Reversing the right to choose

25th June 2022

Protests against the Supreme Court ruling will not end in the US

Few works of fiction truly deserve the epithet ‘prophetic’ but yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in the United States is in danger of tipping Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale into that category.  The decision to overturn the Roe vs Wade ruling in 1973, which guaranteed a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, means that abortion rights will be determined by individual states in the US.  Thirteen of the 50 US states already have so called ‘trigger laws’ in place in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling, making abortion instantly illegal.  A further thirteen are expected to follow soon.

The medievalist Bible belt in the United States, opposing a woman’s right to choose at all costs, have vowed to continue the fight until abortion is outlawed in all states in the US.  The ruling provides no mitigation in cases of rape or incest.  The fight is already on to ensure that women in need of treatment can travel to states where abortion is not banned.  It is estimated that at least 36 million women will find themselves in states where they have no right to abortion.

As those defending the right to choose have pointed out, the ruling will not prevent abortion happening, it will simply increase the likelihood of illegal abortions and women dying as a result of having to resort to back street medical interventions. 

The new abortion bans will make the US one of just four nations to roll back abortion rights since 1994, by far the wealthiest and most influential nation to do so, with Poland, El Salvador and Nicaragua being the others.

The ruling flies in the face of public opinion in the US where it is estimated that 85% of Americans believe abortion should be legal.  State abortion bans can be overturned at a national level if there is majority support of the House of Representatives, a 60-vote majority in the Senate, and endorsement from US President, Joe Biden.

However, Republicans will block abortion rights laws in the Senate, which is evenly split with Democrats. One Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has crossed party lines to vote against abortion rights. That would leave just 49 Democrats, far short of the support needed to pass such a measure.

Joe Biden has stated categorically that he is not in favour of the Supreme Court decision and urged the US public to make their votes count in the up and coming mid term elections in November.  However, this would require Democrats to win landslide victories, including taking conservative states, an outcome which is not regarded as being very likely.

The reactionary forces in the United States, which coalesced around the election of Donald Trump in 2016, will scent a further victory with this Supreme Court ruling.  Joe Biden’s selection for the Democratic candidacy was only ever going to be a stopgap and was successful insofar as it stopped a second Trump term. 

Biden has attempted to shore up his position with more conservative voters by showing himself to be as reactionary as most of his predecessors in foreign policy, failing to address the crime of Guantanamo Bay or the 60 year long illegal blockade of Cuba; failing to address the issue of Palestinian rights for fear of antagonising the Israeli lobby in the US; and pouring fuel on the fire of the conflict in Ukraine, by promising increasing supplies of US weapons, rather than working towards a negotiated settlement.

Ultimately though, this is the default position expected of any US President, and is unlikely to cut any ice with the base who supported Trump, or those on the conservative margins.  Biden’s position on social issues and his strong position on Roe vs Wade will certainly galvanise some Democrat support but it will equally harden the position of many Republicans.  A second Democrat term, whoever the candidate may be, is by no means guaranteed.

It is ironic that so many so called pro-life Republican Senators are the very people who are opposed to gun control, blocking measures to stop the highest source of child deaths in the US.  The right to bear arms, as enshrined in the Second Amendment, is regarded as an inalienable right, whereas a woman’s right to choose is denied.

The illusion of democracy in the US has for decades been that of choice with the same outcomes.  The differences have been of nuance between Democrat and Republican presidential candidates.  The difference being that a Democrat president would at least be expected to be a little more progressive on social issues.  The Supreme Court ruling has however made those fault lines sharper and put the already uneasy consensus around some social issues in the US, in danger of fracturing entirely.  Ongoing protests overnight across the US, against the Supreme Court decision, are the latest manifestation of that division.

Trump’s election in 2016 exposed the polarisation of much of the United States.  The presidential election in 2024, whatever happens in the mid terms, is likely to see that polarisation exacerbated even further.  In the meantime the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed and those women who cannot afford to travel for abortion treatment will be the ones who suffer.

Stop the extradition of Julian Assange

19th June 2022

Protesters oppose the extradition

Yesterday (18th June) was a tricky day for newspaper headline writers.  What to go with? The economy continues to go downhill; rail strikes look set to proceed next week; Boris Johnson had left the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs in the lurch in Doncaster, to fly off to Kyiv for a photo opportunity with  Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Johnson made the front page in the FT Weekend and Daily Express but the economy tended to dominate.

Big wage increases too risky, bosses told, made it for The Times.

We must not bow to strikers, says Treasury, was the call from The Daily Telegraph.

Public tell Johnson: Act now to help UK economy, was the i weekend call.

Rate rises send global stocks diving, alarmed the FT Weekend.

The Guardian went with Schools, pools and libraries face massive cuts, drawing attention to the potential local government crisis looming from next April, as inflation bites into already tight Council budgets.

Only the Morning Star went with the headline, A Dark Day for Justice, highlighting the decision of Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to extradite journalist and WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, to the United States where he will face charges of espionage for exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange spent seven years of imposed exile in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, after which he was arrested by British police in 2019 when Ecuador withdrew his asylum status. Since then, Assange has spent nearly three years in Belmarsh prison, fighting a lengthy battle against extradition.  The Home Office said the courts found extradition would not be “incompatible with his human rights” and that while in the US “he will be treated appropriately”.

