Change without challenging the status quo

2nd April 2021

Fighting “the battles of the past” as the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities would see it

The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, published this week, has reignited the debate about the extent of institutional and structural racism in Britain.  The headlines screaming from the popular press, following selected conclusions from the report released 24hrs ahead of publication were clear.

“Scrap use of BAME label”, said the Telegraph.

“Britain is not ‘institutionally racist’”, proclaimed the Daily Mail.

“PM pledges fairer society as race report says UK is role model”, bellowed the Daily Express.

As part of its conclusion the report states,

“Beneath the headlines that often show egregious acts of discrimination, the Windrush scandal most recently, incremental progress is being made as our report has shown beyond doubt. Through focusing on what matters now, rather than refighting the battles of the past, we want to build on that progress.”

This statement is symptomatic of the approach taken in the report, which emphasises the ‘evidence’ from survey and official data but gives a secondary role to the lived experience of those facing discrimination in Britain today.

The report seems to miss the point that what it regards as “the battles of the past” may actually be “what matters now” for many experiencing the reality of discrimination and prejudice today.   Even accepting the report’s assertion that “incremental progress is being made” it remains incremental, and the barriers which ethnic minority communities face in health, jobs, education, policing and day to day discrimination are still unacceptable and require urgent action.

Any progress which has been made is as a result of constant struggle against discrimination and prejudice. Outrages such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence, flare ups in black communities against poverty, oppression and heavy handed policing, the Grenfell disaster, the Windrush scandal, trade union activism to support black workers.  Little of this is acknowledged in the report which no doubt categorises these as “the battles of the past.”

The report does acknowledge that “in some places in the UK, especially in Black inner-city communities, historical wrongs by the state and police have left a deep legacy of mistrust” and recognises that the outpouring of outrage following the murder of George Floyd in the United States, with the associated upsurges in activity around the Black Lives Matter movement, was the trigger for the Commission being established.

However, the actions of those protesting against police violence and reacting to their own experience of racial discrimination is immediately patronised as the report goes on to say,

“We understand the idealism of those well-intentioned young people who have held on to, and amplified, this inter-generational mistrust. However, we also have to ask whether a narrative that claims nothing has changed for the better, and that the dominant feature of our society is institutional racism and White privilege, will achieve anything beyond alienating the decent centre ground – a centre ground which is occupied by people of all races and ethnicities.”

In a nutshell the report has summarised it position.  Solutions without conflict, change without challenging the status quo, middle class maxims for the minorities who have made it.  Hope does not lie in such contradictions and the history of all struggle shows that social disruption is necessary to inspire any kind of progress.

Where the report does implicitly touch on the makings of a strategy is the recognition that the white working class face many of the same challenges to life chances as their ethnic minority brothers and sisters, although race remains an exacerbating factor.  A common stand against oppression and prejudice by a united working class, recognising that they share more in common than what they may perceive as dividing them, would be a real challenge to the status quo, building on the gains of the past and looking to a more equal future.  The report does not go there.

The report inevitably shies away from any detailed analysis of class difference and prejudice.  That would require a more detailed assessment not only of the whiteness of the Monarchy, Houses of Parliament, Boards of corporations and City of London high flyers, but the limited circle of privilege in terms of social class from which the occupants of these positions are drawn.  In that sense we can see, in spite of the occasional black face, White privilege and, more significantly, class privilege at play.  

The Commission report has served its political purpose.  It has garnered the headlines about institutional racism that Boris Johnson and his government will feel that they can bask in.  The commissioners were drawn from a range of ethnic minority backgrounds and the government will no doubt point to this as evidence of the credibility of the report.  It has produced a range of recommendations which the government may choose to action and against which it may also choose to measure ‘progress’ in tackling discrimination, or as the report would have it, ethnic disparities, in Britain.

A range of academics, cited in the report as having provided evidence, have already come out and said they were not consulted, from the King’s Fund to the London School of Economics to leading experts on black British history, one of whom said he was “horrified to see his name listed.”

Black Young Professionals (BYP) Network is also cited as one of the report’s stakeholders, but a spokesperson said: “The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report’s ‘findings’ implies that it is ethnic minorities’ own fault for lack of progression, that disparities are due to social class and this is categorically untrue.”

A report on the causes of racism, commissioned by a government not adverse to playing the race card itself if it sees an advantage in doing so, was never going to come up with an objective analysis of the real problems facing the ethnic minority populations in Britain today.  If nothing else the report has reinforced that truth and may at least compel people to take more direct action in order to bring about change.

Colour drained from the union flag

27th March 2021

Flying the flag – Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick

In 1987 Paul Gilroy published his now widely acknowledged classic assessment of race in Britain There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.  The book was not so well received at the time, coming hard on the heels of the 1981 rebellions in Brixton against racial oppression and poverty, the wave of late seventies opposition to the rise of the National Front and the jingoism and flag waving encouraged by the Falklands War.  The title of the book is taken from a racist football chant of the 1970’s and 80’s, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack, send the bastards back.’

