Archive 2021

26th January 2021

Payback time for Tories

Boris Johnson – facing the grim reality?

More than 100,000 people in the UK have died as a result of COVID-19, according to the latest official figures.  The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, claims that the government have done everything in their power to save lives.  That is not true.  At every stage of the pandemic the government have made decisions driven by economic imperatives rather than public health concerns.  

The government dithered initially about locking down the economy; failed to set up an effective test, trace and isolate system; gave out optimistic signals that Easter, Summer then Christmas would be the point at which the death toll would slow down and the government would ‘control the virus’.

Mask wearing took months to become the norm, schools re-opened in September and, along with the impact of the summer Eat Out to Help Out scheme, saw the beginning of the second spike in infection rates.  The furlough system has been a lifeline for some but many more still cannot access support other than through Universal Credit.  Even there the additional £20 which the government provided to help the most vulnerable is in danger of being withdrawn at the end of March.

Thousands of jobs are being lost with 25,000 in the retail sector alone this week.   On the day the death toll crossed the 100,000 line the highest unemployment figures in the UK for five years were announced, with 418,000 people losing their jobs in the last year alone.  That is not a coincidence, that is negligence on the part of a government that can neither protect the population through its public health measures, nor sustain the economy it claims it is doing its best to protect.

The inept test and trace system fails fundamentally because people in a zero hours and low pay economy cannot stay at home and self isolate, for the simple reason that they cannot afford to do so.  Unless the government addresses this fundamental issue infection rates amongst the poorest communities will continue to rise.

The highest death toll in Europe, the fifth highest death toll in the world.  What has happened in the UK over the past year is a national scandal.  The government’s response has not only failed to tackle the issues at the core of the rising rate of infections but at every turn has compounded them, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths.

It is ironic that Johnson’s Brexit campaign rhetoric placed so much emphasis upon the UK taking back control of its borders.  Any measures to actually do this, which may have helped stem the flow of infection through minimising cross border traffic and quarantining visitors, have only been under consideration in the past week.

The light at the end of this very long tunnel is the vaccination programme.  The government will try to milk whatever credit it can from the fact that the roll out is, at present, reaching thousands every day.  That this is good news cannot be denied, although Big Pharma will no doubt see a profit, but it should not get the Tories off the hook.

The virus has been catastrophic for working class people and their families.  It has hit working class communities the hardest.  Its long term effects in both health and economic terms will stay with the working class for longer and recovery will be slower.  Recovery for employers will mean maintaining low pay and trying to maximise profits, given the additional pool of labour created by the crisis, the additional numbers desperate for work.

This is the very nature of capitalism, exposing the Tories’ protection of their class, their interests, at the expense of those who are the real wealth creators.  The wealthiest have not lost out in the pandemic nor have they been made to pay their share.  The working class have suffered over ten years of austerity, paying off the gambling debts of bankers following the 2008 crisis.  It is time for payback, in every sense.

23rd January 2021

Israeli apartheid exposed

Mural in Gaza highlighting the impact of COVID-19

The Israeli democratic rights group, B’Tselem, which tracks human rights violations, published a report this month claiming that the Israeli state is effectively running a system of apartheid in relation to its treatment of the Palestinian population in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it,” said the body’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad. “It is one regime between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid.”

The response of the Israeli establishment has been predictably dismissive with Ohad Zemet, the spokesperson for Israel’s UK embassy, dismissing the report as “a propaganda tool”, stating that,

“Israel rejects the false claims in the so-called report as it is not based on reality but on a distorted ideological view.”

B’Tselem’s report illustrates that Israel has created a system over all of the state of Israel and the illegally occupied territories, in which Jewish citizens have full rights.  Palestinians on the other hand are divided into four tiers with various levels of rights depending on where they live, but always below Jewish people.

At the lowest end are the roughly 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant group, Hamas, subject to an Israeli blockade, which effectively gives the Israeli state complete control over people, goods and services which can enter or leave the territory.

Only slightly better off are the roughly 2.7 million Palestinian “subjects” in the West Bank, who are described by B’Tselem as living in “dozens of disconnected enclaves, under rigid military rule and without political rights”.

The roughly 350,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem fare marginally better.  Although Israel has offered citizenship to these residents, many have refused on principle and the rejection rate is high for those that try.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, also called Arab-Israelis, have full citizenship and make up about a fifth of the population of Israel. However, as B’Tselem point out, they are also subject to land ownership discrimination, immigration laws that favour Jews and laws that give Jewish people extra political rights.

While Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has put on hold plans to annexe part of the West Bank, B’Tselem argue that there is already a “de facto” annexation, with more than 400,000 Jewish settlers living there and enjoying the same rights, and many of the same services, as other Israelis.

The report comes at a time when the Israelis are gaining huge international media profile for their COVID-19 rapid vaccination programme, with 25% of the 9 million population already having had a first shot and 850,000 a second jab, including 80% of the population over 60 years old.

However, while the Jewish population enjoy the benefits of vaccine protection the Palestinian population are excluded from the programme.  In the West Bank the vaccine is distributed to Jewish ‘settlers’ but not to the Palestinian population.  In Gaza the impact of the Israeli blockade makes a desperate situation even worse, with even routine medical supplies being difficult to access.

The route to the vaccine for Palestinians is through the World Health Organisation (WHO) programme, Covax, designed to support poorer nations gain access to vaccines.  Even this route, should supplies get through, would only see vaccines reaching the Palestinian population by mid-February at the earliest.  Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of office at WHO Jerusalem, said it could be “early to mid-2021” before vaccines on the Covax scheme were available for distribution to the Palestinian territories.

While Israelis claim that they are not responsible for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, the ongoing occupation places humanitarian and legal obligations upon the Israeli state.   Moreover, while the Israeli rapid vaccination programme aims for a quick return to some form of normality, Palestinians could remain trapped by the virus. That may have a negative impact on Israel’s goal of herd immunity, as thousands of West Bank Palestinians work in Israel and the settlements, which could keep infection rates up.

Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law include a duty to maintain “public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” (Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention).

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has placed particular emphasis upon the plight of those in the blockaded Gaza Strip stating,

“Israel’s blockade on Gaza will have catastrophic effects on the spread and fatality of coronavirus within the besieged strip. We must urge the UK to use its diplomatic power to put end to this, so that Palestinians can gain access to the healthcare they need during this crisis.”

The Israelis continue to claim that they are not presiding over an apartheid regime.  On this evidence it is difficult to see how else to characterise it.

While the likelihood of the British government taking up the Palestinian cause is slim, the same can also be said of the Labour opposition.  Labour leader, Kier Starmer, has just appointed former Israeli spy, Assaf Kaplan, to a key post in his office to manage social media output and surveillance.

Kaplan spent five years in Israeli military intelligence cyberwarfare outfit, Unit 8200, specialising in spying, hacking and encryption.  This included spying on Palestinian civilians living under Israeli occupation.

The appointment hardly inspires confidence that the Leader of the Opposition’s Office will be providing objective information on the situation in the occupied territories and the Middle East generally.

PSC has asked Keir Starmer to make a public statement making clear his abhorrence of the activities of Unit 8200, in accordance with Labour’s stated commitment to an ethical foreign policy rooted in respect for international law and human rights. PSC have also demanded that he should outline the steps he has taken to ensure that these values are held by all of those working in his office.

More information on the Palestine Solidarity Campaign can be found here https://www.palestinecampaign.org/

17th January 2021

Inauguration Day – one more test

Trump supporters – no let up in conflict likely

The self styled “land of the free and home of the brave” will this week inaugurate its 46th President, Joe Biden, inside a capital that has effectively become a military fortress, with the deployment of an estimated 20,000 troops across the city.  Washington DC has been transformed, since the Donald Trump inspired neo-fascist storming of the Capitol building last week, in the failed attempt to subvert the confirmation of the election outcome.

The militarisation of Washington for the Inauguration Day ceremony on 20th January is a reflection of the ongoing threat of neo-fascist violence to which the Trump presidency has given licence.  That threat is, according to the FBI, a real and present danger in the capitals of every state across the so-called United States, with gun toting white supremacists threatening a show of strength across the country in opposition to Biden’s presidency.

The tension across the United States is reflected in the fear expressed by those opposed to Trump, as reported this week by the People’s World,

“One thing Trump has clearly been successful with is instilling fear in anyone thinking of coming out against him. People with anti-Trump t-shirts and bumper stickers and those with Biden-Harris signs in windows or on cars are removing them, also out of fear for themselves or their property. A young couple with a reputation in the Hyde Park section of Chicago for driving a car with no less than 30 bumper stickers promoting liberal causes said they spent time Thursday soaking and removing them.”

