate to vote for, let alone be able to rank those on offer in order of preference.  For those whose politics is that of the lowest common denominator AV may be the way to go. For those who want to vote for a particular party, based upon its manifesto and principles, and then hold them to account when elected for delivering on neither, then go with the No campaign.  The moral, even first past the post gave us the Coalition – there is no perfect solution and neither system is ‘fair’.

Suze Rotolo

For those of us of a certain age the sad news of the death of Suze Rotolo will have had some affect earlier this week.  Rotolo was an artist and political activist in New York in the early 1960’s who visited Cuba in 1964 in defiance of the US government’s ban on travel to the island.  For many Rotolo is known as the woman on the cover of The Freewheelin Bob Dylan album released in 1963.  For forty years Rotolo kept her own counsel on the subject of her relationship with Dylan.  In 2008 she did publish a well received memoir on the period titled A Freewheelin’ Time.  Most apposite perhaps is her conclusion to the book and reflection on the period,

“The new generation causing all the fuss was not driven by the market: we had something to say, not something to sell.”

Having more to say and less to sell might be a good approach for any of our current politicians, alternative vote or not.

27th February 2011

Choosing between interests and values

David Cameron’s conversion to democracy in the Middle East earlier this week was yet another example of how the Tory leader is just behind the pace on questions of ethics and foreign policy.  Speaking at the national assembly in Kuwait, not exactly a model of democratic engagement, Cameron appeared to cast aside decades of foreign policy assumptions stating,

“So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values.  But I say that is a false choice.  As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability – rather, the reverse.”

This is of course political hooey designed to make Cameron look good on the world stage and to suggest that the “values” of supporting human rights and democracy are now the cornerstone of UK foreign policy.  As the situation in North Africa is fluid, and any change would appear to be more democratic than what has gone before, Cameron probably feels he is on relatively safe ground.  Time will tell how far the people of these countries are prepared to push for change.  But what if they recognise that their common interests lie in taking control of their own assets and natural resources?  What if the people of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, for example, were to nationalise their oil assets and major industries, extricate their economies from the Western controlled financial institutions, and use their wealth for the benefit of their own people?

In such a situation Cameron’s dubious ethical foreign policy would be exposed for the sham it is.  The British government are interested in the people of the Middle East exercising “their basic rights” so far and no further.  If the exercising of those rights were to conflict with British interests, British values would revert to type.  The UK delegation touring the Gulf consists of a range of business interests, including eight representatives from the defence and aerospace industry.  This has been the key to Britain’s interests and values in the Middle East for decades.  As Defence Secretary Liam Fox said earlier this week,

“The MoD can be at the forefront of the government export-led growth strategy.”

British interests, British values; expect no immediate changes.

The other major British interest in the Middle East, apart from arms sales, is of course oil.  While the unrest in Libya has dominated the front pages the business sections of the press have increasingly focussed on the economic consequences of oil prices.  Oil prices have been described by the International Energy Agency as being in the “danger zone” for the global recovery.  Britain could face a double whammy of price rises hitting the pumps just as the planned 5p per litre rise in fuel duty comes into effect in April, something Chancellor GeorgeOsborne has said he will review in the 23rd March budget.

Chancellor Osborne’s review could usefully take a few other factors into account.  The estimated 300,000 job losses from the public sector will begin to happen in April.  Families earning over £18,000 will be hit by cuts in tax credits.  Child benefit will be frozen for three years, public sector pay for two years.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculate that by 2015 25% of earners (up from 11% at present) will be on the 40% tax rate.  The debate within the Bank of England continues as to whether interest rates should rise.  The balance on the nine man monetary policy committee has moved from two to three in favour of an interest rate increase, further movement in this direction could see more pressure on already squeezed family budgets.

All of this, yet no plan for investment in recovery through extending the railways, developing the broadband infrastructure, investment in sustainable green energy or building schools fit for the 21st century.  All of these things are necessary and would help move the economy through supporting business, jobs and investment.  This approach to the economy would be in Britain’s interest, it just does not fit with Tory values.  It is unlikely then that Tory dogma will allow for GeorgeOsborne to extend his ‘review’ into these areas; he may just find that he has too many things fundamentally wrong.