Quite where the ’bastards’ were to go ‘back’ to was not the point.  Tribal chanting is part of a mob mentality which does not stand up to scrutiny but simply reinforces the mob’s feeling of righteousness in not being ‘other’.  Over thirty years since the publication of Gilroy’s book many of the black, Asian and minority ethnic populations in Britain are third generation residents, born and bred in Britain. Citizens with equal rights and an equal claim to shape the culture of the country in which they were born.

Except the reality is different in so many ways.  The recent Windrush scandal exposed the latent racism at the heart of the British establishment in the threat to send ‘home’ citizens who have lived in Britain for over 50 years and know no other ‘home’.  The impact of the COVID-19 virus in the present pandemic has had a disproportionate impact upon black, Asian and ethnic minority communities across Britain.  It does not take much research to reveal that the NHS, the care sector and the poorest parts of most of the UK’s cities are staffed and populated by people of colour.

Race has always been a key weapon in the hands of the British establishment to divide the working class.  The progress made in legislative terms, culminating in the Equality Act 2010, which enshrines legal rights and outlaws overt discrimination, do not tackle the underlying attitudes which the British establishment will always use to its advantage when the opportunity arises.

The attempted hijacking of the Brexit debate by racists and xenophobes was a classic example.  A rational discussion about the failings of the European Union, in terms of protecting jobs and worker’s rights, was never on the cards, once the Make Britain Great Again lobby seized the debate, encouraged by the cheerleaders in the right wing media and the usually supine BBC, foregoing any real journalistic challenge in the interests of ‘balance.’

Immigration is, as ever in the hands of the right wing politicians and media, a trope for people of colour, however many generations their families may have been resident in Britain.  So, tackling immigration simply translates into difference of skin colour, religion or cultural practice being an issue and the working classes become divided on the issue of race, when they should be united on the issue of class.

Endemic racism operates in more subtle ways too.  The outpouring of outrage at the recent murder of Sarah Everard, the accusations against the Metropolitan Police and the upsurge in support for the White Ribbon movement opposing violence against women is fully justified.  However, the recent interviews with Mina Smallman, whose two daughters were murdered last June and then suffered the indignity of police officers taking selfies with their bodies, cannot help but raise questions of race.  The response of the media, the police and public figures to the deaths of women of colour did not, and does not, generate the same levels of public outrage.

The recent guidance from the government that the Union Jack should be flown from all government buildings, in the words of culture secretary Oliver Dowden, as “a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us” further raises the question of which history and how tightly the ties are bound.

BBC Breakfast presenters Naga Munchetty and Charlie Stayt have already received a dressing down for mildly teasing communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, for the positioning of a Union Jack as a backdrop in a TV interview.   Jenrick has called upon local authorities to fly the flag suggesting that people would “rightly expect” to see it on top of all civic buildings.  Labour leader Kier Starmer has already taken to wrapping himself in the union flag to demonstrate his patriotism.

For Irish nationalists the Union Jack has long been regarded as “the butcher’s apron”, for people of colour across the former Empire it has been a symbol of the Empire upon which “the sun never set and the blood never dried”.  The union flag does not represent those protesting as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The history of which the Union Jack is a symbol is a ruling class history of exploitation, racism and oppression.  It is the history of white supremacy which is still the basis of the school curriculum, it is the history which airbrushes out working class struggle, makes passing reference to the fight for women’s rights and excludes almost entirely the histories of people of colour.

The Union Jack is being deployed in a desperate attempt to reinforce an image of Britain moulded in the image of the Conservative Party, which is white, middle class, supportive of the Monarchy, suspicious of ‘foreigners’ and rooted in the fictional glory days of empire.

Those days are gone, they must not be allowed to return.  Working class unity across age, gender and race is the only guaranteed means of resistance.  In the so-called culture wars which are increasingly becoming part of the armoury of the establishment, the unified homogeneity of conservatism cannot win.  Multi cultural action rooted in working class unity must once again be on the agenda, across the nations of the so-called United Kingdom.

Global Britain not yet on the roadmap

20th March 2021

Prof. John Bew – diminished reputation

As the British government continues to struggle with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the highest death rate in Europe and fifth highest in the world, the time would hardly seem right to be proposing massive increases in spending on weapons of mass destruction.  Yet the integrated review of foreign policy and defence published this week does just that.

Titled, in typically grandiose fashion, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the review seeks to carve out an international role for Britain, in a post Brexit relationship with the European Union but not beholden to the United States.

Since 1945 Britain has carved out a role in the twilight of its former Empire as the reliable European military nuclear power in NATO, ready to support US intervention around the globe, while also providing an economic bridgehead into Europe for US capital and a safe offshore haven for billionaires and despots of any description.

Less a case of Britannia ruling the waves than being shipwrecked on the shores of US foreign policy.