Through the variety of social media platforms used by right wing groups, neo-fascists across the US are calling on people to join a so called Million Martyr March on Inauguration Day.   The same right-wing groups have been known to use a wide variety of tactics to achieve their ends, including posing as left or progressive activists to smear the reputation of those groups, as well as mounting attacks on police departments that they think are not right-wing enough for them.

The reality of institutional inequality and racial injustice in the United States has been brought to the fore in recent months with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-Trump coalition which has delivered Biden the presidency. 

However, while the challenge for Biden has been exposed by the four years of Trump’s presidency the underlying rot in the United States had taken firm hold long before.  In 2016, after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Pew Research Center thinktank estimated that the median wealth of white households in the US was $117,000, ten times that of black households at $17,100.  This was larger than in 2007, the year before Obama was elected.

Pew also estimates that income inequality in the US increased by 20% between 1980 and 2016.  The Economic Policy Institute estimates that Chief Executive Officers have seen salary rises of 940% since 1978, while the typical workers wage rose a mere 12% over the same period.

Racial division is used by the right wing in the United States to mobilise disaffected poor whites but it is clear that the real divide in the US is along class lines.  Racial prejudice is used, as ever to divide and rule as the US establishment fears, more than anything else, a united working class response to oppression and injustice.

The constitutional consensus which has sustained US capitalism in its one system, two parties approach has been breached in the past four years.  The final days of the Trump administration have been designed to ensure that the breach in the system cannot be closed and that the ‘healing’ of Joe Biden’s rhetoric cannot occur.   

Inauguration Day this week will be one further test but it will by no means be the final battle.  Republicans are already looking ahead to 2024 and planning a way to regain the White House.  Trump himself, or a family member, may be deemed a step too far for some Republicans but acolytes, such as outgoing Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, are not just waiting in the wings but are actively planning a path to the Republican nomination.

As a recent People’s World article concludes,

“Unless the mass movements and broad coalitions that ousted Trump and elected Biden remain united and continue their fight for social and economic justice, what happens in this country over the next few years will likely be much worse than what happened in the Capitol last week or what will happen next week in our country.”

The scenes from the United States last week shook the world but they are unlikely to be the last we see the as the struggle escalates.  Working class unity, in the face of the onslaught, will be more vital now than ever.

7th January 2021

US – working class unity the way forward

Trump supporters storm the US capitol building

The United States is not the world’s greatest democracy.  It is, if anything, the world’s most cunning dictatorship.  The scenes on Capitol Hill yesterday were the latest phase in a power struggle within the ruling circles of the US to maintain the grip of a particular faction which represents the hawkish political line as personified by Donald Trump.

To date, the margins in US politics have been slight.  The ‘liberal’ Barack Obama was no less hawkish than many US Presidents before him when it came to foreign policy but clearly had a more open approach on certain social questions.  A presidency under Joe Biden would be expected to continue down a similar path, tough on ‘enemies’ abroad, softer on social policy at home.

This in itself is largely illusory.  Whoever becomes US President has to have garnered financial support from corporations and billionaire sponsors, has little room to challenge the grip of the military industrial complex and will only be allowed to be socially liberal insofar as they do so without undermining the profits of those backers.

The Electoral College system is inherently anti-democratic and can result in the candidate coming second in the popular vote still winning the presidency.  Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes than Donald Trump in 2016 but Trump has been in the White House for the past four years.

It should not be forgotten that the US has imposed an illegal 60 year blockade against the island of Cuba.  There are detainees held without trial at Guantanamo Bay.  Interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have been examples in recent history of the US using its military might to assert its position in the world.  The US is the world’s most highly armed nuclear power.   This is not a paragon of democracy.

The backers of Donald Trump have nevertheless sought to break with this consensus and push the US even further to the right.  The Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ message has provided the focal point for those in the US ruling circles who fear the US losing its military role as the world’s policeman; who fear it will lose its ability to throw its financial weight around to reinforce US ‘interests’; who fear the growing economic and military power of China.

Trump has been the vehicle by which the establishment consensus has been challenged.  The Trump presidency has tested the potential for a right wing demagogue to occupy the White House.  Trump’s support is still estimated to be 30% of the American people.  That is by no means a majority but it does represent a potentially substantial power base in the wrong hands. 

