The profit dash continues
6th June 2020
Boris Johnson – increasingly out of touch
It is hard to believe, with the UK death rate from COVID-19 the second highest in the world, topping the 40,000 mark according to official figures, that Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, can declare himself “very proud” of the government’s record on reducing the spread of the virus.
No one but a dyed in the wool Tory MP, financial backer or voter can believe such nonsense when the government approach to the pandemic has been calamitous from the start. The World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic on 11th March. The very next day, 12th March, the UK government stopped the limited test and trace programme it had in place, then proceeded to wait until 23rd March before introducing any significant lock down measures.
This was in spite of having the advantage of seeing what was happening in China, South Korea and Italy, giving the government time to respond and put measures in place quickly. Part of the abject failure of the Tories’ response to the crisis is purely ideological. Local government officers in public health and environmental health teams have well established test and trace practices which could have been activated at a local level quickly and efficiently.
The government however chose to go with a centralised approach, looking to by pass local government, and hand out contracts to its private sector pals. Millions have been spent on private sector contracts without any assessment of value or capability in order to be seen to be acting quickly. The UK death rate is the grim reality of the outcome of that approach.
The current test and trace system, which the government is now heralding as being central to its strategy, is a case in point. Private sector company Serco is one of several firms employed to recruit a network of 25,000 tracers as part of the government scheme. The programme is already way behind time and is not expected to be at “world class level” until September or October.
It is critical that test results are turned around in 24 hours if contacts are to be traced in order to isolate the virus. The government continues to equivocate on the percentage of tests returned in that timescale, though it claims 92% are back within 48 hours. Even if that is the case, all the evidence suggests that it is simply not fast enough.
Serco Chief Executive, Rupert Soames, seems less concerned about the death rate than the prospect of future profits from NHS contracts. In an e mail to staff this week Soames said,
“If it succeeds…it will go a long way in cementing the position of private sector companies in the public sector supply chain. Some of the naysayers recognise this, which is why they will take every opportunity to undermine us.”
As an opportunity to undermine, Soames’ e mail is something of a gift! The purpose of test and trace is to save lives, not to boost the bank balance of the Serco shareholders.
In an attempt to bring attention to the human loss in the pandemic 27 eminent health professionals, in a letter to The Guardian this weekend, question the validity of the government’s approach, stating,
“If, as seems probable, there is a second wave this winter, many more will die unless we find quick, practical solutions to some of the structural problems that have made implementing an effective response so difficult. These include the fragmentation, in England, of the NHS, public health and social care; the failure of those in Westminster to engage with local government and devolved nations; the channels by which scientific evidence feeds into policy; and an inability to plan for necessary goods and services, and procure them.”
As an indictment of the government’s approach this could hardly be more comprehensive. Yet Boris Johnson is “very proud” and Rupert Soames has his eye on the company balance sheet.
Quite why this is not proclaimed as a national scandal from every news bulletin and newspaper headline is a scandal in itself. However, the Tory press cannot bring themselves to face the reality of the government’s incompetence, while the BBC continues to play a role which can only be described as supine when it comes to journalistic credibility.
On the day the official death toll passed the 40,000 people, on the official count, the BBC reflected nothing by way of outrage but instead leavened its reporting with an emphasis on the falling rate of infections in the community.
The government has lost further credibility with the health sector, should that be possible, by unilaterally announcing that from 15th June, hospital visitors and outpatients must wear face coverings and staff must use surgical masks. A major operational challenge for NHS Trusts around the country about which they were not consulted.
The dash to shore up company profits rather than save lives will take another step on 15th June with non-essential shops being allowed to open, as long as COVID secure measures are in place. Following the easing of restrictions on outdoor activity, which saw many rush to the beaches in May, and the option to open schools from 1st June, there is a growing sense that the government is going too far, too soon.
The science around the pandemic is still too uncertain to proceed with anything but extreme caution. The evidence already is that there are disproportionate impacts upon black and ethnic minority and disadvantaged communities. Poorer housing conditions, fewer life opportunities and, as a consequence, a greater incidence of underlying health conditions, all play a part in the disproportionate impact of the virus.
It’s a fair bet not many Serco shareholders will fall into this bracket. We can only hope that Boris Johnson’s ‘pride’ is of the variety which precedes a fall.
30th May 2020
“I Can’t Breathe….”
…these were the last words of George Floyd, killed in Minneapolis while not resisting arrest, the latest in a long line of African Americans murdered by the US police state. The protests that have followed the murder of Floyd have exposed once again the deep divisions in the so-called “land of the free”, where apartheid may no longer be enshrined in law but is very much the reality of the day to day lives of the black population.
Protests mount against apartheid policing in the United States
Floyd was handcuffed on the ground for 11 minutes with a police officer pressing his knee into his neck, while three other officers stood by. An ambulance was finally called when Floyd lost consciousness but he died later in hospital. The public prosecutor has charged one officer, Derek Chauvin, with murder in the third degree. That is killing without intent. The other officers have so far not been charged.
There is a point after which, pressing your knee into the neck of a man who is protesting that he cannot breathe, especially when he is handcuffed on the ground, becomes intent. The fact that video of the action went viral left the officers involved with nowhere to hide but behind the time honoured fortress of white privilege. The killing has resulted in protests across the city, with a predictably robust police response.
Ilhan Omar, congressional representative for Minnesota’s 5th District, which includes Minneapolis, tweeted:
“Shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at unarmed protesters when there are children present should never be tolerated. Ever. What is happening tonight in our city is shameful. Police need to exercise restraint, and our community needs space to heal.”
The protests in Minneapolis are a reflection of the outrage relating to the death of George Floyd but are now spreading to cities throughout the United States. The murder resonates throughout the black community. Do black lives matter? Not very much as far as the United States is concerned.
Apart from the lived experience of the Black community and nationwide initiatives such as Black Lives Matter, studies have shown that across the country, Black people face intense bias in the criminal justice system. Minneapolis city data shows that Black residents are more likely than others to be stopped and searched by police as well as to be the targets of police use of force.
Floyd’s death is similar to that of another Black man who died as a result of police misconduct, Eric Garner. Garner was killed when a New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put him in an illegal chokehold that resulted in his death. The officer was never brought up on charges.
Inevitably President Trump has weighed into the controversy with a helpful tweet, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It is not surprising that civil rights activists have seen such an intervention as provocation. In an election year though Trump’s only agenda is to play to his base and he knows that the African-American vote is never going to swing his way.
Trump’s response is in stark contrast to his attitude to armed nationalist white militias groups who have been protesting against COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in recent weeks. In effect Trump has conceded to the business lobby to open up large sections of the economy whether it is safe for workers to return to work or not. Threats to withdraw unemployment benefit are being used to force workers back to the workplace, whatever the consequences for their safety.
Mainstream US media is inevitably focussing upon the damage and allegations of looting which have followed the protests since Floyd’s murder. Whatever the truth of these reports, the reality remains that the world’s richest state and self styled defender of democracy, treats a huge section of its population as second class citizens based purely on the colour of their skin.
That is the real scandal, that is the real injustice which needs to be addressed.
Backing down and blustering
23rd May 2020
Empty benches – no backing for Boris?
For all of his fake ‘man of the people’ persona, when it comes to the crunch public schoolboy Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has no clue as to the popular mood. Insisting on the necessity of a healthcare surcharge for foreign NHS workers at the start of the week, set to increase from £400 to £634 in October, he had climbed down by the end of the week. Downing Street was forced to issue a statement saying,
“The prime minister has asked the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the surcharge as soon as possible.”
Momentum had been building during the week, with Johnson initially defending the money brought into the health service by the surcharge, which has totalled £917m over the past four years. With even leading Tories quoted as describing the charge as “mean spirited” and “immoral and monstrous”, damage limitation became the order of the day from the Johnson camp, claiming the Prime Minister had listened and “shown true leadership”.
The episode is symptomatic of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the inability of Johnson himself to provide any credible lead. The shine of Johnson’s election victory has faded rapidly and is best illustrated by the fact that Labour leader, Kier Starmer, is getting relatively sympathetic treatment from sections of the media.
The Daily Mail remains something of an exception in relation to Starmer, trying to whip up indignation over him owning a donkey sanctuary, but the story has done more to undermine the already shredded credibility of the Mail than it has Starmer.
Elsewhere, in the relatively tame House of Commons exchanges that now pass for Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer has been described as incisive and forensic in his questioning of Johnson, who has blustered in his usual fashion but without the fan club chorus he usually enjoys. This has led de facto fan club chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to suggest that MPs should be back in the Commons, in order to mask the windbag’s blustering. There is an irony that someone as socially distant as Rees-Mogg should be advocating the exact opposite.
While much is made of his legal career the truth is that Starmer’s questioning is no more incisive or forensic than that of Jeremy Corbyn, in fact in terms of political cutting edge it is decidedly less so.
What Starmer does have over Corbyn is establishment acceptability. His honeymoon handling by much of the media is the first indication that the ruling circles regard capitalism as potentially being safe in Starmer’s hands. This was never the view taken of Corbyn, who was always regarded as suspect at best and certainly likely to rock the boat, should he get anywhere near the keys to 10, Downing Street.
Johnson was always a stopgap candidate for the Conservatives, his election to the leadership based upon his populist rhetoric, media persona and the lack of a credible alternative. In spite of his massive Parliamentary majority Johnson could yet be the fall guy for the inept handling of the pandemic. A recession is already underway and an austerity programme is certain to follow, as the people will once more be asked to carry the cost of the crisis.
A jaded country, 15 years into austerity, could be persuaded to welcome Kier Starmer with open arms. Inheriting an economy in a state of collapse a one term Labour administration could be permissible to UK capitalism while the Tories re grouped.
Crystal ball gazing is a dangerous practice in politics, there are so many imponderables. Yet there is an alternative to the above scenario. There is a world in which the inadequacies of capitalism to clothe, feed, employ and keep its people healthy are exposed. A scenario in which the fact of care homes being run for profit rather than people’s needs is regarded as a scandal. A scenario in which education is an equal right not a privilege according to your income.
It would be a scenario in which billions are no longer spent on weapons of mass destruction but the needs of the health service, transport infrastructure and green economy were prioritised. Such a programme will not be advanced by a party of media darlings, it will need to be fought for inch by inch as the rich dig in to defend their privileges.
Labour can claim a small victory in seeing Boris Johnson make a u-turn this week. It is a first step but they need to set their sights higher. At some point they may also need to question whether Kier Starmer is the man to carry forward a programme for real change, rather than one which may just see Labour re-elected to office, on terms not of their choosing.
Mixing the message
12th May 2020
Press mocking of the Stay Alert message was widespread
Having steered the UK to the top of the European COVID-19 fatality league, the Tories have now chosen to drop the ‘Stay at Home’ message in order to exhort us all to ‘Stay Alert’. This is only in England. In Scotland, where First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon read about the change with her morning cornflakes, the message remains ‘Stay at Home’. In Wales the Labour administration had said it was not changing the message even before Boris Johnson’s ‘address to the nation’ was broadcast. The position is the same in Northern Ireland.
It is hard to credit that the Tories do not even have the capability of uniting a country as small as the so called United Kingdom around a single message. It is even more remarkable that in his address Johnson claimed to have consulted with the devolved administrations before embarking on the new approach. Quite apart from the fact that he obviously forgot to mention it to Nicola Sturgeon, he clearly did not get agreement for the new approach.
Johnson is bowing to pressure from the business community to ‘get the economy moving’ while continuing to use the fig leaf of being ‘led by the science’ as cover. The science is, as ever, conflicted on many points, not least because not enough is yet known about the behaviour of COVID-19 to make reliable predictions. What is does appear to be clear on though is that releasing lockdown too soon will result in a more rapid spread of the virus and lead to more deaths.