At the heart of the new review is the proposal to increase the nuclear weapons capability linked to the Trident submarine programme from 180 to 260 warheads.  Each warhead is immeasurably more powerful than anything which eviscerated the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and provides nothing in the way of defence against cyber attack, terrorist activity or conventional military force.

Military spending in the modern age is euphemistically referred to as ‘defence’ by the political establishment but is as much to do with sabre rattling and a perception of international status.  In his autobiography, A Journey, former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, summed up the position with unusual candour in relation to Trident saying that “The expense is huge and the utility… non-existent in terms of military use.”  However, the crux of the matter came in Blair’s assertion that giving up Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation.”   

The new review, as well as increasing nuclear capability is predicated upon a ‘tilt’ towards Asia, more specifically an area vaguely referred to as the Indo-Pacific.  This would appear to refer to a swathe of territory somewhere from the Indian sub-continent to the South China Sea, in which Britain, apparently, has a key strategic interest.

The real strategic powers in this region are China and the United States, neither of which is going to allow Britain, in its newly found independent upstart role, a look in.  Nevertheless, Boris Johnson has ordered the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest ship ever built for the navy, to sail to the Pacific with two destroyers, two frigates and two supply ships.  This is in spite of a former chief of defence staff describing Britain’s new aircraft carriers as “unaffordable vulnerable metal cans.”  To suggest that the mission is unclear would be an understatement.

The review has been led by Prof. John Bew of King’s College London in an attempt to give it a veneer of academic respectability and objective credibility.  Whatever the standing of Prof. Bew before the publication of the review, it will certainly not be enhanced as a result.

There is no review of ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia or its allied Gulf States, currently perpetrating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in bombing Yemen.  There is no review of how to address the nuclear arming of Israel in the world’s most volatile region or the ongoing human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  There is no reference to the £17.4bn funding gap in the Ministry of Defence’s 10-year capabilities plan, identified by the Commons public accounts committee.  There is clearly no concession to the need for strategic arms limitation which appears to have gone out of the window in the context of the new role of ‘Global Britain’.

An alternative scenario is possible, in which Britain is not one of NATO’s big spenders, or even a member of the military alliance; in which Britain does not see military intervention as a means to addressing political problems; a world is which nuclear disarmament is the cornerstone of foreign policy; a world in which Britain does not have to pretend to be a military superpower and can turn its attention to feeding the poor, housing the homeless, caring for the elderly and paying its NHS staff a decent wage.

It is all possible with the political will and mass mobilisation of those interested in changing the balance of power in the interests of the working class in Britain and the world.  The only truly global Britain will be one based upon principles of working class internationalism and solidarity with those in struggle.  It will not be a safe haven for finance capital, despots, or the military industrial complex, draining valuable resources from the real needs of the people.  

That is a global Britain for which it would be worth developing a roadmap.  

Solidarity with People of Myanmar

13th March 2021

Protests continue in Myanmar against the military coup

At its AGM today (13th March 2021) the British based international solidarity organisation, Liberation, adopted the following statement in support of the people of Myanmar who have taken to the streets in protest since the military coup on 1st February 2021.

The mass upsurge in Myanmar against the military takeover has engaged peoplefrom all walks of life, who have been out on the streets in recent weeks protestingagainst the brutal suppression of democracy.

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) staged the coup on 1st February, the day the new parliament was to open, after the general election in November 2020.

The election had resulted in a landslide victory for the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD). However, the army declared the results tobe illegal and deposed President Win Myint and State Counsellor Suu Kyi. They andother NLD leaders have been arrested and detained.

The armed forces had ruled Myanmar for decades since the military coup of 1962. The movement for democracy achieved a breakthrough in 1981 but it was brutally crushed by the army. Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for sixteen long years.

After much pressure, the army conceded some powers, and a hybrid democratic system was put in place based on the 2008 Constitution adopted by the army. Under this system, the army still held key powers; 25 per cent of the seats in the two houses of parliament were reserved for military nominees.

For the first time, in 2015, the NLD contested the elections, winning over 80 per cent of the seats in the two houses. Suu Kyi could not assume the post of head of government, the constitution barring anyone with a foreign spouse from holding that office, so she was made a State Counsellor and was the de facto prime minister.

In the 8th November 2020 general election, the NLD improved its position by winning 258 out of the 310 seats in the House of Representatives and 138 of the 168 seats in the House of Nationalities. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) only gained 26 seats and 5.9 per cent of the vote in the lower house.

Frustrated by this result, the armed forces declared an emergency under a constitutional provision and said it would last for one year after which fresh elections would be held.

The vested interests exercising political and economic power through the armed forces’ elite were getting threatened by the growing electoral legitimacy of the NLD and its leader. The higher echelons of the armed forces have built up a powerful network of patronage and business interests in the country. Some of the lucrative sectors like precious gems, timber and mineral resources are controlled and plundered by enterprises run by generals and former members of the officer corps.