23rd February 2011

Fidel’s reflections on Libya

With events moving so swiftly in Libya it is impossible to keep pace.  Fidel Casto has provided some thoughts on the bigger picture.  Click on the link below to find out more!

21st February 2011

Middle East storms continue

Convulsions in the Middle East continue, with protests in Bahrain and Libya grabbing this weeks headlines, and a storm beginning to brew in Morocco.  Protests have also taken place in Tehran, where the security forces had suppressed protest following the June 2009 presidential election which declared MahmoudAhmadinejad the winner, in spite of evidence of widespread vote rigging.  Opposition protests, called for the 14th February, were met with a fierce response from the Iranian security services.

Western media reports suggest that the state response in Libya has been particularly fierce, with over 200 dead, and Colonel Qaddafi rumoured to be on his way to Venezuela.

Capturing Libya and bringing its oil wealth into the orbit of the West would be a major prize for the US and European Union.  The Libyan regime has been a thorn in the side of the West for many years, not being prepared to kowtow to the agenda of the US, and being bombed by the US in 1986 for its trouble.  The West has routinely condemned human rights abuses in Libya and its ‘sponsorship’ of international terrorism.   US Ambassador to the UN, JohnRBolton, declared Libya a rogue state thus adding to those GeorgeBush identified as being part of the ‘axis of evil’ in his famous 2002 speech.  Qaddafi has always been a maverick and it is not difficult to imagine opposition in the country being dealt with swiftly.   As events continue to unfold, it increasingly appears that the popular support the regime has often claimed is turning out to be another castle built in sand.

It is certainly the case that Western policy towards Libya is more straightforward than it is towards Bahrain.  As a massive financial investment haven and home to the US Fifth Fleet, based there to police the Persian Gulf,   there can be no other outcome for the West but to retain control of Bahrain by one means or another.  Whether that means can continue to be the support for a dynasty which has ruled the country for 200 years is another matter.  The people of Bahrain have clearly woken up to this arrangement being slightly less than democratic and have joined the rest of the region in making their voices heard.  The BBC interviewed former Tory Minister, David Mellor, this week who even went so far as to praise the Bahraini dictatorship for its efforts to set up “quasi-democratic institutions” and stressed the need to defend UK and Western interests.  It seems unlikely, as things stand at present, that “quasi-democratic” will be enough for the people of Bahrain.

The next big question for the region, should the Bahraini dynasty have to cede power, will be how long the repressive Saudi regime can hang on without succumbing to pressure for reform.  The Saudi dictatorship enjoys the massive support of Western governments as both a major oil exporter and a significant market for Western arms.  Changes that threatened the House of Saud would certainly be an indication that the map of the Middle East is destined for irreversible change.

Merlin without the magic wand

Project Merlin is a deal between the government and the banks which is meant to see an increase in lending to business and a cut in UK bonus payments for 2010.  Not long after the deal was announced it was revealed that Barclays Capital, the investment banking arm, had seen pay rises of 23% on average, with group profits of £6.1 billion in 2010.  The Robin Hood Tax campaign, which wants extra taxes on banks, claims that Barclays multi-million pound pay and bonus package would be enough to save 450 nurses jobs.  The bank also found its branches the target of action by UK Uncut last week with the branch in Islington being turned into a library to highlight the impact of public service cuts.

It is routine in these circumstances for the financial services sector to fall back on the standard ‘but you don’t understand what we do’ argument closely followed by the ‘if only you knew how much wealth we generate for the country’  fiction as a means to whip up fear of relocation and imminent economic collapse.  However, as The Guardian (19th February) revealed this week there are holes in this argument.  In 2009, a year when Barclays made record profits of £11.6 billion, the company paid £113m in UK corporation tax, a mere 1% of its profits.  With standard UK corporation tax at 28% this is a tax break that even some Tories would blush at. Given the ongoing mantra of ‘we are all in it together’ that underpins the governments slash and burn approach to the economy you will forgive us for repeating that some appear to be ‘in it’ more deeply than others!

14th February 2011

Big Society – to sleep: perchance to dream

Big government or big society?  That is the question, or so David Cameron would have us believe.  Having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism for weeks now the Prime Minister took up his keyboard against this sea of troubles with a view to ending them.  The Observer was his chosen weapon (Have no doubt, the big society is on its way – 13th February) the liberal intelligentsia who subscribe to it, his target.