It also appears, from the evidence of South Korea and Germany, that rigorous systems for testing and contact tracing need to be in place, if there is to be any chance of controlling the spread of the virus. There is no evidence that this is the case in the UK, in spite of the dash to 100,000 tests a day in April, a level which the government fails to meet on a daily basis.
The message to workers to go back to work, but not use public transport, walking or a bike is recommended, is also in advance of clear guidance on how workplaces can be made safe and clear guidance on enforcement where employers are tempted to cut corners.
Allowing people to go outside and exercise more frequently is a welcome nod to physical and mental health issues. However, the freedom to drive to a place of exercise opens up the possibility of a rush to beaches and beauty spots in good weather and the possibility of infection being spread as a result. The timescale outlined by Johnson allows for non-essential retail being open from 1st June, sport being allowed behind closed doors and a return of some primary education. Some hospitality and leisure outlets may open from 4th July, with the caveat that this depends upon the virus not getting out of control.
The approach adopted in the UK outside of England does not align with the timescale outlined by Johnson, opening the prospect of an uneven easing of lockdown measures and, as a consequence an uneven approach to tackling the spread of the virus.
The Tories are following up Johnson’s statement with a flurry of ‘guidance’ in order to cover the gaps. The hope is that the economy can become active, while at the same time bringing down the rate of infection and cutting the rate of deaths. As with the government’s whole approach to the COVID-19 crisis, it is a gamble. As ever it is a gamble with the lives of the elderly, the poor and the most vulnerable.
One of the government’s so called five tests is to avoid a spike in the infection rate which will overwhelm the NHS. That means avoiding a spike in the winter months when the usual bouts of flu and norovirus infections, do their annual rounds. A spike in August or September would avoid this particular eventuality. It may be where the UK is heading. With over 32,000 deaths so far, it is hard to see how the UK will not be on course for 50,000 before the crisis is over.
Making History – 75 years on
8th May 2020
Soviet troops liberate Berlin
The commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War are taking place in the face of the international COVID-19 pandemic, which requires co-operation between nations in order to achieve victory.
The defeat of Nazism required just such levels of co-operation but took many years, many betrayals and many political twists before it came about.
The First World War had concluded with the defeat of German imperialism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with the spoils being divided largely between the British Empire, the French and the emerging United States. However, an unintended consequence of a war to divide the spoils amongst imperialist powers was the 1917 revolution in Russia, from which emerged the establishment of the Soviet Union and the presence of a force on the international political stage committed to peace.
The Wars of Intervention by the armies of fourteen nations launched in 1918, aimed at defeating the Bolshevik revolution, failed and by the 1920’s the world had to recognise that a new world order had been established.
It was an order that Britain, France and the United States were not comfortable with, as it constrained their opportunities for expansion, and it was an order which they were determined to subvert at the earliest opportunity.
The need to rapidly industrialise and bring a peasant nation, so long oppressed by the Tsars, into the 20th century was the key objective of Soviet domestic policy. Foreign policy was guided by the maxim of non-interference in the affairs of other states and recognition of the need for peaceful co-existence between states.
Such an approach to international affairs was unknown in the world, the previous periods in history having been dominated by the conquest and suppression of indigenous people, while stripping their lands of resources and enriching the conquering nation. The British Empire was an example par excellence of this approach. An Empire upon which the sun never set and the blood never dried.
The end of the First World War did not settle the inter-imperialist rivalries which had brought it about. If anything, it served to exacerbate them. The sun was beginning to set upon the British Empire with the growing demands for independence in its colonies and the growing power of the United States as a global force.
Japanese imperialism had designs in South East Asia, not least on China, and was beginning to challenge US influence in the region. German imperialism, straight-jacketed by the Versailles Treaty, was beginning to find a route out through the rise of fascism and the populist demagogue, Adolf Hitler. Italy had its own version in the form of Benito Mussolini.
While the British and US ruling establishments could not bring themselves to openly associate with the policies of the far right they certainly saw an opportunity. The amount of effort which went into appeasing Hitler in particular, was for the express purpose of seeing the Nazi armies face Eastwards and attack the Soviet Union on its Western flank.
As a potential back up, much effort also went into persuading the Japanese to look to the Eastern flank of the Soviet Union and take its designs on China right through to the Soviet Far East.
In Spain in 1936 Britain and the United States looked the other way, adopting a policy of non-intervention, while the fascist troops of Germany and Italy took the side of Franco, in what is widely regarded as the Spanish Civil War but was truly a war of fascist aggression. Some aid from the Soviet Union did get through to the Spanish Republic, much was stopped by land at the border with France and by sea.
A free hand in Spain and victory for the puppet Franco in 1939, secured Hitler’s rearguard in Southern Europe. The selling out of Austria and Czechoslovakia by the Western powers, forced to surrender to Hitler without firing a shot, virtually gave Germany the green light to advance further. Poland was in Hitler’s sights.
Throughout the 1930’s the Soviet Union had been pursuing a foreign policy of seeking to head off Nazi aggression and to form a European anti-fascist alliance with Britain and France. The Soviet Union and France had signed a non-aggression pact in 1932; the Soviet Union was pressing for this to be one of mutual assistance in the event of an attack on either nation by an outside aggressor.
Moreover, the Soviet desire was for such a pact to include a range of countries threatened with Nazi aggression, including Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and Finland. Given the alliance of France and Britain as it stood, an attack on any of the nations by Nazi Germany would have brought all into conflict.
Such an alliance, through a combination of political manoeuvrings and a desire to appease Germany amongst some in French ruling circles, did not come about. It was opposed by both Britain and the United States, of whom US historian, Foster Rhea Dulles, said that the US, “hoped that if war broke out in Europe, it might somehow be channelled into a crusade against Communism and accomplish the purposes which Allied intervention had failed to achieve in 1918.”
Hitler’s hatred of Communism was no less vehement than that of the United States or Britain and there can be no doubt of his desire to access the vast land and resources of the Soviet Union. However, the policy of appeasement by the Western European powers was giving Hitler free rein to build his army, navy and air force as well as gain territory.
The Western powers being determined that Hitler attack the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union finding itself without any allies against such aggression, was left with only one option, a non-aggression treaty with Germany. Moreover, Nazi generals feared war with the Soviet Union more than war with the West. They recognised that an alliance of Western powers with the Soviet Union could thwart their plans, with the chief of the General Staff of Germany’s Land Forces, Halder, stating,
“It’s hard to swallow a pact between the British and the Russians…on the other hand, it’s the only thing that will stop Hitler now.”
Hitler himself declared that, without an alliance of the Western powers with the Soviet Union,
“I can smash Poland without any danger of a conflict with the West.”
The Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact effectively gave the Soviet Union more time to build its forces for the inevitable attack, it was not a question of if the Nazis would invade, only a question of when.
Western diplomacy through its combination of appeasing Hitler and failing to build an alliance with the Soviet Union, in the hope that Hitler would turn his attention East, had failed abjectly. Millions were to pay the price.
France capitulated to German forces in a matter of months and British forces were forced into a humiliating retreat from Dunkirk. By June 1941 Hitler did invade the Soviet Union. Estimates vary but at least 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in World War 2.
The defeat of the Nazi forces at Stalingrad, fought out over many months from July 1942 – February 1943, turned the tide in the Second World War. What was by now an alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, against the fascist forces of Germany, Italy and Japan, was gaining the upper hand. There was still a long way to go and it was not until the 8th May 1945 that the Red Army reached Berlin and the liberation of Europe could truly begin.
Revisionist historians in the West inevitably play down the role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism. It never fitted the anti-Soviet Cold War narrative and does not sit with the ongoing Western anti-Russian sentiment today.
Amid all of the nationalism, xenophobia and jingoism that surrounds such anniversaries in the UK today, it is as well to remember that there is an alternative narrative to the one played out on the BBC and in the national press.
It is one that recognises that it is only unity between people’s across the world that can result in the defeat of a common enemy. It is one that recognises that only a policy aimed at peace between nations is a truly internationalist position. It is one that recognises the superiority of socialism over capitalism as a solution to the needs of the people of the world. On the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe these are very much lessons for today.
On the downward slope
2nd May 2020
Boris Johnson – back with the usual bluster
“Boris bounces back to get UK moving” proclaimed the austerity loving apologists at the Daily Mail earlier this week, neatly sidestepping the national scandal of the government’s miserable mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. With the third highest death rate in the world, a testing rate manipulated to reach the government’s 100,000 test a day target by the end of April and contact tracing still a shambles, the government has little of which to be proud.
Not that this would be in evidence from the daily Downing Street press briefings, the supine ‘analysis’ provided by a parade of commentators on the BBC, or the predominantly right wing newspaper press, with the notable exception of the avowedly left wing Morning Star and the occasional critique in the liberal leaning The Guardian.
In his first Downing St briefing on Thursday, since returning to work following his own bout of COVID-19, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, suggested that the worst of the virus was over, proclaiming,
“I can confirm today for the first time that we are past the peak of this disease. We are past the peak and we are on the downward slope.”
Seemingly oblivious to the death toll in the UK compared to elsewhere in the world, apart from the United States and Italy, Johnson went on to blithely state that,
“We’re learning lessons everyday but I do think that broadly speaking, we did the right thing at the right time.”
All of which begs the questions as to what a national catastrophe would look like if close to 30,000 deaths, on the official count, in just three months does not qualify.
In response to ongoing pressure from the business sector, keen to resume economic activity whatever the cost to the lives of its workforce, Johnson promised this week to deliver a “comprehensive plan” pledging to cover “how we can continue to suppress the disease and at the same time restart the economy.”
The business sector increasingly have their own ideas about restarting the economy, with British Airways considering 12,000 job losses and Ryanair looking at a 3,000 job cut. That is just for starters. No doubt many other businesses will take the chance to cut back jobs, pay and conditions using the virus crisis as cover. It will be interesting to see how many of the same companies cut executive pay or shareholder dividends once the economy is back up and running.
Johnson also had the temerity to say that he did not like the term ‘austerity’ to describe the brutal cuts imposed upon public services, as part of the policy programme he has supported throughout ten years of Tory government. If this is not Johnson’s attempt to pave the way for even more austerity, dressed up in nicer terminology no doubt, to pay for the present crisis it is hard to see what else it is.
While the fanbase may well have welcomed Johnson’s return his usual bluster failed, once again, to inspire confidence. As The Guardian sketch writer, John Crace, summarised succinctly the day after Johnson’s appearance,
“Boris talked big about the economy bouncing back, avoiding the second peak and enforcing the wearing of face masks. But deep down he knows he’s met his match. Up till now, he’s never found a situation he couldn’t bluster his way out of. Now he’s up against a power greater than himself. In a contest between coronavirus and bullshit, coronavirus wins every time.”
Meanwhile, in the United States the bullshit detector went into overdrive this week. Following his pronouncement that a blast of bleach might be the answer to cleanse a way out of COVID-19, the Donald Trump fake news machine has reached even dizzier heights.
Even though US intelligence agencies have reached the conclusion that it “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified”, Trump claims to have seen evidence to the contrary, suggesting that the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
Quite who is briefing the US President behind the back of his own intelligence services is an interesting question. The Wuhan lab ‘theory’ has been circulating on right wing conspiracy theory websites in the United States for the past couple of months and is progressively making its way into mainstream news media headlines in the US and the UK, with little critique or comment. A masterclass in fake news perpetuation and media manipulation.
Anti-Chinese rhetoric in a US election year should come as no surprise. Even more so when China’s economic power is increasingly seen as a threat to US interests in South East Asia. The US Navy has recently stepped up its presence in the South China Sea. While the world is focussed on fighting COVID-19 it is not beyond the US, especially under the current administration, to be building towards conflict of the more traditional but equally devastating kind. In which case, the whole world may be on the downward slope, to coin a phrase.