The armed forces had thought that the USDP would gain enough strength to checkmate the NLD and Aung Suu Kyi, not expecting that, in both the 2015 and 2020 elections, the NLD scored over 80 per cent of the seats in the non-military sector.

That the armed forces are completely isolated from the people has become evident in the recent protests. Significantly, the bulk of civil servants, health workers, power sector employees and railway workers have joined the mass protests and gone on strike.

Faced with the growing protests, the police and the army are now resorting to repressive tactics including firing on peaceful protestors. Hundreds have already been arrested and put in jail.

The return of military rule clearly further threatens the position of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, stripped of their citizenship and subject to human rights abuses since the push in the late 1970’s to expel them from Myanmar.

In giving our full backing to the progressive campaign for the return of democracy in Myanmar Liberation will:-

• encourage progressive MPs to find ways to promote the return to democracyin Myanmar;

• call for an end to military rule and the restoration of democracy;

• demand the release of all detainees; and

• call for the safeguarding of the lives, human and democratic rights, and livelihoods of the Rohingya population as well as the state recognised ethnic minority groups like the Chin and Kachins in Myanmar.

In an impressive show of solidarity the people of Myanmar are bravely facing the might of the military. For decades, the people of Myanmar were under the brutal heel of a military dictatorship. They have now resolved not to allow this to happen again. They deserve our ongoing support and solidarity.

Further information on the work and activities of Liberation can be found here

Tories test the limits

6th March 2021

NHS staff – lives on the line during the pandemic

The Tory promise to ‘level up’ the country was never more than hollow rhetoric designed to shore up votes in constituencies Labour surrendered at the last General Election.  The Tories are only ever interested in levelling up the bank balances of their friends and backers, in order to keep their grip on the reins of power and keep the balance in the political establishment.

The levelling up confidence trick is underpinned by a £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund, allegedly designed to assist regions struggling to adjust to post industrial underinvestment and austerity, ironically key planks of Tories regional policy for decades.  The fund is designed in three tiers, prioritising those areas which require the greatest assistance.  Local authorities across England will be invited to apply to the fund, which will be competitive, in order of priority.

The outcomes for unsuccessful bids, in areas deemed to be in need of assistance, is the kind of conundrum only the Tories could dream up.  Still, consistency has never been a Tory strong point as any analysis of the 93 areas in the top tier eligible to bid to be levelled up illustrates.

Of the areas designated tier 1 there are 31 which are not in the top third most deprived places by indices of deprivation.  Of this 31 there are 26 which have Tory MPs across the whole area while the others have at least one Tory MP.

Four places in tier 1 are in the bottom third of English regions by deprivation, that is not deprived at all, including Richmondshire in North Yorkshire, which is not only in the top fifth of most prosperous places in England but is represented by Rishi Sunak MP, currently Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Perhaps the people of Richmondshire are feeling deprived relative to Knightsbridge and need to be levelled up within their privileged social sphere?

It gets better.  The Tories also have a scam going called the towns fund, for which Sunak announced an extra £1bn in the budget.  This week saw 45 towns added to the list, of which 39 have a Tory MP.  Any sign of a pattern emerging here?

Boris Johnson has responded in his usual comprehensive manner stating,

“I’ve asked about this and I’m told that the criteria was entirely objective – it takes in data on poverty, employment and so on.”

Sunak has followed up with the assertion that assessments were “based on an index of economic need, which is transparently published.”  What is transparent is the Tories desperate need to find ways to distract the public from their catastrophic handling of the pandemic by pretending that they care about the areas of highest deprivation and vulnerable communities.  It really will not wash.

Not content with handing out contracts worth billions to friends and neighbours to deliver dodgy PPE or run failing test and trace systems as part of the pandemic, the Tories now claim that they cannot afford more than a 1% pay rise for nurses and medical staff.  This is on top of the pay freeze for other pubic sector workers, many of whom have also worked through the pandemic to ensure the delivery of essential services and care to communities.

Quite righty though, it is the cavalier treatment of NHS staff that is drawing public ire and showing the Tories in their true colours.  Warm words at the height of the crisis and polite applause outside 10, Downing St are looking exactly like the shallow gestures they always were. 

It is ironic that the NHS Pay Review Body claims that

“Covid-19 has placed a huge strain on both public and NHS finances.  The economic outlook for 2021/22 remains uncertain and pay awards must be both fair and affordable.”

If only the same were true of the government’s contract procurement process!

The treatment of NHS staff only adds to the national scandal that is the government’s handling of the pandemic.  Is it any wonder that nurses are now talking of strike action?  NHS staff have been taken to the limit, literally putting their lives on the line, over the past year. They deserve better and it is the Tories who must now be taken to the limit and, without ceremony, dropped over the edge.

Solid Foundations

4th March 2021

Partners in crime – Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak after yesterday’s budget speech

The Budget delivered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak yesterday was never going to fundamentally change the UK economy in such a way that it would ‘level up’ in favour of working people.  As expected, Sunak has merely applied a sticking plaster over a gaping wound, by favouring short term measures to alleviate some of the worst excesses of the pandemic, over long term structural change.  