The claim that the 2020 election was ‘stolen’ has no basis in fact and the Trump camp has produced no evidence, yet the claim still resonates with a political base disillusioned with a political system which does not meet their needs.

Trump’s supporters are wrong and misled on many counts but it is a fact that the US system does not serve the needs or interests of the mass of working class Americans.  It has concentrated power in the hands of a rich political establishment backed by a few corporations which protect their vested interests.  The tragedy of Trump’s supporters is that they are being manipulated by an alternative faction which wants to use their disillusionment to destabilise the system, in order to pursue their own interests.

A real challenge to the politics of the US establishment would be a united working class front, with no racial divisions, supportive of progressive policies at home and abroad, and capable of challenging the obscene levels of military expenditure which drain the economy while enriching a few military corporations.

This would be worthy of insurrection, this would be worth storming Capitol Hill to demand.  That four people should die for a fake president perpetuating fake demands is a tragedy.  The working class of the United States deserve better.  They must unite to demand it.

3rd January 2021

Taxing the wealth boom

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and millionaire wife Akshata, not suffering wealth loss at present

In a system which put the health and wellbeing of its population before the profits of business there would be only one course of action.  Close schools, lock down the economy and drive down infection rates to a level which can be managed within existing NHS resources.

A truly planned approach would also ensure that health and care workers, as well as teachers and support staff, would be prioritised for vaccination in order to allow them to get back to their professions as quickly as possible with the least risk of catching the virus.   

Some caveats would also need to be applied.  The children of key workers and the most vulnerable need to be accommodated, both in COVID secure childcare settings and potentially in socially distanced classrooms.  Workers who cannot afford to stay off work due to financial hardship must be compensated by the State, businesses forced to close need to be supported, prioritising the recovery of the cultural sector and workers in the arts needs more attention.  An effective test, track and trace system is long overdue.

It all costs money but the recent report of the Wealth Tax Commission identified a potential £260bn which could be raised from a windfall tax upon the wealthiest, over a five year period.  A more radical approach could raise even more.  Researchers at the Resolution Foundation think tank have this weekend found that the richest 1% in the UK have almost £800bn more wealth than previously thought, due to around 5% of the wealth of the richest households having been missed by official measures.

As a consequence of this research the Resolution Foundation estimate that the total share of UK wealth held by the top 1% of the population is up from 18% to 23%, as economist Jack Leslie put it,

“The UK has undergone a wealth boom in recent decades, which has continued even while earnings and incomes have stagnated.  But official data has struggled to capture these gains, and misses £800bn of assets held by the very wealthiest households in Britain.”

For workers in the NHS, care homes, public health and local government, on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19, the news of a wealth boom will no doubt come as a surprise.  Apart from having had to struggle thorough the past decade of austerity, most of these workers were handed a pay freeze, effectively a cut in real terms, in the recent budget by Chancellor Rishi Sunak. 

Not that Sunak has any personal interest but a wealth tax would require him to dip into his vast personal and family fortune in order to make a contribution.  Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murthy, and her relatives hold a multimillion pound portfolio of shareholdings in her family’s tech firm.  Murthy’s assets alone are estimated to be £430 million.

A screeching u-turn has seen the government concede that all primary schools in London must remain closed this week, although the same instruction is not being applied to other Tier 4 areas.  The National Education Union (NEU) has advised staff at primary schools that it is unsafe to return to the classroom this week and should resort to online learning.  The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) has initiated legal action against the government demanding to see the safety evidence for the re-opening schedule.

In short the situation is chaotic.  Instead of consulting with the key professionals and workers in the health, care and education sectors the government has attempted to manage by kowtowing to the needs of business and avoiding an unpopular headline in the Daily Mail.  The irony is that the UK not only has one of the world’s highest death rates from the pandemic, it also has one of the deepest recessions and will take longer than most comparable economies to recover.  The government is failing on every front.

A public health crisis, dealt with more effectively, would not have generated such an economic crisis which in turn need not have escalated into an education crisis of such proportions.  There is only one cure for capitalist incompetence, arising from greed and self interest, that is to change the system fundamentally, so that it is based upon the needs of the people not those with vested interests in the status quo.

The case for socialism becomes clearer with each day.  In the meantime the workers having to follow the twists and turns of government policy will continue to deliver services to the best of their ability.  The vaccination programme is underway.  There is hope at least that some relief is on the horizon for those at the greatest risk.  The death count must be brought under control and stopped.