Archive 2012

31st December 2012

Honours even?

The absurdity of the UK honours system is likely to see pushy parents urging their three year olds to “go faster” on their tricycles, following the knighthood bestowed upon Tour de France and Olympic cycling champion Bradley Wiggins.  Any system which bestows honours upon its citizens by giving them awards based upon a hierarchy relating to the British Empire is an anachronism at best.  At worst it is another example of the ruling class allowing its plebeian subjects a few crumbs from the table by adding to the shiny gongs they have acquired in their particular areas of expertise.

Bradley Wiggins is a great cyclist, Kate Bush a compelling and inventive musician; do we need the honours system to tell us this?

Quite what the variety of bankers, civil servants and other usual ruling class suspects, who have scraped and bowed for decades before getting the obligatory knighthood, will make of Sir Brad is anyone’s guess.   You can be sure Sir Brad will not be frequenting any of the exclusive London clubs or regularly rubbing shoulders with the PM at Chequers, unless David Cameron sees a photo opportunity in it.

Thanks goodness, it would seem, for Danny Boyle.  Not only did Boyle deliver an Olympic opening ceremony worthy of comment and celebration, acknowledging some working class contribution to the development of the UK, but has apparently turned down a knighthood.  Commenting upon why he refused Boyle has said that: “I’m very proud to be an equal citizen, and I think that’s what the opening ceremony was actually about.”

As the 2012 retrospectives spread themselves across our TV screens and ooze through the radio it will be surprising to see Boyle’s comment get much airspace.  Still, it is out there and may give one or two pause for thought.

David Cameron is not amongst that number however.  The Prime Minister’s New Year address is full of hope, optimism and an insistence that the Coalition government is on the right track, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  To quote the PM in full he claims that,

“We can look to the future with realism and optimism.  Realism because you can’t cure the problems that were decades in the making overnight.  There are no quick fixes and I wouldn’t claim otherwise.  But we can be optimistic too because we are making tangible progress.  We are doing what’s right for our country and what’s best for our children’s future.  And nothing could be more important than that.”

It may be that Cameron is thinking about the southern shires when he makes this statement, although rural poverty is something he ought to be taking more notice of.  He certainly does not appear to have the North of England in his thoughts.  Scotland occupies his time for other reasons but is largely lost ground when it comes to Tory votes so is not a pressing concern in that regard.

The Leaders of Newcastle and Sheffield Councils and the Mayor of Liverpool wrote to The Observer this weekend (30th December 2012) suggesting that the position as outlined by Cameron was just a tad removed from realities on the ground.  Based upon the 30% being taken out of local government budgets over the lifetime of the current Parliament, the three Council leaders state that,

“Rising crime, increasing community tension and more problems on our streets will contribute to the break up of civil society if we do not turn back…..What we have today is a brand of Conservatism that has no social conscience, taking us back to a Dickensian view of the world.  The unfairness of the government’s cuts is in danger of creating a deeply divided nation.”

The only flaw in the analysis of the three leaders is that the government’s cuts will serve to reinforce the fault lines in what is already a deeply divided nation, rather than to create those divisions.  In spite of every effort to airbrush politics from the London 2012 Olympics the 80,000 boos George Osborne received when called upon to present medals echoed the mood of the nation.

Class remains a significant dividing line in the UK; racism remains an institutional problem in many key areas of civil society; the glass ceiling in pay and opportunities for women in our society has barely been cracked, let alone shattered; the paralympics has helped change attitudes to those with disabilities in the sporting world but day to day issues for many people with disabilities will remain; homophobic attitudes remain rife as the current debate around gay marriage indicates.

In addition, a referendum for Scottish independence is scheduled for 2014 while the ongoing economic and political occupation of Northern Ireland ensures that issues will remain unresolved until full unification is achieved.

The national cheerleading which the Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics have been used to stimulate will not be available in 2013.  As those divisions get deeper it will be harder to paper over the cracks.

27th December 2012

Middle East remains focus for war and peace

Having ridden out the Mayan end of the world on 21st December 2012 (an event predicted more by Americans selling underground shelters than by the Mayans, it would seem) we are free to face 2013 and the myriad challenges and opportunities it will bring.

Some things we do know with a reasonable degree of certainly.   One is that the Middle East will, in one way or another, be central to issues of war and peace in the world over the coming year.

Elections are scheduled for January in Israel.  Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be succeeding in positioning himself as an avuncular saviour of the nation and, short of a major upset, would appear to be on course for another term in office.  Unless Netanyahu’s world outlook is to undergo a complete volte face in the intervening period such a result will provide no comfort in Palestine or for those interested in a negotiated peace.

A further 2,600 occupiers homes agreed to be built in south Jerusalem recently is an indicator of Netanyahu’s intention.

Elections scheduled for June in Iran are also going to be critical for the region.  President Ahmadinejad has completed the maximum two terms in office so he will go, which is of some relief.  The margins of difference in Iranian politics, at least at the level of those permitted to run for president, are thin however.  Opposition groups, which became the green movement in Iran following the 2009 election, continue to engage in protest but a single reformist candidate is yet to emerge.

Should such a candidate be found there is the possibility of mobilising to resist the worst excesses of the current theocracy.  A network of resistance exists across Iran within civil society as well as the peace, trades union, women’s and human rights movements.  The existing state apparatus is fully employed to maintain its suppression of those pressing for democracy and the election will be an important test of the balance of forces.  How sensitively the international community handle the sanctions question will be a big factor in how much room any form of opposition in Iran has to manoeuvre.

In Egypt, parliamentary elections can proceed following the referendum on the new constitution earlier this month.  While over 60% of those voting endorsed the constitution, the overall turnout was only 30%, suggesting that the popular base for the position of president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood is not strong.  Further struggles lie ahead if the process of national democratic change in Egypt is to be successful.

In Syria, the danger of escalation and armed intervention from the West continues to grow with covert preparations from Western governments now well underway.   Recently the United States stationed Patriot missiles on the Turkish-Syrian border.  While these are ostensibly to defend its NATO ally Turkey, from stray Syrian missiles, they would quite quickly convert to supporting a Libya style no-fly zone should the West intervene more actively.

The so-called Syrian National Coalition has been officially recognised by both Britain and France as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people” even though it constitutes no such thing.  The active engagement of sundry al-Qaeda allies and jihadists in the opposition in Syria should at least give the West pause for thought, following the military debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Pro-Western regimes in the region, primarily Saudi Arabia and Jordan, having been ploughing support into opposition groups hoping to “shape” the outcome of the civil war in their favour once the Assad regime falls.  Quite how this will benefit the Syrian people is a moot point; autocratic regimes promoting democracy will be a tough sell.

The reality in Syria is that the only alternative to ongoing casualties and bloodshed is a negotiated settlement in which the various representatives of the Syrian people, without interference from al-Qaeda or NATO, agree to some form of national unity government which can take the country forward.  Any other option may be too bleak to contemplate.

16th December 2012

Banks above the law

It is the time of year when families across Europe brave the retail crush and put some spending back into the economy in the run up to Xmas.  However they struggle financially, most families will stretch their means for the sake of their children at this time of year.  In many cases the rest of the following year may be spent paying the bills, with credit the only realistic way of meeting expectations.  As the poor struggle to make Xmas a happy time for their loved ones it is ironic that it is the banks, and those providing credit lines, which will ultimately profit.

It is all the more galling then that we once again find, that having fleeced the population for their profits, the banks appear to be little more than gangsters consorting with drug barons, terrorists and rogue states in order to keep their shareholders happy and their profits high.

This week, HSBC, the biggest bank in the UK, was forced to pay a staggering £1.2bn in response to allegations “that it allowed terrorists and narcotics traffickers to move billions of dollars around the financial system and circumvent US banking laws.” (The Guardian – 12th December 2012).  The bank knowingly processed cash for the Sinaloa drugs cartel in Mexico with the bank even widening the windows at some branches to allow tellers to accept larger amounts of money!  As a film script this scenario would be laughed at as implausible and sent back for rewrites.  Yet, as ever, truth is stranger than fiction.

It gets even stranger.  The HSBC payment was not a fine imposed as a consequence of prosecution for its gangster related activities.  US prosecutors have agreed to a deferred prosecution on the basis that there could be “collateral consequences”, including the loss of thousands of jobs, if HSBC was taken to court.  Lanny Breur, the US assistant attorney general, stated the position quite plainly saying that,

“In this day and age we have to evaluate that innocent people will face very big consequences if you make a decision.  I don’t think that anyone is alleging that HSBC was the mastermind of the scheme….HSBC was a vital player.  But they are not the Sinaloa cartel.”

It is touching that Mr Breur finds it in his heart to care about the ordinary people caught up in the bankers scandal but his comments beg the question; at what point does a corporation become big enough to be above the law? Breur says that HSBC are being held accountable for “stunning failures of oversight”.  HSBC Chief Executive, Stuart Gulliver, is on record as saying that,

“We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again.”

There is no indication that Mr Gulliver’s job is on the line, although HSBC are reported to have sacked all senior staff involved in the scandal and agreed to stringent monitoring.

The Sinaloa cartel are, of course, subject to no such scrutiny or regulation and can continue their practice of exploiting the poor and underprivileged with impunity.  They may have lost a window widening ally in HSBC for the time being but there can be little doubt that, as long as the drugs business is a profitable one, there will be a bank somewhere in the system willing to handle the proceeds.  The only crime they may be able to commit, it would seem, would be to get caught.

Hot on the heels of the HSBC story there is likely to be a big fine next week , rumoured to be £630m, for UBS of Switzerland for its role in the Libor interest rate rigging scandal.  Barclays have already had to pay out £290m on this one, while the Royal Bank of Scotland are also in the frame for a payout, rumoured to be higher than that of Barclays.

Finally, on the subject of the rich protecting their interests.  The hereditary estate of the Prince of Wales, the Duchy of Cornwall, which last year provided Charles with an income of £18m, is to be investigated for alleged non-payment of corporation tax.  It will be interesting to see how this one plays out but do not expect Charles to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure any time soon; unless his mother is inviting him round for tea.

9th December 2012

Can Egypt survive?

The outcome of the growing political crisis in Egypt has the potential to shape the politics of the Middle East for a generation, in the same way that the change of regime in Iran did following the fall of the Shah just over thirty years ago.  The overthrow of Western backed dictator Hosni Mubarek, in January 2011, paved the way for a national democratic revolution which gave the population the opportunity to actively participate in the political process, from engagement in political parties to voting for a national assembly and president.

The election of Mohammed Morsi to the presidency, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, was always fraught with dangers.  The potential, through the Brotherhood, to Islamise the broad base of the developing revolution has always been a fear of the wider secular forces in Egypt.  The decision by President Morsi on 22nd November to give himself immunity from judicial prosecution, sweeping new powers in relation to the constitution and effectively dictatorial control Mubarek would have envied, is seen as confirmation of the opposition’s worst fears.

Morsi was forced today to give up many of the powers he assumed but whether this is really a step which will be sufficient remains to be seen.  The referendum for a new constitution is still scheduled for the 15th December.  Morsi claims that the constitution is vital for Egypt’s full transition to democracy but critics are adamant that the draft document lacks protection for the rights of women and minorities as well as restricting civil liberties and freedom of expression.

Apart from the thousands who have taken to the streets of Cairo and thronged Tahrir  Square calling for Morsi to “leave”, the visible opposition take the form of the National Salvation Front (NSF) which brings together three leading figures in the opposition.  These are former UN weapons inspector and Nobel laureate, Mohammed Elbaradei; former foreign minister under Mubarek, Amr Moussa; and leader of the left leaning al-Karama (Dignity) party, Hamdeen Sabahi.

The extent of protest since November has clearly taken Morsi and his supporters by surprise and is a reflection of the ongoing divisions within Egyptian society.  While many of the population are Muslim there is a strong Christian tradition in the country as well as a strong secular trend, both within the population and the intelligentsia.  While the draft constitution does not explicitly proclaim an Islamic Republic many fear that this is the direction in which the Muslim Brotherhood would like to travel.

The combination of street protest and pronouncements from the NSF have been enough to force Morsi back slightly, although the president remains protected by the army behind barricades in the presidential palace.  The long term danger however is that the opposition may be united only by the fear of an Islamist takeover rather than being united around any clear programme for the future of Egypt.

Unless that programme can be established the danger is that those united around a sectarian Islamist agenda will be able to set the pace and effect an anti-democratic counter revolution.  The people of Iran are still suffering over thirty years later from their country having been forced down that path.  Hopefully the people of Egypt can avoid the same fate.

Further comment from Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif can be found here:-

1st December 2012

Leveson light touch ties up politicians

The ruling class in the UK have managed to get themselves tied up in knots over the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry into the role of the media, published this week.

The eminent judge was appointed by Prime Minister, David Cameron, to look into the issues of phone hacking and press intrusion when it was becoming clear that the media corporations in the UK were overstepping the lines of good taste and legality in order to get the stories to sell their papers.  News International, the UK arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire, was in the frontline of fire given the extent of collusion between the media magnate and successive UK governments since the 1970’s.

It became a truism of British political folklore that a UK general election could not be won without the backing of Murdoch’s papers and successive Prime Ministers made sure that the Murdoch family were on the Christmas card list, if not seated around the family hearth, during the festive season.

What this meant in practice was that the Murdoch empire was able to influence much more than the humble voter in the street, as it used the powers of its major titles to shape both public and political opinion on a range of issues.   Always quick to condemn strike action in support of jobs and communities the Murdoch press have, over the years, reflected and shaped the views of the most reactionary sections of the UK ruling class.  The vitriolic press opposition to the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85 was perhaps the most notable example but many other industrial disputes could be cited.

Recent military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have enjoyed widespread press backing with uncritical support for ‘our boys’ being a mainstay of the British media, in spite of the unclear objectives in both cases and the tragic loss of life on both sides.  As cheerleaders for the sustained partition of Ireland the British press have played a significant role in obfuscating the real issues behind the ‘troubles’ and helped to sustain the illusion that British occupation and economic domination was necessary for peace.

The best example of journalism in the UK mainstream is the BBC, the state broadcasting corporation, which has been more subtle in its doctrinaire methodology over the years and, until the recent farrago over Jimmy Savile, enjoyed almost universal acclaim.  The few right wing zealots who regarded the BBC as a hotbed of Lefties were not really taken seriously given the sterling job the BBC does in reflecting the views and values of the British state.

Without having to sensationalise, to attract advertisers or see off competitors, the BBC is free to methodically sustain support for capitalism, at least with a human face, the Church of England and the Monarchy, as given mainstays of society, while portraying itself as a bastion of objectivity.  The BBC is state run, state funded and has a charter determined by the state.  In fact it has little real independence at all but still manages to position itself as the deliverer of the true record of the time.

The extent to which Leveson suggests that the press should be controlled is nothing compared to the state run BBC, yet media barons are squealing about independence being crushed and even usually objective journalists are quaking at the prospect of a light slap on the wrists from Ofcom, which is as tough as Leveson appears to get.

Leveson proposes that the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, should monitor a new independent voluntary press regulator, capable of imposing fines of up to £1m and demanding up front apologies.  For those newspapers not prepared to join a voluntary body Leveson proposes that Ofcom becomes a “backstop regulator.”  This may be state ‘interference’ but it is of the lightest kind.

What appears to be self-evident, as well as being a blindingly obvious conclusion from Leveson, is that the current system of press regulation does not work.  The Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which is effectively the press agreeing amongst themselves to play by the rules, is at best a paper tiger, or in Leveson’s terms the “industry marking its own homework”.  How would phone hacking as a practice and the consequent scandal have reached this point if the PCC was regarded as any form of effective regulation?

Having painted himself in to the corner of agreeing to implement anything in Leveson that was not ‘bonkers’, David Cameron now finds himself berated by phone hacking victims, who are quite sharp enough to see that Leveson’s proposals do not get close to being bonkers.

What Leveson does not address however, has been the real root of media power, that is the concentration of media ownership.  Should we be allowed to waltz Berlusconi style to a situation like that in Italy?  Should there be limits on the proportion of control any one proprietor should have in any country’s media, whatever the format?  Ownership and control of major industries is always an area that will find politicians of all parties backing off, perhaps closer examination is required?

Whatever the final outcome, the real result of Leveson is to have exposed the cosy relationship that certain newspaper proprietors have enjoyed with politicians over many years.  With the diversity of media now available it may be that such a concentration of power may not be possible in the future and the days of the old style media barons are done.  That may be so but in the meantime they still need to act within the law.  Even a light touch regulation which reminds them of that is better than none at all.

28th November 2012

Capitalism, crisis and war

At a time when questions of war and peace are increasingly to the fore in world politics it is important to assess the forces which may tip the balance in one direction or another.

While the so-called Arab Spring has seen the balance of power begin to shift in Egypt and Tunisia imperialist manoeuvring continues to inform events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.  However, the recent assumption of draconian powers by Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi has brought protest back to the streets of Cairo, with Tahrir Square once again ringing to the sound of revolutionary slogans.

The situation in Egypt will be critical to the wider political balance across the Middle East.  It is vital that democratic forces regain the initiative from those who would see an Islamist Egypt on the Iranian model.  The popular overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 was usurped by those determined to establish a religious theocracy and that tension has been a key factor in the struggle of the Iranian people against dictatorship since.  It would be tragic if the fall of Mubarek was to lead to a similar situation in Egypt.

The recent outbreak of hostilities in Gaza only serves to underline once again that a solution to the problems of the Middle East cannot be contemplated without justice for the Palestinian people and recognition of UN resolutions by the state of Israel.

While the reality remains that the Middle East remains the most likely flashpoint for a wider international conflict,  the question of war and peace is inevitably linked to the international situation of capitalism itself.  In this context the current financial crisis of capitalism remains a key driver in the push to control energy resources, especially in the Middle East.  The speculative nature of investment by the gambling houses, or banks, of the major European finance centres and those of the United States has seen the capitalist bubble burst since 2008 and the scramble for control intensify.