Some of these measures, the extension of the furlough scheme, additional help for the self-employed, extending the £20 per week Universal Credit top up, will be welcomed by those struggling to make ends meet, who live in fear from one government announcement to the next that the safety net may be withdrawn.

Sunak was keen to portray these measures as an indication of government magnanimity, that in the face of the uncontrollable force of the pandemic the government has taken steps to protect those most at risk and most vulnerable.  Sunak was keen to make it sound as if the government cares.  The increase in Corporation Tax, from 19% to 25% in two years time even gave Sunak cover to suggest that the burden would be shared and even the biggest corporations would be made to pay their share.

This political conjuring is only to be expected from the Tories.  Big corporations in Britian have been getting away with some of the lowest levels of corporation tax in Europe for years, abjectly failing to pay their share while the NHS and local authority run services have had to struggle under the burden of austerity, to pay off the bankers gambling debts from the 2008 crash.

It is easy to see the pandemic as an uncontrollable force.  The fact of it happening may not have been immediately predictable but the response to it has been very much in the hands of governments around the world.  Britain still leads the European league table for death rates, at over 120,000, a national scandal barely acknowledged by the right wing press and BBC. 

The hardest lockdowns have produced the most effective results, in China, Vietnam and New Zealand, where it has been recognised that public health cannot simply be sacrificed on the altar of private profit.  Ironically, having put public health first, these are the places where economic recovery is returning most strongly.  Conversely the United States, Britain and Brazil not only see escalating deaths but flagging economic recovery.

Sunak may be able to bathe in the congratulations of the Tory backbenches for a while.  He may even win the praise of a few hard pressed families desperate to hang on to what little they have in the short term.    The City of London and corporations may whinge a bit about corporation tax but they know they can both afford and absorb a modest increase.  There is no wealth tax or windfall tax on companies which have profited from the pandemic.  There is no indication that the billionaires who have increased their wealth by over £25bn during the pandemic are going to feel any pain.

Frontline staff in the NHS, social care and local government did not warrant a mention in the budget.  Yet this is where the real work of recovery is happening.  The vaccination programme being driven, not by entitled members of the House of Lords, but frontline staff and volunteers working to help out in their local communities.

Even Labour leader, Kier Starmer, not famed for his radicalism, accused Sunak of “papering over the cracks rather than rebuilding the foundation” going on to call for a budget “to fix our economy, to reward our key workers, to protect the NHS and to build a more secure and prosperous economy for the future.”

That would certainly be a start.  Those who have lost their livelihoods as businesses fold, find themselves in increasing debt as bills come in, or have lost their jobs as unemployment escalates, may increasingly find that they need even more.  Rebuilding the foundation is all very well but if the foundations are built upon capitalist economics they will be poorly embedded and prone to crumble in the next economic storm.

Solid foundations will need to be built from socialist bricks. That will not only require radical new architects with a vision for the future but a whole new firm of builders.

Trident – Deterrence or dependence?

27th February 2021

Healey – unshakable committment?

The transition of the Labour Party back towards being a fully fledged party of the UK political establishment took another step this week when Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey MP, committed Labour to re-commissioning the Trident nuclear weapons system.

It may be argued, with some justification, that Labour has never strayed from the political mainstream and Healey’s speech, on one level, was merely reaffirming existing party policy.  Politics however rarely functions on just one level and the subtext underlying Healey’s words were clear.  This is Labour departing from the political direction in which the party was pointing under Jeremy Corbyn.  This is Labour making clear its patriotic credentials.  This is Labour wrapping itself in the union flag.

Corbyn’s opposition to Trident was well known.  As a lifelong member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a profound sceptic in relation to Britain’s membership of NATO and a consistent opponent of military wars of intervention, Corbyn did not cut the kind of patriotic figure in whose hands the establishment could feel entirely comfortable. 

History will no doubt judge that, in the grand scheme of things, the four years of Corbyn leadership was a relatively modest challenge to the political orthodoxy.  The fact that they had to go to such lengths to snuff it out says as much about their sense of insecurity as it does about the scale of the threat.

Nevertheless, Healey’s words at the Royal United Service Institute, were aimed to reassure the military industrial complex that their profits remained safe.  Labour’s commitment to retaining nuclear weapons was described as “non-negotiable”, a degree of emphasis only matched by Healey’s assertion that “Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakable.”  In case the message was not absolutely clear Healey went on to position Labour as “the party of sovereign defence capability.”

The pill was sugar coated in the usual way.  Labour would be committed to international law and upholding human rights.  Why would it not? Labour would be committed to direct investment into British industry as a priority.  Again, why would it not?  The real question is whether either of these commitments are sufficient justification to spend billions on weapons of mass destruction.

Added irony comes from Healey’s speech being set against the debate about what Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, should include in his budget this week and how far tax rises will be necessary to help pay for the consequence of the pandemic.  Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has already said that this is not a time to tax business and families. 