There are, it is fair to guess, a reasonable number of The Observer readership who will work in the public and voluntary sectors.  They will be the kind of readers quickest to criticise the ‘big society’ idea as little more than a smokescreen for cuts in those sectors and they will be more than capable of articulating their opposition through a variety of media and social networking channels.

At least they would be, if the UK had a civil society of any kind.  According to Shaun Bailey, Cameron’s big society ‘tsar’, interviewed on BBC News 24 yesterday, there is no civil society in the UK, so one of the objectives of the big society initiative is to create it.  Perhaps Mr. Bailey has extended his brief to include Egypt, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, places where there truly is little in the way of civil society.  For all the criticism we may have of capitalist democracy in the UK there is still a bit more room for debate than the Saudi dictatorship allows!

To be fair this is not a line of argument which Cameron pursues.  In fact he freely admits that,

“…one of the reasons that there is so much debate about the big society, and why the phrase has become quite well embedded, is that so much of it has actually been going on for years.”

For Cameron the big society has been an underground movement, battling against its nemesis, big government, in a desperate attempt to engage people more actively in taking responsibility for their communities.  So, as Cameron states,

“For example, if neighbours want to take over the running of a post office, park or playground, we will help them.”

All of which is very nice populist rhetoric on the doorstep but neighbours fall out, they move house, they have personal demands which may impinge upon the running of a local park – their kids grow up!  What happens then?  There is no automatic right of succession in the world of community activism.  Indeed, as anyone who has spent any time engaged in community politics can tell you, it can be every bit as backstabbing as the big stuff at Westminster.

None of this means that communities should not be encouraged to be active, engaged and empowered.  On the contrary, the demise of community development across the country is one of the reasons for the lack of engagement by local communities in matters which affect them.  However, this community activism needs to work hand in hand with local government if it is to be effective.  It is always and inevitably the local authority which will pick up the pieces if a community initiative does not succeed; struggles with funding; or needs assistance to manage a change in personnel.

What Cameron caricatures as ‘big government’ is more rightly to be seen a representative democracy.  When people see the links between their day to day lives and what local government is about they get involved and get active.  Any characterisation of the ‘big society’ which opposes representative democracy at a local level is doomed to fail.  Worse than that, it is a sham.

Egypt edges forward

The recent resignation of Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt, after 18 days of protests in the centre of Cairo and in other major cities, is a huge step forward.  It is not however, in spite of the ongoing use of the word in the media, a revolution.  There is no indication that there will be a decisive shift of power in Egypt from one class to another.  There is no suggestion that the social order will be decisively reversed.

The armed forces have stepped in to govern for six months, or until elections can be held, with a view to stabilising the transition after thirty years of corrupt government.  The sham parliament has been dissolved and the constitution suspended.  A new government will emerge from this process but a t the moment nothing suggests that is likely to be a ‘revolutionary’ government.

Nevertheless, the change is enough to unsettle the Israeli regime.  In an announcement breathtaking for its barefaced hypocrisy the Israeli government welcomed the fact that the military in Egypt had promised to honour its international treaty obligations i.e. the peace agreement with Israel.  Perhaps we will now see the Israelis honouring UN Resolutions to end their 40 year illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – if only!

6th February 2011

Egypt – US looks to shape outcome

Unfolding events in Egypt are leaving the pundits puzzled over what may happen next and what they think ought to happen next.  The responses of Western leaders have subtly changed over the last two weeks as they attempt to position themselves to be ‘friends’ of the new regime, whatever shape that might take.  At present the United States is backing vice-president Omar Suleiman to affect a peaceful transition to scheduled presidential elections in September.  With Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal promising not to stand, the US is hoping that the way will be clear for a US friendly moderate presence in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made clear the US position stating,

“There are forces at work in any society, particularly one that is facing these kind of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own agenda, which is why I think it’s important to follow the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, headed by vice-president Omar Suleiman.”

The nightmare scenario, for the US and its major Middle East ally Israel, is a repeat of events which followed the revolution in Iran in 1979.  At that time the Shah of Iran was the Western backed despot heading an oil rich nation but keeping much of its people in poverty, in order to enrich himself and his circle.  As long as the oil kept flowing the West turned a blind eye to indiscretions such a human rights abuses.   The genuinely popular and broad based revolution which deposed the Shah was characterised in the West as a takeover by religious zealots determined to take Iran back to the Middle Ages.