Statement on the occasion of May Day 2020
May Day in Cuba – this year workers will be asked to stay safe, stay at home
There can be no doubt that May Day 2020 will be unlike any other in living memory. The entire world is locked in a struggle with the coronavirus, Covid-19, and social distancing will prevent the mass gatherings we would normally associate with this day of celebration and commemoration.
While May Day is so often a gathering to celebrate it will, this year, be much more focussed upon commemorating the many thousands of ordinary people across the world who have fallen victim to this deadly virus.
Men, women and children, across the globe have been lost to their friends, families and loved ones through no fault of their own. In many instances the cause lies firmly elsewhere.
It lies with governments like that in Brazil, who failed to take the threat of the virus seriously enough.
It lies with politicians like those in the UK, who underinvested in their primary care and public health systems, cutting corners for profit and failing to address the growing health needs of working people.
It lies with dictatorial regimes, like that in Saudi Arabia, where the grasp on democracy and accountability to the people cannot even be described as slim. Where a ruling elite are dedicated to lining their own pockets from their oil wealth, rather than share the benefits with their people.
Covid-19 can attack both rich and poor, it does not discriminate in that respect. However, there can be no doubt that the poor are hit the hardest and due to inadequate diet, poverty living conditions and poor health care, die in greater numbers.
May Day 2020 must be the occasion to remember all those who have fallen victim to Covid-19 but it must also be the opportunity to redouble our efforts not to allow such disasters to continue to wreak havoc across the planet.
Campaigns worldwide for peace, democracy and human rights are central to the campaign against Covid-19 because they are central to the struggle for equality and against injustice.
While the body count in the United States from Covid-19 continues to mount, the US President can still find time to tighten sanctions against Cuba and attack the exemplary work carried out by Cuban health professionals across the world to combat the current pandemic.
In spite of the clear and evident need for international co-operation to defeat the virus the United States insists on maintaining sanctions against Venezuela and Iran too, thus weakening the capability of those states to recover.
Wars of intervention continue to rage, to the detriment of the people’s of many countries in the world. Western presence in both Syria and Iraq continues to be an obstacle to a democratic solution, based upon the will of the people of those nations, and their ability to assert their right to self determination.
Self determination is also an issue in the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people. Their land continues to be occupied, in contravention of United Nations resolutions, by Israeli forces. Daily life continues to be uncertain due to the Israeli land, air and sea blockade imposed upon Gaza, which restricts access to basic goods and health care provision.
The continued and bloody intervention of the Saudi led coalition in Yemen, effectively being used as a testing ground for high tech Western arms, is a further reminder of the consequences of foreign intervention in internal affairs.
Refugee crises across the globe follow as a result of occupation and injustice. The Rohingya Muslim communities, driven into Bangladesh by the authorities in Myanmar are one example, the growing refugee crisis on the southern borders of the European Union is another.
The poverty, injustice and uncertainty in the daily lives of working people across the world is exacerbated by war and occupation. It is exacerbated by the climate crisis and increasing environmental degradation. It is exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no social distancing in a refugee camp.
This May Day will be one on which we must stay home in order to save lives, where we must socially distance in order to prevent surge upon our health care services, where we must curtail our visits to friends and families to prevent the spread of this disease.
As we do so, we must take time to consider those displaced and homeless across the globe who will have no home to stay in; we must remember those who do not benefit from a well organised professional health service to come to their aid; we must spare a thought for those whose families have been dispersed, due to the uncertainty of war and foreign intervention.
They need our practical support and our solidarity more than ever. We must take this opportunity to redouble our efforts to provide that support and turn 2020 from a year of international tragedy to one of international solidarity and international action to defeat injustice.
In addressing the current crisis and afterwards, in the rebuilding of a post CoVID-19 world, international cooperation and solidarity are essential. This has been emphasised by the Secretary General of the United Nations. He is calling for a global ceasefire, a lifting of all economic sanctions and the sharing of knowledge and resources if there is to be any hope of lasting recovery.
26th April 2020
Labour Leader, Kier Starmer – choices to be made
It is a well known characteristic of the leopard that it cannot change its spots. The chameleon however is a creature of quite a different type, able to change it skin colour in order to blend in with its background. Red, green or blue, the chameleon adapts in order not to stand out, becoming indistinguishable from any context it happens to find itself.
In his campaign to become Leader of the Labour Party, Kier Starmer was conscious of the popularity with the Labour membership of the policies developed under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Nationalisation of railways, the mail service and water have not been ruled out under Starmer for example. Part of his ten point plan is to repeal the Tory Trade Union Act, which restricts the rights of workers. He has been quoted as saying he will defend his party’s values including opposing “the moral injustice of poverty, inequality, homelessness”.
If Starmer is to be true to these promises then he will need a team around him which is capable of delivering and one which believes in this vision as the way forward for Labour. So far, the signs are not good. Starmer has been quick to remove Rebecca Long Bailey, Dianne Abbott and Jon Trickett from the National Executive Committee. They are replaced by key Starmer supporters Jim McMahon, Jo Stevens and Jonathan Reynolds, who do not inspire confidence in sustaining progressive policies.
Starmer has found space for Long Bailey in the Shadow Cabinet, as Shadow Education Secretary, but she is very much in a minority of even remotely left wing voices in Labour’s top team.
Starmer is faced with two immediate issues he needs to address in order to determine Labour’s way forward under his leadership.
Firstly, there is the question of the leaked report into Labour officials effectively sabotaging Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and in particular the 2017 election campaign. There can be little doubt that those engaged in such activity should be excluded from Labour’s ranks and that their actions should be universally condemned. Starmer has said that the investigation he has initiated with Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, will report by July. Action arising from that report will be awaited with interest.
Secondly, there is the stance of Labour on the issue of COVID-19 and how to handle the current pandemic. In general, Starmer has taken the ‘national unity’ approach, offering ‘constructive criticism’ of the government while at the same time broadly supporting its efforts to get the pandemic under control.
The consensus of the political and media establishment is that it would be wrong to ‘play politics’ at such a crucial time. Yet, as ever, politics it is. Every decision taken by the government is a political one, however much it claims to be led by the science. The Chief Medical Officer can express his opinion but it is the government which must decide what to do.
Not to ‘play politics’ is merely to cover up the scandal of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and fail to expose the fact that thousands of deaths could have been avoided with quicker, more decisive action.
A confidential Cabinet Office briefing from 2019, leaked to The Guardian recently, is clear on the need to stockpile PPE, establish protocols for contact tracing and draw up plans to manage a surge in excess deaths. This report appears to have been sidestepped. In addition, the government’s initial herd immunity strategy, flying in the face of World Health Organisation (WHO) advice, proved disastrous and was quickly reversed when it was clear that deaths were escalating.
While lockdown measures appear to be flattening the curve of the pandemic the PPE situation for frontline NHS staff and carers remains a scandal, while plans to expand testing and reintroduce contact tracing look cumbersome at best.
In the face of the mounting body count leading Tories appear more concerned about finding ways of lifting the lockdown and allowing businesses to function. In the longer term this will be necessary but the country has the wealth to support business through this, if the government is prepared to take the necessary measures to squeeze the taxes of the rich, repatriate unearned income from offshore tax havens and commit to public investment post crisis to keep the economy moving.
The first priority must be to save lives. Labour should be making this clear while making it equally clear that investment in the NHS, public health, social care and local government infrastructure will be vital to preparations for any future pandemic. It will also mean better lives for working class families in the meantime.
If that is playing politics, Kier Starmer needs to get into the game, pick his side and make it clear which colour shirt he is wearing. Unlike the chameleon, this is no time to be changing colour midway through the match.
Iran – regime negligent in the face of COVID-19
19th April 2020
Shoppers in Iran last week – smart distancing?
The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) has accused the Iranian regime of gross irresponsibility and negligence in its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran. While there were widespread indications that the virus had reached Iran in January, the regime refused to acknowledge its presence or take any measures to prevent its spread.
CODIR cites as evidence of the Iranian regime’s negligence the fact that the regime wanted mass participation in the celebrations marking the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Revolution on 11th February, as well as encouraging a high turnout for the parliamentary elections, that took place on the 20th February.
The regime’s policy towards the COVID-19 pandemic has proven costly. The regime only announced the first two coronavirus deaths on the afternoon of polling day when the election was already well underway. By then the virus had taken hold throughout the country.
As of 17th April, according to the regime’s official figures, there were 80,868 cases of the virus resulting in 5,031 deaths. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed doubts about these figures, given the size of the population in Iran (85 million) and the lateness with which any controls were introduced.
The recent announcement by the regime that Iranians should return to work will only exacerbate this situation and is likely to result in a more rapid spread of the pandemic. In response to criticism of the policy, President Rouhani has stated that he would rather see 2 million die than 30 million hungry out on the streets.
Rouhani has urged people to use private cars after there were crowded buses on the first day of the relaxed rules last weekend, while the metro has called for “smart distancing”, although what this means in practice is not clear.
Iran’s medical system organisation expressed concern, saying smart distancing “was being introduced without considering the scientific and executive justifications for the project, or the threat that the past efforts of all people, officials and medical staff will be wasted”.
Surveys cited by the government showed that a third of people are experiencing financial problems. Ali Rabiei, Rouhani’s spokesman, has said that the Covid-19 crisis has affected 3.3 million official employees through dismissal, suspension or reduction of wages, with a further 4 million self-employed also feeling its impact.
While the country’s under resourced and over stretched health sector struggles to deal with the pandemic, the sanctions imposed upon the regime by the United States have not only stayed in place but have been expanded.
The US is refusing to spare Iranian people from the negative impact of the sanctions, which affect the availability and provision of food and medicine while destroying the economic fabric of the country. The United Nations and leading European powers including Britain, France and Germany have officially called on the US to remove the sanctions in order for a humanitarian relief effort to take place to help the beleaguered country’s people.
The US however continues to block a $5bn emergency loan application to the IMF by Iran to help tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
Against this background the fate of political prisoners is also cause for particular concern. Prisoners are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and are subject to routine mistreatment. Since early-February there have been continual calls for the release of political prisoners or for them to at least be granted temporary leave.
Just before the Iranian New Year on 20th March, the regime grudgingly assented to the release of thousands of prisoners. However, those political prisoners with a sentence of longer than 5 years were excluded from the release.
The regime is refusing to support the call for the provision of a safe environment for emergency work to be carried out and is not providing guarantees for workplaces that decide to stop production owing to the pandemic. This means that workers are coerced into going to their workplaces, despite the dangers, rather than being left jobless, destitute and hungry.
The combination of the ineptitude of the Iranian regime and the vengeful action of the US, in intensifying sanctions, is putting the lives of many ordinary Iranians at risk. Both must be opposed; both must be stopped.
Spies in the camp
15th April 2020
Kier Starmer – will he call out those who undermined Corbyn?
There has never been any doubt that political factions within the Labour Party consistently worked to undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The abortive Owen Smith leadership bid of 2016 for example, with Lisa Nandy as campaign co- chair. The Chuka Umunna led split to create the short lived political embarrassment of Change UK. The regular pronouncements of former Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, culminating in the creation of internal faction Future Britain, in express opposition to the official policies of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.
Current leader, Kier Starmer, was to the forefront in calling for a second referendum on Brexit, in stark contrast to the agreed conference policy of honouring the referendum outcome, a position which had blown a hole in Theresa May’s majority in 2017 and brought Corbyn within a whisker of Number 10.
The Labour right though, wanting neither Corbyn as Prime Minister nor departure from the EU, deliberately failed to unite around and build upon the 2017 manifesto but consistently worked to undermine it. A nest of spies in the camp. The Tories, the BBC and the right wing media had no problem with following this line.