“The UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust or an abuse of process to extradite Mr Assange,” the Home Office added.

Given that Assange’s alleged ‘crime’ is to have exposed documents revealing how the US military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan, and that leaked Iraq war files showed 66,000 civilians had been killed, and prisoners tortured, by Iraqi forces, it is shuddering to think what the US may regard as “appropriate” treatment.  The leak in 2010 included 250,000 US diplomatic cables containing classified diplomatic analysis from world leaders.

Amnesty International said enabling the extradition of Assange to take place “would put him at great risk and sends a chilling message to journalists”.  General Secretary, Agnes Callamard added, “Diplomatic assurances provided by the US that Assange will not be kept in solitary confinement cannot be taken on face value given previous history.”

Assange now has 14 days in which to appeal and WikiLeaks has released a statement saying it will appeal the decision stating,

“Today is not the end of the fight.  It is only the beginning of a new legal battle. We will appeal through the legal system; the next appeal will be before the high court.”

Beyond that there is already talk of a further appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

The implications of Assange being convicted in the US, given that he has committed no crime are profound, especially for investigative journalists and whistleblowers.   In effect, any journalist seeking information that governments do not want to disclose for reasons that have little to do with “national security” could be indicted and prosecuted under the criminal law.  This could apply to any government and any journalist. Assange, is Australian, not an American citizen, yet may face extradition and trial in the US.

In an interview with Nils Melzer, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, published on 31st January 2020, Melzer states,

 “In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic states ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.”

The ‘democratic states’ in question being the US, the UK, Australia, Sweden and, latterly, Ecuador.

That the Assange case is not getting the coverage in the UK press that it deserves is a scandal in itself.  Given the implications that the extradition and any outcome in the US, should it get that far, would have for investigative journalism, outrage from journalists across the spectrum should be the minimum response.

The National Union of Journalists have taken a clear position of support for Assange with General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet condemning the decision of Priti Patel, stating,

“Any journalist who is handed a classified US document, or is contacted by a whistleblower to expose criminality and wrongdoing will now fear that they too will be extradited, and put at risk of spending the rest of their lives in prison.”

The International Federation of Journalists has described the decision as “vindictive and a real blow to press freedom.”

In France where parliamentary elections are taking place over the weekend, Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the left-wing La France Insoumise, told a press briefing,

“If I am Prime Minister on Monday Julian Assange will be made a naturalised French citizen and given a medal.”

The real ‘crime’ which Assange has committed is to expose the realities of imperialist engagement in foreign wars where the manipulation and suppression of information is the norm.  WikiLeaks exposed the reality of that in Iraq and Afghanistan but similar tactics continue to be employed in relation to Libya, Syria and especially at present in Ukraine.  The misinformation campaign around the war in Ukraine may be the biggest the West has yet undertaken, given the ubiquity of social as well as traditional forms of media.

Preventing the extradition of Assange would at least indicate that resistance to such manipulation will continue and, with enough pressure, at least send a message to imperialist powers engaged in conflicts that any cover ups they attempt, will eventually be found out.  

Blustering in Blackpool

12th June 2022

Johnson blusters in Blackpool, without illumination

It is said that the Roman Emperor Nero played upon his violin while Rome burned around him.  Hence the phrase, ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.  Whether the phrase does Nero an injustice or not, it can certainly be applied quite accurately to the attitude of British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, with regard to the economy.  Johnson, who it is now evident only enjoys the support of 59% of his own MPs, many of whom will be on the payroll, attempted to dodge his recent tribulations with a set piece speech in Blackpool on Thursday.  However, anyone looking for illumination will have been left pretty much in the dark as to what Johnson’s solution to the economic crisis might be.

“Sometimes the best way that government can help is simply to get out of the way”, blustered Johnson at one point, ironically echoing the views of millions that the sooner his administration gets out of the way, the better.  The Tories do not do irony though and Johnson, in true blue fashion, was talking about that old chestnut, deregulation.  Less state intervention, less regulation for the private sector, more cutting corners on health and safety.

Tax cuts, aways the cornerstone of Tory populist rhetoric were promised at some point, in an attempt to appease the 148 MPs who voted no confidence in Johnson.  The revival of an irresponsible Thatcherite policy, the right to buy, extended to housing associations was also trailed.  The dire consequences of Thatcher’s 1980’s policy, of taking significant amounts of housing stock out of the Council sector and into the market place, are still being felt in communities across Britain, where the concept of ‘affordable’ housing is for many a pipe dream.

In a further example of Johnson’s distance from reality he suggested that those on housing benefit should be able to use those benefits to get mortgages and buy their own homes.  Clearly Johnson has not had to deal with the realities of the property market recently, the difficulty of saving for a deposit while paying exorbitant rent, or the likelihood of lenders committing to support a mortgage application based upon your housing benefit income!

There is also the small matter of banks overreaching themselves, by lending to those who could not actually afford to pay, being a key factor in the 2008 financial crash.  Not a detail to concern Johnson though nor was the fact that it has been twelve years of Tory government, as the architects of austerity, which has seen the economy tank in such a way.

The OECD predicts that, of the world’s twenty leading economies, only Russia will have weaker growth than Britain next year.  In the face of this Johnson claims that voters can be “confident that things will get better, that we will emerge from this as a strong country with a healthy economy.”