In relation to the current situation even the capitalists cannot deny that the system is in crisis. They may not agree that this crisis is endemic to capitalism.  They labour under the illusion that the crisis is something which can be resolved by adjusting public spending, increasing money supply or revising taxation.  The appointment of a new governor of the Bank of England, for example, has won widespread support in UK ruling circles this week.  The fact that Mark Carney’s credentials have not been seriously tested in the equivalent post in Canada has been overlooked.  It remains to be seen whether the ailing UK financial services sector can be reshaped to suit the bankers but they seem to agree that Carney is the man for the job.

The fact is that the path taken, especially within the European Union, to pass the gambling debts of the bankers onto the workers of those countries through austerity measures, is actually deepening the crisis.  Demonstrations across Europe on the 14th November brought thousands of trades unionists and activists out onto the streets of Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece to protest against the pain of further austerity.  These protests were just the latest in a long line of actions which have been occurring across Europe since 2008 as the reality of economic adjustment has hit home.

Within the Eurozone the 0.1% economic contraction in the third quarter of 2012 officially signalled a double dip recession although the big two economies of Germany and France grew, by 0.2%.  That does not mask the reality that massive areas of the Eurozone continue to suffer from slow growth, high unemployment and falling living standards.  Economic analysts suggest that in the fourth quarter of 2012 there will be further contraction in the Eurozone and that this may include Germany and France.  Even the triple A rated Dutch economy shrank by 1.1% in the third quarter.

In the United States, the world’s superpower and most powerful economy, the outcome of the presidential election on the 6th November was clearly greeted with great relief in many parts of the world.  Barack Obama is not a great progressive leader, or indeed, a socialist as many of his detractors suggest.  Nevertheless, the election did represent a defeat for the most reactionary elements of the Republican Party in US politics and provides the possibility that a re-examination of the reasons for that defeat may temper some of the more extreme positions of that tendency.

However, we should not hold our breath and wait for progressive policies to emerge from the United States.  That is not going to happen.  The United States continues to adopt a bellicose position towards Iran and maintains its aggressive alliance with the Zionist forces in Israel.  Only recently Barack Obama was supporting the right of Israel to defend itself and its territory against aggression.  The rights to self determination and self defence are ones we should of course applaud.   However, we should remind the US and its imperialist allies that these are rights that the Palestinians have been denied for the past forty five years due to the illegal occupation of their land by the state of Israel.

As we move towards the end of 2012 key elections, in Israel in January and in Iran in June, will help shape the tone of the international political scene going forward in 2013.  With events in Egypt sharpening the battle lines between democracy and theocracy and the financial crises of the Western powers deepening, the coming period will be crucial for the forces of peace and democracy in all parts of the world.

16th November 2012

Israel continues to flout international law

The Israeli Defence Force is the fourth largest army in the world.  It is equipped with the most up to date technology in terms of its missile arsenal, largely supplied by the United States of America.  It is widely believed that, in defiance of international treaties on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, Israel has a ‘secret’ nuclear capability.  Israel can draw upon a standing professional army and rapidly mobilise reservists in defence of its interests.  At present there are reports of between 16 -30,000 reservists being mobilised by Israel for the current offensive in Gaza.

The areas designated by the United Nations as being the basis of a homeland for the Palestinian people, the Gaza strip and West Bank, have been occupied by Israel, in defiance of UN resolutions since 1967.  In spite of protestations by the Palestinian people and their representatives over the years, the Israelis have suffered little more than a mild rebuke from the international community for their illegal occupation.  Israeli government representatives interviewed on the BBC yesterday took comfort from the fact that the governments of the US and Canada, amongst others, had suggested that Israel had every right to defend its territory against attacks from Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority has no standing army, no system of national service to build up a pool of reservists.  Some Palestinians live in Gaza and the West Bank, many live as refugees in other parts of the Arab world, notably Egypt and Lebanon; in the latter certainly this is in refugee camps with little or no status from the host government.  Gaza has been blockaded by the Israelis since 2006 when Israel pulled out its illegal settlers.  Deprived of building materials, food and medicines the area is often described as an open air prison.

Such weapons as the Palestinian Authority may have are smuggled into the area through a system of tunnels from Egypt and are largely through the supporters of the more militant Hamas faction, which controls Gaza, and takes more Islamist positions than the moderate Fatah party within Palestinian politics.   While such weaponry clearly has the capability to do damage, and there are reports of deaths on the Israeli side, this is not the surgical strike capability of the Israeli Defence Force, which in the 2008-09 war destroyed over 1600 homes and killed hundreds of people in Gaza.

The present escalation of violence seems to have originated from Palestinian fighters firing an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep last Saturday.  However, the Israeli assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari on Wednesday has significantly upped the stakes in what was already a tense, if potentially manageable, situation.  From Thursday night into Friday morning Hamas have reported 130 strikes by Israel against targets in Gaza with building damage and deaths yet to be quantified.

This bombardment of Palestinian areas by the Israelis is nothing new and the world has largely turned a blind eye to it for the better part of forty years.  Only when the Palestinians find a means of fighting back, or sirens are sounded in Tel Aviv, does it make the international headlines.  The daily routine of violence, oppression and degradation faced by Palestinians is rarely front page copy for most editors.

All of which begs the question, why now?  There are a number of possibilities as to why the Israeli response has taken on such a disproportionate aspect at the present time.  In the short term much is to do with elections.

Firstly, the US elections are out of the way.  While the election of Barack Obama may not have been to the liking of the Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, or hardline Zionists who regard Obama as a Muslim, the US is nevertheless a key ally.  Knowing how the land lies is important and taking action which has, in effect, forced the US to reiterate its support for Israel will be welcomed by the Israeli right wing.

Secondly, Israeli elections are scheduled for January and Netanyahu will no doubt be calculating that taking a tough line with Hamas will play well with voters at home.  Unless the Israeli body count gets too high, and given the David and Goliath nature of the conflict that is unlikely, Netanyahu will no doubt portray himself as the defender of the homeland as Israelis go to the polls.

Thirdly, elections are scheduled in Iran for June 2013 and overtures to the less hardline elements in the Iranian regime have been made by the US.  This has been with a view to settling the nuclear issue without armed conflict and come to some rapprochement which may pave the way for a less confrontational relationship with Tehran.  For Israel’s hardliners this may not be good news, as Iran usefully plays the role of ‘existential threat’ to the Israeli state and also as supplier of weapons to hardline factions in the Middle East, notably Hamas.  Any accommodation with Iran which made it difficult to characterise it in this way would dilute this message for the Israeli right.

In addition there is a line of thought within Israeli politics that Gaza is simply more trouble than it is worth and handing it over to Egypt would solve the problem.  Quite how this resolves the issues of a Palestinian homeland or whether Egypt would want responsibility for Gaza is another matter.

Egypt’s Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited Gaza this morning during which time a three hour ceasefire was supposed to have been observed, although Al Jazeera is reporting that a new air strike hit the Jabaliya refugee camp, killing two people, including a child, and injuring seven others.

However a solution is found, out and out military bombardment will not be the answer. The international community must find a way to force Israel to the negotiating table and bring its behaviour into line with international norms.  Without this the Palestinian people and the wider Middle East region remains under threat.

7th November 2012

Americans back the devil they know

The world wakes upon the 7th November 2012 to the relief that the American people have chosen the devil they know, rather than lurching to the right and accelerating a move towards Tea Party politics under Mitt Romney.

There are some notes of caution however.  While Obama has comfortably secured enough votes in the Electoral College to win the presidency the popular vote appears to be more evenly spread, suggesting that the balance of feeling within the US remains close.  The Republicans will also enjoy a majority in the House of Representatives with the Democrats controlling the Senate, giving some scope for obstruction and potential gridlock.

Obama’s victory is remarkable given the level of unemployment in the US, hovering at around 8%, and the ongoing budget deficit issues that the US economy is facing.  His success will however give some hope to those at the sharp end of the political spectrum that, with another four years in office, Obama may be in a position to stem the tide of inequality likely to have been unleashed by Romney.   The promise of destroying welfare safety nets, giving the tax avoiding rich a free pass, dismantling healthcare, taking reactionary positions on women’s and gay rights and packing the supreme court with right wing judges appears to have been enough to get the Obama vote on its feet and ensure Romney does not get the chance to carry out these policies.

The extent to which the election campaign ducked many major issues was however significant.  As Gary Younge noted in The Guardian (5/11/12),

“The US now has more people in its penal system than the Soviet gulag at its height; its capital city has a male life expectancy lower than that of the Gaza Strip; and the country openly operates a system of torture and a policy of targeted assassination.  The fact that nobody even expects these issues to come up tells you something about the low expectations Americans have of their politicians.”

Foreign policy issues were largely a matter of emphasis, if the third presidential debate is to be believed, with a broad consensus on being tough on Iran; supporting Middle Eastern ‘allies’ such as Israel and Saudi Arabia; and finally pulling out of Afghanistan.  The extent to which a Romney presidency would have stretched the limits of such a consensus is, fortunately, a matter for conjecture.  With Obama at the helm however the prospects are less hawkish but not necessarily progressive in policy terms.

It is a fact that Obama’s base of support remains predominantly the black and Hispanic communities with a much higher proportion of women voting Obama.   It is the case that these communities feel that their lot has improved under Obama’s presidency.  The reality is not the case.  African Americans are worse off than when Obama took office, while the gap between white and black Americans in terms of wealth and income has increased.  The average white American now has 22 times more wealth than their black counterpart.  The rate at which white Americans graduate from high school is growing faster than that of black Americans.

The victory of Obama over Romney, given the balance in the world, is to be welcomed.  It remains however a victory of hope over achievement, a symbolic realisation of the American dream rather than a material one.  If Obama’s legacy is to be any more than being the first African American in the White House, the next four years need to be more combative than the last domestically and more pragmatic internationally

31st October 2012

UK growth options dead on arrival

You would not believe it from the press last weekend but over 100,000 people from across the country turned up in London on the 20th October, to protest at the cuts being imposed on the people of the UK to fix the bankers gambling crisis.  You may even be hard pressed to believe that gathering in the money required from tax evasion and tax dodging by major corporations could pay off the deficit at a stroke.  If you need to be convinced there is more on this story at the following link:-

It is nevertheless true that while the poor continue to pay, the rich continue to get away with it.

It probably comes as no surprise that this is not a phenomenon confined to the UK.  In Greece, a journalist who has published lists of the country’s top tax dodgers, 2000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts, is facing prosecution for doing so.  In Italy, media mogul and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has been convicted on charges of tax evasion, although he is likely to avoid actual imprisonment.  Scratch the surface of any major capitalist economy and the story will be the same, with those at the top trying to immunise themselves from the consequences of the crisis, while those at the sharp end are the ones who pay.

This principle looks set to be extended to new levels in the UK with the announcement by the Defence Secretary, Phillip Hammond, that a like for like replacement of the nuclear ‘deterrent’ Trident submarine will be commissioned by a future UK government.  A down payment of £350m in development costs has been made, largely to buy Scottish votes in the Faslane area where Trident is based.  It is generally accepted that the cost of replacing Trident will be at least £20bn although a cross party review of the House of Commons has recently suggested that the lifetime costs of the programme would be in the region of £83.5bn; £1.86bn a year until 2062.

There can be no doubt that there will be winners from the procurement programme from such a major defence contract; those companies in the military industrial complex who retain an interest in continuing to promote the war economy, rather than actively support socially useful production spring to mind.   Politically the Conservative Party remain largely pro ‘deterrent’ but with the more recent cuts in conventional armed forces beginning to bite they may lose support from some of their natural constituency in the military.

Labour occupy their usual ambivalent position of not wanting to scare potential Scottish voters, becoming fewer on the ground than they were, but being unable to bring themselves to adopt a position of principle in opposition to such obscene levels of military spending.

Ironically Labour may be offered a lifeline by Michael Heseltine who has just published a Downing St. commissioned report condemning the government for having no strategy for growth.  Heseltine is critical of the government’s cuts only agenda, George Osborne’s Plan A, and states that “continuing as we are is not an option”   adding that, “the message I keep hearing is that the UK does not have a strategy for growth and wealth creation.”

Heseltine is of course approaching the issue from the perspective of making capitalism more efficient but does make the point that government policy is often driven by departmental interests, rather than a clear strategic overview of the wider needs of the economy overall.

Labour has pounced on the report to make the obvious points that a Tory grandee is criticising the government for having no overall growth strategy for the economy.  While such criticisms are valid, and Labour will make such capital as it can from them, a little lateral thinking would be welcome.  If we look at this report in the context of the potential costs of Trident then the case for investment in socially useful production, rather than bolstering the war economy, becomes glaring.  It would not be beyond the capability of politicians with some acumen to suggest that such an approach would have more job creating potential in the long term than continued investment in weapons of mass destruction.

As the election nears Labour will find that it being pressed harder to take positions on key issues.  The SNP have a clearly articulated anti-nuclear position in Scotland, so pressure will come from that direction as well as the Tories’ usual attempts to question Labour’s patriotic credentials.  Either way, Miliband and his team will have to sharpen up their act.

In the meantime the Heseltine report will no doubt achieve its 15 minutes of fame before being kicked into the long grass by the Tory front bench.  Too much intervention, too much devolution to the regions and too much that contradicts the current Coalition economic strategy will seal its fate.

As tame as it is, this report is dead on arrival.

25th October 2012

Iranian people hope US election outcome buys time

The final debate in the US presidential race concluded this week with the general view that Barack Obama had the edge over his rival Mitt Romney.  Given the state of the US economy, with the concerns of many Americans being focussed upon jobs and the debt crisis, it was always unlikely that the foreign policy discussion between the two candidates was going to be a major domestic vote winner.

In fact, what came across most strongly was the degree of convergence of the two candidates on foreign policy issues.  Many of Romney’s more hawkish views were tailored to fit with Obama’s generally more moderate foreign policy line.  There was no sign however that Romney would roll back Obama’s policy of drone attack assassinations as an arm of foreign policy or that either candidate would draw back from the role of world policeman which the US has designated for itself.

In relation to Iran there was certainly no indication that any concern for the Iranian people was to the fore, with talk of a tough line against the existing leadership being the main issue and addressing the capability of the Iranian government to develop its nuclear capability being top of the agenda.  Romney did display some geographical confusion when he claimed that Syria was Iran’s “only ally in the Arab world” and that it represented Iran’s “route to the sea”.  The fact that Iran has a 1500 mile Gulf coastline of its own and shares no border with Syria seemed to be missing from Romney’s briefing pack.

While a Romney victory would undoubtedly send out a range of negative signals internationally and herald a potentially more volatile foreign policy for the US, on this performance alone the message from both candidates was pretty much, ‘steady as she goes’ on foreign policy issues.

To that extent recent press reports that global powers will launch a new diplomatic push after the US elections, aimed at defusing the Iranian nuclear crisis in the next few months and avoiding the eruption of a new Middle East conflict next year, appear to have some veracity.  Reports suggest that a new proposal will be put to the Iranian government with the incentive of reducing sanctions if Iran limits the extent to which it enriches its uranium supplies.

The discussion will follow on from talks over the past year in Istanbul and Moscow which have failed to reach agreement on the nuclear issue and have resulted in the increasing sanctions pressure from the US and EU upon Iran.

A Western diplomat is quoted by one source as stating that,

“If Iran is prepared to do enough, sanctions will be on the table…. if it’s ready to take genuine steps we’re ready to respond. This could include sanctions relief – but only for the right moves by Iran. Sanctions are biting in Tehran and we’re not going to lift them without making solid progress on our concerns.”

This approach suggest that the West recognises at least that the Iranian government requires a quid pro quo if it is not to lose face at home and be seen to be backing down over the nuclear issue.  With Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June 2013 the factions jostling for position in Iran will no doubt have one eye upon the domestic agenda when negotiating over the sanctions issue.

There has even been talk in Western circles of a comprehensive settlement that would allow Iran to continue producing uranium at low levels (under 5%) of enrichment but under stricter international monitoring and controls.  How this might play with the Israelis may be a factor in whether such a position flies but even talk of such a deal indicates the possibility for movement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated the “red lines” for Iran on nuclear enrichment at the UN General Assembly in September and even indicated that the line would be reach by “by next spring, at most by next summer”, implying that Israel might then take military action in a bid to destroy Iranian nuclear sites and set back the programme.

A report published recently by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said that Iran’s centrifuge plants would need between two and four months to make enough weapons-grade uranium for a single warhead.  If Iran builds up its 20% uranium stockpile, the ISIS report said a weapon could be ready in less than one month, giving Israel and the west much less time to respond and increasing the chance of a pre-emptive strike.

However, it would take several times longer to build even a small nuclear arsenal, and Iran itself has set back that timetable by converting about a third of its 20% stockpile into oxide fuel, which would be harder to turn into weapons-grade material.  It should also be noted that Tehran insists it has no intention of breaking with observance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to try to make a weapon.

Jim Walsh, an expert on the Iran nuclear programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “This period between the US elections and the Iranian elections is the last best chance to turn this thing around… I think the Iranians are ready and the Americans are ready. It’s a question of the whether the optics and politics can be made to line up this time.”

Certainly for the people of Iran the coming months are crucial.  The biggest danger is a Romney presidential victory which leads to a major policy review.  This would almost certainly overlap with the Iranian presidential elections or, worse still, give Israel the green light to take pre-emptive action.  An Obama victory, it is assumed, would at least allow a window for negotiations amongst the major players ahead of the Iranian presidential campaign.  The possibility of relief from sanctions, as the first step towards pushing for full democratic control of their country, would certainly be a relief in the short term for the Iranian people.

17th October 2012

Poverty stalks US debate

It’s not quite that the fate of the world depends upon whether one rich guy in the United States can out debate the other but it is very close to it.  The extent to which the US presidential debates are capable of pushing the opinion polls one way or another, depending on the performance of the respective candidates, is frightening given what is in the balance.