That such zealots did usurp and distort the revolution in Iran is one of the tragedies of the late twentieth century but the basis of the revolution itself was popular discontent with a ruler out of tune with his own people.  The forces behind the downfall of the Shah were as much part of the Iranian liberal intelligentsia, trades unions and left political parties as they were Islamic fundamentalists.

A similar mix is to be seen in the opposition in Egypt at present which has a genuinely broad base involving workers, intellectuals and the Muslim Brotherhood.   The right of nations to self determination is the key principle which must be adhered to and the Egyptian people should be the ones to choose their own government.

It would be naïve of course to suppose that the West will not try to shape things to its advantage but the track record in attempting to do so is not good.  The US encouraged Saddam Hussein to launch an attack on Iran in 1980, one year after the revolution, in the hope that the new regime could be dislodged.  By 1988 the Iraqi and Iranian armies had fought themselves to a standstill and the only winners were the arms dealers making money out of both sides.  Over 30 years on, the clergy are still in charge in Tehran.

It is unlikely that the Obama/Clinton government  would resort to such openly crude tactics but a pro-Western moderate candidate will almost surely emerge in Egypt.  Mohammed ElBaradei would seem to be positioning himself for that mantle at the moment.  How events unfold over the next few weeks will tell if he has the momentum.

In terms of actual action, a broad coalition of organisations have backed a petition calling for an end to the crackdown and immediate reform in Egypt – details are available at

May Day  mayday

Using a thinly veiled excuse to extend the tourism season by creating a Bank Holiday in October, the Tory led coalition government are laying plans to abolish the May Day Bank Holiday.  Elsewhere in Europe, indeed the world, International Workers Day is celebrated on 1st May and is usually accompanied by a significant show of international solidarity on the streets of major cities.

In the UK the Labour government of James Callaghan in 1978 did not have the political bottle to declare 1st May itself as the holiday so instead went for the first Monday in May as a  compromise.  The preceding Saturday has usually been the occasion for May Day celebrations across the country and an opportunity for the Labour Movement to focus upon its international obligations.

Tourism Minister, John Penrose, will consult on the creation of a UK Day in October to celebrate the ’best of British’ with Trafalgar Day, 21st October, being a likely candidate.  Penrose has said,

“A national conversation on the issue would give everyone the chance to have their say.  It is the Big Society in action.”

Let’s make sure he gets the right message!

30th January 2011

Middle East policy threads unravel

With each passing minute of protest in Egypt the threads which hold together the West’s foreign policy in the Middle East slowly unravel.  The West’s foreign policy is primarily that of the United States, the prime mover on the international stage.  The widely discredited Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak has received significant financial support from the US, currently running at $1.5 billion per annum, for many years.  Mubarak has been a willing safe pair of hands in the region, colluding with US support for Israel in denying the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to an independent homeland.

The support of the US for Mubarak has however come at a price.  For many in the Arab world the leading Arab nation has been too passive in fighting the corner of the Palestinians.  More militant responses such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, taking their lead from the anti US line of the Islamic Republic of Iran, have attracted increasing support in the Arab world.  The failure of the US to act against the illegal Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, while actively fuelling the Israeli military machine, compounds the sense of frustration amongst many in the Middle East.

The most desirable outcome of the current wave of protests across North Africa would be the establishment of democratic regimes.  This would be a boost for those countries and no doubt for the wider Palestinian cause.  However, it is questionable as to whether this is an outcome which the US would welcome.  The ‘safe pair of hands’ strategy has kept Mubarak in power for 30 years in Egypt; it is the basis of US support for the Saudi dictatorship; it was for many years the basis of US support for Saddam Hussein, before he went off message.  None of these regimes could claim to be models of democracy.  The important characteristic of each has been that they have been prepared to toe the US line.  Human rights is secondary to the flow of oil.

While President Obama may feel personally uncomfortable with this reality it is not one that he or Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have been able to significantly change.  Documents leaked to The Guardian this week have illustrated the extent to which the Palestinian leadership have been prepared to go to find a compromise with Israel, only to find that at each stage the Israelis have required a little bit more, finding every possible way to resist a two state solution.  Palestinian negotiators even went so far as agree to allow Israel to annex all but one of the illegally built settlements in East Jerusalem.  The offer was turned down by Israel as inadequate.