As ever with Johnson, the detail was thin.  Quite who would emerge and in what state from ‘this‘ was left to the collective imagination, though it is a fair bet that it will be Johnson’s cronies who come out of it in better shape than most working families.   

With petrol heading for £2 a litre and energy bills set to soar further in the autumn it is hard to see where any real solace for working class families will come.  Where efforts to improve terms and conditions are made, as with rail strikes called by the RMT union at the end of June, workers are immediately demonised by the right wing press and the political establishment as ‘irresponsible’.  The action of the 50,000 RMT members could be joined by members of the clerical and professional staff union in the rail industry, TSSA, who are soon to take a vote in opposition to compulsory redundancies and in support of a cost of living pay increase.

A leader who has presided over the highest pandemic death rate in Europe, while throwing house parties; extended Tory mismanagement of the economy; is prepared to tear up international treaties to appease Unionists in Northern Ireland; and who is incapable of sticking to a policy line from one week to the next is apparently good enough for 211 Tory MPs. 

There should be scope for Labour to tear apart a Tory Party so divided that it cannot find an alternative leader more coherent than that.  However, Labour led by Kier Starmer has hardly strayed into such territory.  While Johnson was backing the architecture of austerity for the past decade, Starmer was one of the architects of Jeremy Corbyn’s demise, as Labour sought to make itself safe for the political establishment once again.

So, Labour is not proposing to reverse the disastrous ‘right to buy’ policy and insist on new council housing being built.  Labour is not proposing to stop pouring weapons in to the right wing nationalist government of Ukraine in order to de-escalate the conflict with Russia and seek a peaceful solution.  Labour is not proposing to nationalise energy companies in order to take back control and moderate prices for the consumer.  Labour is not proposing to nationalise the entire rail network in order to ensure health and safety standards are met for staff and the travelling public.  Labour is certainly not likely to be supporting striking rail workers.

All of these things are just modest adjustments within the terms of the capitalist economy.  They are not revolutionary, though a commitment to them might at least indicate a willingness to contemplate such a path. 

With a leader like Johnson it is little surprise that the Tories fiddle while Rome burns but for Labour simply playing second fiddle should not be good enough.  A plan to rise from the ashes of austerity is required, a sense of purpose, which will galvanise extra-Parliamentary action to force the Tories out and demand real change.  A manifesto for the many, not the few.

The heavy price of US hegemony

5th June 2022

US advanced missiles to fuel the conflict in Ukraine

The closer the foreign policy of the United States can be made to appear like the plot of a Hollywood Western or modern action movie, the better the White House likes it.  Complex issues can be reduced to simple black and white options, good guys vs bad guys, the old style cowboys and Indians.  How the West was won.  How the US and its allies continue to maintain it.  Conveniently air brushed from history is the fact that the West was only won through genocide and enslavement.  It is also not in the script that similar methods are deployed as the means for the West to continue the defence of its privilege.

The methods are not always as direct.  If it has learned nothing else over the course of decades imperialism has certainly learned the art of subterfuge.  Direct military intervention, while still in the tool box, is seen as a position of last resort when economic coercion, stranglehold or blockade have failed.  Ostensibly benign front institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are the initial troop deployments, imposing neo-liberal policies of privatisation, wage restraint, free rein for Western corporations, as the price of financial support for struggling economies.

The economies continue to struggle but are beholden to the US and the vagaries of the dollar as the international currency for their survival. Very often economic support is followed through with the siting of US military bases, along with further financial inducements and the promise of the protection of US arms.

The absorption of the former socialist states of Eastern Europe into both the European Union and NATO, over the past 30 years, has been such a process of inducement in both economic and military terms.  For the West there could be no ambivalence.  Any states not directly part of the NATO/EU alliance would be in danger of being sucked into a Russian sphere of influence and potentially undermine the US position as the world’s single superpower.

Alongside the fear of perceived growing Russian influence the West has also had to consider the reality of the economic growth of China over the same period.  Worst case scenario for the West would be any potential co-operation, political, economic or military, between the two states that could challenge the pre-eminence of the dollar, or result in the formation of an alternative power bloc to the NATO/EU alliance.

Both Russia and China are the source of massive natural resources.  In the case of Russia there is also the question of its significant nuclear arsenal.  In relation to China there is the growing challenge to the West in the field of technology, hence the exclusion of Huawei from any 5G technology consortia.  This means that neither state can be ignored and economic relations cannot be entirely severed.

Reliance on Russian fuel and gas has been key to recent debates on EU sanctions in relation to the war in Ukraine.  The EU position adopted recently to end reliance on imports of Russian energy, with some exclusion for Hungary and Slovakia, flies in the face of the calculations of the German Central Bank’s recent assessment.  That suggested that a complete halt to energy imports from Russia could result in an annual deficit to the German economy of 180 billion Euros.  Such an impact upon the EU’s most powerful economy could only mean dire consequences for the rest of the bloc.

Meanwhile US President, Joe Biden, has approved a further escalation of arms to Ukraine, including long-range precision rockets.  Ukraine will be provided with a mobile rocket artillery launcher by the Pentagon. The weaponry has a 40-mile range, compared to the U.S.-provided M777 howitzers with a range of under 20 miles.  Other western allies have provided similar howitzers, also known as High Mobility Rocket Systems.