Not that the outcome of the US election will result in a fundamental change for the good, whoever is elected.  Barack Obama has found over the past four years that the inertia within the US political system is a far more powerful force than any desire for change, even to the limited extent he promised.  While the president theoretically has a free hand to develop policy and give a strategic lead the realities of the balance of forces in the Senate and House of Representatives limit his room for manoeuvre.

Beyond the big cities and the metropolitan glide of the Washington glitterati the realities out in the US sticks is that many people, in the richest nation in the world, are poor.  In the run down coal towns of West Virginia for example some of the median incomes are as low as $16,000 a year, just one-third of the US average.  The growth between rich and poor is so significant in the US that, of the 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only Chile, Turkey and Mexico are more unequal than the US.

Those watching the Obama / Romney debates even more closely than the average voter are the corporate sponsors who have invested millions in getting their man elected.  The US presidential election is the biggest money race on the planet and no expense is spared to back the winner.

Whoever that winner may be appears to matter little to those at the sharp end of the social spectrum.  Since 1980 the share of the national income of the top 1% in the US has increased from 8% to 18%, an average of $1.3m after tax.  The poorest 20% take home $17,700 per year.  Mitt Romney is promising to cut benefit entitlements for the really poor.

There are of course differences of emphasis between the candidates which manifest themselves in different policy options, giving Obama a slight edge on social policy and a less hawkish foreign policy emphasis.  However, the real danger of a Romney victory would be the green light it would give the Tea Party elements of the Republican demographic, determined to push the US even further to the right.   Success would see Romney increasingly pushed further to the right and Tea party candidates springing up across the US.  To that extent the outcome in the US in three weeks’ time will still matter and the Rainbow Coalition which delivered Obama victory four years ago needs to hold together.

Sound bites close UK conference season

The main parties in the UK completed political conferences last week with Prime Minister, David Cameron, addressing the Conservative Party conference to stormy applause from the assembled media and delegates.  Cameron’s main job was to look tough and sound determined a task in which he signally failed, yet his selection of platitudes from desiring an “aspiration nation” to proclaiming the Tories as the party for those who “want to be better off”, seemed to win over the pundits.

The reality however remains that Cameron, his Tory party and the weak Coalition he leads in government, is deeply unpopular and would not win an election tomorrow.   The growing opposition to pay cuts, job losses in the public sector and benefit cuts, will undoubtedly gain momentum towards the scheduled election in 2015.  The days of the coalition are surely numbered.

In a final attempt to bolster flagging popularity Cameron also announced a £50m government fund to support projects commemorating the outbreak of World War One in 2014, to build upon the successful Diamond Jubilee and Olympic celebrations.  Widely known on the left as the first imperialist war, such a sustained massacre is worthy of remembrance but perhaps not for the reasons Cameron thinks.  The case is outlined most eloquently by The Guardian’s Seamus Milne at this link:-

7th October 2012

Plan B from the bankers

Panic on the streets of Madrid, panic on the streets of Lisbon, panic on the streets of Athens.

Across Europe there is a rising tide of opposition to the bankers gambling crisis from the people of the countries most affected.  Protest is becoming an almost daily occurrence as the burden of austerity continues to fall upon those least able to cope and the call for major economic change grows.  This is precisely why the bankers and their representatives in government are beginning to panic.  Their scheme has been rumbled.

It is no surprise that the people at the sharp end of Europe’s austerity drive have been out on the streets in protest.  In Madrid the response of the police has been exceptionally fierce with innocent bystanders finding themselves at the sharp end of police batons on the off chance that they may have been involved in protests.  Many were just waiting for trains.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to visit Greece next Tuesday and has been promised widespread protests by way of greeting.  Portuguese trades unions are calling for a general strike on the 14th November.  The scale of the proposed bailout in Spain, which Prime Minister Rajoy is desperate to avoid, could run to €400bn and has led to increased calls for independence by Catalan nationalists.  Cyprus is expected to seek a bailout of €11bn at any time.

The panic in the banks is reflected by the comments of the Institute of International Finance (IIF), an influential group of bankers and insurers, which last week criticised Europe’s political leaders for having a one track mind, that track being simply austerity, as a response to the current crisis.  The Institute is concerned that austerity measures which stifle growth will only exacerbate the crisis, perpetuate instability across the continent and fuel uncertainty in financial markets across the world.

Charles Dallara, the Institute’s Chairman stated,

“The international financial community has a collective interest in reducing the uncertainty that currently surrounds the global economic outlook.  If we want to lay the basis for a durable global economic expansion, then we need to see more concerted action by the world’s policymakers.”

The IIF is hardly an organisation that would normally be described as a friend of the people and their interest in reducing economic uncertainty is clearly about keeping the system safe for international capital.  Nevertheless, their attitude contrasts sharply to that of UK Chancellor George Osborne, and many others across Europe, who suggest that any investment in growth will scare the proverbial horses and lead to the markets losing confidence in the economy.  While Osborne will announce a further £10bn to be cut from the welfare budget in the UK it would seem, that even within the limitations imposed by the economics of capitalism, there can be a Plan B.

Miliband plays it safe

Ed Miliband’s speech at Labour Party conference this week was not designed to scare any horses either and with the odd predictable exception, the Daily Mail, seems to have been well received by the UK media.  While this may sound like a success it is rather the opposite with the political establishment quite safe in the knowledge that a Miliband led government will not threaten their basic interests.

Miliband did promise to make banking reform, currently scheduled for 2019, happen sooner and to invest more in skills training to boost the economy and tackle youth unemployment.  Even the Institute of Directors welcomed this.

The core of Miliband’s pitch however was the same old “unions will not dictate labour policy” line and stern words about not being able to reverse the cuts imposed by the current Coalition Government.  Not much to look forward to there then.    Even though it does not take much working out that the government are massively unpopular because of the cuts, Labour continue to shirk at the prospect of reversing them.   The core of Miliband’s approach was in fact an attempt at rebranding; a neither old Labour (unions), nor New Labour (Blair/Brown) approach characterised as One Nation Labour.

While wrapped in fine sounding phrases and worthy talk about his comprehensive education the real message Miliband was sending out was one to the industrialists and bankers; don’t worry too much we will not really mess with the basics.  In spite of the speech being characterised as a media triumph and Miliband doing the press rounds saying that “ideas do matter” what Labour’s ideas are for changing society for the good of working people may be, has yet to be revealed.

The promise is that all will be clear as we get closer to the election and a manifesto needs to be drafted.  We await with interest.

23rd September 2012

Hurting but not Working

The party conference season is well underway and the December Autumn statement of Chancellor George Osborne is eagerly awaited.  Will Osborne stick with Plan A for austerity, or twist and go for growth?  Half way through the allotted five year term of the UK Coalition it would be tempting to hope that the Chancellor has seen the error of his ways and would recognise that, in spite of the pain, the cure is not working.

The old maxim is of course applicable depending upon the point at which the pain is inflicted.  As things stand George and his buddies, not many of whom are public sector workers, on benefits or having to struggle to pay monthly bills, are not really at the sharp end of the Coalition austerity plan.   However, the Tories rely upon votes beyond their natural constituency to sustain them in office so the impact of the austerity plan upon the middle classes and working class Tories is still a factor George and pals have to take into account.

The LibDems have recognised this fact in a big way this week.  Nick Clegg’s apology to committing to a policy of not increasing tuition fees got their conference off to a self mocking start.  Any party leader who at best can hope to be part of a coalition yet states,

“I will never again make a pledge unless as a party we are absolutely clear about how we can keep it.”

is holding up a major hostage to fortune, not to mention giving his party manifesto writers a tough task.

The Fairer Taxes for Tough Times slogan under which the LibDems rally in Brighton is clearly an attempt to claw back ground lost through the opportunism of coalition.  Hit the rich harder and make them pay their share is all very well but half way through their term in government may sound like the last gasp of a desperate party clinging to what little hope it can muster.

The crisis is not confined to the UK of course.  Even in China, the world’s boom economy, the manufacturing sector is in recession.  The economy of the United States continues to falter, giving Mitt Romney his best chance of unseating US President Barack Obama in November.  Across Europe the weakness of the Eurozone is showing no sign of improving, if anything the prospects of Spain, Italy and Portugal being sucked into the downward spiral led by Greece is increasing.

Finance ministries and central banks, including the Bank of England, continue to pull the economic levers, mainly flooding economies with cheap money to encourage borrowing at lower interest rates but the banks fail to lend and business is too cautious to invest.  Contrary to the accepted wisdom of the economic gurus of monetarism it is not the private sector which is the engine of economic growth but the public sector.

In reality, unless the government is prepared to borrow in order to invest, giving the economy a sustained financial stimulus, the current situation is likely to persist.  It has been pointed out recently by Harvard economics Professor Larry Summers that the UK is suffering from a huge deficiency of demand.  Summers also points out that an extra percentage point of growth over five years would reduce the debt to GDP ratio by up to 10 percentage points.  In plain English, if investment gets people back to work and being more productive, the extra tax they pay and the extra spending they bring to the economy will help bring the deficit down.

The appropriately named Lord Fink, Tory party treasurer, has this week suggested however that the way forward is to make the UK more like a tax haven in order to prevent to UK losing jobs to other tax havens.    As a strategy for economic growth goes even George Osborne might spot that one as a vote loser.

However, the ‘Tea Party tendency’ within the Conservative Party could be set to increase as the countdown to the general election continues.  Latest polls put UKIP marginally ahead of the LibDems in the polls and  will give the Daily Mail / Express constituency cause to fall back on familiar calls to tackle immigration and welfare ‘cheats’ if the UKIP little Englander message gathers any momentum.

Like the manifest writers at LibDem HQ it is quite possible that the manifesto boffins in the Tory party will have headaches of their own when tapping on their ipads ahead of the next election.

6th September 2012

Reshuffling the austerity pack

Much media coverage but little public excitement has been generated by the first major reshuffle of the UK coalition government this week.  Prime Minister, David Cameron, has promised to cut the dither and free business to generate growth and create wealth.  This appears to be little more than a recipe for further deregulation with business being given licence to build, sack staff and reduce wage levels where deemed appropriate.

The public response to this window dressing was out before the reshuffle was even announced when Chancellor George Osborne was soundly booed when invited to present medals at the Paralympic Games in London.  Osborne looked suitably embarrassed, quite possibly a first, and his chagrin was complete when the crowd cheered former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown; another first there too.

The general response to the reshuffle in the media has been to acknowledge that it is essentially a Tory reshuffle to address inner Tory party issues, with the LibDems pretty much left intact but on the sidelines.    In essence the Tory right get a bit more space around the Cabinet table while ‘liberals’ such as Kenneth Clarke are sidelined ready for an exit to the (unreformed) House of Lords after the next election.

Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, makes space for the third runway at Heathrow to come onto the agenda, while her replacement, Patrick McLoughlin, allowed Cameron to jibe at PMs Questions in the House of Commons that he had put a miner in the Cabinet, more than Labour had in recent years.  Again true but clearly being a former miner is no guarantee of progressive credentials, as McLoughlin will no doubt demonstrate.

The big names of course retained their positions as Cameron kept Osborne, Hague , May and Hammond in their respective posts while promoting the hapless Jeremy Hunt to take charge of Health, an own goal waiting to happen.

The one guarantee from the reshuffle is that no ideas capable of tackling a slump which has lasted longer than the depression of the 1930’s are likely to be forthcoming.   Osborne’s Plan A for austerity is still effectively the only show in town.  Cut spending and borrowing which will slash the deficit we have been told, thus allowing the private sector to ride to the rescue with jobs and investment.

Of course this is not happening.  Less jobs in the public sector means less tax revenues.  The little new job creation there is in the private sector is not matching the shrinkage in public sector posts.  Big companies are sitting on cash mountains waiting for the chance to make bigger returns.  Banks are not lending to stimulate the economy in spite of constant exhortation from the government and the Bank of England.  This is not a consequence of too much regulation, as Cameron would like us to believe, but too little imagination on the part of the government to inject any stimulus into the economy.

On the contrary the right wing of the Tory party would happily see further deregulation, tax cuts and cuts in public spending and employment, in what has been characterised as a form of economic ‘shock therapy’.  As Seamus Milne observes wryly,

“…wherever that’s been carried out, from Chile to eastern Europe, it’s been a disaster: all shock and no therapy.”  (The Guardian 5/9/12)

The first major initiative announced by the government has been a temporary relaxation in planning regulations which will allow those with the means to extend their properties by an extra 26ft without having full planning permission.  Apart from the clear potential to exacerbate murder in surburbia which such a strategy may generate it is hardly an economic call to arms.

With the economic crisis returning to the front pages following the summer break, and unemployment in Spain set to rise following the tourist season, the case for real investment to kick start the economy can only grow.  As Milne states, there is a route which could lead to,

“…a route out of economic stagnation, rising unemployment, falling incomes and welfare cuts: large scale public investment in housing, education, transport, cutting edge technology, backed by a boost to demand, and financed through fully nationalised banks as well as borrowing for a return, at the lowest rates for 300 years.”

The TUC meets next week.  It will be interesting to see if it backs such an alternative programme.  More interesting still to see if Labour is brave enough to do so later in the month.

25th August 2012

Halt the drive to war

Concern has been expressed by Europe and North America’s leading solidarity organisation with the people of Iran, about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran in the near future.  The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) has expressed concern about comments emanating from the Israeli leadership recently which appear to assume that an attack upon Iran is only a question of time.

Last week Israeli President, Shimon Peres, was widely reported in the international media as stating in an Israeli television interview that,

“It is clear to us we cannot do it on our own. We can only delay [Iran’s progress]. Thus it’s clear to us that we need to go together with America. There are questions of co-operation and timetables, but as severe as the danger is, at least this time we’re not alone.”

Peres’ comments were condemned by the office of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as being out of touch with government thinking, suggesting that the Prime Minister is still contemplating unilateral action against Iran.

While the differences expose conflict at the heart of the Israeli establishment, there is growing concern that the choice may be one of the devil or the deep blue sea for the Iranian people, who appear to be threatened whatever the outcome of the Peres/Netanyahu face off.

It is incredible that a major player in the Middle East, such as Israel, is allowed to make these comments without significant condemnation from the international community.   Whether we consider the comments of Peres that an attack will happen at some point with US support, or those of Netanyahu that Israel may go it alone, the Iranian people are in imminent danger.  No one can ignore the threat to peace in the Middle East and internationally that such an Israeli adventure would pose.  This is something which the international community should be speaking out about loudly and clearly to protect the people of Iran from a war no-one wants and from which no-one will benefit.

CODIR has consistently campaigned for a political solution to any differences between parties in the Middle East and actively supported the rights of the Iranian people to determine their own future, free from external interference.  CODIR opposes any war waged on Iran under any pretext, believing that it would be a disaster for the region and would seriously undermine the struggle of the Iranian people for democracy, human rights and social justice.

With the presidential election in the United States only three months away there is growing concern that Iran will become a political football as the election looms.  Many observers believe that the current speculation about a possible Israeli strike this autumn is aimed at forcing a public statement in the coming weeks from President Barack Obama on America’s willingness to take military action against Iran.

However, the only statement we need to hear about Iran is one that unequivocally rules out action by the US or Israel which threatens the Iranian people.  Political and diplomatic action to resolve differences is the only way forward and the only way which will not result in the deaths of many innocent Iranians who are themselves looking to change the existing regime in Tehran.

International human rights and peace organisations will continue to work to make representations to the relevant governments and the United Nations in order to head off conflict.

For further information go to

20th August 2012

Class Act?

It is official, class is back on the agenda of the Labour Party in the UK, or it will be if a newly established think tank with trade union backing succeeds.

Class in this case is an acronym for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, launched in May with the backing of the Unite and GMB unions at present but with others in its sights ahead of the TUC and Labour conferences in September.  As reported in The Guardian (17/8/12)

“The think tank says its core agenda is developing economic and industrial policies, and tackling the housing crisis and inequality.”

Class is seen as a counter balance to the more conservative Progress tendency within the Labour Party, which has fuelled much of the Blairite agenda.  Other think tanks, such as the Institute for Public Policy Research and Demos, have shied away from offering any radical options for the Labour leadership preferring to accept much of the analysis that the economic downturn can only be resolved through austerity, effectively squeezing Labour into much the same terrain as the Tories and LibDems.

The financial crisis has been an excuse across Europe to push a right wing agenda as the bankers and their backers seek to make the people of the continent pay for their gambling crisis.  One think tank within the Labour Party will not change this on its own.  However, it is hoped that by generating a body of policies which can give a coherent left alternative to the crisis the acceptance of the bankers’ agenda will at least be challenged.

While the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week published an optimistic assessment of the nation’s wealth key questions were left unasked in the its analysis.  The assets accumulated by households, businesses and the state were put at £6.8 tn, an average of £110,000 for every man, woman and child in the UK for the last financial year.  Property alone accounted for £4.1 tn of net worth, with assets held by insurance companies and pension funds accounting for £2.2 tn of net worth and a further £1.3 tn held in currency and bank deposits.

The ONS appears to be silent on the issue of how this wealth is actually distributed, which would undoubtedly generate some more interesting statistics.  It does acknowledge however that household spending power has been reduced by inflation, which has increased at almost twice the pace of wages.

12th August 2012

Now that the party is over

Depending upon your point of view the UK will this week be awakened from its Olympic dream or will wake up nursing an almighty post Games hangover.  Either way the distraction from the troubles of UK plc, which the Games have provided, will be removed and the realities of the recession, the plight of the euro, the quiet sidelining of House of Lords reform and how to justify giving £5m to the Free Syria Army will be back to the forefront.