For the Palestinians, Jerusalem is their capital.  The Israeli occupation is internationally recognised as illegal.  For the Palestinians even to consider such a concession is remarkable, for Isreal to reject it out of hand, even more so.  As The Guardian noted ( 24th January) “Construction has continued rapidly in East Jerusalem in defiance of Barack Obama’s call for a freeze.”

An upsurge of democracy in North Africa may provide a way out of the deadlock.  However, do not rule out the possibility of military rule in the short term.  For the US, the main consideration will always be safety first.

Shame about the weather

Back in Blighty millionaire Chancellor, ‘Boy’ George Osborne, has found a new angle on economic analysis.  With the economy having contracted by 0.5% rather than growing, startling no-one but Osborne,  the hapless Chancellor has blamed the recent bad weather.  People just have not been getting out to the shops it seems, nor have they been spending enough money online.  It even seems, with the biggest public sector cuts in 90 years on the way and up to 140,000 jobs to go, that people have been slow to book holidays!  No such problem for Boy George of course captured ‘on the piste’ by the tabloids over the winter break, showing us all how to beat the recession.

Over the same period the US economy, where the emphasis has been on stimulus rather than slash and burn, grew by 0.8%.  Hardly a boom but at least going in the right direction. In Sweden, where public sector investment has been even more significant, the upturn has been even greater with a record trade surplus and no significant budgetary cuts.   Who said there was no alternative?

…and finally, on that crash…

Michael Lewis is a former Wall St trader who now earns a living writing books about investment banking.  His latest, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, tells the story of how the international banking system was derailed in 2008 due to the greed and stupidity of those running the banks.  In Britain to promote the book Lewis’ assessment of the reason for the crash makes interesting reading:-

“The crash happened because of a dramatic failure of free markets and capitalism in general.  To top it all the banks were saved by the taxpayer.  In other words, banks benefit from socialism, while everyone else has to live under capitalism.  The people who are paid the most live under a different set of rules from everyone else.  How absurd is that?” (The Observer 30th January)

Absurd indeed.  Maybe we should have whip round and send a copy of Lewis’ book to ‘Boy’ George.

23rd January 2011

“When the spokesman needs a spokesman….”

It has hardly been a slow news week.  In the past seven days we have seen the continuing unfolding of events in Tunisia; the state visit to the US of Chinese president Hu Jintao; undercover cops sleeping with environmental activists; the continued sense of amazement in the medical world that, in spite of being shadow Health Secretary for six years, Andrew Lansley has got his NHS reform proposals so wrong.  We are even invited to look forward to MichaelGove’s school academies bill next week, as if the NHS debacle were not enough.

Yet, in spite of these things, the last two days of the week seemed to pack in more events than the rest put together.  The resignation of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer  (more cops ‘undercover’ there apparently) was as swiftly followed by the appointment of Ed Balls as the new Shadow Chancellor, a post he has coveted almost as much (but not quite!) as that of Labour leader.  Into this particular mix add the return of former PM Tony Blair to justify war crimes, at the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, and the resignation of David Cameron’s spin doctor in chief Andy Coulson, over the News of the World phone hacking affair.  Where to begin?

Well, top of the tree should be the US/China meeting as, in world terms, it is likely to have the greatest impact.  Since the defeat of the Soviet Union the US has routinely been described as the world’s only superpower and its foreign policy, especially under GeorgeBush, reflected this view of itself.  The state banquet accorded the Chinese president is however an indication that the US recognises that China has the potential to be economically and militarily equal in the not too distant future.  The People’s Liberation Army for example, is the biggest on earth, with 2.2 million soldiers.  The US has 1.6 million.  Over the past two years Chinese lending to developing countries has exceeded that of the World Bank.  The US has a massive economic debt burden, while China’s trade surplus in 2010 was £114 billion.

While the US remains ahead of China in per capita GDP and in its nuclear armoury the Chinese trajectory cannot be ignored.  From a US point of view the massive Chinese population of 1,330 million are too many people to be ignored if that trade deficit is to be turned around to a surplus.  This week’s state banquet may turn out to be merely a diplomatic first course.