The rocket systems are part of a new $700m tranche of security assistance for Ukraine from the United States that will include helicopters, Javelin antitank weapon systems, tactical vehicles, spare parts and more.

In a piece for the New York Times Biden attempted to justify his decision claiming that it is in “our vital national interests” to make sure Russia pays “a heavy price for its actions.”

The US cannot have any “vital national interests” in Ukraine, other than its desire to maintain and extend its economic and political control in the area, to complete the military encirclement of Russia in order to contain any perceived expansion of Russian influence.

Similarly, the US is already making clear to China that any attempt to ‘reclaim’, Taiwan, legitimately a part of China, will meet with resistance.  The US State Department in its official documents is clear that,

“Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States makes available defense articles and services as necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability -– and maintains our capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of Taiwan.”

The current conflict in Ukraine may just turn out to be one step in the US bid to maintain its status as the world’s only economic and military superpower.  The “heavy price” Biden intends to make Russia pay has yet to be worked out, other than in the suffering of the people of Russia and Ukraine, the victims of US ambition.  The price of a direct or proxy US conflict with China, to maintain US hegemony, could be heavier still.

Twenty first century capitalism – lies and deception

28th May 2022

Boris breaks the law – bring your own boos

In 2012 the total wealth of billionaires in the UK was estimated at £211.7bn.  By 2022 that figure had more than tripled to £653.1bn.  Over roughly the same period the New Economics Foundation, in a paper published in February 2021, found that the poorest 20% of households were worse off by £750 a year (6%) than they were in 2010, adding that,

“We’ve found that if the system inherited by the coalition government had been maintained, 1.5 million fewer people would be in poverty. Maintaining the £20 uplift in universal credit and tax credits would go some way to reversing the reduction in payments to households over the past 10 years — but even with the uplift, the poorest households will still be on average £260 a year (2%) worse off than they would have been under the 2010 system, whether in or out of paid work.” https://neweconomics.org/2021/02/social-security-2010-comparison

As we now know, the £20 universal credit uplift was not maintained, thus plunging the poorest families into deeper poverty and facing a greater struggle to tackle the cost of living crisis.

It is against this background that Chancellor, Rishi Sunak’s “temporary, targeted energy profits levy”, or a windfall tax in plain English, needs to be measured.  The package includes a £650 one-off payment for families on means-tested benefits, and an extra £200 for all energy bill payers that will not have to be repaid.  All of which just about puts back the £750 a year these families have already lost, without actually addressing inflation currently at 9% and set to rise further.

So, the Tories hand back part of what they have already robbed from the poor, and dress it up as magnanimity, while the billionaire rich are able to sit back and watch the wealth pile up!

Crocodile tears poured forth from the Rich Listed Chancellor who claimed that, the public would understand that ministers could not offset all of the increase in prices but,

 “This government will never stop trying to help people.” 

What is increasingly apparent to most is that the people the government are trying to help are the rich and entitled.

With the price cap on household energy bills having risen by £700 in April energy regulator, Ofgem, expect it to rise by another £800 in October.  It is clear that Sunak’s intervention, however he tries to dress it up, is going to result in little more than small change rattling around in the pockets of Britain’s poorest families.

The one rule for the rich and entitled, while the actual law of the land applies to the rest, was underlined this week with the publication of the Sue Gray report into shenanigans in 10, Downing St, during periods of Covid restriction for the majority of the population.  Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, brushed aside any criticism of his participation in these Downing St soirees by suggesting that it was a quality of great leadership to appear at leaving parties! 

Further justification was forthcoming when Johnson addressed the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs this week and allegedly claimed that Britain wouldn’t have won the second world war if Churchill hadn’t been pissed.  Quite a lot to unpack in that one, not least the issue of who played the major role in defeating the Nazis (Battle of Stalingrad anyone?), and which particular war Johnson thinks he has won, having just presided over the highest pandemic death count in Europe.

Still, what is a little lying, cheating and deception at the heart of government? After all, this has been the Tories stock in trade for decades, Johnson is simply more flagrant than his predecessors.  He has also taken steps to ensure the bar is lowered for his successors by rewriting the Ministerial code rules.  These previously suggested that any minister breaching the code of conduct, for misleading parliament for example, should resign.  Under Johnson’s new improved version they could just apologise or temporarily lose their pay. 

A government statement justifying the new code suggested that it was,

“disproportionate to expect that any breach, however minor, should lead automatically to resignation or dismissal.”

It is surely pure coincidence that Johnson faces an inquiry by the privileges committee into whether he misled parliament over lockdown parties in Downing St…..

While the bastions of British capital continue to ensure that every aspect of the system is rigged in their favour the situation is no less alarming in the self-styled world’s greatest democracy, the United States of America.

It would be remiss not to mention the murder of 19 school children and two teachers in the city of Uvalde, Texas this week.  Sadly, in the so-called home of the brave, democracy US style does appear to emanate from the barrel of a gun.  The National Rifle Association (NRA) also held its annual meeting this week in Houston, Texas and in reflecting on the Uvalde killings suggested that the arming of more citizens to combat evil was required.

Keynote speaker, one Donald Trump suggested that,

“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Trump echoed measures other Republicans had proposed at the conference including schools with a single entryway, with armed guards stationed there, and exit-only fire escapes. He also said some teachers should be allowed to carry firearms.