A leaked internal report, circulated at the weekend, shows just how deep the antipathy to Corbyn went, especially amongst those employed by the Labour Party to support Corbyn’s work as Leader of the Opposition. The 860 page report, seen by Sky News initially but subsequently circulated more widely, finds “abundant evidence of a hyper-factional atmosphere prevailing in Party HQ”, going on to suggest that this “affected the expeditious and resolute handling of disciplinary complaints.”
This is significant as the major area of complaint focussed upon are those of antisemitism within the Labour Party. Corbyn was consistently vilified by the press and his own Parliamentary party for failing to act swiftly enough in dealing with alleged antisemitism. The leaked report indicates that, far from Corbyn being slow to act, the Party machinery deliberately sabotaged attempts to deal with the issue in order for it to be an ongoing source of embarrassment for Corbyn.
In the 10,000 emails and thousands of WhatsApp messages cited in the report it is claimed that senior former staff,
“…openly worked against the aims and objectives of the leadership of the Party, and in the 2017 general election some key staff even appeared to work against the Party’s core objective of winning elections.”
This is ironic as current Labour Leader, Kier Starmer, is in post precisely because of his perceived ‘electability’. The fact is that many within Labour’s ranks were simply not up to the challenge of the direction which the Party’s policies under Corbyn, as endorsed by the membership, had taken. They longed to get back to a cosy middle ground, free of any real challenge to the system or any real conflict.
The biggest fright for the right wing faction within Labour, along with the political and media establishment, was that Labour’s policies under Corbyn were actually resonating with a public sick of Tory austerity and the impact upon their standard of living. The ramping up of the antisemitism smear campaign; the blind alley of the so called People’s Vote call for a second referendum; and the personal vilification of Corbyn over the 2017 – 2019 period, were designed to bring about the election result which occurred last December, paving the way for Labour to be back in ‘safe hands’.
The Labour Movement has always had to contend with those who do not see radical change as an option for fear that it will cause conflict and disruption. Yet radical change cannot happen without conflict or disruption. Those who hold the levers of power run the system precisely to benefit their own class interests and are not going to give up control lightly. They will mock, vilify and sabotage anything which they see as a challenge.
Labour’s programme under Jeremy Corbyn was hardly revolutionary but it was radical enough and potentially popular enough for the political establishment to be worried. There is some irony in the fact that under the current COVID-19 crisis conditions, the increased state control and public spending, which Corbyn was so vilified for supporting, have become a necessity.
The real test though will come post lockdown when decisions have to be made as to who foots the bill. Following the 2008 banking crisis the very NHS, local government and care sectors workers, whom even Tory ministers applaud on a Thursday night, bailed out the bankers by paying through enforced austerity measures.
Will the banks, corporations and City of London pay this time round for all of the effort the underfunded, underpaid and under resourced public sector has put into saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus? Will Kier Starmer and Angela Rayner be leading the line in demanding that they do so? We shall see.
US pandemic response – profits before people
12th April 2020
Donald Trump – seeking re-election at any cost
The withdrawal of Senator Bernie Sanders from the race for the Democratic nomination to contest the US election in November is a blow to the chances of any major progressive input into the campaign. Sanders has said he will let his name stay on the ballot paper in states which have yet to declare, in order to keep some pressure upon Joe Biden to acknowledge some progressive policies, but the nomination itself now looks to be Biden’s for the taking.
As a contest Trump vs. Biden looks set to only go one way, with Biden’s appeal to the Democratic base being little more than the calculation that he is less likely to frighten off the establishment and by implication moderate voters, than self styled democratic socialist, Sanders.
Given that US political nominations are largely down to bankrolling the way to a nomination, there has been talk of Biden being gazumped by New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, for example, whose straight talking approach to the COVID-19 crisis has been compared favourably in some quarters to the bumbling mendacity of President Trump.
The mounting body count and mass graves being prepared in New York state may take some of the shine off Cuomo’s prospects, although to date he has not declared any intention of standing. It is clear though that the most the Democrats are hoping for is a stop Trump candidate and at present Biden is the best they can agree upon.
However, the galloping COVID-19 crisis may yet dent Trump’s prospects in November, with the US now heading to the top of the world league for deaths related to the virus, and unemployment rising rapidly. Last week alone saw 6.6m Americans lose their jobs.
The early inaction of the Trump administration has come under scrutiny this week with evidence that Trump was warned of the impact of the virus in January but did not act quickly enough, instead making statements downplaying the virus and comparing it to the common flu. Trump was backed in his assertions by his allies at Fox News who rushed to his defence, accusing the media of “scaring people unnecessarily” and trying to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”
In seeking to apportion blame for the impact of the virus, upon US lives and the economy, Trump this week hit out at the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing WHO of having “called it wrong” and being “China-centric”.
Trump went on to vow that he would put “a very powerful hold” on his government’s funding of the WHO, before backtracking and insisting that a freeze was only under consideration.
The facts remain that the WHO declared COVID-19 a public health emergency on 30th January, nearly a month before Trump tweeted: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”, and proclaimed: “One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” He eventually declared a national emergency on 13th March.
While clearly mishandling action to halt the spread of the virus at home, Trump still finds time to direct fire at those attempting to tackle the pandemic internationally. However, US efforts to characterise Cuban medical teams as “agents of communist indoctrination” has taken a blow, as Cuban doctors have flown off on new missions to battle COVID-19 in at least 14 countries, including Italy and the tiny principality of Andorra on the Spanish-French border.
In the city of Crema in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, 52 Cuban doctors and nurses set up a field hospital with 32 beds equipped with oxygen and three ICU beds.
“This is a strongly symbolic moment because the Crema hospital has been going through an extremely complicated situation from the start,” Lombardy’s top social welfare official, Giulio Gallera, said, “The number of patients who have filled and continue to fill the emergency room and departments has truly put the medical personnel to a hard test.”
The Trump administration has sought to cut off income to Havana as part of a long-term tightening of sanctions and continues to discourage countries from contracting Cuban medical workers.
Cuba currently has about 37,000 medical workers in 67 countries, most in longstanding missions. Some doctors have been sent as part of free aid missions, but many countries pay the government directly for their services. In some other cases, international health bodies have paid.
Pressure in the United States from the Wall Street business lobby could yet see social distancing restrictions lifted far sooner than the WHO would deem safe. While the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) is opposing such a move the bankers appear to be backed by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the US.
Recent CDC guidance on 9th April, states that essential “critical infrastructure workers” could go back on the job as long as they were pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, even if they had been exposed to a virus victim within the prior 48 hours. The push to get everyone back to work, regardless of the danger, was stressed by Trump again recently, when he put forward the notion that the country should be ready for this by the end of the month.
Profits before people is unlikely to turn up anywhere as a campaign election slogan but that is precisely what Trump’s policies in relation to the pandemic amount to. That is how things stand in the world’s richest and most powerful nation.
Meanwhile, 90 miles off the Florida coast a small island, against which the US maintains a 60 year long illegal economic blockade, continues to show that there is another way.
No billionaires, no living in a box
5th April 2020
Kier Starmer changing the balance of power, or just getting Labour back into office?
Backing illegal US wars, buying in to the Trident deterrent illusion, not saying boo to the bankers and the fat cats in the City of London. Is this what we can expect from a Kier Starmer leadership of the Labour Party? A return to the pre-Jeremy Corbyn days of electability at all costs, rather than mapping out the changes needed to the society we live in, which allows billionaires to thrive while others live in cardboard boxes on the street?
The intensity of the media and establishment onslaught against Corbyn was precisely because the policies Labour advocated under his leadership were a challenge to the established order and were gaining increasing popularity. The 2019 election result would not tell that story because by then the ruling class in the UK had ensured that anything associated with Corbyn was regarded by sufficient sections of the public as toxic. Defeat at the polls was almost a foregone conclusion.
Inevitably, following the election of a new leader, there is talk of unity, all sections of the party pulling together, getting behind the new man and giving him the chance of being elected. A similar response to Jeremy Corbyn after the relative success of the 2017 election would have been welcome but, as ever with Labour, it is the Left who will compromise for unity, with the Right crying foul if the membership elect anyone with remotely radical credentials.
Starmer will get a honeymoon period with the press, not least due to the national emergency situation the country faces, and his declaration to work with Boris Johnson “in the national interest” to fight COVID-19. Not even the Daily Mail will hold that against him.
Is Kier Starmer the man to challenge the balance of power, or just to get Labour elected back into office on a safe programme? The real test will come when the current emergency is over, when the opportunity to draw conclusions and map a way forward for Labour in a changed world is presented. The necessity of planning, co-operation and the mobilisation of the nation’s resources in a national effort is evident for all to see at the moment. It could be argued that this should be the new normal, rather than the spectrum of inequality, from billionaires to cardboard boxes.
It has certainly become evident to many just how important, undervalued and underpaid the nation’s public sector workforce is in the present system. Those workers deemed ‘business critical’ in the present crisis are not running social media, speculating on the stock exchange or building careers in advertising. They are nurses, doctors, refuse collectors, care workers, social workers and local government staff, all mobilised to defend the vulnerable and provide a vital lifeline for the most socially isolated.
Co-operation is only possible under capitalism when circumstances dictate that there is no alternative. Hence the constant war time analogies in relation to the present pandemic situation.
Even then, such co-operation goes against the free market grain of the current government and the desires of the private sector to pursue huge wealth. Calls by the trade unions for the government to intervene in order to mobilise idle factories, to engage in the socially useful production of vital personal protective equipment for the NHS, have been slow to translate into action.
Starmer has taken the opportunity to level some criticism at the government, suggesting in a Sunday Times article that there have been “serious mistakes” in tackling the COVID-19 crisis, including the failure to provide enough protective equipment for frontline workers and delays over testing. This is relatively safe ground and not out of step with the view of many epidemiologists.
The government target, announced this week by Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, of increasing testing ten fold to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, is widely seen as ambitious, if not necessarily achievable.
There continues to be disagreement on the way forward. Mark Woolhouse, at Edinburgh University, has suggested three strategies for dealing with the epidemic,
“Once lockdown has driven down the virus to low enough levels in the community we can go back to chasing down individual cases. At the same time we build more ICU capacity in the NHS so that we can relax the lockdown without the health service being overwhelmed. And thirdly we place new emphasis in shielding the vulnerable.”
John Edmunds, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has said that the lockdown policy needs to continue for many months, stating,
“Testing on its own will not stop this epidemic.”
The test for Labour, and Starmer in particular in his new role, will be to articulate a vision of society beyond the crisis, which resonates with the experience of ordinary people. That will mean having to challenge some sacred cows, such as spending billions on Trident when the NHS is in crisis; giving the City of London free rein to gamble with pension funds; addressing the homelessness crisis when billionaire properties stand empty; and tackling the shortfalls and unequal distribution of funding across local government.
In short, it may have to be a programme the like of which the Labour Left, and Jeremy Corbyn, would approve. Let’s see how long the press honeymoon with Starmer lasts if we get to that point.
UK Lockdown set to tighten
29th March 2020
Prof. Stephen Powis – urging against complacency
With the UK lockdown fully underway, and the further tightening of measures in prospect, the critical issue to address is the testing of health workers for COVID-19. The NHS has had to deal with the crisis at a point when 10% of posts are vacant and many services sustained through the use of agency staff. As a result of the crisis sickness levels in the NHS are already high, resulting in a shortage of medical staff, with many others self isolating with suspected symptoms. Others are worried that they may be infected without showing symptoms, posing a potential risk to patients, colleagues and families. Widespread testing of NHS staff would help protect patients as well as allowing staff to return to the frontline faster.
The urgency of this strategy was underlined yesterday by national medical director of NHS England, Prof. Stephen Powis, at the daily Downing St press conference, that the UK “will have done very well” if deaths are kept below 20,000 in the current pandemic. Given that deaths in the UK have just passed the 1,000 mark that represents only 5% of the potential death toll, even in a best case scenario.