The initial euphoria in Tunisia has been somewhat undermined by the resistance of elements of the Ben-Ali regime.  The initial unity government lost four ministers quickly and was accused of containing too many of the former regime’s acolytes to be a credible vehicle for change.  A more broadly based opposition is composed of the Communist Workers’ Party, the Congress Party for the Republic and the Islamist movement Ennahda, along with trades unionists and other progressives.

The dismantling of the apparatus of the despotic state is their main objective along with the development of an economic policy which will benefit the Tunisian people, not just its rulers.  As we have noted previously, the rest of the Arab world will be watching the outcome of events in Tunisia either with hope or trepidation, depending on which side of the fence they stand.

For all of the imperfections of the Labour front bench (too many to itemise!) there can be no doubt that Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor is far more likely to give Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, sleepless nights than Alan Johnson ever would.  Unlike Johnson, or Osborne for that matter, Balls is an economist so, agree with his assessment or not, he does actually know what the words mean and how the numbers add up.  It was never clear that Alan Johnson grasped either and it is likely that Osborne has a shaky grasp at best.

This should lead to some heavier blows being landed on the Coalition in relation to economic policy where, thus far, they have had a relatively easy time of it by adopting the time honoured tactic of blaming the previous lot.  Although Balls’ history as having been one of the ‘previous lot’ is touted by the right wing press as a disadvantage, it may be that his experience at the sharp end will actually stand him in good stead.  While most of the economics pages will naturally incline to the Tories they will not be able to easily dismiss Balls’ ability to speak their language and counter their arguments.  The opposition may just be firming up!

Finally, the resignation of No 10 spin doctor Andy Coulson was the icing on the cake.  This one could have been seen coming a mile off, by everyone but David Cameron it would seem, hence the questions about his judgement.  The News of the World ‘one rogue reporter’ strategy was never going to hold water for long.  As the facts have unfurled of widespread phone hacking, when Coulson was editor at the Murdoch owned tabloid, his position at No 10 has looked increasingly untenable.  As Coulson said in his resignation statement, “When the spokesman needs a spokesman, it is time to move on.”

17th January 2011

Old and sad is not always bad

You would think that the first by-election of a new Parliament taking place in Oldham and Saddlesworth, regularly abbreviated to Old and Sad, would be a political bloggers dream, with the opportunities to combine puns and punditry about the state of the body politic too difficult to resist.  However, resist we will on this occasion and even offer some congratulations to Labour on an increased majority from the overturned general election outcome.

Of course, and this phrase is inevitable, one swallow does not make a summer, but the election result gave the LibDems little to hold on to and the Tories little or nothing.  As a verdict on the first six months of the Coalition it is about as good as you could hope for and should boost the confidence of the Labour front bench to start speaking out more vigorously on the issues facing the country.

To be fair, Ed Miliband has made a start, at least rhetorically, by promising to build a grassroots movement that goes beyond “the bureaucratic state” and engage local people more directly in looking for answers.  In a recent speech to the Fabian Society Miliband said,

“…we sometimes lost sight of people as individuals and the importance of communities.  In our use of state power, too often we didn’t take people with us.    At the same time we seemed in thrall to a vision of the market that seemed to place too little importance on the values, institutions and relationships that people cherish the most.”

This is a reasonable critique of some of the failings of the Blair/Brown years and gives some hope that Miliband’s re-branding of Labour may have a more campaigning dimension.  If that is to be the case identifying and defending the “values, institutions and relationships that people cherish” will be necessary and Miliband could do a lot worse than robustly leading a defence of the proposed dismantling of the NHS.

The government will publish its Health and Social Care Bill on Wednesday (19th Jan) heralding the biggest shake up of the NHS since its creation in 1948.  The core of the Bill will see power shift from the existing Primary Care Trust structure of NHS management into the hands of GPs, who will have the power and the finance to commission services.  Whatever the flaws of the PCT system, and the need to make NHS management more efficient, it does at least have the virtue of some degree of objectivity.  NHS managers are not going to benefit directly as service providers from any decisions they take.  The same cannot be said of GPs under the proposed system as they will be both managers of and service providers in the system, generally not good practice.