However, it is almost unavoidable that some comment upon Olympic legacy is passed.  While the Games did generate billions of pounds worth of contracts in construction and infrastructure work this was largely a south east affair.  Contracts awarded outside the immediate area of benefit i.e. London may have ran into the millions but were not significant compared to the relative boom in the south.   The Olympic factor in economic terms is likely to be short lived at best.  There are still outstanding issues to resolve. The future use of the stadium is still under dispute and the sales of properties in the Olympic village are still to be finalised.  The post party reckoning is still to come.

Investment in sports infrastructure, which the government cut the moment it came into office axing £160m to schools sports partnerships, may enjoy a reprieve due to public demand following the unprecedented success of Team GB at the Games.  This is all very understandable in the post-Olympic euphoria.  However, the funding which was squeezed out of the arts, heritage projects and the wider cultural sector to fund the Olympic spree is unlikely to be restored.

While Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was easily the highlight of the Cultural Olympiad, the means to repeat such feats of literary and creative endeavour continue to be squeezed at every level by the government.  Thus it may be that for every playing field saved or athletics track restored, there is a local drama group axed or library closed.  The government may be forced to do what is popular in the short term, at the expense of what is necessary for the long term cultural health of the nation.

The post Games debate however seems to have settled around the issue of private vs state sector in terms of the schooling of our athletes with the suggestion that the private sector is the place to be if you are to become an Olympic champion.  Tell that to Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Victoria Pendleton, Andy Murray and Bradley Wiggins, for example, all from state school backgrounds.  Boris Johnson has blustered that the two hours a day of sport he received at Eton was the example to follow. David Cameron has weighed in suggesting that the schools sports partnership money was spent on some form of multicultural hogwash rather than real sports.

Philosophically, Johnson and Cameron are suggesting that the state sector does not encourage competition in the way that the private sector does.  The proposition suits their politics but is not held up by the reality.  The premise is debunked by the list of successful Olympians that have gone to state schools.  Just imagine how many more Olympians could be produced by state schools if they had the funding enjoyed by their private sector counterparts.    Once the Labour Party actually commit to a policy on education they could do a lot worse than championing the state sector, the breeding ground of Olympic champions, it would seem.

5th August 2012

Syria – the dirt beneath the surface

The unfolding crisis in Syria is a classic example of an internal situation seized upon by the West, then cranked up to crisis proportions through the covert arming of an opposition enjoying only limited public support in the first instance.

When the insurrection against the Assad regime began, seventeen months ago, it appeared to be little more than the routine disappointment of dissidents unable to make their voices heard inside an autocratic and controlling regime.  The extent to which it enjoyed popular support appeared to be limited to the south of the country, in Deraa, and the general expectation was that the Syrian government would deal with the situation as it had with expressions of dissent in the past; brutally.

That the Syrian government is an autocracy controlled by a ruling family and its associates in the Alawite sect can be in no doubt.  Bashar al-Assad is president by selection, not election, and the Parliament in Damascus exists to do little more than rubber stamp the regime’s dictats.  However, all of this is for the Syrian people to address, in the same way that the issue of regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan should have been with the people of those countries, not imposed by outside force.

While the initial stirrings in Syria may have sprung from genuine internal discontent there can be no doubt that the situation now has a range of players.  There is widespread acknowledgement that arms to the Free Syrian Army are being channelled through Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of whom openly support the FSA in diplomatic discussions.

In addition, in the east of Syria in Deir el-Zour and Mohassen, the grip of al-Qaida upon the forces which are notionally part of the FSA is clear.  The al-Qaida forces bring experience from Iraq and Afghanistan to the conflict and, under the banner of a jihad against the Assad regime, are drawing in fighters from the Caucasus, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Gulf Arab States across the border with Turkey.  From the outset the Syrian regime has characterised the uprising as a plot by jihadist groups backed by Western and Gulf States.  Whether or not this was the case from the outset it is certainly the scenario which is now shaping up in Syria.

The differences in the United Nations, particularly those in the Security Council, reflect the different geo-political interests of the key players and divide along classic cold war lines.  The Russians and Chinese have largely backed the Assad regime, broadly seeing it as the lesser of the several evils on offer, and on the whole a force for stability in a regime wracked by change and uncertainty.  The UK, US and France alternatively have backed the opposition, ostensibly citing the Assad regime’s human rights record as an issue, but effectively turning a blind eye to Saudi arming of the FSA in the hope that a tame, Western friendly, Sunni Muslim regime may emerge.

The other key factor for the West, in terms of the balance in the region, is the links between Syria and Iran.  The links between the two countries have formed a regional opposition to the designs of the West but have also been a counter to the likelihood of Israel launching a strike against Iran.  A stable Iran would be a powerful ally in repelling any strike by Israel against the regime in Tehran.  A Syria torn apart by sectarian strife and civil war would in effect be neutralised in any conflict with Iran.

The US media reported this week that President Barack Obama has signed a covert order authorising support from the CIA to the Free Syrian Army.  Even though the order is not thought to include weapons deliveries such an expression of US support for the FSA is significant.

Accusations of atrocities, with Aleppo currently the focus, come in from all sides and there can be no doubt that the conflict becomes more bloody and ruthless daily, with the Syrian people as the real losers.  Having let the genie out of the bottle however, the West is clearly playing a dangerous game.  Intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has not resulted in the desired outcomes and the extent to which the West can control the result in in Syria remains limited.  Even the short term ‘advantage’ of chaos in Syria creating the space for a strike on Iran would at best be a pyrrhic victory, given the wider regional calamity which would ensue from such a course of action.

As ever, Western rhetoric is designed to generate more heat than light, obfuscating the realities beneath the surface of the Syrian conflict.  In spite of the failure so far of UN diplomacy the interests of the Syrian people can only be served by the fighting ceasing and a political solution being worked out.   Tragically the Syrian people may yet see many more dark days before that dawn.

23rd July 2012

Free schools or just free money?

At a time when young people’s expectations are often fuelled beyond their capacity to achieve them it is little surprise that the UK Coalition government are also keen to exploit the hopes and fears of parents for the future of their children.

Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has made it his mission to ensure that the introduction of so-called Free Schools will extend choice beyond the traditional state education sector.  The carrot that Gove dangles is that of a better education and better opportunities, something every parent wants, based upon an assessment of the alleged failings of the current state sector.

These supposed failings are not however scientifically grounded.  Recent reports have illustrated that in Suffolk, for example, where the Department for Education has approved four free schools, demand for school places could be matched to existing building provision, if approached in a planned way.

The Seckford Foundation, which is the driving force behind free school bids in Suffolk, is attracting a £2m government cash handout for a school which is presently attracting only 37 pupils and which was opposed by 3,000 residents.   Planning permission for free schools has been refused in Bedford and Frome in Somerset recently, prompting Gove to suggest that he would overrule local planning authorities to get free schools built.

A report by the Royal Society for Arts recently suggested that there appears to be no rhyme or reason as to where free schools are being built and went on to describe them as an “unguided missile rather than a targeted weapon in the school programme.”

Local campaigners, keen to understand the rationale behind decisions in their local areas are being met with a blank refusal to reveal details.  Even Freedom of Information requests are being turned down as being not in the public interest!  Quite what could be more in the public interest than the transparency of decision making around planning and education is difficult to know.

In Newcastle upon Tyne, a free school mooted for the deprived West End of the city appears to be little more than a front for local independent schools and churches, keen to access regeneration funds which are earmarked for the area.  Cloaked in the language of helping the deprived and underprivileged, this kind of scheme shows the free school model up for the scam it is.

Gove’s embarrassment was compounded further recently when one of the flagship free schools in Newham in East London failed to get out of the starting blocks due to low parental demand.   The Newham Free Academy, due to open in September, simply failed to persuade parents of the benefits.  Given that 57% of pupils in Newham, the second most deprived Borough in the country, achieved five GCSEs in 2011 against a national average of 58.9%, demonstrates that the state sector can deliver, even with limited resources.

The reality of course is that the free school model is simply an ideological Trojan horse, intended to undermine the state system and break up the network of local education authority support and supervision for education at the grass roots level.  Like the sacking of Troy chaos and confusion are likely to ensue.  A clear commitment by Labour to take free schools back into an integrated state sector, if they are elected, might make one or two more think twice.

Olympic News Watch

It is remarkable how quickly the Israeli government blamed the bombing of the bus of Israeli tourists, last week in Bulgaria, upon the Iranian Government.   It is not that the Iranian Government or its revolutionary guards are beyond this kind of activity, far from it.  However, as the US presidential election looms, the situation in Syria degenerates, with the prospect of wider Middle East conflagration to follow, the Netanyahu government may just be calculating that a strike against Iran may be worth the gamble.  Blaming Iran for events in Bulgaria, with or without evidence, may just provide the springboard.

It was a UK government aide who coined the phrase after the 9/11 attacks that it was ‘a good day to bury bad news’ and while this appears to be the sort of deeply cynical comment we would expect from a political sitcom, it is  often the way the world works.    With the Western world in particular focused upon the Olympic Games from next Friday onwards it will be interesting to see if the two weeks of games, aimed at celebrating respect, excellence and friendship, provide cover for exactly the opposite.   Let us hope that recent events in Bulgaria are not just preparing the ground.

8th July 2012

Lords – no right to oppose reform

It is ironic for progressives in the UK that the Coalition Government’s proposals for House of Lords reform could turn out to be a win-win scenario.  The anachronistic second chamber, made up of government appointees, people who inherit because of their birth and some Bishops, has been ripe for reform since the Parliament Act 1911 but until now no government has bitten the bullet.

Opponents of reform produce a plethora of spurious reasons for retaining the status quo.  An elected House of Lords, they say, would undermine the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons.  Why so?  You set out clear terms of reference that demarcate the responsibilities of the Lords as a revising chamber and make sure they stick to it.  The fact that those fulfilling this role are elected, rather than to the manor born, should in no way undermine the primacy of the House of Commons in framing legislation.

The state of the economy, say opponents of reform, is too parlous to be wasting time on the House of Lords, the people do not care anyway, let’s just leave it as it is.  This is, of course arrant nonsense.  It is perfectly feasible for the House of Commons to be doing two or even three things at once.  Discussing House of Lords reform does not put the economic debate on hold.  Can the government find time to produce a budget if it is reforming the Lords?  Of course it can.

Whether the British public do not care about Lords reform is also a moot point.  Existing members of the Lords and opponents of reform blithely make this statement without any evidence to back it up.  Yet the expenses scandal in Parliament, the Leveson inquiry into press standards and the recent interest rate fixing scandal involving the big banks, suggest that the British public are less likely to go along with what they have been told than they might have in the past.  Keeping the existing arrangement just because it has ‘always been that way’ may not be something the British public will buy into.

All the main three political parties had reform of the Lords in their manifestos for the last election and it formed a key part of the Coalition agreement.  Now that it comes to the crunch however right wing Tories are bleating that this is a LibDem policy, not realising that when they signed up to the Coalition they might have to do some things they did not agree with.  The opposition in Tory ranks is such that it is being seen as a test of Cameron’s leadership.  For many LibDems it is a key test of whether or not the Coalition actually holds water for them, rather than as a Tory front.

For the rest of us this has the potential to be great spectator sport.  The Coalition at loggerheads to the point where it might fall apart, or the possibility of actual reform of the Upper Chamber, hence the win-win scenario.

In the general scheme of things neither outcome is likely to result in anything revolutionary.  However, the real fear of the reactionaries is that if you unpick the House of Lords where do you stop; is the Monarchy next?  It would be the logical step and would continue the questioning of the assumptions about the British state upon which the ruling class rely.  The more challenges there are, the greater the chance of change.  Sit back and enjoy the show.

4th July 2012

Culture of entitlement, culture of greed

What an unbelievable week we have just had for exposing the iniquities of the capitalist system and the hypocrisy of those who are at the helm.

Last week UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, was chastising comedian Jimmy Carr for his tax arrangements which, although legal, the PM regarded as morally indefensible.  Even Labour leader Ed Miliband was able to spot an open goal here, pointing out to Cameron that changing tax arrangements was merely a matter of changing the law, something he could do as Prime Minister.   The popular press were also quick to point out that many of Cameron’s mates, not least pop idol Gary Barlow, enjoyed similar tax arrangements yet escaped criticism.

Never one to heed advice the Prime Minister instead ploughed on with a speech condemning what he described as the ‘culture of entitlement’ around welfare benefits.  A variety of measures, including not paying housing benefit to anyone under 25 years old, were articulated.  Never mind any social consequences; the Exchequer could save £10bn a year, not to be sneezed at in these austere times!

On the same day public service union PCS were on strike against the possible loss of 10,000 civil service jobs in the income tax collection section.  The local PCS representative pointed out that tax avoidance and evasion cost the country £120bn a year, much of which would be lost if jobs were cut.   What a surprise there, Cameron once again having a go at the wrong end of the social spectrum, going after the peanuts instead of tackling those who own the plantation!  Culture of entitlement?  You bet!

A bad week got worse with the news of the Barclays interest rate rigging scandal, the intricacies of which mere mortals cannot comprehend, but put simply is the rich boys in the city being on the fiddle again to line their own pockets.  Could it be that old culture of entitlement knocking on the door once more? Maybe, but watch this one unfold and see how many wind up in jail!

Barclays Chief Executive, arrogant American Bob Diamond, has had to take the fall but claims, naturally, that he knew nothing about the goings on elsewhere in the organisation and would not have fixed inter bank lending rates.  Rogue traders were on the loose in Barclays, how could Bob be expected to know?

Speaking to the Treasury Select Committee Diamond claimed that he was ”physically ill” when he heard about the  behaviour of these traders.

“I don’t feel personally culpable”, said Diamond, “but what I do feel is a strong sense of responsibility, a very strong sense that when we find mistakes we recognise them, we are open about them.”

How much digging will be done to find out if this is bullshit or not remains to be seen.  After all, the press and MPs are hardly whiter than white, following the Parliamentary expenses scandal and the Leveson Inquiry revelations about the press.  With a potential pay off of £22m in his pocket it is also possible that Diamond’s fall will be cushioned.

It is becoming increasingly clear that fewer people are believing a word that the political, banking or business classes say.  It is clear too that, to coin a phrase, they are all in it together.  The rich get richer while the poor pay taxes, bail out failing businesses or pay off the gambling debts of the banks!  Commenting on Diamond’s resignation, Chancellor George Osborne said,

“I think Bob Diamond’s resignation is the first step towards the new age of responsibility we need to see.”

If only!

While Barclays have had to pay a fine of £290m for their misdemeanours, probably  recovered after two days trading, the scandal does not end there, as other banks including Lloyds/TSB and RBS remain under investigation.

The culture of entitlement is an endemic part of the capitalist system.  The culture of greed is part and parcel of the casino economy which investment banking represents.  In a socialist economy, with planned investment there can be no speculation, no betting on the rise and fall of shares, no one getting super rich as a consequence and no-one living in grinding poverty as a result.

George Osborne calls for a “new age of responsibility”, Ed Miliband is calling for a judge led inquiry.  Neither is going anywhere near far enough.  Until the system changes the culture of entitlement and greed will, like the poor, continue to be with us.

22nd June 2012

Cooperation – a bitter pill for capitalism

Gatherings of world leaders would appear to be one of the only growth industries at the moment.  The eurozone crisis alone generates regular summits of European leaders to combat the latest threat of default or collapse from Greece or Spain or Italy.  The G20, leaders of the world’s most powerful economies, gathered in Mexico this week to consider the state of the world economy.  Later in the week a somewhat diluted group of world leaders gathered to consider the state of the environment at the Rio+20 summit.

It is ironic that without a life sustaining environment the economic and political debates of the other summits would be academic.  However, it is a fair bet to assume that the G20 will be more concerned about how the election to the chair of oil producing cartel OPEC goes, than anything which comes out of the Rio+20.  The horizons of politicians rarely reach beyond the next election and with so many elections on the way it is unlikely that any lasting solutions will come out of the current round of meetings.

It is unfortunate then that even the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, judges there to be a black cloud which has descended over the global economy.  The Bank has announced recent steps to encourage mortgage and business lending and to keep UK banks afloat but even the banks themselves are sceptical about this approach.  One anonymous bank source, quoted on Radio 4 this week, suggested that banks having the money to lend was not so much the problem, as persuading businesses to risk borrowing in a weak economic climate.

Banks awash with money while businesses sit on their hands for fear of failure is hardly a strategy for economic growth.  This problem arises because the present government remains convinced that, combined with its public sector austerity drive, the way to economic growth is through the private sector.  The mantra of free trade and the market determining how the economy functions was surely laid to rest with the 2008 banking crisis, when several major banks would have gone under but for the intervention of the taxpayer.  Lloyds/TSB, still mostly in public ownership, even parades itself as one of the sponsors of the London 2012 Olympic Games!

In reality the likes of Lloyds/TSB, Royal Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock etc. are merely failed businesses which the government has chosen to bail out for fear of the consequences of them defaulting.  At a national level this is exactly the same process that is being discussed in relation to the weaker euro economies of Greece, Spain and Italy.  The consequences of default could be the collapse of the euro, a proposition European leaders are not yet prepared to contemplate, therefore one bailout after another is arranged.

Whether the ongoing cycle of summit/bailout/election/summit/bailout is sustainable is a moot point.  What the banking crisis and the sovereign debt crises indicate however is that the mantra of the market can be dispensed with in advanced capitalist economies, when the stakes get too high.  Once this is acknowledged, it is a small step to suggest that co-ordinated action for bank bailouts could actually be translated into co-ordinated action for growth.

Even a politician as conservative as FrancoisHollande in France has spotted this and reaped the popular reward in both presidential and parliamentary elections.  Translating the hope for growth into action will require Hollande to persuade other European leaders of the benefits of his approach.  As things stand another euro summit may find itself running out of options.  Investing in industry and infrastructure to re boost flagging confidence may be a necessity the euro elite have to recognise, even if it is a bitter pill for some of them to swallow.

At the G20 pressure has been applied to the European economies to allow the eurozone’s rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, to lend directly to countries.  The €750bn fund would, in effect, buy up the debt of the crisis hit economies thus reducing the cost of borrowing.