Republican Texas Senator, Ted Cruz, blamed a “cultural sickness,” including fatherless children and video games, for mass shootings. He said schools should have a single entry point defended by multiple armed guards.  Just in case anyone was in any doubt about the extremism of the NRA, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, in defending the constitutional second amendment which gives Americans the right to bear arms, attacked advocates of gun safety legislation, stating,

“Let me tell you the truth about the enemies of the Second Amendment. They are schooled in the ways of Marx and Lenin,” she said. 

The NRA remains a powerful lobby in US politics, effectively blocking any real attempt to legislate to introduce restraints on gun ownership.  Until that issue is addressed, the killings of innocent children as happened in Uvalde, will continue.

Twenty first century capitalism, on both side of the Atlantic, remains mired in a culture of lies and deception. The alternative, which the ruling class in all capitaist economies cannot countenance, is that working people may realise that they are the real wealth creators, that they are the mainstay of the communities in which we live and that, one day, they realise that they should be the ones who are in control.

Worlds apart

22nd May 2022

Sunak at the CBI – tough times ahead for those not on the rich list

Having scraped through the so-called party gate farrago with only one fixed penalty notice and most of the hit being taken by his office juniors, Boris Johnson and his Cabinet cronies have yet to wake up to the cost of living crisis which is engulfing the country.  Not the country they live in of course, with Rishi Sunak and his wife having just made the Sunday Times rich list, and most of the Cabinet being financially well cushioned from any prospect of having to sell The Big Issue on street corners any time soon.     

Out in the real world though, things are a little different.  Inflation has hit a 40 year high of 9% this week.  The Bank of England expects it to go higher.  Food bank queues are expected to grow longer.  The cost of energy and fuel will continue to soar.  Heating or eating may no longer be a choice for many, who may struggle to do either without significant financial support.

As ever the Tories have imaginative solutions.  Buy basic food brands, stay on the bus all day to keep warm, learn how to make a meal for just 30p at your local food bank.  Finally, and this is the clincher, one Tory even suggested that people ought to go out and get better paid jobs!  If they were joking there would be little enough cause for laughter but the fact is they are not.  These are all serious suggestions from Tory MPs.

Speaking at a CBI business dinner this week Chancellor Rishi Sunak warned that “the next few months will be tough”, before proceeding to give no clues as to what he or the government propose to do about it, suggesting,

“There is no measure any government could take, no law we could pass, that can make these global forces disappear overnight.”

The debate continues about a possible windfall tax on the profits of energy companies, which Sunak suggested he may impose unless they come up with credible investment plans, but the weeping of shareholders, desperate for their dividend pay out, may yet trump the needs of the average consumer.  Labour continue to press for a windfall tax which, while bringing some short term relief to consumers, falls far short of the real need to nationalise the energy and utilities sector, in order to ensure that it is managed in the interests of the people and not the bank balance of shareholders.

On which note, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) this week illustrated the extent to which the rise in energy prices meant inflation was much higher for poorer households, as they spend more of their household income on gas and electricity than the rich.  In effect this means that inflation for the poorest 10% of households was at 10.9% in April compared to 7.9% for the richest 10% of households.  Add to this the fact that state benefits only rose by 3.1% in April, most likely less than many shareholder dividends, and the real terms cut to living standards is clear.

Like the government, the Bank of England this week also shrugged its shoulders in the face of the cost of living crisis with Bank Governor, Andrew Bailey, saying that, in the face of the global shocks he blamed for rising prices, that there was “not a lot we can do about it.”   Bailey went on to suggest that food price rises in the months ahead would be “apocalyptic”, blaming the war in Ukraine for that one, and that the Bank felt “helpless” in the face of price growth.

In the short term the government must be pressed to find more support for the poorest and do more to mitigate the rising cost of food and energy.  Once the winter months approach this will become even more urgent.

The Covid 19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine are convenient excuses for the current crisis and the government is quick to use them at every opportunity.  However, the fact of 12 years of Tory government, much of which has been driven by an austerity programme designed to squeeze the public sector, drive down wages and attack workplace terms and conditions, cannot simply be airbrushed away.  While scandalous levels of profit have been made at one end of the social spectrum, abject poverty for many has been the reality at the other.

As the Institute for Public Policy Research have observed,

“Now there are more billionaires in the UK than ever before and the collective wealth of the richest has grown again.”

The only mitigation for the apparent helplessness of the government in the face of global forces is the reality that there is much that they cannot directly control.  Capitalism is a system within which inequality is endemic.  Overproduction will result in crises and waste, inter-imperialist rivalries will result in wars, all of which will generate migrant crises and the familiar boom and bust cycles to which capitalist economics is prone.

No amount of fiddling with policy levers and proclamations to be levelling up will change these fundamentals.  Of necessity short term measures must be fought for, such as more support for those on benefits and the struggle for better wages and conditions.  The real struggle however remains that of exposing the capitalist system for what it is, one driven by the need to maximise the profits of the few at the expense of the many.

The real struggle is that for an altogether different approach, a socialist economy, where the needs of the people come first and any profit generated in reinvested for the social good.  Until then we will continue to live under a system where the richest and poorest in society remain worlds apart.  