At a cost of nearly £6m the government has taken the controversial decision to write to every UK household this week, in the form of a personal letter from Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, urging everyone to observe the lockdown measures currently in place, while reinforcing the social distancing and hand washing messages.
Debate has already started as to whether the letter is the best use of resources given the TV, radio and social media coverage of the stay home, save lives message. Evidence suggests that in most instances behavioural change is taking place, with social distancing now being the norm in supermarket queues. Amongst the minority where there is active resistance to the government measures people are unlikely to be persuaded by a letter from the Prime Minister.
The outpouring of public support for health workers, in the clap for carers initiative on Thursday and the rush of over 500,000 volunteers to provide support, has demonstrated the willingness of huge sections of the population to play their part in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. This was swiftly followed by the embarrassment of Boris Johnson, testing positive with mild symptoms, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, having to go into self isolation and Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, temporarily withdrawing from the public stage for the same reasons.
Substitutes have had to deliver recent Downing St daily press briefings, with appropriate social distancing being observed, and reporters asking questions via video link.
With week one of the lockdown over there is every expectation that the coming seven days will see pressure upon the NHS increase significantly. Of the 6,300 COVID-19 patients in hospital, as of last Friday, at least half are in London alone, which is expected to be the worst hit part of the UK over the next ten days. Privately, many involved in local resilience are expressing the view that London is, to all intents and purposes ‘lost’, and measures to contain the virus have effectively been too little, too late.
While government measures to help the employed and self-employed during the week were welcomed, the period of uncertainty leading up to the announcements meant that many continued to travel to work on crowded tube trains and buses. Without any certainty about income people felt they were being forced to choose between going to work and taking their chances with the virus.
Similar scenarios are playing out across major conurbations across the world, with New York and Tokyo continuing to report significant increases in cases and Mexico announcing a nationwide one month lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
In the UK, ‘field hospital’ arrangements have been set up in London, with 4,000 additional beds, with Birmingham and Manchester expected to follow. NHS guidance suggests that staff from across hospitals including non-nurses such as care assistants, therapists and pharmacists may be drafted in to assist with the care of patients, with intensive care nurses overseeing teams of carers across several patients. Guidance also suggests that staff volunteering to work in field hospitals may need to be prepared “to live-in for the period the field hospital is open.”
In the context of a lack of high grade masks and inadequate levels of personal protective equipment, in an already under resourced NHS, capacity is soon going to be stretched beyond any reasonable limits.
Under resourcing and the creeping privatisation of the NHS have been starkly exposed by the present pandemic. The symptoms though have been presenting for a long time. The drama of current events is increasingly confirming that the long term cure for health provision in the UK is only possible with the planning, investment and organisation necessary under socialism.
Whatever it takes?
20th March 2020
Boris Johnson – a little less bluster, a little more action?
The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis is throwing up significant contradictions for capitalism. In a system built upon competition, the only way to defeat COVID-19 is through co-operation. In a system which prides itself upon being dedicated to the free market and privatisation, the only answer to COVID-19 is centralised control and state intervention. In a system in which companies in the FTSE100 are happy to rake off enormous profits when times are good, they are desperate for a government bail out when times get tough.
Having been elected on the ‘Get Brexit Done’ mantra the Tories are now running with ‘Whatever it takes’ as the slogan in their efforts to tackle COVID-19. Rishi Sunak, newly installed Chancellor of the Exchequer, last week revealed a budget that sought to provide a bail out for business, but expects workers at the sharp end to settle for little more than half a loaf, as the economic consequences of COVID-19 begin to bite.
Capitalism inevitably sheds labour in times of crisis but is in danger of shedding more labour even more quickly than the system can cope with, plunging into worldwide recession as a consequence.
In spite of this, Parliamentarians and the press alike are being are being very polite. It is a national crisis and we must all pull together to get through, it’s no good indulging in a blame game, after all, who could have seen his coming?
Short term memory is a wonderful thing. Bird flu? SARS anyone? It was only a question of time before another viral attack was unleashed upon the world and building capacity to resist should have been a priority for some time now.
The reality is somewhat different. Ten years of Tory enforced austerity has not only weakened the capacity of the NHS to deal with the medical consequences of the virus but has severely undermined the community infrastructure necessary to help support people through the crisis.
Local government services already at breaking point have limited capacity to adjust. The zero-hour contract, low pay, gig economy, beloved of so many of the companies Sunak will bail out, gives millions of workers no security or protection at such a critical time. Many will turn to local services for support and find that these too have been eroded over the past decade.
UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has donned his populist cloak and claimed that, unlike the 2008 financial crash when the banks were bailed out, this time the people will be bailed out and not suffer unduly. During the course of the same press briefing (19th March), Johnson also claimed that if we all pull together it will be possible to ‘turn the tide’ on COVID-19 within 12 weeks.
This seems to fly in the face of the assumptions made by the Imperial College London (ICL) report upon which the government is now making its planning assumptions. The ICL report suggests that the mitigation approach, initially adopted by the government, would result in “hundreds of thousands of deaths” and overwhelm NHS intensive care units. ICL models suggested 250,000 deaths in Britain based upon experience to date in the UK and Italy.
More effective, according to the ICL report is a strategy it terms suppression, now adopted by the government, which aims to reverse the epidemic growth altogether by reducing case numbers and keeping them down. ICL suggest that,
“A minimum policy for effective suppression is therefore population wide social distancing combined with home isolation of cases and school and university closures.”
ICL claim that suppression policies would need to stay in place for at least five months and claim that, to avoid a spike when suppression is eased, restrictions in some form may need to be in place until an effective vaccine is available, which could be up to 18 months.
This is a far cry from the blustery optimism of Johnson’s turning the tide in 12 weeks rhetoric.
The UK has a total capacity of 5,000 intensive care unit beds in surge capacity mode. In Italy, deaths increased when beds hit capacity and critical care was not available. Estimates suggest that nearly 5% of people with COVID-19 will need to be hospitalised, a figure which increases into the older age range. An estimated 70% of the over 80s who require hospitalisation will be likely to need critical care.
While the Tories cannot quite be accused of acting like Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who thinks he can defeat COVID-19 with lucky charms, including Catholic scapulars and a US 2 dollar bill, they still need to take more urgent action more quickly.
As ever, it is the poor and the elderly who are most at threat. As ever, these people are the most reliant on public services which the Tories have consistently undermined. As ever, these are the sections of the population which rely most on the NHS.
COVID-19 knows no boundaries, either of geography or class, but it is inevitably the case that those with the least resilience, both medically and financially, are at the sharp end of the social spectrum. They will need more support than a few long terms loans to private business will provide. They will need sick pay and their wages and housing costs covered in order to get through the crisis.
Whether the system can really be turned around to support the poor, the elderly and the unemployed, rather than the banks, the rich and the City of London, remains to be seen. Johnson’s daily 5pm press briefings will continue to be monitored with interest.
9th March 2020
No queues at the Colosseum in Rome as COVID-19 hits tourism
Recent World Health Organisation (WHO) praise for the way in which the Chinese authorities have contained the coronavirus, COVID-19, outbreak has been tempered by those suggesting that, in world economic terms, China is too big to criticise, even for the WHO. Routine anti-Chinese positions are not new to the Western media but attempting to undermine the WHO will not encourage public confidence in how the epidemic is being handled.
WHO representatives reported back recently on a joint WHO-China mission on COVID-19 after which epidemiologists were impressed by the ‘differentiated approach’ taken in China towards different situations, including sporadic cases, clusters of cases and community transmission.
The WHO recognition of the response measures in China has led EU representatives to express the desire to maintain close communication, in order to draw upon Chinese experience.
The WHO Regional Office for Europe stated that,
“We are encouraged by the continued decline in cases in China. We remain concerned about the increasing signs of transmission outside China. International cooperation between nations, sharing experience and best practice, has been, and will continue to be, crucial to managing this outbreak.”
EU health ministries have agreed to develop a co-ordinated approach to prevention and protection of people at risk, including coherent containment measures, as well as advice regarding travel to and from risk areas.
Uncertainty about how to contain the virus is having an impact upon tourism, travel and economic activity worldwide. Stock markets opening in the City of London today (9th March) saw an initial fall in the value of shares on the FTSE 100 of 9%, the third biggest single day’s fall in history and the biggest since the financial crash of 2008, an indication of the impact which COVID-19 is having upon the world economy.
The impact of measures taken to combat COVID-19 in China is significant precisely because of its position in global trade. China alone accounts for almost a quarter of global manufacturing, one quarter of global automotive production and a high percentage of parts for the automotive, steel, plastics and high-tech telecoms industries for Western manufacturers, all of which rely on just in time production processes, now grinding to a halt as goods stockpile in Chinese ports.
Almost inevitably, given the origin of the virus in China, conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are gaining a grip. This is especially true in the United States, where anti-Chinese sentiment is barely beneath the surface in certain political circles and the demonisation of China may be seen to have some political advantage, especially in a presidential election year.
The most persistent rumour, repeated by many from right wing radio host, Rush Limbaugh, to former Donald Trump strategist and infamous right wing commentator, Steve Bannon, claims that the virus originated in a laboratory in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
However, a significant group of experts studying the virus have claimed recently in The Lancet that the virus originated in wildlife. Scientists who have sequenced the genome of the virus have identified it as 96% the same as viruses that circulate in bats. The first cluster of cases in China had ties to a live animal market in Wuhan, where seafood and other wildlife were sold as food, leading infectious disease researchers, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, to state that the evidence,
“…implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets.”
From there the virus made the leap to humans where it has been spreading ever since.
Another conspiracy theory, that the virus was a bio-weapon gone wrong is also dismissed by microbiologists, in part due to the unusual biochemical features of the virus and also because, as a weapon, it is not very efficient. There are far deadlier pathogens which, if weaponised, could have a much more significant impact than COVID-19.
There is consensus however that live animal markets are a potential source of further viruses being generated, as there is the opportunity for transmission between animals and from them to humans. If any criticism is to fall with the Chinese it is their approach to public health, which allows this potential for transmission in live animal markets.
China is not the only country in which such practice exists. However, given its role as a global economic superpower, home to nearly 20% of the population of the planet, it does have some responsibility to stamp out practices which can impact adversely on public health both nationally and internationally.
It is positive that the WHO has praised the Chinese for their action in dealing with the outbreak, in spite of some of the criticism it has received for doing so, but action so far is only dealing with the symptoms. For the Chinese, and others who allow unregulated live animal sales, the pressure now is to bring all of their economic and political influence to address the cause of COVID-19.
Experts fear coronavirus cover up in Iran
2nd March 2020
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, there is growing evidence of an increasing impact in Iran. It is feared that sanctions imposed by the US may have weakened the capacity of the country’s medical sector to cope. Jane Green reports.
Coronavirus in Iran – may be worse than officially reported
Since first announcing the presence of coronavirus COVID-19 recently, Iran has reported a total of 388 cases and 34 deaths, a far higher fatality rate than seen elsewhere. It is widely suspected that the official tally vastly underestimates the true number of cases. Iran has the highest number of coronavirus cases outside of China.
A senior medical doctor at the Masih Daneshvari hospital in Tehran, the country’s top pulmonary public hospital and the main facility overseeing coronavirus patients was keen to retain his anonymity but stated,
“We think that this virus has been in Iran for the past three to four weeks and has circulated throughout the country. Right now in Iran we are facing a coronavirus epidemic.”
Medical teams are concerned that they do not have the means to test effectively or to screen potential cases. Testing kits were not available in Iran until last week due to the sanctions imposed upon the regime by the US.
Medical workers are also concerned that their equipment is badly outdated, a situation made worse by the US sanctions, although the US administration says “humanitarian and medical needs” are exempt from sanctions. Nevertheless, many European companies fear doing business in Iran for fear of retribution from the US.
In addition, sanctions on Iranian banks make it difficult to carry out financial transactions with Europe. It can take three times longer to make a simple banking transaction with Europe under the newly imposed sanctions.