As a short term tactic this may alleviate some of the pressure upon the euro.  However the inevitable pressure for political union, to match economic and monetary union, will not go away.  From the moment the euro was born this question was always going to have to be answered.  It has been avoided for ten years; it will not be avoided for ever.

10th June 2012

Spanish stroll to euro exit?

No amount of crisis seems to be enough for the ruling powers in Europe to realise that the system cannot be fixed.  It is not just that the eurozone is in crisis.  The hand wringing over the euro is symptomatic of the contradiction in terms that the European Union has been from the start.  In short, capitalism does not do co-operation, at least not at any sustained or strategic level.  An alliance here, a partnership there to achieve specific objectives, of course, but the core business of the system is competition and that means winners and losers.

With the strongest currency the most productive economy and one of the lowest levels of arms spending the German economy was always going to be ahead of the game in the EU.  The extension of the EU to include many of the Eastern European and former Soviet countries last year reinforced the strength of the German’s position as many of these countries gravitated towards Berlin for trade and economic reasons.

It is ironic then that one of the eurozone’s ‘good boys’, Spain, finds itself on the brink of a bailout which is estimated to be anywhere up to €100bn.  Austerity in Spain started two years ago under socialist premier Zapatero and has stepped up since December when the People’s Party of Mariano Rajoy took office.  Health and education have been cut, jobs have been cut, youth unemployment alone is nearly 50%, and wages are being driven down.  Almost 6 million people are unemployed.  The Spanish people are taking the medicine so why the need for the bailout ‘cure’?

Needless to say the greed of the banks and property speculators is once again a major factor.  Having benefited from a decade of cheap interest rates the Spanish banks are now finding themselves overstretched, having agreed to loans which cannot be repaid.  The Spanish state has played its part, with investment in failed capital projects such a brand new airports and theme parks.  Now the investors are shifting their money from Madrid, consequently undermining confidence in the Spanish economy and hampering the government’s ability to pay its debts.

The economic pundits are already predicting that the initial bailout for Spain will not be the last.  Speaking about the limited bailout on offer Michael Derks of broker FxPro stated,

“Spain is awfully close to falling into a depression: it’s had massive capital outflows in recent months.  If you’re someone with money in a Spanish bank are you going to be placated by this?”

With the second Greek election in just over a month next weekend (17th June) the prospect of the anti-austerity parties making up more ground is significant.  The euro optimists were confident that an orderly exit from the euro by a relatively small economy such as Greece could be managed.  Spain however is the eurozone’s fourth largest economy.  No Spanish exit from the euro could be construed as orderly, hence the flurry of activity around the current bailout.

So far, action on the euro has necessitated limited co-operation by capitalist states to avert an even bigger crisis than the one currently engulfing Europe.   At some point though there will be a calculation to be made as to whether it would just be easier to cut and run.  Quite how the EU holds onto the fig leaf of European Unity when that day comes remains to be seen.

From Jubilee jamboree to Olympic overload

While the eurozone struggles on life in the UK would appear to be one long party over the Summer.  Having crammed the nation’s media with Jubilee festivities the BBC is now preparing itself for the coming Olympic extravaganza.  According to government estimates 6 million people participated in Jubilee activities which, even if it to be believed, is only 10% of the UK population, hardly the ringing endorsement for the monarchy which has been claimed.

Notwithstanding the temporary interventions of Euro 2012 (England down as no-hopers) and Wimbledon (Murray to exit heroically in the semis at best) all media eyes are now firmly trained on the Olympics.  The main sponsors, Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB seem to be immune from the criticism that they neither produce nor promote anything that could be remotely construed as Olympian, unless drinking coke in front of the TV while checking your bank balance is a late entry as an Olympic sport.

The Torch Relay, the showcase for involving the whole of the UK, (and Dublin for some reason) not just those ‘lucky’ enough to be in London, has indeed been getting crowds onto the streets.  Although comments such as, it is “essentially just a runner with a flame” are not the ones which usually get reported.  Runners themselves, initially aghast at having to pay £200 for the keeping of their torch can take comfort from the first sale on ebay of an Olympic Torch for £150,000.

Lost in the welter of commercialism are the original Olympic values of respect, excellence and friendship, enhanced by the paralympic values of courage determination, inspiration and equality.  Founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, famously stated that, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

The Games themselves do not start until 27th July and culminate with the ending of the Paralympics on the 9th September.  We may hear more about Olympic values before then but it may be as well to prepare for a long sponsor crammed summer.

5th June 2012

Queen of the South

The ruling class in the UK have spent the extended Bank Holiday indulging in an orgy of excess to mark the 60 years on the throne of their figurehead, Elizabeth Windsor.  The UK Queen has been both Head of State and leader of the established church, the Church of England, for this entire period.  If that were not a feat unprecedented in the annals of unelected rulers there is more.  The UK Queen is also Head of State in 16 other countries of the post-colonial Commonwealth, including economies as advanced as Australia and Canada, where the majority apparently still tolerate being subjects of the British Crown.

The open prejudice with which the UK’s state broadcaster, the BBC, has covered the Diamond Jubilee from the 2nd – 5th June is a remarkable departure from its charter to give balanced coverage to events.  A republican protest in London on the afternoon of the Queen’s £12m flotilla down the Thames was given passing mention but otherwise the State’s indulgence of the outmoded institution has passed without comment.

The BBC would of course be biting the hand that feeds it to do anything more than cravenly support the Jubilee but the extent to which it has overstated the popularity of the Monarchy, outside of the South East of England, still came through in its reporting.  News teams from around the country reported upon street parties from across the UK but these thinned noticeably in the North before disappearing into smoke over the border in Scotland.

While much was made of the masses on the streets of London and at the flotilla on the Thames, England’s second city, Birmingham, was noticeably thinner on celebration.  Perhaps the class and ethnic mix of the population resulted in less affinity with the London millionaire’s jamboree given the austere times we live in.  We are all in it together, really?

The arguments for retaining the monarchy are usually based upon the assumption that the institution enjoys mass support.  Any politician brave enough to raise the question of abolition can expect little more than a career in the backwaters of Westminster at best.  However, any informed public debate on the subject is shut down at every turn and the status quo is maintained at all costs.  Of course, as we have seen over the past year, with the unelected dictators of the Arab world, monarchs do not last forever and succession becomes an ever pressing question with a Head of State aged 86 years old.  The status quo is unsustainable.

The crisis point for the monarchy in the UK may well come with the demise of the present Queen around whom a cult of personality has gathered which, for the moment, appears to be unassailable given the political and media conspiracy to insist upon her popularity.  Her successor, Charles, appears to enjoy no such support, either from the public at large or within political circles in the UK.  His tendency to interfere in a range of matters outside his competence over the years has made him problematic to sell in PR terms.

The new wave of royals, in the shape of the ‘safely married’ William and Catherine with the rakish younger brother Harry, is designed to appeal to a younger constituency and preserve the monarchy into the 21st century.  The blurring of young royalty and the glitterati lifestyle of sections of the music industry is designed to sustain the illusion that the royal family is in effect a part of the UK plc entertainment industry.

The serious elements of the ‘modernisation’ debate includes allowing Catholics to accede to the throne but no mention of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs etc. and the right to accession passing to the first born even if she is a girl.  That such feeble variations are even seen to be making a dent in the equalities debate is of course laughable unless you look at them from the perspective that the monarchy is simply a given.  For the British ruling class, this is the case, so any change seems radical.

The contradiction between the shows of extravagance of the past four days, compared to the realities of life for many in the UK, will of course sink in eventually.  The present Queen has been moulded into an ‘institution’ by politicians and the media because it has been to their advantage to displace the debate about democracy in the UK to an unspecified future.  The future however has an uncanny tendency to become the present.  Reality will have to be faced.  The Queen is not dead and the monarchy is not yet up for debate, but neither can last forever.

2nd June 2012

Decision time looms for West on Iran

The first round of talks between the Western P5+1 group and Iran this year were held on 14th April in Istanbul. Both sides called the talks positive and constructive, announcing their readiness for a second round in Baghdad in May.  Since April the conflicting groups in the Iranian regime, around President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khamenei, have been disputing the stance to be taken in Baghdad.  Negotiations in Baghdad, on the 23rd/24th May, did not result in a definitive outcome but did end with agreement to hold further talks in Moscow on the 18th June.

While the western powers have been pushing for an absolute commitment from Iran that it will not enrich uranium to the level of 20%, deemed to be suitable for weapons development, the Iranians have pushed for the relief of the sanctions regime which has been imposed by the UN and EU.  The fact that lifting sanctions became the Iranian goal, as articulated by negotiator Saleed Jalili, was a victory for the faction around the Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Khamenei.  The Ahmadinejad camp had been insisting, contrary to all of the evidence, that sanctions are not hurting the country.

As well as wanting the sanctions regime to be lifted Iran wants to avert war and may be persuaded to make certain compromises.  However,  the dispute going on within the ruling factions, as to the extent of compromise they should make and whether the US can be trusted, may well continue at least until presidential elections in June 2013.  The regime also needs time to reassess the end game for its nuclear programme, given the serious harm that sanctions have done to the economy and the extent to which Iran is isolated in the West.

However, the Western position is somewhat complicated by the joker in the pack, in the form of Israel, which has taken an increasingly belligerent position in relation to the possibility of an attack upon Iran.  Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said that  a military strike against Iranian facilities is not out of the question, telling Army Radio that “a nuclear Iran is intolerable and no options should be taken off the table,” in relation to the use of force.  Barak claimed that the only way Israel could see Iran develop its civilian nuclear industry is if it shuts down all of its uranium enrichment sites and uses imported fuel.

The continued aggressive stance of the Israelis belies not only their own ‘secret’ nuclear programme but also their ongoing defiance of the international community in relation to the illegal occupation of Palestine in contravention of UN resolutions.  The extent to which the Israelis are acting with the tacit collusion of the West however was made evident when the UK media announced in May that Prime Minister, David Cameron, was to seek legal advice on the role the UK could play following any Israeli strike upon Iran.  Presumably the advice could only be, ‘it is illegal, it contravenes all norms of international behaviour, do not get involved’; we shall see.

With a US presidential election looming, and the promise of troops coming home from Afghanistan, a new intervention in Iran is hardly likely to go down well on the US domestic front.  The Israelis launching a pre-emptive strike would certainly put Obama on the spot, as any reluctance to back them would be pounced upon by his Republican opponents to suggest the President is ‘soft’ on Iran.  Any concession on the nuclear front would no doubt be presented in the same way.  If some concessions from Tehran do not emerge from Moscow the position of Obama could become more difficult.

The internal battle in Iran will only intensify in the period up to the presidential election in 2013.  In Israel, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, is toying with the dissolution of the Israeli parliament with any election already being discussed as a possible referendum on Iran.  President Barack Obama faces an election campaign in November and is conscious of the potential for Iran to become a major issue.  The outcome of the June talks in Moscow could be decisive for all three campaigns.

21st May 2012

Leaders of the “free world” lost for answers

The self styled ‘leaders of the free world’ have been in the United States over the past few days struggling with the international crisis of capitalism on two fronts.  The G8 leaders of the major economic powers, in shirt sleeves and pastel pullovers, have been at the President’s retreat in Camp David considering economic matters, not least the eurozone crisis.  At present, the armed wing of the current major capitalist powers, NATO, is meeting in Chicago to consider military matters, not least the retreat from the unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

While the politicians pontificate the players behind the scenes, the ‘markets’, in other words the bankers, speculators and gamblers of international capital, place their bets and hope that they come out with a profit.   The credit ratings agencies, part of this capitalist nether world have already set the tone.  Greek banks were recently given a CCC rating while Moody’s, one of the most powerful agencies, downgraded sixteen of Spain’s banks on Thursday, including Santander’s UK arm.

Earlier in the week the Spanish government were forced to bail out the country’s fourth biggest bank, Bankia, in order to avoid a run on its deposits.  Such a scenario would be equivalent to the panic which brought down Northern Rock in the UK.  In the present climate however the consequences of savers collectively withdrawing their cash could be catastrophic with the domino effect impacting across the continent.  Deposits in Greek banks have already, over the past three years, plunged from over €90bn to around €60bn at present.

With the economies of Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal all poised to wobble if a Greek exit from the euro does materialise it is little surprise that economists are openly stating that, “The biggest risk over the next month is from a bank run.”

Having failed to form a government following the 6th May elections, the Greek people will be back in the polling booths on the 17th June.  The pressure from European and world leaders will continue to be for them to vote for the failed parties that have signed up to the austerity memorandum on the assumption that austerity is better than being thrown out of the euro.

David Cameron stated quite categorically,

“We now have to send a very clear message to the people in Greece: there is a choice – you can either vote to stay in the euro, with all the commitments you’ve made, or if you vote another way you are effectively voting to leave.”

In many ways the position that Cameron, and by implication the G8 leaders are taking, makes the issue clear as this is, in effect, the choice to be made by the Greek people.  The overall calculation of the Greek people earlier this month was that they had little to lose as the anti austerity parties increased their votes at the expensive of the traditional parties.

However, the successful left-wing alliance Syriza will need to grapple with the choice posed by Cameron if it is to repeat its success.  Its current position of being anti-austerity but pro euro will be seen to be increasingly contradictory as the debate unfolds over the next month.

NATO seeks at the Chicago Summit (20/21st May) to promote its “New Strategic Concept”, which was approved in Lisbon (November 2011)

The ‘concept’ seeks to strengthen military operations, beyond the sphere of the alliance, including activity legitimised by the UN (with which it has signed a collaboration agreement), as was demonstrated by the recent war in Libya.

The ‘concept’ further outlines the role of NATO in coordinating with similar forces formed by the EU, as well as with the so-called “Partnership for Peace”.  This is effectively an attempt to integrate all the countries which seek links with NATO in this organisation.  In the name of “smart defence” it has re-adjusted its structure, increased its expenditure on NATO infrastructure projects, unified its military structure and command, and modernised its nuclear and conventional weapons.

The ‘concept’ further expands the framework for activity against allegedly “new” and “asymmetric threats”, which are now being used as a pretext for the expansion of its activity such as Cyber-attacks, piracy, “terrorism”, proliferation of ballistic and nuclear weapons, “energy security”, climate changes, immigration, water shortages etc. as well as extending the so-called “pre-emptive wars” and reinforcing its capability to achieve a “first nuclear strike”, through the installation of the so-called “anti-missile shield” in Europe.

Every effort will of course be made to present the defeat in Afghanistan as a strategic success in the war against terror and briefings to praise the Afghan forces which will take over NATO operations are already underway.  In reality the adventure in Afghanistan has been an abject failure, with the Taliban set to resume power once the NATO forces have settled upon the terms of retreat.  The arms manufacturers will have made their money but the war will have been of little benefit to anyone else.

7th May 2012

If voting changed anything…..

“If voting changed anything they would make it illegal”, claimed American anarchist Emma Goldman in the 1930’s although the phrase was later adopted by Ken Livingstone for the title of his book, “If voting changed anything they would abolish it” (1988). Galvanising enough votes to become Mayor of London once again was, ironically, beyond Livingstone last week.

On one level of course the statement is true. To change the system in any revolutionary way requires more than a vote in parliamentary or presidential elections. Which is not to say that these votes, or the engagement of the population in elections is irrelevant, it is not, but the limits of its potential for significant change need to be borne in mind.

Nevertheless, no sooner is the ink dry on Francois Hollande’s victory in the French presidential election than German Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown down the gauntlet in relation to the core promise at the heart of Hollande’s campaign. Merkel immediately declared, in inviting Hollande to talks in Berlin, that the EU fiscal compact is “not up for grabs”.

The core of the discussion, declared Merkel, is about “whether we are going to have again programmes for growth which are on the back of debt or indeed whether we are going to have programmes for growth that are sustainable and indeed rely on the competitiveness of the countries.”

As well as addressing the EU austerity programme Hollande has promised taxes of 75% for those earning over 1m euros; to hire 60,000 more teachers; to raise the minimum wage; and to lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers. As well as reflecting a new mood in France the election of Hollande will open up a new front in Europe to challenge the assumptions behind the austerity programme and, if successful, present a challenge to governments across the EU, including the UK.

As ever, the initial euphoria of Hollande’s victory needs to be tempered with some realism. Hollande needs to secure a majority in parliamentary elections in June if he is to deliver his programme. The strong showing of the Front National in the first round of the presidential vote underlines the potential for ongoing opposition to a programme of any socialist flavour. As well as the comments of Angela Merkel the new president will also have the ’markets’ to contend with in tackling the fiscal compact.

The outcome of the French election has been welcomed by many in Greece where elections have resulted in an inconclusive situation in parliament . The traditional PASOK and New Democracy parties failed to secure a significant percentage of the votes and a wide range of anti-austerity parties of Left and

Right make up a patchwork in parliament which may struggle to form a government. The paper of the Greek communists, the KKE, was alone in sounding a note of caution in the headline “Holland ’the socialist’ has taken charge of the policy of serving French capitalism”, going on to suggest that “Very soon the celebrations and hopes of the French people will be dashed by the new man in charge.”

In the long term the KKE‘s scepticism may turn out to be justified but the Front Gauche, including the French Communists (PCF), supported the election of Hollande as a step forward from the politics of punishing the poor pursued by Sarkosy. Indeed, the left and green coalition in Greece, Syriza, which the KKE did not join, won 16.6% of the vote, the second largest in the new parliament. The right wing New Democracy, as the largest party, will look first to form a coalition but ongoing uncertainly in Greece could yet lead to a further election in the not too distant future.

Elections in the UK last week also gave cause for some hope with the Liberal Democrat and Tory votes melting down and Labour making significant gains. The one ray of hope for many Tories was the success of Boris Johnson in the London Mayoral election, although David Cameron’s desire to see ’a Boris in every city’ was knocked on the head by nine of the ten cities voting on whether to change to a mayoral system, with only Bristol voting ’yes’.