However, Starmer has made no commitment to supporting the recent Wealth Tax Commission report, which demonstrated clearly that a windfall tax upon the wealthiest, levied over a five year period, would go a long way towards covering the costs associated with the pandemic.  Add to that the saving from not buying into Trident and Starmer’s fears for business and families could be easily allayed.  Such thoughts are, unfortunately, too far from the political mainstream for the Labour leader.

A further dimension to the timing of Healey’s speech was the fact that, after a mere 35 days in office, US President Joe Biden ordered his first illegal air strike against targets in Syria, a war in which the US has no legal right to intervene.  The role of the US and its NATO allies in Syria has been to exacerbate tensions in the Middle East, in an attempt to shore up US strategic interests in the region.  As the Stop the War Coalition has pointed out,

“The US still has 2,500 troops in a country which they have devastated since they invaded in 2003.  Biden is following in the footsteps of his predecessors despite all evidence that military interventions do nothing but create destruction and misery and the conditions for future wars.”

This is the alliance to which Healey and Starmer are saying Labour’s commitment is “unshakable”.  This is the alliance which has actual control over the Trident nuclear weapons system, not the UK as an independent nation. 

Buying in to Trident is not about deterrence, it is about dependence.  That dependence is military, political and technological.  It provides no protection in classic military terms and is a threat to jobs due to the constraint upon investment it represents, diverting billions into weapons of mass destruction rather than socially useful production.

Labour’s position on spending billions on Trident is shameful and should be opposed at every level of the Labour movement, linked to a plan for job creating investment in new technology and green solutions to the climate challenge.  That would be the start of a radical programme for change and one to which millions would sign up.

Labour needs a real contender

20th February 2021

Labour leader Kier Starmer – will he ever be a contender?

Latest opinion polls currently show a Conservative lead over Labour of between 2% and 6% with most leaning towards the upper end of that spectrum.  This comes almost a year after the first COVID-19 pandemic lockdown; the infection spreading Eat Out to Help Out farrago in the summer; the slightly less than ‘world beating’ test and trace programme; the debacle over school examinations; the equally diabolical return to campus of university students; a second lockdown; the dithering over who could see whom , where and when at Christmas; a wave of infection sweeping the country since the New Year; a third lockdown; the death toll heading towards 120,000, the highest in Europe; and the poorest prospects for recovery of any G7 economy.  

This catalogue of calamity does not even include the amateur approach to the Brexit negotiations, being shamed into feeding poor children during school holidays or the lack of insight that allowed Dominic Cummings, with his poor eyesight, take a trip to Barnard Castle.

Even with the collusion of the right wing press and the BBC, determined to emphasise the positives of the successful vaccine roll out, the government record of handling the pandemic is nothing short of a national scandal, which should be hitting the headlines as such. At the very least it would be expected that some of the Opposition punches would land and that the government, if not on the canvas, would at least be on the ropes.

The problem is that in the red corner, the Kier Starmer led Labour opposition have not only failed to land any punches, they have not even laced up their gloves!  In fact Labour have spent more time reassuring the government that they are not really in the red corner at all but are merely a paler shade of blue, quite happy to cosy up in the blue corner and try to persuade the audience that there is nothing to see here, there is no fight.

Labour have come to such a pass by flying the flag of ‘national unity’, not wanting to create strife and division at a time of national crisis, not wanting to ‘play politics’ with the pandemic.  This is the politics of ‘playing fair’, obeying the rules, being decent chaps.  The Tories meanwhile are making hay whether the sun shines or not, crisis or no crisis, with contracts awarded to cronies left, right and centre without so much as a tip of the hat to fair procurement practices, experience in the field of PPE manufacture, pandemic management or public health awareness.

However much the business sector whinge about the economy being closed down there are plenty of the Tories’ mates who have made a tidy sum from the pandemic and appear to have no compunction in profiting from the deaths of thousands.

Kier Starmer made a ‘big speech’ this week setting out Labour’s position.  We know it was a big speech because the public relations trailers told us so, but it would have been difficult to recognise as such otherwise.  

So, what is the inspiring vision set out by Starmer?  Well firstly Labour would “forge a new contract with the British people, introducing British Recovery Bonds to give households a stake in our country’s future and a role in creating the infrastructure of tomorrow.”

Really? If this was tripping off the tongues of those in Labour’s focus groups they were talking to the wrong people! However, there is more…

“Together, we would invest in a new generation of British entrepreneurs by providing start-up loans for 100,000 businesses, making sure support and opportunity is spread across the country.”

Top of the list when you cannot pay the rent, feed the kids or find a decent job!  Way to go Kier!

Finally, a modicum of reality poked through as Kier promised that in,

“Reversing Tory cuts to Universal Credit, properly funding local councils, giving our key workers the pay rise they deserve – there is a real alternative to Boris Johnson’s approach.”