Ventilators and medicines are also in short supply as the scarcity of US dollars limits purchasing power. While the government has imposed some restrictions on holy sites and called off some Friday prayer services, President Rouhani has said there are no plans to quarantine entire cities hit by the virus.
Due to the shortage of surgical masks and hand sanitiser in shops, public health experts say Iran could become the hub of a major outbreak across the Middle East, especially given its porous borders with unstable countries at war or in turmoil.
Studies by Human Rights Watch and other groups last year found the country’s health care sector was severely affected under the latest round of US sanctions, putting cancer and other patients in danger, without access to life-saving medicine.
Iran’s reported mortality rate for coronavirus, at just under nine percent, surpasses the rate for other countries by a wide margin. Earlier this week, it was 16 percent. China’s reported mortality rate is currently at 3.5 percent. In South Korea, 13 patients have died out of 1,766 cases, for a reported mortality rate of slightly less than 1 percent.
Precise figures for Iran however, are difficult to come by. The head of the Medical Science University in Qom, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, a city in which there has been a significant number of confirmed cases, said on state television that the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures on the outbreak in the city.
Asked how many people had been placed in quarantine, Ghadir said, “The Health Ministry has told us not to announce any new statistics.”
The lack of clear reporting from Iran has prompted experts to raise concerns over whether there has been an official cover-up of the scale of the epidemic, and whether the country will be able to contain the deadly disease.
The response of the leadership of the regime has not inspired confidence, with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, playing down the outbreak, accusing Tehran’s enemies of playing up “negative propaganda” over the coronavirus threat, to undermine recent Parliamentary elections.
The lack of concern shown by the regime is underlined by the fact that nine flights by Mahan Air, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controlled airline, were made without any official permit to China, for the transportation of passengers and freight in the two weeks prior to the Iranian government’s acknowledgement of the presence of coronavirus inside Iran.
This was despite a rule having been made by the Iranian government supposedly suspending all flights between Iran and China. The passengers of these flights were not subject to quarantine or any control whatsoever upon their return to Iran.
However, given the growing international concerns and the prospect of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a coronavirus pandemic, there have been growing calls upon the US to ease its restrictions on humanitarian trade with Iran, which would allow China and other Tehran-friendly countries, including Russia, to provide medical and humanitarian aid to the Islamic Republic before the disease escalates into a greater crisis in the region.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies programme, told reporters last week that the virus “came unseen and undetected into Iran, so the extent of infection may be broader than what we may be seeing.”
If the situation in Iran continues to deteriorate the US will come under mounting international pressure to remove some of its sanctions to allow humanitarian aid. Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, said last week,
“The Trump administration will face a moral dilemma: whether to remove some of the pressure on Iran or face international condemnation for putting millions at risk.”
Luft also expressed concern that, as fears of a global pandemic grew and countries stockpiled face masks and other medical equipment, it could be hard for other nations to help Iran effectively.
In an ironic twist State media said last week that a member of the Iranian Parliament, Mamoud Sadeghi, and the country’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, who lead a task force battling the virus, had tested positive. The news came a day after Harirchi appeared at a news conference looking feverish, reaching for tissues to wipe his brow. He wore no mask as the ministry spokesman standing next to him expressed confidence about the government’s response to the crisis.
Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur called on Iranians to avoid “unnecessary trips inside the country”, while Iran’s neighbours have closed their borders. The UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Estonia in northern Europe all recorded new cases of the virus in people travelling from Iran.
Globally, more than 80,000 people in nearly 50 countries have been infected with the coronavirus. Nearly 2,800 have died, the majority in China’s Hubei province.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star (02/03/20)
For more information visit www.codir.net
Pledges and Priorities
23rd February 2020
Pro-Palestine but against antisemitism – perfectly compatible
Voting for the Labour Party leadership will get underway this week, with the top job now narrowed down to three candidates; Kier Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long Bailey. To some extent all three are compromised, by supporting the Ten Pledges to End the Antisemitism Crisis diktat, by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which seeks to impose external controls on how the Labour Party addresses allegations of antisemitism, stating that,
“An independent provider should be used to process all complaints, to eradicate any risk of partisanship and factionalism.”
The pledges include handing responsibility for training on antisemitism to one group in the Jewish community, the Jewish Labour Movement, and for Labour to,
“…engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals.”
This latter being code for the Board of Deputies or groups it approves as being ‘representative.’
This presumably excludes Jewish Voice for Labour, for example, which has supported a rejection of the Ten Pledges by the leadership candidates.
Even Rebecca Long Bailey, the most progressive of the leadership candidates, has fallen victim to the antisemitism smear campaign, suggesting in Jewish News that,
“Unfortunately, some people who regard themselves as anti-racist may nevertheless, when talking about the legacy of colonialism or the distribution of power within our capitalist society, use some of the negative stereotypical ideas or images that have become embedded within our culture over time.”
Long Bailey could have more usefully made the point that conflating criticism of the Israeli government’s failure to respect UN resolutions and international law with antisemitism, is the most dangerous of the “negative stereotypical ideas or images” being systematically embedded within our culture.
In the Deputy Leadership race only Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler have not agreed to the demands of the Ten Pledges, a position which has brought on predictable vitriol from the Board of Deputies and its mouthpiece the Jewish Chronicle, which quoted Board president Marie van der Zyl saying it “beggars belief” that Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon and Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler had withheld their endorsement.
Butler, in a statement as to why she would not sign the Ten Pledges made clear,
“If I thought that signing these 10 pledges would help solve the problem, I would do it. It would no doubt be the easy thing for me to do and I know the attention not doing so will bring. I endure racism on a daily basis. I know what it feels like. I have dedicated my career and life to doing just that, including in my current role as Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities.
That’s how I know that the easy route is not always the best route and I must do what I think is best. I fear that signing the pledges without further discussion will result in no positive change and I fear it will just be a token gesture.”
Her full statement is here:-
The Ten Pledges from the Board of Deputies has received far greater profile that the Ten Key Pledges to Support Muslim Communities, released by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) during the General Election campaign, and to which all leadership candidates have also signed up.
More information is here:-
It is interesting to note pledge 10 on the subject of Ethical Foreign Policy which states,
“Support a binding recognition of Palestine as an independent and sovereign state, and address human rights abuses abroad, including in Kashmir, Xinjiang and Myanmar.”
The Board of Deputies will no doubt have a view on the Palestinian question. It will be interesting to see how much time the successful candidate devotes to this MCB pledge, compared to those in the Board of Deputies set of pledges. There can be little doubt which will receive the most scrutiny from the media and which organisation has the strongest lobby, both inside and outside of the Labour Party.
One thing is certain, real leadership will come from the candidate who is not only vociferous in their condemnation of antisemitism but who calls out racism in any form. That will mean being prepared to make the case for the rights of Palestinians, in accordance with international law, however strong the pressure may be not to do so.
The Centre Cannot Hold
15th February 2020
Sinn Féin break the mould in the Irish general election
The Left in Britain should take heart from the outcome of the recent General Election in Ireland, where Sinn Féin broke the stranglehold of the centre right consensus in Irish government, in the form of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which have dominated the political life of Ireland for eight decades.
Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has set about the task of attempting to form a People’s Government with the support of smaller parties and independents in the Irish Parliament. It may take time to put together such a coalition but the fact that Sinn Féin are even in such a position is a huge leap forward.
In a statement on the election outcome the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) made the following assessment,
“This election result has grown on the rejection of EU-imposed austerity and the polices that give priority to the needs of capital, of the rich and powerful, at the expense of workers, policies promoted by all the establishment parties, including the Labour Party, and the establishment media. It follows from the mass struggles on water, housing, health, Repeal the 8th, and marriage equality.
The election only confirmed that housing, health, pensions and child care were central questions that have had a great impact on the working class.”
However, as the CPI go on to warn, Sinn Féin must remain vigilant against the efforts of the Irish establishment to incorporate them into the system and blunt the demands which have propelled them into such a strong position. A coalition with one of the establishment parties could very well lead to a watering down of the programme on which Sinn Féin were elected. As the CPI go on to state,
“In the next few weeks we will witness the behind-the-scenes negotiations and back-room deals being pulled together to see which combination of parties will form the next Government. The opportunism of the Labour Party, Social Democrats and Green Party will make them very amenable to forming or supporting a Government with Fianna Fáil.
While Irish communists welcome these progressive developments, we are mindful of the history of class struggles and the fight for national independence and sovereignty, of how easily the demands and the energy of working people have been smothered in the past, promoting the blind faith that the electoral system alone can deliver real or lasting change.”
In the words of Irish poet WB Yeats , “the centre cannot hold.”
The election in Ireland does illustrate that Left policies can prove popular, as the Labour Party in Britain demonstrated in the 2017 General Election. The contest for the leadership of the Labour Party has now been narrowed to three candidates, with Emily Thornberry failing to make the cut for the final ballot.
Kier Starmer remains the clear front runner, based upon Constituency Labour Party and trade union nominations, with Rebecca Long Bailey and Lisa Nandy also in the frame. The election now goes to one member, one vote with all 500,000 Labour Party members eligible to make their choice.
Only Long Bailey has presented a platform which is consistent with the progressive positions Labour has developed over the past four years under Jeremy Corbyn. Her demonisation by the media is in proportion to her support for left wing policies and every effort is being made, by both the media establishment and the establishment within the Labour Party, to undermine her position.
Starmer has recognised that he will not win without some left wing support and has made conciliatory noises, suggesting that Corbyn’s leadership and policies had some merit, and that the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water. This is rich coming from him as Starmer was one of the key architects of Labour’s defeat, in arguing to ditch the policy of support for the referendum outcome, while lending weight to the so-called People’s Vote campaign.
Lisa Nandy is the current darling of the soft left and is likely to garner votes from those determined to see a woman leader but not brave enough to vote Long Bailey.
Whatever the outcome of the Labour leadership election the successful candidate can be sure of a media vilification campaign, if not on the scale of that directed at Corbyn, at least sufficient to pose questions about their leadership competence and economic credentials. Even Starmer, the safety first candidate, will not escape this.
Nor can the centre hold in Britain any more than it can in Ireland. Whoever lands the Labour Party job can be sure that they will face a Prime Minister whose primary objective over the next five years is to secure a further five years in office. The effective sacking of Chancellor, Sajid Javid, heralds a move to centralise economic decision making in the hands of No.10 and a determination by Boris Johnson to increase public spending on infrastructure projects, the green light for HS2 being just the start.
It is Johnson’s calculation that such spending will not only prove popular but will boost the economy, at least sufficiently, to gain him a second term. However, it will take more than fast trains to turn around some of the structural issues of poverty, which have been compounded by ten years of austerity and biting welfare reforms. It is ironic that HS2 will not even reach those Northern seats that Johnson has characterised as ‘lending’ him their votes. It may not be long before many voters realise they have been short changed.
Johnson has been equally determined not to raise taxes, leaving him in the position of fuelling his spending plans through increased borrowing, albeit at favourable interest rates, or breaking the tax pledge.
In Britain, as in Ireland, it is hard to see how things will not, at some point fall apart.
9th February 2020
Trump – basks in his impeachment acquittal
“Trump Acquitted” screamed the headline in The Washington Post, held aloft by the self promoting, narcissist currently occupying the White House at his press conference on Friday.
“Best headline I’ve ever had in The Washington Post”, quipped a delighted Trump, barely able to conceal his joy at the outcome of the impeachment trial, which will surely go down in US history as one of the greatest constitutional debacles ever.
The move to impeach Trump was set in train last August when the President was accused of putting pressure upon the President of Ukraine, to dig dirt on the son of Democratic presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, or say goodbye to US aid and political support. Trump is alleged to have held back millions of dollars of military aid to Ukraine and promised a White House meeting with Ukraine’s president, as bargaining chips. This forms the basis of the first charge against Trump.