Both George Osborne and David Cameron are emphasising no change of course, whatever the outcomes of votes in the UK, France or Greece on the direction of the UK economy.  As Francois Hollande has said “Austerity is no longer a foregone conclusion“; the Bullingdon boys may yet need to take note.

1st May 2012

Fill the streets on 1st May!

Working people across the world will be filling the streets to celebrate international workers day once again on 1st May this year.  There are exceptions of course to this general rule.  In Iran, where the theocratic dictatorship outlaws free trades unions, any celebration of 1st May requires workers to potentially take their lives into their hands to express their solidarity.

In the Gulf State dictatorships, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the rest, any protest will be clamped down upon ruthlessly should it raise its head.  It will be interesting to see how newly ‘liberated’ Iraq and Libya deal with any protest.  It will be especially interesting to see the response of the Egyptian authorities and just how tolerant they may be of the Arab Spring if it takes on a more militant character.

Across Europe there will be demonstrations on the streets of Greece, Italy, France, Portugal and Spain to name but a few.  There is no doubt that the demonstrations in Europe will oppose the current Merkel/Sarkosy driven austerity drive in the EU and back proposals for growth and investment, in the short term, to arrest the current crisis.

In the long term many of those out on the streets in support of the communist and workers parties will know that capitalism, in spite of its resilience and capacity to twist, turn, change and give concessions to stave off its decline, is fundamentally doomed.  Any system which cannot feed and house its population, while paying its bankers and property speculators millions, cannot survive indefinitely.

The current crisis and the response to it is the tip of this particular iceberg.  The 11% vote in the French presidential elections for Jean-Luc Melanchon, while not as high as hoped, was still a huge vote of no confidence in the EU austerity programme as well as providing a positive platform for progressive ideas.  A victory for Francois Hollande on 6th May, while not exactly installing a socialist regime in France, will nevertheless be a step forward from the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkosy, which has done little to address issues for the French working people and much to line the pockets of the rich.

The Greek election, also on the 6th May, will undoubtedly change the balance of the Parliament, while the recent collapse of the Dutch government demonstrates that even the closest allies of Angela Merkel cannot rest easy.  The Dutch appear to be delaying an election until after the summer.  It will be interesting to see how the public mood has shifted by that point, especially if the leadership in France changes.

In the UK of course 1st May is not a public holiday.  In fact, if the Tory led coalition have their way, the token first Monday in May Bank Holiday, a poor substitute for May Day itself, will be replaced by an October Bank Holiday, possibly to mark Trafalgar Day on 21st October.  Whether the Labour Party, TUC or any elements of the labour establishment will resist this remains to be seen.

However, whatever they do and whatever they say, 1st May will internationally remain the day on which workers rights and achievements are remembered and celebrated.  It is the day on which workers across the world recognise, not the petty national differences with which the ruling classes distract them, but what they have in common and what they can achieve when they use their power to unite.  As Marx and Engels famously declared in the conclusion to their Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848),

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.  The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.”

The truth remains the truth, however long it may take to become apparent.

21st April 2012

Blood on the tracks?

The furore over the Formula One race in Bahrain this week has focused attention once again upon the relationship between politics and sport.  At what point and under what circumstances is it unethical to proceed with a sporting event in the face of repressive human rights activity?

The question of course raises more questions than answers.  After all, the Bahraini ‘kingdom’ is a single family dictatorship in which the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa family hold sway over the country’s Shia majority.  The BBC talks about discussions with the Bahraini ‘government’ but there is no democratic structure in the kingdom and any so-called government representative is merely a mouthpiece for the oil rich al-Khalifas.

Unperturbed by the chaos around them the ruling family are able to indulge in the usual platitudes.

“I genuinely believe this race is a force for good, it unites many people from many different religious backgrounds, sects and ethnicities,” Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who owns the rights to the event, said on Friday.

This, in spite of the fact that dozens of armoured vehicles and security forces in riot gear have been deployed along the road to the Bahrain International Circuit and around the capital, Manama.  Activists have also reported that barbed wire has been installed near some parts of the main highway.

If F1 was to engage in any ethical consideration of where its races are staged it would not be in Bahrain in the first place.  However, the ruling elite of F1 have never seen dictatorship in the Arab world as an impediment to making money and, in spite of the opposition protests, are unlikely to be troubled by their consciences this weekend.  Motor racing is not alone in this hypocrisy.  The decision of FIFA to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a nation not known for its footballing history or with any semblance of democratic tradition, could also be a page from the F1 book; money talks and that appears to be all that counts in the sphere of international sport.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg of course.  The role of the UK in supporting dictators in the Arab world and beyond is well documented, in particular the history of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  In a visit to Saudi Arabia in January this year UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, was trying to persuade the Saudis to buy Typhoon Eurofighters after their success in the Libyan war.   Saudi Arabia is Britain’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East with bilateral trade worth £15bn a year and Saudi investment in the UK worth more than £62bn.

The Saudi army was instrumental in helping the Bahrainis crush demonstrations when protests in the kingdom started in February last year.

In September last year David Cameron spoke at the UN General Assembly stating that,

“As people in North Africa and the Middle East stand up and give voice to their hopes for more open and democratic societies, we have an opportunity – and I would say a responsibility – to help them.”

Perhaps the Arab Spring only extends to those governments with whom the British government does not have such extensive ties?  Support for the opposition in Bahrain has been decidedly lukewarm compared to that for rebels in Libya and Syria for example.   Opposition voices in Saudi Arabia are stamped out on the instant.

British hypocrisy on the question of democracy is not confined to the Middle East.  Earlier this month Cameron toured south-east Asia on a trade mission, promoting British weapons and defence technology with representatives from major arms manufacturers in tow.  In Indonesia,  he announced a multimillion-pound deal with the national airline and praised “an inspiring democracy”, ironic given the Indonesian government’s dubious attitude to peaceful demonstration and religious freedom with reports of torture and extrajudicial executions by the country’s security services.

It would be nice if those who drive for F1 teams, or even the teams themselves, were to take a stand and boycott Bahrain in protest at the lack of democracy and repression of human rights.  That this will not happen is some reflection upon the teams and drivers but as much about the messages put out by the international community.  The international community deals with the oil states as if they were in some way ‘normal’ functioning societies; the banking community invests extensively in the oil states; the stability of oil supply and having ‘friends in the Arab world’ is usually wheeled out as sufficient justification.

Given the position taken by world leaders in relation to the Gulf state dictatorships it would be surprising to see a group of millionaire racing drivers break ranks.

16th April 2012

Prenez le pouvoir!

The Front de Gauche (Left Front), fronted by Jean-Luc  Mélenchon, is the most exciting aspect of the current French presidential elections.  Prenez le pouvoir, take power, is their campaign slogan and the coalition has brought together large sections of the Left under a single banner for the first time in many years.  As well as disaffected socialists, the Front de Gauche is also supported by the French Communist Party (PCF), helping to galvanise an otherwise pedestrian election campaign.

French voters go to the polls on the 22nd April in the first round ballot for president, then again in the second round run off on the 6th May.  Socialist Party candidate François  Hollande is just ahead in the polls at present but incumbent president Nikolas Sarkosy is making ground.  It is widely anticipated that Hollande and Sarkosy will contest the 6th May run off, so why is Mélenchon’s campaign so significant?

There are two main reasons.  Firstly the Front de Gauche campaign has been speaking directly to the concerns of disaffected voters and communities who have previously fallen in to the clutches of the fascist Front National.  While the FN have traded ageing despot Jean-Marie le Pen for his more media friendly daughter Marine le Pen they remain a viciously right wing, racist, anti-immigration outfit who play upon the fears of the white French population that they will be overrun by the North African ‘colonies’.

Mélenchon has been tackling the FN on their own territory, pointing out the similarities rather than the differences between the poor black and poor white population in France and urging common cause against the tax dodgers and bankers who have created the present crisis, for which the poor are being made to pay.  On this basis Mélenchon has made significant inroads into support that the FN has tapped into recent years and created a genuine contest for third place in the poll.  Bearing in mind that the FN under Jean-Marie le Pen reached the second round ballot in 2002 this is a significant achievement.

The second reason for the significance of the Front de Gauche campaign is the pressure it puts upon Hollande to stick to his more radical promises in order to secure crucial left votes in the second round vote on the 6th May.  Mélenchon’s ‘campaign for a 6th republic’ has called for a cap on incomes over €360,000 a year, the dismantling of Nato, control of the banks, withdrawal from Afghanistan, a referendum on the EU treaty, European “disobedience” and a right for workers to take over plants threatened with closure.

While Hollande is by no means a radical his promises to renegotiate the recently agreed EU fiscal treaty and his support for a jobs programme paid for by bank and wealth taxes, along with a 75% tax rate on those earning more than a million euros a year are in direct response to the pressure of the Mélenchon campaign.  The austerity front in the EU established by the Franco-German Merkel/Sarkosy alliance would be challenged by the election of even as mild a socialist as Hollande, while the campaign in France will also give heart to the Left in Greece where a snap election has been called, also for the 6th May.

With the markets wobbling over Spanish and Italian debt levels, and fear being expressed about rocking the boat in France if Sarkosy does not win, it is clear where the European banks see their interests as lying.  However, what has become clearer than anything else over recent years is that the interests of the banks are not necessarily those of the people.  The outcome of the French election in particular will give a clear indicator as to which way the scales may be tipping.

Istanbul cannot be the ‘last chance’

The pace at which the Islamic Republic of Iran is being made to negotiate over its nuclear energy programme means the likelihood of conflict in the region being escalated to a fullscale war footing will increase.

The P5+1 meeting of the permanent UN Security Council members and Germany, on 15th April, must be viewed in the context of the comments of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, on 31st March.  Clinton stated, after attending a security conference in Saudi Arabia, that,

“We’re going in with one intention: to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. Our policy is one of prevention, not containment. We are determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“We enter into these talks with a sober perspective about Iran’s intentions. It is incumbent upon Iran to demonstrate by its actions that it is a willing partner and to participate in these negotiations with an effort to obtain concrete results.”

There is a grave danger that the Secretary of State will be seen to be too closely associated with the Israeli and Saudi Arabian regimes for any of her statements on behalf of the US government to be taken seriously in Tehran.

The language of the United States sounds increasingly like the language of ultimatum.  There is no evidence that Iran is an imminent threat in terms of the level of its nuclear programme, which it continues to claim is for peaceful civilian purposes.  However, the US continues to convey the impression that  there is an immediate danger emanating from Tehran and this can only stoke tensions in an already sensitive part of the world.

Concern has also been expressed that Mrs Clinton’s remarks follow closely upon the announcement by President Barack Obama that the US  is to proceed with penalties which will choke off Iran’s oil revenue while working with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to safeguard oil supplies.  Obama has talked about the Istanbul meeting being a ‘last chance’ for diplomacy.

The struggle for peace in the region is indivisible from that of the struggle for democracy in Iran itself.  Inside Iran, officially, the unemployment rate is almost 15% while the number of those living under the poverty line is more than 20% of the total population.  A new super rich minority, which has its roots in the Islamic clergy and has been involved in the highest echelons of the military and state apparatus, controls state power.  The regime’s political, economic and social outlooks are frighteningly backward and reactionary.

The Iranian economy is in tatters because of the economic sanctions imposed so far.  It is the Iranian people who are paying the price for the sanctions to date and will be the main victims of any conflict.

The demands to be made of Iran at the P5+1 meeting in Istanbul, to shut its underground nuclear facility at Fordo, to stop enriching uranium to 20%, and to hand over the estimated 100kg of uranium already enriched to that level, echo those pressed upon Barack Obama by Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu at a White House meeting last month.

The framing of these demands reinforces the impression that the P5+1 meeting could be a case of the Israeli tail wagging the UN Security Council dog.  Ironic, given Israel’s own track record in obeying UN demands.  Pressing the case for peace in the region and for continued negotiation is the only way to make progress.  Far from Istanbul being seen as a ‘last chance’ it should be the opportunity for peace in the Middle East to be at the top of the UN agenda and give hope to the people of Iran and the wider region.

4th April 2012

Thatcher’s Legacy of Shame

The 30th anniversary of what the BBC still refers to as the ‘liberation’ of the Falkland Islands has been dominating news coverage in the UK this week.  It is at times like this that the BBC goes into full blown mouthpiece of the state mode, where not even the most rabid of the Tory right could accuse the Beeb of being infested by Lefties.  On the contrary, the exhortation for balanced news coverage, which is integral to the BBC charter, seems to get a waiver at times of national celebration or commemoration.  The fact is that 2012 is going to be full of this with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, much balanced reporting there, and the London 2012 Olympics yet to come.

When the Argentine junta took the deeply flawed and clearly politically adventurist decision to invade the Falklands thirty years ago it was the last gasp of an unpopular regime desperate to shore up its domestic credibility.  The 20th century in Argentina had not been characterised by a strong grip on the democratic process, from the Peronistas in the 1950’s, including the irrationally romanticised Eva Peron, to the junta in power by 1982.  Retaking the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) was seen as an easy win by the generals in power, given the islands’ proximity to the Argentine mainland and the distance of 8,000 miles from the UK.

Initial reports of a group of fishermen having landed on the islands were quickly confirmed as an invasion by Argentina.  The UK government clearly had some decisions to make.  Elected in 1979, committed to a programme of privatisation, rolling back ‘the state’, deregulation of the City of London and generating mass unemployment, the Thatcher government was a deeply unpopular regime desperate to shore up its domestic credibility.

The decision to send a Task Force to the South Atlantic was indeed a calculated gamble.  Covering 8,000 miles and sustaining a credible threat to retake the islands was not a guaranteed success.  The propaganda machinery of the Murdoch press quickly swung behind the government however once the die was cast and any voices raised against the military adventure were quickly drowned out as unpatriotic.  The feverishness of the tabloids was characterised by the now infamous ‘Gotcha’ headline in The Sun when the ageing Argentine vessel the General Belgrano, outside of the combat zone and heading away from it, was illegally sunk by the Royal Navy.

However, even at such a distance, the professional soldiers of one of the world’s most powerful military forces were likely to prevail over the callow conscripts rounded up by the Argentine generals.  In the end 255 UK soldiers lost their lives and over 650 Argentines.  For the generals the adventure had failed and their dictatorship collapsed the following year with varying degrees of democratic government having succeeded them since.

For the Thatcher government and her supporters the war was a turning point.  Galvanised by the victory and spurred on by the Murdoch press the 1983 General Election was a humiliation for the Labour Party and its leader Michael Foot, a rare man of principle in politics and a founder member of CND.  The renegades of the SDP had split from Labour prior to the election in 1981, unable to stomach anything approaching a socialist programme for reform under Foot’s leadership.  The 1983 Labour election manifesto, characterised as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ by the right, was in fact the most radical programme put before the British electorate by a mainstream party since 1945.

The Labour Party being split and in disarray the way was open for the abject leadership of Neil Kinnock, whose failure to back the miners, in their heroic strike of 1984/85, paved the way for the more openly Thatcherite politics of Tony Blair in the 1990’s.

The so called ‘liberation’ of the Falkland Islands was not a victory of the plucky UK over the Argentine aggressor;  it was not a case of our lads beating the Argies.  It was part of a wider process in which the tide of politics in the UK was turned away from supporting the great collective reforms of the welfare state, council housing and nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy and towards the politics of privatisation, booming bankers profits and despair for many.

Thirty years on, that is no cause for celebration.

27th March 2012

Papering over the cracks

As a man whose family fortune was made in the wallpaper business you would expect Chancellor George Osborne to know a thing or two about papering over the cracks.  Last week’s budget revealed that, in spite of an Eton education and undergraduate years quaffing champers with the Bullingdon boys, George may have found time to get that all important painting and decorating NVQ.

Unfortunately it would appear that George was by no means an A student as within 24 hours his attempts to make do and mend were showing signs of peeling at the seams.  The so-called ‘Granny Tax’ i.e. freezing the level at which pensioners pay tax on their income, was the first sign that George had not mixed the paste properly.  Pensioners will be paying £3.3bn more by 2016 in order to fund George’s promise of fiscal ‘simplicity’.

It was indeed tragic that a budget which should have had the record levels of youth unemployment in its sights, by offering opportunities for investment, growth and jobs, put so much emphasis upon the opposite end of the age spectrum.  The outcomes for both young people and pensioners however were not positive.  So much for addressing the root causes of last summer’s Tottenham riots.  Look out for more of the same this year.

There has been much lobbying from those paying the top rate of tax, 50p in the £ for earnings over £150,000, to cut the rate in order to encourage entrepreneurship.  Business people simply cannot afford to expand under this tax burden and cutting the rate will free up resources for expansion, investment and growth; or so the story goes.

However, no less a figure than Financial Times Chief Economist Samuel Brittan has suggested that cutting the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p will do little or nothing to “unleash a torrent of entrepreneurial energy” without banks being encouraged to lend for investment.  For Brittan of course the cut should have been to 40p!  While the government will claim that the recently announced National Loan Guarantee Scheme is intended to address the issue of bank lending there is little confidence that it will encourage banks to lend more than they would have anyway.

The budget did of course remove two million people from paying income tax at the poorer end of the spectrum but the fact that they are having to work for less than £10,000 anyway speaks volumes.  With the promise of an extra £10 billion in welfare cuts to come (on top of the £18 billion already promised) there is little room to argue that the poor are doing well out of this government.  Indeed the promise of regional pay bargaining in the public sector will not only exacerbate the divide between rich and poor but will actively entrench regional disparities in wealth distribution.

As Larry Elliott points out in The Guardian (22/3/12), the budget neither introduces any measures for growth nor does it hold out the promise that growth will come.  As Elliott points out,

“Growth was feeble in 2011, will remain feeble in 2012 and, on the face of it, there seems no reason why it should accelerate to 2.5% next year and 3% in 2014, which is what has been pencilled in by the Office for Budget responsibility.”