Opposition to the reforms is already widespread.  A report to be published by the all party Health Select Committee tomorrow (18th Jan) identifies a number of potential weaknesses including the lack of any clear justification for the reforms; the wisdom of such a major shake up in the face of £20bn budget cuts by 2014-15; and the effectiveness of the proposed ‘price competition’ policy, which allows hospitals to undercut each other as they compete for patients.  The NHS Confederation, which brings together the various professional bodies which make up the medical profession, has described the reforms as “extraordinarily risky” in its recently published report, Liberating the NHS.  What might happen? (

If any institution is more cherished by the people than the NHS, it would be hard to find.  It may be old but it certainly is not sad and the campaign for its defence is simply waiting to happen.  If Ed Miliband’s words are more than empty rhetoric he should be stepping up to the mark and taking the lead.


The turbulent and generally unexpected turn of events in Tunisia cannot go without remark this week.  Tunisia is the smallest of the major North African states alongside Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Jordan all of whom, for different reasons, may see turbulent times ahead.  Freedom from direct colonial rule has seen little in the way of democracy and with the exception of Libya, with all its idiosyncrasies, little in the way of any wealth benefiting the people.

On the contrary, notionally elected quasi dictatorships, like that of former president Ben Ali have largely been the order of the day.  It is encouraging to see that the Tunisian people are prepared to say that enough is enough.  The situation is still fluid but at least the first steps have been taken.

9th January 2011

Pakistan – the West sleepwalks towards the precipice

Pakistan has long occupied a central position in the history of the West’s attempt to retain control over the Middle East and Central Asia.  Originally part of India, Pakistan was created as a Muslim state at the time of independence in 1947, following separatist pressure from Muslims led by MuhammedAliJinnah in British ruled India. The constitution agreed in 1956 formally constituted the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The ‘even handed’ approach of the West to the region has been demonstrated by allowing both India and Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons and the provision of massive economic and financial support to both countries.  The sub-continent is of course a huge market and, given the proximity of rising economic superpower China to the North, it has been in the West’s strategic interest to keep both India and Pakistan on board.

The 1978 revolution in Afghanistan, overthrowing the despotic monarchy, and the 1979 revolution in Iran, deposing the Shah’s dynasty, both changed the dynamics of the region’s politics in different ways and in particular gave Pakistan a pivotal role in defending the interests of the West.

When Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in 1979, at the invitation of the government to help defend the revolution, support from the West in general and the CIA in particular poured into the counter revolutionary Mujahedeen groups, based in Pakistan, in order to fuel the insurgency inside Afghanistan.  This support for groups determined to turn back the clock in Afghanistan laid the basis for the growth in confidence and development of Islamic fundamentalism in the form of al-Qaida and the Taliban.  To suggest that such ’investment’ would come back to haunt the West would be an understatement.

The West’s main strategy in countering the Iranian revolution was to encourage its Iraqi ally, SaddamHussein, to launch an attack upon Iran in 1980 with a view to strangling the revolution at birth.  The war went on until 1988, the only winners being the arms dealers and the Iranian mullahs who were able to consolidate their grip on power in the face of an external threat.

While Saddam eventually fell out of favour with the West, support for the Pakistani regime, as a bulwark against more extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan, has been deemed vital.

However, Pakistan has been dogged by political instability as fundamentalists have increasingly gained a grip on the internal politics of the country.  One political assassination has followed another, the highest profile that of BenazirBhutto in 2007, followed last week by the killing of the Punjabi governor, SalmaanTaseer, by one of his own bodyguards.

A month ago, Nawa-e-Waqt, a widely read Urdu paper in Pakistan approved of the 500,000 rupee bounty that a prominent cleric had placed on the head of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, convicted of blasphemy under the medieval Pakistani law.  The blasphemy law allows for the accused to be sentenced on the hearsay of others while the alleged ‘blasphemy’ cannot be repeated as this would compound the original crime.  It is an abuse of human rights against which Salmaan Taseer was campaigning and for which he was killed.

Celebrations have gone on since the assassination. Lawyers outside the court showered petals on Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer’s assassin.  When the hearing eventually went ahead no public prosecutor turned up because of fears for their safety.  Such liberal intelligentsia as Pakistan can muster are running scared, with few if any prepared to put their heads above the parapet in defence of Taseer and against the blasphemy law.