End Apartheid, Free Palestine

14th May 2022

Israeli forces attack funeral of murdered journalist, Shireen Abu Aqleh

The killing this week by Israeli soldiers of Al-Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Aqleh, is the latest tragedy in the struggle of the Palestinian people to claim their rights under international law.  Since 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, Palestinians have been subject to what is effectively a system of apartheid, through ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism and discrimination at all levels of daily life.

While Palestinians endure discriminatory treatment and the systematic denial of their human rights, Jewish Israelis enjoy full rights under the law within a system of institutionalised ethnic privilege.

Meanwhile seven million Palestinians live in exile, many in refugee camps in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, being the descendants of those forced to flee during the nakba or catastrophe, when Israel was being created.  Under international law these refugees have a right to return to the lands from which they were expelled. However, Israel has continuously denied them this right.

Other Palestinians are variously dispersed across Israel, where they live as second class citizens; the occupied West Bank, with discriminatory laws and restrictions on movement; and Gaza, which has been under land, sea and air blockade imposed by the Israelis since June 2007.  Gaza is regularly described as the world’s largest open air prison.

The killing of Abu Aqleh, known for her stand on supporting Palestinian rights, was compounded by the attack upon her funeral by Israeli forces.  A statement put out by Al-Jazeera stated,

“In a scene that violates all norms and International laws, the Israeli occupation forces stormed the French Hospital in Jerusalem and attacked the mourners of the late Shireen Abu Akleh at the start of the funeral procession,” said the statement. “They severely beat the pallbearers of the late journalist,” it added.

The behaviour of the Israelis in relation to the murder of Abu Aqleh and the subsequent behaviour at her funeral has brought international condemnation.  UN human rights experts have condemned the killing of the journalist and called for a prompt, transparent, thorough and independent investigation into her death.  Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has called to go to the international criminal court over Abu Aqleh’s death. 

The International Federation of Journalists has expressed concern that Israel’s ongoing targeting of the media amounts to war crimes and has submitted evidence to this effect.

The death toll of Palestinian citizens in general continues to mount under Israeli occupation, with 76 dead, including 13 children, since the present government took office last June.  This adds to the thousands who have lost their lives directly or indirectly in the 74 years since the nakba.  During ‘Operation Cast Lead’ alone, in 2008-09, Israel bombed Gaza for three weeks, destroying 25% of buildings and killing over 1,400 Palestinians including 300 children.

While the West in particular focuses upon the unfolding disastrous situation in Ukraine, with Russia being condemned for breaking international law and having sanctions imposed to strangle its economy, Israel continues to behave with impunity, ignoring UN resolutions, occupying Palestinian land and all the while enjoying the protection and active support of the US, EU and the British government.

According to figures published by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), between 2016 and 2020, Britain issued Single Individual Export Licenses (SIELs) for arms sales to Israel to a value of £387 million, compared to just £67 million from 2011 to 2015.  These figures do not include the sales of components for US-made F-35 stealth fighters sold to Israel, worth hundreds of millions of pounds to British arms companies.

CAAT and other NGOs, including War on Want and Palestine Solidarity Campaign, have long called for an arms embargo on Israel, as well as a halt to all British links with the Israeli arms industry, including British arms purchases from Israel and joint arms development projects.

Israel claims to be a democracy.  That measure is based upon the fact that elections are conducted in which different parties compete for seats in the parliament.  However, that is the narrowest measure of how a democracy can be defined. If a significant proportion of the population are denied basic human rights to heath care, housing and employment is that a democracy?  If that population is systematically robbed and its land occupied in defiance of international law, is that democracy?  If that same population is subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and killing, is that democracy?

Israel’s claim to be democratic holds little more credence than the theocratic dictatorship in Iran, where elections may shuffle who sits in the parliament, or even become President, but the real power lies with the religious zealots who determine the orthodoxy under which the population live.

Not all Iranians accept this, there is resistance.  Not all Israeli’s accept the actions of the apartheid government which purports to act in their name.  Opposition to the religious orthodoxy which taints both Iran and Israel is to be encouraged and supported.

This weekend protests will take place across the world to mark the 74th anniversary of the nakba and in support of the rights of the Palestinian people.

In Britain the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is working to support justice and human rights for Palestinians.  Find out more here www.palestinecampaign.org.

The boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is working to put pressure upon Israel to respect international law.  Find out more here www.bdsmovement.net

Dis-United Kingdom

7th May 2022

Boris Johnson – counting the cost of local election results

What is going on in Britain? There is a cost of living crisis, bad already and set to get worse.  Energy bills have been building and are set to increase further.  The impact of increased energy prices always hits the poorest the hardest.  The Bank of England has just increased interest rates so even those with a mortgage do not escape.  The Bank continues to spread the joy with a prediction that inflation, currently at 7%, looks set to hit 10% any time soon.  In a triple whammy the Bank ices the cake with the prediction of a “sharp economic slowdown” this year.

All of this, quite apart from the quietly forgotten but still circulating Covid 19 virus, is the sort of pressure which should lead to a meltdown at the polls for an incumbent government. 

The local elections across the UK last Thursday were not a good night for the Tories, who lost 500 seats across Britain, but they were hardly a knockout blow landed by the Opposition, especially at a time when they have plenty of ammunition at their disposal.  