15th March 2012

Spain resists realities of the past

The death of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, in 1975 was widely welcomed across the world but in particular in Spain.  Franco had launched a coup against the legitimate Republican Government of Spain in July 1936 which would have faltered but for the intervention of active support from the armies of Hitler and Mussolini.  The Western (i.e. US, Britain, France) policy of “non-intervention” in the Spanish War gave the fascists a free hand, with only the heroic volunteers of the International Brigades and the stretched resources of the Soviet Union prepared to help the fledgling republic.

Franco’s victory in the summer of 1939 opened the way for Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the beginning, officially, of the Second World War.

Franco’s death heralded a return to democracy of sorts in Spain with the restoration of the constitutional monarchy and free elections.  However, the investigation into the crimes of the fascist regime has been restricted by the interpretation to date of the Amnesty Law 1977 which has sought to effectively smother Spain’s past and bury the crimes of the regime; until recently.  Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, has opened up the debate in Spain by attempting to investigate crimes carried out under the former dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

In October 2008, Garzon launched an unprecedented inquiry into “crimes against humanity” during the Franco era, promising to investigate the disappearance of tens of thousands of people and ordering the excavation of mass graves.  A right-wing civil servants’ union accused him of over-reaching his judicial powers by breaching the official amnesty that drew a line under the Franco era in 1977. Under heavy pressure, he withdrew the investigation but he was charged with violating the amnesty law.

Garzon is facing three trials widely regarded as a vendetta by the Spanish Left.  In the first, which concluded last month, Garzon was found guilty by Spain’s Supreme Court of authorising illegal recordings of lawyers’ conversations. He has been banned from the legal profession for 11 years. The court said he could not appeal against the ruling.  The second trial is the one which will both be more controversial and will have wider implications for the country, whatever the result, as it will look at Garzon’s attempts to investigate the Franco regime.

Garzon is loved by some, in particular the relatives of people who went missing under Franco’s regime but is hated by others who feel he is a politically motivated judge who seeks controversy and the media limelight.  As far as the Right are concerned the judge has ‘form’ as the man who attempted to put the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, on trial.  Pinochet was arrested in the UK in 1998 and detained for 18 months while Spain’s extradition request was considered. In the end, it was ruled he was too frail and he was allowed to go home.

Garzon has by no means always been a darling of the Left.  In the 1990’s he led an investigation into death squads organised by the Socialist government in the 1980s to fight Basque separatists. The revelations were credited with helping the centre-right defeat the left in 1996 elections.  Garzon was also active in Madrid’s crackdown on the Basque separatist group Eta and is reported to have been on the group’s list of assassination targets.  He is also currently charged with dropping an investigation into the head of Spain’s biggest bank, Santander, after receiving payments for a course sponsored by the bank.

However, his most significant profile is associated with Garzon’s attempts to open up the crimes of the Franco years.  The establishment in Spain are closing ranks against the implications for those currently in power of having colluded in covering up the country’s past.  The line of defence has been to suggest that as many ‘crimes’ were committed by the Republican as by the fascist side in the war itself.  However, whatever any Republicans may have been guilty of, they were fighting in defence of a legitimately elected government, they did not operate a forty year long dictatorship.

In the struggle to reclaim Spain’s past, the trials of BaltasarGarzon will continue to attract significant international media attention in the coming months.  If Spain is to move forward in the twenty first century it must come to terms with its role in the twentieth.  That means not just drawing a line under the actions of the Franco dictatorship but actively denouncing them.

999 – answer the call to save the NHS

A message from Dave Prentis,
UNISON general secretary

Over the past year, we’ve worked hard to defeat the hated Health and Social Care Bill.

But the battle continues as the bill nears the end of its passage through Parliament.

We have only days to save our NHS, so I am asking you to take one last action.

The bill threatens to end the NHS as we know it, with competition replacing compassion and profit becoming more important than patients.

The bill has its third and final reading in the House of Lords on Monday 19 March.

This is the last realistic chance for politicians to block the bill from becoming law.

So if you only do one thing this week, contact a member of the House of Lords via the TUC Going to Work website . It only takes a minute.

This is our last chance to protect the NHS for this and future generations. Please take action now.

For information on further action you can take, visit

6th March 2012

Israeli hawks circle the White House

The current visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House is the latest attempt to tie in the Obama administration to an Israeli view of the issues in the Middle East. In an election year even a politician as astute as Barack Obama recognises that, in the US, there is no re-election without the Jewish lobby being onside.

Conversely, Netanyahu is equally aware that such a reliance is also a vulnerability and the opportunity to press the case for a harder line on issues such as Palestine and Iran is one to be grasped. Both leaders are walking a fine line. Obama may well calculate that an armed intervention in Iran is not going to win any votes at a time when troops are being returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Netanyahu may calculate that an attack on Iran will either force Obama’s hand, or help push a more right wing candidate into the White House.

At present the domestic balance appears to be in Obama’s favour.  A full page advert in the Washington Post, place by retired Generals and intelligence officers recently, urged Obama to Say No to War of Choice with Iran.  In addition a recent Pew Research poll suggests that 51% of Americans want the US to remain neutral if Israel attacks Iran.  A majority, if a slim one.

It is certain that the stakes are very high. Things are further complicated by the power struggle going on inside Iran at the moment in the build up to next years presidential election. The recent parliamentary elections were played out entirely between hardline factions as the opposition Green Movement or reform minded candidates were effectively barred from taking part.

Initial reports from the elections suggest that the more conservative faction around Ayotollah Khamenei has tightened its grip in the Majlis (parliament). Reuters News Agency reported that,

“The widespread defeat of Ahmadinejad supporters – including his sister, Parvin Ahmadinejad – is expected to reduce the president to a lame duck after he sowed divisions by challenging the utmost authority of Khamenei in the governing hierarchy.”

While the outcome will not change the foreign policy position of the Islamic Republic it will certainly boost Khamenei’s influence in next year’s presidential election.

Reuters reported that with 90 percent of ballot boxes counted, Khamenei acolytes were expected to occupy more than three-quarters of the 290 seats in the Majlis. In the race for the 30 seats in the capital Tehran, a Reuters tally of preliminary returns showed Khamenei supporters had taken 19 and pro-Ahmadinejad candidates the rest.

Whether such an outcome spurs the Israelis to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities remains to be seen but it will certainly not dilute the volatility of the politics of the Middle East in the short term. The Obama line is to wait for sanctions to bite on the Iranian regime, the Israeli attack dog may not be so patient. Either way, the people of Iran will pay.

From attacks to tax

In the UK the positioning ahead of the budget in two weeks time is beginning with Business Secretary Vince Cable leading the line inside the coalition for the Liberal Democrats. A letter to David Cameron, suggesting that the government has no “compelling vision” for business other than reducing the deficit, has received widespread attention. His interview on Radio 4 (6/3/12) suggesting that the LibDems would trade off the 50p rate of tax for a mansion tax has equally raised eyebrows as a piece of negotiating in public ahead of the budget.

The debate over the 50p tax rate is in any event a red herring. The rate kicks in for those earning over £150k and a number of this impoverished elite are boo-hooing that the rate stifles business creativity! The reality is that most have engaged creative accountants to get them off paying it in any case!

The mansion tax idea is based on taxing properties on their value over £2m. While it too would have its problems it would largely hit the rich and ensure that they paid, if not their fair share, at least something towards reducing the deficit their mates created.

A really good idea would be to retain the 50p tax rate and introduce the mansion tax too – just for starters; do not hold your breath for George Osborne to buy that one!



26th February 2012

Another Tsar bites the dust

The Russian Tsars were a well known set of thieves and murderers who tyrannised, robbed and impoverished much of Russian society. That they were over thrown by the Bolsheviks and shot following the 1917 revolution should come as no surprise.

It is strange, given this history, that the tendency of governments in recent years in the UK, when they appoint an eminent ‘adviser’, is to dub them the Tsar of this that or the other. We have had drugs Tsars, crime Tsars and more recently a families Tsar, the now notorious Emma Harrison. It is a form of poetic justice, given the fate of their namesakes, that the careers of modern Tsars should end in tears.

Harrison heads up the company A4e which earned £180m last year from public contracts to manage the governments workfare programme and get ‘problem families’ back to work. In spite of not meeting its targets Harrison paid herself £8.6m in dividends from the company. Four former employees are being investigated for fraud and a former subcontractor is being investigated by police.

The Harrison scandal is another dimension of the crony capitalism to which the coalition government is prone, as it lines up lucrative contracts for the private sector in its dismantling of public services. The proposals for health reform have private sector health firms waiting in the wings, like vultures looking to pick over the bones of the NHS. Private companies running education is already on the cards while the pressure for local authorities to further privatise local government services continues to grow.

This all chimes in with Prime Minister David Cameron’s belief that business is “the most powerful force for social progress the world has ever known.” Yet the increasing monopolisation of markets, which is an inevitable feature of capitalism, is neither condemned nor challenged by Cameron, presumably because it would threaten too much of the Tory Party’s funding. The opportunity to break the hold of the high street banks for example has amounted to little more than selling Northern Rock to Virgin.

While Cameron will pay lip service to the need for change, suggesting for example that “we should use this crisis of capitalism to improve markets” the vested interests which the Tories represent are not going to allow any significant movement, let alone anything that whiffs of ’social progress’ in any real sense. Business as usual? You bet!

Syria – West openly supports opposition

Voting is under way in Syria on a new constitution that could theoretically end five decades of one-party rule. Opposition activists are calling for a boycott of the vote while the government continues its assault on their strongholds, in particular the city of Homs. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, unveiled the proposed new national charter earlier this month in his latest reform pledge since protests erupted last March.

Much of the country is still subject to military assault with army defectors engaged in a guerrilla campaign against loyalist troops.  Against this background it is not clear how the ballot outcome will have an impact.  The violence since last March has left more than 7,600 people dead, monitors say.  Syria blames the violence on “armed terrorist gangs”.

An international gathering in Tunisia over the weekend saw the formation of the Friends of Syria in opposition to the current regime. The meeting called for a ceasefire in the current conflict to allow humanitarian aid to reach areas such as Homs. In an echo of the recent conflict in Libya the UK government has moved to recognise the Syrian National Council (SNC) with Foreign Secretary, William Hague, calling upon the states represented to “tighten the diplomatic and economic stranglehold” on the Syrian government.

However, the SNC does not command a majority of support amongst the Syrian opposition and it is impossible to gauge its level of popular support within the country at this stage. Certainly, in spite of the Russians and Chinese attempting to put a break on intervention, the Syrian regime is losing friends in the Arab world including the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

Ironically, one of the strongest calls for intervention at the Tunis conference came from the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal describing the arming of the Free Syrian Army as an “excellent idea”. Indeed such is the dictatorship’s taste for intervention that the Saudi delegation walked out of the conference citing the “inactivity” of the member states.

At the post conference press briefing US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, played down calls for intervention and emphasised the need to focus upon the areas of agreement, primarily the call for humanitarian aid and to step up sanctions. Clinton will be conscious too that with resources still committed in Afghanistan and warmongering continuing in relation to Iran, going too far too soon in Syria may stretch even the resources of a superpower.

The West clearly wants to create a position of influence in Syria, which it currently does not enjoy; whether it can control the spiralling pace of events may be another matter.

19th February 2012

Take the money and run

The message seems to be getting through to most people that the government are not to be trusted with their reforms of the NHS.  Even the government themselves are running scared of professional opinion.  At a summit to be convened by David Cameron this week to discuss the proposed reforms the PM has misplaced invites to the  representatives of doctors, the British Medical Association (BMA); the Royal College of Nursing; and the Royal College of Midwives.  In short, the key people engaged in the sharp end business of running the NHS.  As one journalist put it recently, if you are not inviting the doctors and nurses to discuss the future of the NHS then who are you talking to?

The current Cabinet appear to have dug their trenches on the question of NHS privatisation however and are unprepared to listen to any arguments which demonstrate the inefficiency of their proposals.    In some areas the moves towards GP commissioning which the Bill proposes are already in hand, in anticipation of the Bill being enacted.  With the NHS having to find budget savings of up to £20 bn between 2011 – 2014 the attention of managers is already focussed upon looking at improving the system and making greater efficiencies.

Introducing a market for services, on top of the already challenging budget demands, is unlikely to result in reforms that will benefit the patient in the long term, or give reassurances about their care in the short term.  As things stand the number of patients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment has risen to over 22,600 according to latest figures to December 2011.  This is an increase from 7.1% of patients to 8.4% since the present government came into office.  No prizes for guessing from which end of the social spectrum those having to wait in the NHS queues belong.

Even those previously backing the governments reforms are beginning to turn against them.  Dr. Charles Alessi and Dr. Michael Dixon are leading lights in pro-reform organisations the NHS Alliance and the National Association of Primary Care.  They now fear that the reforms of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley will not give GPs the power previously promised  and the proposed ‘liberation’ will be swamped in a new layer of bureaucracy.    While the good doctors are looking at the argument through the wrong end of the telescope (no-one seriously wants GPs to have carte blanche to run the NHS) the fact that Lansley cannot even keep his natural constituency on board  is telling.

While the opposition to health reform gathers pace the creeping privatisation of the nation’s education system proceeds without very much fuss and even less outcry.  As Seamus Milne points out (Crony capitalism feeds the corporate plan for schools – The Guardian 15/2/12)’

“What now opens the way for more sweeping privatisation is the mushrooming of academies.  When the coalition came to power, there were a couple of hundred.  Cash sweeteners and forced conversions have now driven that to 1,529, including 45% of all state secondary schools.”

This is an astonishing shift in such a short space of time and in such an important sector of social policy.  The natural next step of course is for companies to run schools directly for profit and Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has given the go-ahead for the first of these, IES Breckland, to be run under a 10 year contract by Swedish firm IES.  The word is that such changes in the running of schools for profit will be introduced “very gently.”  So gently, indeed so quietly, that no one will notice perhaps?

The motivation for these changes is always wrapped in the flag of greater parental choice, more opportunities for children, a more flexible curriculum and, ultimately, better results.  This is of course emotional blackmail of the most cynical kind.  Which parent does not want the best opportunities and outcomes for their children?  However, as Milne goes on to point out,

“A forthcoming IPPR survey of the international research underlines both that non-commercial schools outperform for-profit providers and that the competitive private education markets favoured by the Tories are not a route to better results.”

In declaring that “we are all in this together” the coalition government made an easy stick with which they can be beaten at every opportunity.  The reality is that we are not all in it together.  There are some who will do very nicely out of the break up of the public sector, whether it is through local councils being forced to outsource services, or those who stand to profit from the reform of our health and education provision.  Those who need these services the most, and rely upon them because they are the least able to pay, will be the ones who are hit the hardest.

The cronies of the millionaire club coalition Cabinet, with access to private health care, private education and little reliance on their local Council for services, are not going to be worried about the dismantling of such provision.  They do not use these services, they do not care.  If allowed to they will simply take the money and run.

14th February 2012

Greece – is revolution possible?

Lenin famously characterised a revolutionary situation as one in which the ruling class were unable to rule in the old way and the people were not prepared to be governed in the old way.  Whether the situation in Greece technically fits Lenin’s definition or not, it is coming dangerously close to the people having little or no choice but to take drastic action if they are not to be impoverished for decades under the terms of the latest EU ‘bailout’ of the Greek economy.

The so-called bailout is not, of course, a bailout of the Greek people.  It is a bailout of the European banks, financial institutions and the Greek political class from a crisis which has at its heart the inability of capitalism to equitably distribute its vast resources; even within a continent wide club such as the EU there are still winners and losers.  That the Greeks are on the losing end of this spectrum has been evident for months and is now coming into sharp relief as the parties of the political  coalition, PASOK and New Democracy, stitch together a deal to save their skins.

What will the deal mean for the Greek people?  The so-called troika of the European Central Bank, the IMF and the EU are demanding that public spending cuts of €3.3bn are made this year; that the minimum wage is cut by 22%; that 150,000 public sector jobs will be cut by 2015; and that privatisations will be accelerated.  Yet the evidence is clear that the medicine is worse than the disease.  Only two years ago a €110 bn rescue package (the current one is €130 bn) was agreed with the same prescription.  The consequence of the first austerity package has been that the Greek economy is spiralling into chaos, so why should the same solution this time bring about different results?

For the past five years of recession the Greek people have faced relentless wage and pensions cuts, tax rises and cost cutting reforms.  Official European statistics claim that more than one third of the nation are living in poverty and that 1 in 5 people are unemployed.  The general strikes led by the PAME trades union front over the past week have attracted thousands onto the streets in cities across Greece.  Support for the Communist Party (KKE) is growing as their General Secretary, AlekaPapariga and the parliamentary group of the KKE, lead the opposition both inside and outside of parliament.

In a speech on the bailout debate Papariga ended a diatribe against the coalition parties by stating,

“The people will not avoid bankruptcy no matter what they do, even if they accept to work for free, for one, two or three years. Our position is: struggles which might prevent the worst. But in order to do this the people’s movement must be directed towards the succession of this political system by the political system of the workers’ and people’s power. Disengagement and unilateral cancellation of the debt; there is no other solution for the people”.

With elections scheduled for April the chances are that the strength of the KKE will grow.  However, it is also worth noting the opinion of Greek political commentator, GiorgosKyrtsos, who observed of the new austerity programme that,

“Martial law has to be imposed for these measures to be implemented.”

Whether Greece is close to a revolutionary situation or not, there are no absolute guarantees that such a situation will lead to revolutionary change.  The potential for a martial law situation and a militarily imposed austerity drive may yet be an option the EU and the international bankers prefer to the spectre of communism in their backyard.

5th February 2012

Wasted Youth

If anything confirms the waste of life which the unwinnable war in Afghanistan represents it is the leak this week of a secret US military report which says that the Taliban, heavily backed by Pakistan, are confident they can win the conflict in Afghanistan.  The report claims that the Taliban are confident of gaining popular support at the expense of the Kabul government which is seen as corrupt and under foreign influence.