The second charge against Trump is that, after the White House refused to allow staff to testify at the first impeachment hearings last year, Trump was effectively obstructing Congress.
An investigation in the House of Representatives from October to December resulted in a vote to impeach Trump, which led to the case being passed on to the Senate. While the House of Representatives is controlled by the Democrats, the Republicans control the Senate, giving Trump a distinct advantage once the trial got underway in January.
The Republican majority rejected moves by the Democrats to allow new witnesses and documents to be brought into the trial hearings, rendering them virtually meaningless and the outcome a foregone conclusion. In the final analysis only one Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, broke ranks and Trump got his acquittal.
The news came at the end of a week when the Democrats had initially failed to declare a winner in the Iowa caucuses, the first step on the road to finding an opposition candidate to Trump for November’s presidential election. On Tuesday, Trump delivered his State of the Union speech, which was greeted with thunderous applause by Republican Senators and compelled House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to rip up her copy of his speech, as Trump basked in the applause.
While Pelosi’s protest may have made for dramatic TV it will not have moved the Democrats any closer to laying a glove on Trump in November. Iowa eventually announced that little known small town Mayor, Paul Buttigieg, had nosed slightly ahead of veteran firebrand Bernie Sanders in the caucuses. There is a long way to go however.
The main talking point in the Democrat race has been the position of former New York mayor, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, allegedly keeping his powder dry till the bigger states, especially California, come into play in the Democrat selection process on so-called Super Tuesday on 3rd March.
Bloomberg’s response to anyone concerned about a rich Democrat trying to buy the race to defeat a rich Republican is typically robust,
“Someone said, Are you spending too much money? And I said, I’m spending money to get rid of Donald Trump. And the guy said, Spend more.”
On the one hand, the impeachment debacle and the Democrat primary race would appear to sum up the hopeless state of US politics, certainly as reported by the mainstream media. Alternatively, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) has a more hopeful perspective, noting that,
“…the strength and stability of any government rests not so much on the accumulation of power at the top but the degree of support below among the governed. With a split ruling class at the “commanding heights of big capital”; hard public support hovering around one-third; and a widespread, well-organized opposition in the labor, civil rights, women’s, Latino, LGBTQ, and youth movements—Trump is in big trouble.”
As the CPUSA acknowledge though, that opposition still needs to be galvanised in a way that can mount an effective challenge to Trump in November and that,
“…much depends on the ability of the various components of the people’s movements to forge greater unity around issues as the primaries play out. As recent events reveal, this is not a given. All of us have to keep our eyes on the prize. Defeating Trump….is central to social progress.”
The response to Trump’s State of the Union address from the CPUSA can be found here:-
It offers the hope of an alternative USA in which the people are truly empowered and elections cannot be bought, by Republican narcissists or Democrat billionaires.
As the media coverage builds towards the election in November, and the focus in the short term sharpens on the Democrat primaries, it is worth remembering that a bigger alternative is possible. There are millions in the USA committed to fighting for that alternative. They deserve our support and solidarity.
1st February 2020
UK departure a step towards solving the EU puzzle
In the past forty seven years the UK has seen the Winter of Discontent and the collapse of the Labour government; the Thatcher government, incorporating the rundown of manufacturing industry, the erosion of trade union rights, the destruction of Council housing, the dismantling of comprehensive education, the Miner’s Strike and poll tax demonstrations; the Blair/Brown years with the illegal war on Iraq, troops in Afghanistan and the banking crisis of 2008, paving the way for more Tory austerity, the consequences of which we are still living through.
All of this has occurred while the UK has been a member of the EU. Membership has done nothing to stop any of this and the EU has actively colluded in much of the economic deregulation, free movement of cheap labour and flexibility for capital, upon which the EU depends.
Those who regard the EU as the greatest deliverer of peace, progress and prosperity the world has known tend to forget Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria or the migrant crises which have followed being tied to adventurist US foreign policy. They tend to forget the conditions imposed upon nations such as Ireland, Greece and Portugal as part of so called ‘bail out’ packages, when their economies have been bled dry by the stronger EU states.
In economic terms growth in the UK economy has collapsed from 2% a year on average to 0.5% a year. The growth trend across mainland Europe is not much better, having fallen from a 4% per year to a 1% average. As Larry Elliott, economics editor for The Guardian has pointed out,
“Europe has world class companies but none of them were set up within the past 30 years. There is no equivalent of Facebook, Amazon or Google: the reason the UK has turned to Huawei to build its 5G mobile network is because the Chinese company is ahead of Europe’s rivals: Nokia and Ericsson.”
There is no economic miracle waiting to happen across Europe that the UK will be missing out on by leaving.
Of course, UK departure does not guarantee economic nirvana either. The fact that growth rates are tanking in both the EU and UK is not to do with EU membership but with the general crisis faced by capitalism. The EU is only one means by which the ruling classes across Europe attempt to manage this crisis in their own interests. In large measure that means the stronger economies, of Germany and France, managing the EU market in their interests.
However, the German economy only just avoided going in to recession in the last economic quarter. Discontent continues to simmer in the annexed East Germany where opportunities since ‘unification’ remain slim and a two tier system in terms of access to education, economic and political opportunity effectively operates. The rise of right wing populists Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) is in part a reflection of this.
France has been beset by street demonstrations over the past year, through the gilets jeunes. The recent pressure to reverse proposed attacks on the working week and pensions has seen thousands more pour onto the streets in protest, with a high level of mobilisation through French trade unions, especially the CGT, and a leading role played by the French Communist Party (PCF).
The British ruling class has always been split over the EU and this has been reflected in the struggle within the Tory Party over the past fifty years. For the moment, those seeing that their interests are best served inside the EU have lost their grip and the Little Englander faction is on the march.
For socialists the EU has not brought any benefits and the social democratic gains of the post war period have been steadily eroded, without the EU affording any protection. The EU, friend or foe, is essentially a distraction from the main issue. That is that capitalism itself is the main enemy and the ruling class, however it chooses to organise, inside or outside an economic and political union or not, will never act in the interest of the working class.
Leaving the EU is a momentous occasion and an historic step. However, it will not result in the ‘freedoms’ the right wing imagine, or be the calamity imagined by hand wringing liberals. In many respects it is simply a continuation of the ongoing class struggle by other means and on slightly different terrain.
For workers in the UK the enemy should be a bit clearer. We need to make sure that our focus is sharper and that the real needs of ordinary people can be articulated and delivered, freed from the shackles of the monetarist restrictions imposed by the EU. That will not mean arguing a case to return to the EU, as Labour leadership candidate Kier Starmer is advocating, but putting the case for a forward looking, truly internationalist, socialist Britain.
The people of the UK need to move forward, with no regrets about leaving the EU, but looking forward to a true internationalism, based upon the union of the peoples of Europe, not a union of the banks and corporations which exploit them.
Theatre of the Absurd
30th January 2020
Marwan Bishara, Senior Political Analyst at al-Jazeera shares some thoughts on the so-called Middle East Peace Plan, unveiled this week by Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu and Trump – aiming to call the shots in the Middle East in more ways than one
The devil is not in the detail; it’s in the headlines of Trump’s initiative.
So, to resolve the problem of the illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian lands, Trump wants them legalised and recognised as part of Israel.
To resolve the problem of Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied Jerusalem, Trump wants it recognised as the capital of Israel and Israel alone.
To deal with the question of Palestinian refugees and their inalienable right of return and compensation, Trump wants to prevent their return.
To solve the problem of violent, repressive and inhumane Israeli control over the Palestinians, Trump wants to see that extended indefinitely. Even after the Palestinians meet all the new conditions imposed on them, they would still be at the mercy of Israel’s security forces.
The Trump plan tramples over United Nations Security Council resolution 242, which requires Israel to return to its 1967 borders (or to their approximate, according to past US initiatives), and redraws the borders to suit Israel’s settlements and facilitate its control.
Instead of ending Israel’s apartheid system in Palestine, Trump wants to see it continue under a different name, at least until his promise for a provisional Palestinian “state” is fulfilled, one which will have no sovereignty or independence.
Basically, Trump envisions half a Palestinian state on half of the West Bank, but only after the Palestinians combat terrorism and recognise Israel as a Jewish state extending over some 90 percent of historic Palestine.
Trump’s embrace of apartheid in the holy land, as a pragmatic even indispensable prerequisite for “peace” and stability adds insult to Palestinian injury.
And lest we forget, the Trump administration has already closed down the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington, suspended aid to the Palestinian Authority, transferred the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and repealed US recognition of the refugee issue by suspending all funding to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
The full text of this article can be found here:-
Is progressive patriotism possible?
27th January 2020
UK Armed Forces – not to be criticised….
The idea of progressive patriotism is being raised as one of the issues the Left needs to grapple with following Labour’s General Election defeat in December last year. It is certainly the case that by the measure of patriotism used by the BBC and right wing media, Labour in general, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, do not measure up.
The new patriotism test, against which Labour fails, has evolved by degrees following the defeat of the Soviet Union; the post 9/11 war on terror, resulting in UK troops being deployed following UK backing for the US invasion of Iraq; the deployment of UK troops, supporting the US once again in the unwinnable war in Afghanistan; and the four years long commemoration of the centenary of the First World War.
Replacing the International Workers’ Day May Day Bank Holiday, with an 8th May Bank Holiday to mark 75 years since the end of World War 2, is just the latest occasion to glorify the armed forces. It is ironic that across much of Europe both 1st May and the 8th May, marking the end of WW2 and the defeat of fascism, have been public holidays for many years, the two not being seen in opposition to each other.
The UK was in a different position to much of Europe as World War 2 approached. The British Empire was still a tangible reality and the ruling class were desperate to keep it that way. The role of the UK in colluding with the Nazis in their re-armament programme; the free hand given to the German and Italian invaders of Spain in the so called Civil War (1936-39), due to the policy of non-intervention; and the desire to see either Japan, Germany, or both, attack the Soviet Union, are conveniently airbrushed out of the popular histories of the 1930’s and the build up to war.
On the contrary, the popular assumption is that Britain won the war, which in one sense it did but not without the help of allies in the United States and more significantly, in terms of damage done to the Nazis, the Soviet Union.
In the bid to win hearts and minds in Labour’s traditional heartlands these historical facts will not cut any ice. By the same token, in getting rid of Saddam Hussein, Colonel Qaddafi and tackling the Taliban, ‘our boys’ have been doing their bit to keep the free world safe. The reality for many working class communities is that ‘our boys’, and increasingly girls, are just that, family members who have signed up to the armed forces as the best career option, in areas where the run down of manufacturing and the public sector have gone hand in hand to create virtual ghost towns.
The winning of hearts and minds on the Left has for too long focussed upon the second part of that equation. For example, it is altogether rational to equate the estimated £150 billion cost of renewing Trident nuclear submarines with so many roads, schools or hospitals which could be built instead. When the response to that however, is that scrapping Trident will leave us defenceless, it is clear that the debate is not necessarily about the rational.
While it is intellectually self evident that Trident weapons will not stop someone in a suicide vest, a cyber attack or a knife wielder on London Bridge, there is still a strong emotional appeal for many in the idea of a ‘strong’ defence of the UK and that includes nuclear weapons, with all of the international status and prestige they confer.
In the North East of England, one of the areas hardest hit by the Tories’ austerity programme, traditional Labour seats tumbled in the 2019 election. Labour’s ambivalent position on Brexit was undoubtedly a factor. The unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn came high on the list of reasons not to vote Labour. Why was Corbyn so unpopular? Scratch the surface for many North East voters and it was not the Labour programme or the issue of anti-Semitism, it was that Corbyn was perceived as ‘unpatriotic’. The drip feed smear campaign of the right wing press and BBC had made an impact. Combined with the other factors undermining Labour’s position, it proved fatal.