Labour did make progress in London, taking control of flagship Tory strongholds such as Westminster and Wandsworth.  They managed to edge the Tories back into third place in Scotland, though the SNP tightened their grip overall, and Labour held their ground in Wales.  The situation in Northern Ireland is largely one contested by Sinn Fein and the DUP so has less impact upon the reading of possible General Election outcomes.  However, Sinn Fein’s victory in becoming the biggest party at Stormont is likely to be sabotaged by the DUP refusing to participate in the Assembly, as part of their ongoing protest against Brexit regulations.

It is always dangerous to extrapolate too much from local election results into how a General Election may turn out.  However, what the results do confirm is that the concept of the ‘United Kingdom’ is increasingly a fiction.  Northern Ireland has been an annexed territory, which should rightly be part of the Republic of Ireland, for a century now.  It must surely be only a matter of time before a referendum on unifying the island of Ireland is triggered.

Labour’s failure to get to grips with the issues facing the Scottish working class has seen Scottish nationalism spread like a poison.  While the SNP still remain short of a decisive majority for independence, they remain a powerful presence and are not going to fade quietly.   Plaid Cymru have less of a hold in Wales but the once powerful support Labour could historically count upon from the Welsh working class is no longer a reliable source of votes.

In all of these cases the nationalists paint themselves as progressives, in opposition to the reactionary forces of conservatism.  This is closest to the truth in the case of Sinn Fein, who are at least seeking the re-unification of their country.  Even then Sinn Fein’s position on EU membership is hardly radical, though they do have a positive charter for worker’s rights within the context of a capitalist economy.

The nationalists may all want change but that does not automatically imply progressive or socialist change.  Nationalism can often be an active diversion away from the real issues which need to be addressed, based upon class and the relationship to the ownership of the means of production.

This ground was abandoned by Labour with the revision of Clause IV in the Labour Party constitution in 1995 under Tony Blair.

The original clause had stated that it was one of Labour’s objectives,

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

The revised Clause IV has an altogether different emphasis, committing Labour,

“to work for a dynamic economy, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs”

While Labour leaderships prior to Blair did not exactly wear the original Clause IV as a badge of honour, the shift to the new clause is sadly symbolic of the dilution of Labour policy over decades and its propensity to follow social trends rather than set out a programme for social transformation. The brief window of opportunity, afforded under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, to reverse this trend was quickly snuffed out by the political establishment.

One of the key architects of Corbyn’s political demise was Kier Starmer, now hoping to prove his electability and acceptability to the ruling class by not offering anything too radical, threatening or progressive.  The local election results from Thursday do not suggest that Starmer has moved sufficiently in that direction yet for the ruling class.

Given the travails of the Tory Party in general, and its leader in particular, it is almost as if Boris Johnson is waving the keys to No.10 under Kier Starmer’s nose, yet he still cannot grasp them!

Prior to the 2017 General Election Labour was building momentum, overturning Theresa May’s parliamentary majority.  The last time the current seats were up in local elections in 2018, results were Labour’s best since 1974.  Rather than focussing on the lessons of the 1990’s maybe Starmer needs to revisit more recent Labour history to find a way forward.

Keeping the politics in May Day

1st May 2022

The political history of May Day as International Worker’s Day stretches back into the 19th century.  The first May Day was called for at an 1889 international conference in Paris by workers’ organisations and early Marxist-oriented socialist parties calling for an international day of demonstrations, for an eight-hour working day and other workers’ rights.  The date was chosen by the conference to honour demonstrations which had taken place in the United States on 1st May 1886 demanding a working day of eight hours.   

From 1890 onwards 1st May demonstrations spread and grew, becoming part of a new International of Marxist socialist parties, which called for the building of socialist parties to advance political democracy allied to trade unions to build economic democracy.

May Day became an official holiday in socialist countries and in many other parts of the world where strong Communist Parties and workers movements were present.  Elsewhere, May Day became an unofficial holiday, seen as a day for workers to hold marches and meetings which focused on the most pressing issues facing the working-class movement.

In Britain, unlike most of Western Europe, May Day itself is not a public holiday but the first Monday in May is designated a Bank Holiday, an initiative taken by the Labour government in 1978, too timid to declare 1st May itself a public holiday.

This radical association and significance of May Day is often deliberately blurred in the public consciousness in Britain by two things.  The first is the historic association of May Day as a traditional celebration of spring and the resurrection of nature after the winter months. It is normally associated with flowers, dancing and Maypoles, with celebrations sometimes including the crowning of a ‘May King’, or ‘Queen’.

Promoting such an association for May Day is clearly much more desirable for the capitalist class than the notion of red flag waving workers, demanding their rights and calling for the overthrow of the system in order to meet their needs.

More subtle, but growing in prominence in recent years, is the promotion and engagement in International Workers’ Memorial Day.  This day was designated as the 28th April in 1989 by American trade union confederation AFL-CIO to commemorate and remember workers killed or injured on the job and to renew the fight for strong health and safety protection.

The date has been taken up with some enthusiasm by the TUC and a number of trade unions in Britain.  Local councils are often involved and memorial services are held in local churches to mark the day.

It is vitally important to challenge unsafe working practices and to acknowledge those who have died as a result of unscrupulous employers, cutting corners on health and safety practices in order to reduce their costs and push up their profits.  It is equally vital however that such practices are acknowledged as being endemic to capitalism as an economic system, that the drive for profit over meeting public need will always mean that corners will be cut and employers will rail against so called ‘red tape’ and regulation.

