Archive 2013

28th April 2013

The dark heart of Saturday night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Price Jones goes on to say that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

21st April 2013

Tears before bedtime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9th April 2013

Death becomes her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7th April 2013

Build the anti-nuclear alliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30th March 2013

Beggars can’t be choosers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24th March 2013

El pueblo unido……

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

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

And so it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!”

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

“The people united will never be defeated!”

No scope for anything to be lost in translation there.

17th March 2013

Middle East on the brink of escalation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11th March 2013

Education – bought and paid for

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo Chavez

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

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

3rd March 2013

Guns before butter?

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

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

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

Hammond stated that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24th February 2013

Osborne – time to upgrade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16th February 2013

Where’s the Beef?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10th February 2013

EU budget smoke and mirrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

4th February 2013

Troops vs. diplomacy – which way for the West?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be interesting to see how discussions unfold.

27th January 2013

Dead men walking, the Tories on Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20th January 2013

Mali – the West learns nothing from history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13th January 2013

Tackling prejudice key to progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internationalism must be the cornerstone of any progressive philosophy.

6th January 2013

The hangover with no cure in sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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