Whether progressive patriotism is the right phrase or not the Left needs to reassess how it projects its position in relation to the armed forces. That does not mean simply playing to the lowest common denominator. It could mean redirecting some of the projected spend for Trident into conventional forces, while still retaining some for socially useful production. One or two Generals may even be persuaded to back such a position.
The commitment to peace is so deeply engrained in many on the Left that voicing any support for the armed forces may seem anathema. However, a socialist Britain will still need to retain some form of defence capability. In the longer term it need not be deployed in support of adventurist US wars. It need not be a vehicle to shore up the post colonial ambitions and greed of the minority. It need not be allied to NATO.
If the Left is even to get close to these possibilities it needs to be thinking now about its own strategy for the military and how we build bridges to neutralise the ‘anti-patriotic’ smear campaigns in the meantime.
Picking fights with the establishment
18th January 2020
BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg – more lazy journalism
The field of candidates for the Labour Party leadership is not a hugely inspiring array but it is becoming clear, even this early in the race, who the political and media establishment do not want to see win; Rebecca Long-Bailey.
The relatively modest platform of reforms aimed at taming some of the worst excesses of capitalist austerity, otherwise known as the Labour Party 2019 election manifesto, has been branded as a template for ‘Corbynism’ by the lazy journalists of the BBC, including Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg.
There is of course no such thing as Corbynism, as Jeremy Corbyn would be the first to point out. As a shorthand however it allows the likes of Neil and Kuenssberg to use the term as a trope for anything, or anyone, they regard as being remotely left of centre and, by implication, a threat to the established order. In this way Rebecca Long-Bailey, before she says a word, is caricatured as the ‘continuity candidate’ of Corbynism.
Needless to say, in the world of Neil and Kuenssberg, Corbynism is a failed project and therefore anyone associated with it must be defending the indefensible. After all, does the 80 strong majority enjoyed by Boris Johnson not signal the death of Corbynism?
In their usual shoddy approach to the issues Neil and Kuenssberg make every effort to undermine the intelligence of their viewers and characterise the Labour leadership according to the lowest common denominators.
Summarising on the Andrew Neil Show on the BBC this week Kuenssberg casually referred to Long-Bailey as “the party machine’s preferred candidate”. Kuenssberg went on to offer her assessment of the desire of Labour Party members to “move on”, something she regarded as unexpected “given how strong Jeremy Corbyn’s teams grip has actually been on the levers of power inside the machine”. Neil then chipped in to suggest that, “continuing Corbynism without Mr. Corbyn looks to be more difficult than they might have expected….”; Laura couldn’t agree more….
The programme had featured an extended interview with leadership candidate Lisa Nandy, who performed reasonably well and kept some of Neil’s usual excesses in check, but fell well short of being convincing. Nandy wobbled on selective education and devolving power to communities. She failed to address the need to halt the obsolete Trident nuclear weapons programme.
On the question of anti-Semitism she regarded characterising the Board of Deputies of British Jews as Conservative backing, and asking them to condemn Israeli atrocities in the Gaza strip and West Bank, as anti-Semitic. Nandy’s shallow grasp of the issue was alarming.
Long-Bailey meanwhile secured the backing of the Momentum pressure group inside Labour, a further red rag to those looking for more evidence of her ‘Corbynist’ and hard left credentials.
Outlining her position in The Guardian this week, Long-Bailey stated that,
“The next Labour leadership team must not junk our values, or abandon plans to deal with the big challenges of the age. Instead we must plot our path to power then deliver it.”
Seeing the need to galvanise Labour’s grass roots and the communities it should be representing Long-Bailey calls for,
“…a government for and by the people…a popular movement to turn the British state against the privatisers, big polluters and tax dodgers that have taken hold of our political system.”
It is a bold recognition of the need to combine extra-Parliamentary action with action in Parliament to bring about change, stressing the need to “pick a fight with the political establishment.”
It was such a break with the political consensus which saw Jeremy Corbyn rise to such levels of popularity before the 2017 General Election. It is exactly what gave the political establishment such a fright that it unleashed the systematic campaign of vilification, which went right through to the 2019 General Election.
For Rebecca Long-Bailey, the fight with the political establishment is already underway.
Pressure Builds on Iranian dictatorship
12th January 2020
Debris from the Ukranian plane crash just outside Tehran
The death toll following the assassination, by the United States, of Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, General Qasem Souleimani, currently runs at over two hundred, with over 60 civilians being crushed in scenes of grief at Souleimani’s funeral and 176 deaths in the shooting down of the Ukranian civilian airliner, which the Iranian regime has admitted was a tragic mistake.
Neither of these events would have taken place without the assassination of Souleimani and both are examples of the unintended consequences which can follow on from significant political and military decisions, taken outside the norms of international law.
Souleimani, was the loyal servant of a theocratic dictatorship, unpopular with its own people, as recent demonstrations in November 2019 against corruption and political cronyism across Iran illustrate. The Iranian regime will never admit it but his assassination came at a time when uniting the country against a foreign enemy could have been a useful distraction from domestic pressures.
While the regime may have been hoping that the death of Souleimani would provide a distraction, the shooting down of the Ukranian passenger aircraft, with significant loss of life, has refocussed the Iranian people upon the incompetence of the regime.
Over the weekend massive demonstrations have taken place in Tehran and other key cities, in protest against the IRGC forces shooting down the plane killing 176 passengers, 82 of them Iranian, on their way to Europe and North America. The Iranian authorities had for three days falsely claimed technical difficulties as the cause of the crash. However, early on Saturday morning they announced that an IRGC air defence system had shot down the airliner minutes after leaving Tehran international airport. Protesters have been demanding the regime’s resignation, including that of Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei.
While political assassination as a tool of foreign policy is not a new tactic for the US, the assassination of Souleimani still came as a shock to the Iranian regime and a blow to its adventurist foreign policy in the Middle East. With responsibility for the IRGC Quds Force, in charge of overseas operations, Souleimani was instrumental in extending Iranian influence throughout the region, across Iraq, into Syria and in Lebanon and Yemen. His military and tactical acumen is widely credited with having turned around the prospect of a Western led victory in the war of intervention in Syria.
The assassination of Souleimani followed a sequence of events going back to the 27th December, when an Iranian backed Shia militia attacked an Iraqi military base, killing a US contractor. Reports from the US indicate that Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, suggested the killing of Souleimani at that point but the tactic was rejected in favour of air strikes against the militia responsible for the attack.
The air strikes led militia supporters to attack the Green Zone in Baghdad’s diplomatic quarter, overrunning the gated US embassy compound, before Iraqi forces arrived to break up the intrusion. It would seem that the event was sufficient for Pompeo to win over Trump to his viewpoint and Souleimani’s fate was sealed.
The political balance in the region, already precarious, has become even more volatile since Souleimani’s death.
Iran is using the opportunity to call for the complete withdrawal of US troops from the region, a demand echoed by the Iraqi Parliament, but one with which the US is unlikely to comply. An estimated 5,500 US troops are in Iraq and the US is in negotiations with NATO about an increased non-US NATO contribution. This is added to the fact that the United States has moved 14,000 additional troops to the Gulf region in the past year.
The volatility of US foreign policy, the ideological objectives of Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the geopolitical ambitions of Russia, do not lend themselves to any degree of regional certainty. Added to that the increasingly unstable position of the theocratic dictatorship in Iran, under intense pressure from its own people for democratic change, will continue to be a major factor for instability in the regional balance. Resistance to US troops in Iraq continues to be an issue, political instability in Lebanon continues and the ability of the Syrian people to recover from seven years of war will, no doubt, continue to be tested.
Much of this uncertainty is also due to the pressure for democratic change coming from the people of countries suffering under dictatorships of one form or another, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, or suffering under US occupation or influence such as in Iraq.
The Middle East remains a complex web of alliances in which there is no obvious or easy route to navigate. However, solidarity with the people of the Middle East, in their efforts to reshape their nations and the region in their interests, rather than those of Western corporations or the military industrial complex, will be more vital than ever in the coming period.
Trump in shoot to kill outrage
3rd January 2020
Qasem Soleimani – assassinated by US airstrike
The assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, on the order of US President Donald Trump, marks a massive escalation in the undeclared war on Iran, which has been waged virtually from the moment Trump took office.
Soleimani was killed by an air strike on Baghdad airport early on Friday. As the leader of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Soleimani was widely regarded as second only to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the pecking order in the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy.
Khamenei has said that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack and three days of national mourning have been announced. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has called the attack an “act of international terrorism”, going on to say that,
“The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
Condemnation has come from Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who described the killing as a “dangerous escalation” and from Russia where Vladimir Putin warned that the assassination would “seriously aggravate the situation in the region”.
US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated that the strike was “lawful” and that it “saved lives”.
In the UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, issued the following statement,
“The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani is an extremely serious and dangerous escalation of conflict with global significance. We urge restraint on the part of both Iran and the US and we call for an end to the belligerent actions and rhetoric coming from the US.”
The Stop the War Coalition have called a protest outside Downing Street for Saturday, 4th January at 2pm.
In the wider context of the ongoing interventionist war against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the fact that the United States has moved 14,000 additional troops to the Gulf region in the past year, there is every potential for wider conflagration.
A wave of protest has been sweeping the Middle East in recent months, with demonstrations against unpopular regimes unfolding in Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon. The protests have resistance to government corruption, mass unemployment and plunging living standards in common. All three regimes have reacted with increased violence and repression.
In Iraq at least 400 people are reported to have died since protesters took to the streets in early October. Amnesty International estimate that at least 208 people have died in nationwide protests in Iran since protests erupted in October. The true figure could be much higher. Protests against new taxes in Lebanon brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets and forced the resignation of Prime Minister, Saad Hariri.
While the protests across the region have been the result of internal repression and government incompetence, key players have been maximising their efforts to link the protests to wider regional tensions. The Intelligence Ministry in Tehran for example claimed to have arrested eight “CIA operatives” accused of inciting riots.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) chief commander, General Hossein Salami, suggested that the riots were conducted by “thugs” with the backing of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Salami went on to link the protests to the US policy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, following the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year. Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has talked of a “dangerous conspiracy” implicating the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The US, on the other hand, has characterised the protests in Iraq and Lebanon as part of a region wide insurgency against Iranian power.
At least 7,000 people have reportedly been arrested in 28 of Iran’s 31 provinces since mass protests broke out on 15th November, prompting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to state that she is “extremely concerned about their physical treatment, violations of their right to due process, and the possibility that a significant number of them may be charged with offences that carry the death penalty, in addition to the conditions under which they are held.”
While protests continue to sweep Iran, underlining the unpopularity of the Islamic Republic, the regime continues to try and bolster its position and circumvent US sanctions. Excluded from the US international interbank payment system, SWIFT, Tehran is looking to link with alternative systems in China and Russia.
Oil sales continue, primarily to Syria and China in order to generate income for the regime, prompting Khamenei to state recently that,
“The US policy of maximum pressure has failed. The Americans presumed that they can force Iran to make concessions and bring it to its knees by focussing on maximum pressure, especially in the area of economy, but they have troubled themselves.”
In countering the US “maximum pressure” approach Iran has upped the ante by participating in joint naval drills with Russia and China in the Indian Ocean in late December.
However, the assassination of Soleimani gives the whole “maximum pressure” policy a dangerous new twist.
The danger of external intervention in Iran is one which has been in the wings for some years. With the Iranian regime itself increasingly under pressure the possibility of a major strike, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from its domestic problems, should not be ruled out. Soleimani’s assassination may just give the clergy in Iran the excuse they need. Such an outcome would be disastrous, not only for the region, but for world peace.
Trump may have ordered the killing of Soleimani in order to look tough at home in an election year but there is every danger that, this time, the international consequences may far outweigh any perceived domestic benefits.