On a more philosophical note Kier also acknowledged that,

“Coronavirus has pulled back the curtain on the deep inequalities and injustices in Britain, as a result of a failed ideology that weakened Britain’s foundations and left us exposed to the pandemic.”

That failed ideology is capitalism, if only Starmer would spell it out, the deep inequalities and injustices are as result of its endemic exploitative character.  No amount of recovery bonds will change that.

No Labour leader yet has made a call for revolution and no one is expecting that from Starmer.  However, investment in Council housing; tackling Rachman landlords; investing in comprehensive education; taking away the ‘charitable’ status of the private education sector; committing to abolish Trident nuclear weapons; investment in job creating green technology, all of these things and more are possible under capitalism and would be a popular campaigning platform.

More will be necessary to achieve the real shift in the balance of power needed to move towards a socialist economy.  However, indicating some intent to move in that direction would be a start.  Starmer needs to limber up and get himself into the ring or make way for a real contender.

Vaccination progress but no quick fix

14th February 2021

Concern for workers at Heathrow as the quarantine programme begins

As the vaccination programme across Britain continues its, so far, successful community roll out, pressure is inevitably mounting from the business sector to open up the economy still further.  The hardline Tory MPs, who make up the so called Covid Recovery Group, are calling for the complete opening up of the economy by the end of April.  That such a move would inevitably expose more workers to the dangers of infection does not seem to be high on the list of their concerns or those of employers, keen to return to profit in order to assuage hungry shareholders.

Those in work, unable to work from home, are already in the frontline.  So far there have been no prohibition notices served upon employers by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regarding workplaces not being Covid Secure, even though there have been 3,500 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic.

These dangers mean that many workers, struggle to subsist on reduced furlough income or worse still Universal Credit, while others are forced into calculating the risk of attending a COVID insecure workplace compared to the certainty of ongoing poverty.  The struggle for many to self isolate is a real one. 

There are growing concerns that vaccination take up amongst care home staff is too low, if protection of the most clinically vulnerable is to be effective.  A recent survey by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) also estimated that 15% of nurses remain unvaccinated.  Both sets of workers are amongst the most vulnerable due to their frontline work but also due to their low pay and the pressure to stay at work.

In the wider community the situation is further fuelled by a barrage of misinformation perpetrated by vaccination deniers, including Members of Parliament, muddying the waters.  Conspiracy theories range from the vaccine being a means of microchipping the population by the government, to the fallacy that the vaccines contain animal products which may contravene the lifestyle choices or religious beliefs of many.

In spite of this ongoing battle with ignorance the army of NHS staff, local government workers and volunteers continue the task of pushing ahead with the vaccination programme.  All over 70 year olds and those in the higher vulnerable groups will have been offered a vaccine by next week, most will have gladly taken up the offer.  More than 90% of over 75 year olds in the UK have had their first dose.

It is notable that the success of the roll out so far has been due to mobilisation at a local level.  No centralised awarding of contracts to national companies with no public health experience, no high profile government crony appointments to oversee the system.  Just local NHS, local government and voluntary sector organisations on the ground co-operating to deliver the best for their communities.

As long as vaccine supplies can be ensured, an area in which national government unfortunately has to play a role, the local vaccination programme will continue to be delivered.  National government action however continues to be necessary in implementing measures to suppress the spread of new variants, to ensure that all of the effort going on at a local level is not in vain.

To that end the pressure upon the government to close borders has resulted in an initial ‘red list’ of 33 countries being identified.  Travellers into England from these locations, from 15th February, will have to undertake hotel quarantine for 10 days with testing on day 2 and day 8 of their stay.  In Scotland all inbound travellers will be required to undertake the 10 day quarantine period. All inbound travellers will continue to be required to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test to enter the country.

A new department has been set up within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) that will be leading the transfer of passengers from the 33 red-list nations from airports to hotels to begin their 10-day quarantine.  However, neither the police nor Border Force were told who is running the new department, which is understood to be called Managed Quarantine Services.

There are other potential flaws in the plan.  The proposed £1,750 hotel cost may be prohibitive for some.  There are no plans for the regular testing of hotel and security staff.  England’s Department of Health said plans for a “bespoke service” for staff testing were being developed but it could not confirm whether it would be ready for the start of the policy on 15th February.  Over half of the countries with identified cases of the South African variant of COVID 19, against which existing vaccines are least effective, are not on the list.

A spokesman at Heathrow Airport, one of five in England where people requiring hotel quarantine can enter the UK, expressed frustration with the government stating,

 “We have been working hard with the government to try to ensure the successful implementation of the policy from Monday, but some significant gaps remain.  Ministers must ensure there is adequate resource and appropriate protocols in place for each step of the full end-to-end process from aircraft to hotel to avoid compromising the safety of passengers and those working at the airport.”

Nadine Houghton, GMB National Officer representing workers at Heathrow said,

“If you’ve got people getting off planes from the red list countries, then being crammed into areas with passengers who aren’t going into quarantine – and staff as well- you’ve failed at the first hurdle.”