The report, The State of the Taliban 2012, was drawn up by a US special operations taskforce on the basis of interrogations with 4,000 suspected Taliban and al-Qaida detainees.  The report concludes that not only are the Taliban’s strength and morale largely intact but that significant numbers of Afghan government soldiers are defecting to them.  This contrasts remarkably with NATO propaganda that the insurgent movement has been severely damaged and demoralised.

The report, leaked to the BBC and The Times, claims that the Taliban are under the thumb of Pakistan’s powerful security agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  The report finds that “Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.”

The authors are American researchers attached to special forces.  They conclude that the weakness and venality of the government in Kabul is an increasing source of strength for the insurgents. “In the last year, there has been unprecedented interest, even from [Afghan government] members, in joining the insurgent cause. Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over [the Afghan government], usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders.”

The report also quotes a senior al-Qaida detainee as saying: “Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad.”

The long overdue withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is now underway with completion expected to be by 2014.  In a conflict which has claimed thousands of civilian casualties and hundreds of deaths amongst foreign soldiers the leaked report will be a slap in the face for those who have in good faith supported the conflict as part of the “war on terror” in the Middle East.

Western intervention was never the answer to the situation in Afghanistan and the ability of the West to sustain the puppet regime in Kabul a day beyond the withdrawal of the final NATO soldier has to be severely in doubt.  However odious the Taliban, the fate of Afghanistan can only be resolved by the Afghan people themselves.  As NATO has shown, intervention for 10 years by the most powerful military alliance on the planet is, in effect, only leading back to the starting point.  Ten years of support by the international community for the democratic forces in Afghanistan may have been an altogether better use of time and resources.  It may well have cost fewer lives.

The rich get richer, the poor get left behind, again

The concentration of income in the world is currently at its greatest level since the 1920’s according to economist StewartLansley.  In the UK and US the share of national income going to the top 1% has doubled over the past thirty years.  Lansley argues that there has been a transfer in resources from wage earners to the super wealthy such that the average wage slave has passed around £100bn to the super rich since the 1970s.

This means of course that, relatively, people are paid less than they once were and that they have, as a consequence less to spend.  Low spending power chokes off the economy, as we are all too well aware.  This may not be so bad if the super rich were using their ill gotten gain to reinvest and support economic growth.  Guess what?  They are not!  Rich individuals and corporations are simply sitting on a mountain of cash.  In the UK corporate surpluses are estimated to be around £60 bn, around 5% of the size of the economy.

Ploughing some of this back into investment would be good for us all but those risk taking entrepreneurs, those private sector engines of the economy, are content to sit back in their counting houses and simply count up all the money.  They may not be using fivers to light their cigars but who knows, with that kind of stash, anything is possible.

The years since deregulation, the mantra of the Thatcher-Reagan economic axis, have seen growth and productivity rates at a third lower and unemployment five times higher than the more regulated post war social democracy in evidence up to the end of the seventies.  Lansley’s book is The Cost of Inequality: Three Decades of the Super Rich and the Economy.

Save the NHS – Miliband joins the fray

It is perhaps a little cynical to suggest that EdMiliband now feels that it is safe to oppose the government’s Health and Social Care Bill given that every body representing health professionals as well as most of the clergy and the House of Lords have declared against the proposals.  Nevertheless, Miliband’s call in The Observer (5th February 2012) to unite a cross party campaign to oppose the health reform Bill is one that should be supported whether or not the Labour leader’s call is late in coming.  The NHS is a genuinely popular institution which the  Tories are trying to subject to the ‘discipline’ of the market in order to drive down costs and drive up profits for their business pals.

However, while almost all concerned are united around the need to tackle much of the unnecessary bureaucracy in the NHS system, gifting chunks to the private sector is not the solution.  Opposing the health reforms is an urgent and popular campaign, to which we all should be contributing, both inside and outside of Parliament.

28th January 2012

Heave away boys – the pirates take to sea!

Everyone is against capitalism nowadays, or so it would seem.  In his Labour Party conference speech, last September, Ed Miliband railed against parasitic capitalists, who do not produce anything but make their money in the wheeling and dealing of the markets.  Latterly millionaire Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been parading his anti-capitalist credentials proclaiming that the system is in crisis and that the link between hard work and pay had been broken.

Cameron will look to make it easier to set up co-operatives, stressing that the route to popular capitalism lies through competition, de-regulation and enterprise.  Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough.  When asked what happens when people fail in business, millionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is reported to have suggested that they dust themselves down, get up and start again until they succeed.

Once you have reached the elevated position of Richard Branson, a self made millionaire, or David Cameron, who did not have to work too hard for his wealth, it may seem self evident that anyone can get there with the right amount of effort.  It is the American Dream made British, the old log cabin to president syndrome.  Maybe, in a world where the starting point was equal, that may just be the case.  However, the life chances of  those already in or around the capitalist elite club remain far more advanced than the rest of us back in the boot camp.  The number of millionaires and old Etonians in the present Cabinet should be evidence enough of that.  Sadly the Labour front bench looks little different; not many ex-miners, teachers, nurses or bus drivers there either.

Under these circumstances it can be little wonder that those in charge of the system will seek to perpetuate their privileges and ensure that the system continues to work to their advantage.   That does not prevent some hand wringing around the edges, or a bit of a reminder to the team that the poor cannot be ignored altogether, or the game might be rumbled.  After all we must, as Cameron says, have “responsible capitalism”.   The reality is however that at its core capitalism is a system based upon the exploitation of labour and any degree of reform can only be a temporary mitigation of this reality.

As we have seen in the present financial crisis the burden of the capitalists gambling debt is shifted quickly onto those in the most need; low paid local government employees, NHS staff, young people, those on welfare benefits.  It is worth noting that the much touted welfare reform with the proposed £26,000 cap, which has dominated the news this week, will make the government £250m if implemented.  At the same time tax evasion is costing the Exchequer £25 billion.  That link between hard work and pay really is not working!

Perhaps the most insidious attack upon the earnings of working people is in the area of pensions.  The population is getting older, we are generally living longer therefore how can we continue to afford pensions at the current rate?  The average public sector pension is £7,800 per annum, many get much less.  Private sector pensions, for the average employee actually fare worse, with many companies closing final salary schemes.  Shell for example closed their scheme three weeks ago, the last FTSE 100 company to do so.

However, the situation for company directors is not so bleak. The average pension pot for directors last year was £3.6m with Jeroen van der Veer, former Shell chief executive settling for a return of £1.2m per year, at the top of the tree.  To make the pain a little easier for top bosses the usual retirement age is 60, so there are more years ahead to enjoy the fruits of the pension pot.

The so called pension burden for the private sector is not the burden of having to pay out for its many loyal employees for their years of service, it is the burden of sustaining the privileges of the top 1% whose pensions swell while the bottom 99% shrink.  US author Ellen Schulz in her book, Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers puts the position succinctly, by suggesting that chief executives are “silent pirates who looted the ships and left them to sink, along with the retirees, as they sailed away safely in their lifeboats.”

Schulz’s analogy is an effective metaphor for the capitalist system in general.  David Cameron may call for “responsible capitalism” but as one of the chief pirates his main concern is that the ship is able to sustain a crew, not that they should take the wheel and begin to dictate the course.

Having extended the seafaring metaphor thus far it would be remiss not to comment on the ‘spontaneous’ suggestion this week that a new Royal Yacht should be commissioned to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, fronted up the call with the Tory press, in the form of the Daily Express and Daily Mail weighing in with their support for the £60m project.  With a bit of digging The Guardian this week revealed that the project has been at least three years in the planning, with the rich and famous being wined and dined to make a contribution.

‘It will not cost the public purse a penny to build’ goes the cry as tax exiles and tax dodgers alike cough up to catch the coattails of the latest rich boys wheeze.  The long term cost of sustaining and maintaining the yacht is of course being pushed into the background.  You can guess whose pay and pension cuts will be paying though if the pirates get away with this one.

16th January 2012

Cutting their way to prosperity! Europe’s leaders lose the plot.

The crisis gripping the eurozone, which Europe’s leaders had hoped to have put to bed before Xmas, is back with us. In truth, of course, it never went away. The ratings agency Standard and Poor’s have downgraded the credit ratings of nine members of the eurozone thus making the cost of borrowing more expensive and pushing up the interest on their existing debts.

The big news of the week was that France, one of the cornerstones of the euro, was stripped of its AAA status thus leaving Germany as the only AAA rated economy in the eurozone. To the chagrin of the French the UK retained its AAA rating in spite of having higher debts and poorer growth prospects than the French. Inevitably France accused the ratings agencies of playing politics rather than making an objective assessment.

The French position is important for the rest of Europe because its AAA rating, along with that of Germany, underpins the attitude of wider world markets to the European Stability Fund. That’s the one the other flagging eurozone economies (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) go to when things are going down the tubes and their economies need to be propped up. With its AAA rating gone it will cost France more to contribute to the ESF, thus lumping a greater burden to bailout the rest of Europe onto the Germans. However, even the German economy hit a slowdown in the fourth quarter of 2011. Under capitalism, nothing is sacred.

So, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had pinned his re-election hopes on the strength of the French economy is planning further economic reforms to bolster his position. “This is a test”, he said. “We have to confront it, we have to resist, we have to fight. We have to demonstrate courage, we have to demonstrate calm.” Sarkozy, as ever, never short of rhetorical flourish, but with two austerity plans pushed though in four months last year it will be interesting to see if the “important decisions” which Sarkozy promises for later this month are likely to be vote winners.

Ironically Sarkozy may have bigger things to worry about if the mini-summit taking place in Athens this week does not find a fix for the Greek economy. If a deal cannot be reached amongst the Greek banks, the IMF, the European Central Bank and the EU, Greece will not get the next tranche of its IMF bailout, will be unable to pay its bills and will therefore be heading for the dreaded default. A Greek default will up the pressure on the already strained euro in general and its struggling economies, Italy and Spain, in particular.

It is interesting to note, although not very widely publicised, that buried in Standard and Poor’s downgrading of nine eurozone countries last week was the following piece of wisdom,

“A reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating, as domestic demand falls in line with consumers’ rising concerns about job security and disposable incomes, eroding national tax revenues.”

In simple terms, if people are unemployed, or fear unemployment, they will spend less money, less goods will be needed and the government will collect less tax. Cutting your way to prosperity is a contradiction in terms, there needs to be investment in opportunities for economic growth. Ironically of course the downgrades of economies by agencies such as Standard and Poor’s push up the cost of borrowing which makes recovery and investment even more difficult. So even though they can see the problem, they do not see that they are a key part of it.

It may do UK Chancellor George Osborne well to heed to the S&P quote however. While the UK has avoided a downgrade by a whisker this time there is no guarantee that it will retain its position indefinitely. With a stagnating economy and the threat of a double dip recession looming, according to many commentators, the UK may yet find itself on the ratings agencies hit list in the coming months.

Another round of public sector job losses in the UK will be having an impact in the next couple of months. The private sector is clearly incapable of mopping up the loss, as Osborne had hoped, so his core strategy is in tatters. The Chancellor needs to acknowledge that Plan A is not working.

For their part it would be helpful if Labour were to offer a more convincing stab at a Plan B. The re-launch of Ed Miliband this week seems to have amounted to Ed Balls accepting that Tory cuts will not be reversed if Labour win the next election. This is dressed up as Labour presenting itself as being able to take tough decisions on the economy but is really about Labour not wanting to scare off the bankers or the City of London. As an alternative, saying that ‘they are bad and we will just have to make the most of it‘, is not going to inspire your core support.

Nicolas Sarkozy is unlikely to come seeking advice!

8th January 2012

Racism – a battle won, the war goes on

The significance of the conviction of two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence earlier this week cannot be overstated. For eighteen years there has not only been a tireless campaign for justice but an ongoing analysis of the racism endemic in many of the UK’s leading institutions, not least the Metropolitan Police. That analysis, summarised in the MacPherson Report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, which characterised the Met as “institutionally racist”, has by no means been concluded. It is also safe to say that the issue of racism in the UK has not been fully addressed, either institutionally or within our communities.

That is not to say however that nothing has changed or that the efforts of the Stephen Lawrence campaign have been a waste of time. Prejudice which encourages conflict within communities has always been a feature of capitalism. If someone with different coloured skin, or different gender or different sexuality can be blamed then the fire is drawn away from the real causes of poverty and the age old tactic of divide and rule is employed.

The success of the Stephen Lawrence campaign has been twofold. Firstly it has been to ensure that the unacceptability of racism and racist violence is firmly on the political agenda. The second has been to highlight the fact that Stephen Lawrence was a young man starting out in life who was cruelly killed. Whatever the colour of his skin many people identified with that reality and it is that identification with our common humanity which provides one of the rays of hope as a result of the case.

Tackling racism has also had a high profile due to the punishment meted out to Liverpool striker Luis Suarez by the FA and the charges which are to be brought against England captain John Terry, who is alleged to have made racist comments to a colleague. A member of the public alleged to have racially abused one of the Oldham team during their FA Cup tie with Liverpool on Friday night is also likely to face charges.

None of these incidents is evidence that we have succeeded in eradicating racism in the UK or that we are close to overcoming the prejudice and ignorance from which racism springs. However, the fact remains that at the time of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 none of these things would have been likely to happen. In the intervening years there has been a shift. The changes may be slow but they do happen.

The task now is to tackle more effectively the inherent racism that means you are at least five times more likely to be stopped and searched by police if you are a young black person and that your chances of a decent education and jobs are diminished. Poverty, which affects the entire working class is the cause, not race alone, and the sooner that is recognised by young people both black and white the sooner real change will come.

Human rights campaigners warn against war with Iran

Human rights campaigners have warned about the growing threat of conflict with Iran and the dangers for ordinary Iranian citizens should such a conflict happen.

The Iranian government has recently threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz in an attempt to choke off the oil supply to the West. The threat came at the same time as Iran was involved in military manoeuvres to test new long range missiles, thus being seen to flex its military muscle in the region.

The ill judged actions of the Islamic Republic have been exploited by the United States and the EU to increase sanctions against Iran. The Iranian government’s sabre rattling also increases the likelihood of direct military options against Iran being considered by the West.

Neither sanctions nor military action are in the interests of the Iranian people and human rights organisations are urging both sides to engage in dialogue to settle any issues.

The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) today called upon the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States and the leaders of the EU countries to take any military options off the table in addressing the current crisis.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for March in Iran CODIR fears that the threat of external intervention will be used to further silence the opposition. The joint manoeuvres between the United States and Israel in the Persian Gulf, announced this week, can only serve to increase the pressure inside Iran and it is feared will be used by the regime to justify cracking down on any internal dissent.

1st January 2012

Happy New Year!

It will of course be a bumper 2012 as everyone keeps reminding us.  The London 2012 Olympics are the sports fans ‘event of lifetime’ but let us not forget the Euro 2012 opportunity for England’s footballers to go out ignominiously in the quarter finals; if they are lucky.  The first Diamond Jubilee since 1897 will keep the royal flag flying, with the extra Bank Holiday on 5th June being the people’s reward for continuing to put up with the monarchy in general and QE2 in particular.

An abundance of elections await, not least the United States presidential election in November, the French presidential election in April, the London Mayoral face off betwen Boris and Ken in May, plus votes in China and Russia during the year.  Whether the so-called Arab Spring produces the freedom and democracy in the Middle East which has been touted for it remains to be seen.  Nevertheless elections are underway in Egypt and promised in Libya.  The real test of the Arab Spring will be progress on the rights of the Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.  No long term peace in the Middle East is possible without this question being addressed.

The continuation of the Saudi Arabian monarchical dictatorship appears to be no barrier to the West doing a roaring trade in arms with the oil rich despots.  The United States have just signed a deal worth $30 bn (£20bn). The US will send 84 Boeing F-15 jets to its key Middle Eastern ally and will upgrade 70 existing Saudi F-15s.  The agreement is part of a $60bn arms deal covering 10-15 years, approved by the US Congress last year.  As well as the F-15s, the larger $60bn package includes Apache attack helicopters, Black Hawk helicopters, and a range of missiles, bombs and delivery systems.

The sale has been swiftly followed by a tough new bill increasing US sanctions against Iran, cutting off from the US financial system foreign firms that do business with Iran’s central bank.  The measure is in response to the Iranian development of civil nuclear energy, which the West claims is for the development of nuclear weapons capability.  While the Iranian regime is not one which should be given any credence or support, there is no substantive evidence that nuclear weapons are within its technological capability.

The US moves, in bolstering Saudi Arabia and sending the sanctions message to Tehran, are more to do with sending a signal to the region that the US and its allies intend to remain key players.  A strike on Tehran through the US’s proxy state in the region, Israel, should not be ruled out, although that would be a significant raising of the stakes in the region.  With parliamentary elections scheduled in Iran for 2012 and a presidential election in 2013 the West may be hoping that any changes in Iran come from within.

The euro will of course continue to struggle and the first summit between Angela Merkel and Nikolas Sarkozy is scheduled for the 9th January.  This will attempt to make sense of the pre-Xmas deal which saw the UK walk out and the other 26 EU states agree to work together on financial arrangements to keep the euro afloat.  Whether life can be breathed into the ailing currency remains to be seen but the likelihood of it surviving as much more than a glorified Deutsche Mark are slim.  The French will huff and puff but will have little choice but to settle for a junior role to keep the dream of the capitalist euro alive.

The austerity drive spearheaded by the Cabinet millionaires Cameron and Osborne in the UK will continue to force millions into poverty while the rights of the square mile in the City of London are protected at all costs.  The protests against job cuts, pensions, student fees and the financial sector, which characterised much of 2011, will need to intensify if the Bullingdon boys are to get the message that there is an alternative.  Who knows, Ed Milband might find his voice, but don’t rely on it.  Get the marker pens and cardboard out, there are placards to be made!





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