The religious right in Pakistan will not back down.  Their power has been growing since 1979.  Their allies in Afghanistan are holding out against NATO troops scheduled to be withdrawn in 2014.  The Iranian regime, in spite of being shaken since the 2009 presidential election, remains in place.  Political instability is set to increase in Egypt as demonstrated by the recent attacks upon Christians and the growing unpopularity of the Mubarak regime.

The West’s policy in this part of the world has been a disaster for the past thirty years or more.  There is little indication that it knows how to change or that it even has the will too.  It must find an alternative.  While the West obsesses about the dangers of the Iranian nuclear porogramme there is a real danger that Pakistan will degenerate into an Islamic fundamentalist state with fundamentalist fanatics having their fingers on the nuclear button.  Western powers may wake up too late to find that they have been sleepwalking over the precipice.

6th January 2011

I see a tall dark stranger….

As my wife’s friend said recently, “Now that all of the ho-hoing is over we can get back to normal”.  Indeed so, what ever ‘normal’ may be.  There is certainly nothing ‘normal’ about a Tory government masquerading as a coalition.  Nor does ‘normality’ lie in the prospect of the deepest public spending cuts for 90 years beginning to bite as we return from the seasonal festivities.  It would certainly be regarded as distinctly abnormal in many parts of the world to be spending millions on a royal wedding just as the spending axe is falling upon many sections of the population.

Therein of course lies the point.  It is invariably the task of politicians to paint their unpopular actions as inevitable, tough choices in tough times, rather than political choices that match their particular political philosophies.  Thus the current round of cuts is for the good of the nation, ” we are all in it together”, rather than an ideological desire to see reduced public services and a greater reliance on the private sector for everything from our health care to the emptying of our bins.  In fact, the impact that all of this will have upon the budget deficit is being increasingly questioned as greater unemployment costs and housing benefits will have to be paid to those losing their jobs in the shakeout.  The mantra that the private sector will bridge the jobs gap looks increasingly shaky as predictions for growth in the UK economy remain low over the next year.

As if that were not enough analysts at the French bank Societe Generale (SocGen), top rated analysts in the “global strategy” category for the past seven years, suggest that the growth bubblethat is the Chinese economy could burst, due to the market being flooded with commodities which people simply do not have the money to buy.  Fiscal stimulus, it is argued, is the best way out of recession, a US rather than UK style approach.  Although even here top analyst for SocGen, Albert Edwards, is not optimistic.  “In the US one in eight are on food stamps.  Japan was a cohesive society that shared its pain collectively.  That is not how it stacks up in the US, UK, Spain, Greece, etc.  You have a much more fractious environment to have a lost decade in.  The ructions for society will be far worse.”  (The Guardian – 3rd January 2011)

Pressure upon the UK government to stimulate rather than slash the economy over the next year has to be maintained.  We have already seen some scope for u-turning by David Cameron.  The schools sports partnership farrago saw the restoration of some of the cuts for sports in schools programmes after a concerted campaign; similar pressure may see a backing down on cuts in books for children; LibDem Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes, has been given the task of ensuring working class students get to university in spite of the hike in tuition fees.  As Seamus Milne has suggested, “Of course these are marginal when compared to the avalanche of cuts and privatisation lined up for the next year and beyond.  But they underline the fact that this government isn’t like Thatcher’s or Blair’s, bolstered by an impregnable majority.  Cameron has shown he is for turning, when the pressure is on.” (The Guardian – 30th December 2010)

Crystal ball gazing is a dangerous practice at the best of times (could Cameron be that tall dark stranger?) but doubly so in predicting political developments.  There are however some key dates in the coming months that should test the UK government and gauge the strength of popular opposition to their slash and burn economics.  First off, the Education Maintenance Allowance is closed to new applicants from the beginning of the month.  The hike in VAT to 20% kicks in on the 4th January, swiftly followed by the scrapping of the child trust fund (£250 for each newborn) at the end of the month.  The next Budget is scheduled for the 23rd March, to be followed by the TUC anti-cuts rally in London on 26th March.  By April thousands of public sector workers will have lost their jobs while a pay freeze for those earning over £21,000 will come in from the 6th April.    Increased fuel prices and additional national insurance contributions for those in work will also be in the mix in time for the local elections and referendum on the voting system on the 5th May.  All this and no doubt more to come!

Happy New Year!









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