Calls for a blanket quarantine of 14 days for all arrivals in the UK are growing, with experts pointing to the stricter measures taken in China, Australia and New Zealand as having had a significant impact in suppressing outbreaks.

With the government promising a ‘road map’ announcement on 22nd February it is vital that the success of the local vaccination roll out programme is not undermined by those looking to relax measures too quickly.  If the elderly, the vulnerable and those in challenging low paid work are to stand any chance of staying safe, the government must not be swayed by those seeking to make a quick profit.

US Foreign Policy – back to business as usual?

6th February 2021

US Foreign Policy – back to business as usual?

Biden’s first foreign policy speech – US business as usual?

“America is back, diplomacy is back”; the words of Joe Biden in his first foreign policy address this week as US President.  Biden was clearly using the phrase to draw a line under the past four years and distance himself from the Make America Great Again rhetoric of Donald Trump.  Biden’s words are unlikely to be worn across baseball caps by his supporters but in its own, less belligerent way, Biden’s phrase is still a variation on the theme of making America great again.  Making America great has, in one way or another, been the theme of US foreign policy for over a century.

As Biden made clear,

“There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy. Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind.”

Which is not to say that Biden will not do things differently to Trump.  In some areas he will. The temporary ban on weapons sales to the Saudi Arabia led coalition which has been bombing schools, hospitals and communities in Yemen since 2015 looks like being firmed up.  Biden did not cut the Saudis loose entirely though, promising to continue to help Saudi Arabia “defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Biden has made no secret of his desire to take a more strident tone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, though actual policy substance may not differ greatly.  Biden was clear that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will conduct a review of the US global force posture to ensure that the US “military footprint is appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities”, a warning signal to Russia and the growing military and economic power of China.

In the Middle East Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has restated Biden’s commitment to reconsider US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, agreed with Iran in 2015 before US violation in 2018 led to withdrawal. 

US return to compliance with the JCPOA is by no means unconditional, with Biden wanting to make Iranian compliance in a number of “deeply problematic” foreign policy areas outside of the deal a requirement before the easing of US sanctions, tightened by Trump in 2018 after US withdrawal.

While Iran has welcomed the fact that Biden presents the opportunity to step back from the abyss the two countries were staring into following Trump’s action, they still want a return to the 2015 deal as agreed, without additional conditions.  The Islamic Republic is not short of hardliners of its own, willing to continue a face off with the ‘Great Satan’, though more pragmatic voices recognise that the economy is on its knees and an increasingly rebellious population could threaten the foundations of the theocracy itself. An easing of sanctions is seen as an opportunity to at least buy time.

Biden and his Vice-President, Kamala Harris, have made no secret of their pro-Israeli position when it comes to the politics of the Middle East.  While the love-in Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed with the Trump administration is unlikely to be sustained, Israel’s role as the eyes, ears and, where necessary, military proxy of the US in the Middle East is unlikely to be threatened. 

Negotiation and diplomacy may be back on the agenda in the Middle East.  However, with regard to the question of Palestine, Israeli withdrawal from the illegally occupied territories and insistence on compliance with international law, flouted by Israel for over half a century, may be a challenge too far for Biden.

The United States has form of its own in this area, which continues to undermine any claim it may have to a moral high ground on the issue of compliance with international law.  As well as the illegal detentions which continue at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, the United States persists in its 60 year long illegal economic blockade of Cuba.  The degree of détente introduced under Barack Obama, a first step towards the normalising of relations between the two countries, was quashed by Donald Trump.

In a final vindictive act, Trump added Cuba to the US list of ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ in the weeks before leaving office.   Given the number of terrorist acts sanctioned by the United States against the people of Cuba over the years, to suggest that this was ironic would be mild understatement.  Since 1959 over 3,000 Cubans have lost their lives to terrorist acts, most of which emanated from the United States.  It is vital that Biden takes Cuba off the list, ends the blockade and begins the normalising of relations with Cuba, if any claim of a new page in US foreign policy being turned is to be taken seriously.

Famously regarded by the US as its ‘backyard’ the relationship of the superpower to its neighbours to the south in Latin America has historically been characterised by subterfuge and illegal intervention. From the coup d’etat in Chile, undermining the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, gun running in El Salvador, invading Grenada, the list goes on. 

More recent examples include covert support for the coup in Bolivia and ongoing attempts to undermine the government of Venezuela.  Such interventions must stop and Latin America must be free from US interference.  Whether the corporations who have so much investment in maintaining low pay, poor working conditions and under privilege in Latin America will give Biden any latitude remains to be seen.  History points in the opposite direction however.

The rhetorical flourish and embellishment of the daily tweets from Donald Trump may be gone.  The sense of unpredictability about the position of the US in the international arena will go.  The tone of the Biden administration will no doubt aim to be one of calm and stability.  While that may be a relief in many respects, given the rollercoaster ride of the past four years, the message that US foreign policy is back to business as usual will, for many, not be as reassuring as Biden may like to think.