The original demands which led to the establishment of May Day, including that for an eight hour working day, had their origins in the need for workers to have safer conditions and more leisure time.  The economic demands put forward by workers were always seen as a first step towards the need to more comprehensively address the failings of capitalism and build a society which would address the needs of the many not the few.

The danger of emphasising International Workers’ Memorial Day over the historic International Workers Day is that the political dimension becomes lost or diluted.  Demands for reform within capitalism will only ever be able to take us so far.  Until the demand to change the entire system is more widely understood and taken up, any gains are destined to be limited.

For a fuller statement on the international significance of May Day 2022 see that put out by international solidarity organisation, Liberation, here

A better world is possible

23rd April 2022

Macron or Le Pen? French voters between a rock and a hard place

The French presidential elections to be held tomorrow (24th April) are in many ways a more significant referendum on the future of the European Union than the Brexit debate in Britain ever was.  For a long time Britain had no truck with Europe, hoping to hang onto the last vestiges of Empire, even when the writing was in bold letters on the wall, and the initial six members of the EEC were as happy to keep Britain out, the French being the most vociferous in that respect.

The ruling class in Britain has always been split over the question, hence the divisions which are played out in the Tory Party over the issue.  The Tories’ most ideologically driven Prime Minister of the post war period, Margaret Thatcher was, with some reservations, pro British involvement in Europe as it gave British capital access to a wider market, the City of London a key financial role and, increasingly important as the EU developed, a pool of cheap East European labour.

The economics of the EU has essentially been Thatcherism on a Europe wide scale, with the richer European nations benefitting at the expense of the poorer, that disparity becoming more evident as the EU has expanded.

It has been clear to workers across the European continent for many years that the EU has done nothing to enhance their wages, rights or working conditions.  On the contrary the expansion of the gig economy, short term contracts and job insecurity has flourished under the EU.  Payments, pensions and prosperity cannot be guaranteed under a system which continues to be run for the benefit of the banks and the corporations, rather than in the interests of the people of Europe.  

This level of dissatisfaction and uncertainty are historic breeding grounds for social unrest, often exploited by the far right through racist and xenophobic slogans, while mobilisation on the Left seeks to unite the working class and break down the barriers of race, ability and gender, in the face of the real enemy in the form of the capitalist class.

The break down of the established order of Socialist and Republican Party domination at the last French presidential election in 2017 was hailed by the benefactor, President Emmanuel Macron, as a victory for a new politics of the Centre, which would overcome the old divisions and allow for rule in the interests of all of the French people.

Warm words, but the reality of Macron’s period in office has been that this self styled Centrist has behaved exactly as the former establishment parties did and sought to secure the best deal for French capital and capitalists, whatever the cost to French workers.  Since the Covid pandemic between 5 and 7 million people in France, 10% of the population, have had to ask for help at a food bank.

Alternatively, Marine Le Pen, darling of the far right, has been making every effort to restyle herself and her National Rally (formerly National Front) party as the voice of the French people.  Le Pen has built a populist platform around French jobs for French workers, opposing an increase in the retirement age to 65, as proposed by Macron, and promised to tackle the cost of living crisis faced by French workers, by limiting the jobs and welfare benefits open to non-nationals living in France.  The issue of immigration has not featured as prominently in Le Pen’s campaign but her job proposals, along with that to ban Muslim women wearing the hijab in public, indicate that Le Pen has not strayed far from her Fascist roots.

Le Pen has been coy about proposing a referendum on France leaving the EU but has described the choice facing French voters as,

“…fundamental. It is in the hands of the French people.  It is Macron or France.”

suggesting that a Le Pen presidency, given the clear backing of the EU by Macron, would make the question of EU membership an open one.

Other EU leaders have been quick to express support for Macron with leaders from Germany, Spain and Portugal rallying to urge French voters to support “freedom, democracy and a stronger Europe”, oblivious to the irony in that contradiction.

The untold story of the French election however is that 7.7 million voters cast their ballots for Left wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was only beaten for second place by Le Pen by two percentage points, and was only five percentage points behind Macron’s first round vote.

Melenchon’s programme to lower the prices of basic necessities such as food, fuel and energy; reinstate the retirement age at 60; pursue an organic farming and food production agenda; initiate a programme to rebuild public hospitals; and to increase the national minimum wage; all found resonance with large sections of the electorate.

Inevitably, as the far right often do, Le Pen has stolen some of Melenchon’s policy ideas but mixed them with a toxic cocktail of racism and xenophobia.

Whatever the outcome of the vote in France the issues facing the French people, in particular those in its poor areas, will not go away.  In facing a choice between the right wing extreme of Le Pen and the corporatist bureaucrat Macron, many voters will feel that they are between a rock and a hard place.  Abstention rates in many French neighbourhoods are expected to be 30%+ making the outcome as to who will become President too close to call.

Unfortunately, the outcome for the French working class is all too predictable.   The divisions between rich and poor in France run too deep for social unrest not to be a continuing feature for some time to come.  Those backing Melechon campaigned around the slogan “A better world is possible”; that is true in France as it is elsewhere.  The struggle continues to achieve it.