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Absurd on every level

20th January 2018

trump-shutdown-explainer

 US President Donald Trump – the absurdity of shutdown

The absurdities of capitalism seem to be manifest in a myriad of different ways at the moment.  From the government shutdown in the United States, to the inability of the Germans to form a government due to the rise of the far right, and the recent UK poll suggesting that more 18 – 24 year olds see big business as a bigger threat than communism.  This is not why the Cold War was won, exclaim disillusioned liberals the world over!

One year into the Presidency of Donald Trump and the US Senate cannot agree a budget.  The self styled great ‘deal maker’ in the White House is on the brink of seeing the wheels of administration stop.  In all normal circumstances this would be characterised as an embarrassment for the President.  For Trump, there appears to be no such thing.

The fact that many federal government employees may be on unpaid ‘leave’ from Monday, that government services will cease to function, does not appear to be of major concern to Trump. His response has been to blame Democrats who are attempting to mitigate some of the worst excesses of Trumps’ immigration policies.  The Democrats are demanding protection from deportation for 700,000 illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children.

The Republicans are looking for more border security, funding to build the wall along the border with Mexico and more spending for the military.

For Trump this is a case of the Democrats being “far more concerned with illegal immigrants than they are with our great military or safety at our dangerous southern border”.

This particular absurdity is not one confined to having a “very stable genius” as President, although it will not help. The last government shutdown, under Barack Obama in 2013, lasted 16 days and resulted in around 850,000 employees being off work each day, at a cost of $2bn in lost productivity to the economy.

The US budget must be approved by 1st October which is the start of the federal financial year.  Congress often fail to meet this deadline and negotiations continue well into the new year, with the previous year’s funding to federal agencies extended on a temporary basis.

With Congress failing to agree an extension that would have maintained government funding through to 16th February, it means many federal agencies effectively close for business as of 00:01 Saturday (05:01 GMT).

Still, we know the US is off beam, thank goodness for Europe eh?

That would be the Europe of Emmanuel Macron in France, most famous for “on the other hand” being his most used phrase, due to his inability to take a position on most things.

That would be the Europe of strong economic German stability, immobilised by the rise of the far right Alternativ fur Deutschland, modern days Nazis holding the balance of power and the country to ransom, while that famous economy and quite possibly the EU with it, burns.

While the Germans struggle to form a government there is every chance that Italy will find itself in the same position with elections there, on 4th March, likely to see the far right hold the balance of power.   A coalition which includes Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the notorious right wing Northern League and the fascist Brothers of Italy is at present leading the polls.

The collapse of construction and services conglomerate, Carillion, in the UK has resulted in the absurdity of Prime Minister Theresa May claiming that she will be on the side of workers betrayed by their greedy bosses in future if another major company was to go under.  Needless to say such ‘meddling’ will alarm Tory backers in the City of London, as well as hardliners within her own Cabinet, so the chances of May getting to the point of delivery are slim.

It is almost embarrassing to point out the absurdity of a Tory Prime Minister railing against a policy which has been a central plank of Tory ideology for over 40 years, just because it has been exposed as being unfair but, worse still, unpopular!

Much more plausible is the position taken by Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, consistent with his long standing opposition to the “dogma of privatisation”, who has pledged that Labour will halt the “outsourcing racket” which the Carillion collapse has helped expose.

As Corbyn quite rightly stated,

“Theresa May exposed the failure of the outsource first ideology at prime minister’s questions when she said the government was ‘a customer’ not ‘the manager’ of Carillion.  I’m sorry but if these are public contracts we should be the manager and not have a middleman like Carillion creaming off the profits.”

So it should come as no surprise when Fiona Lali, president of the Marxist Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, defended the Soviet Union in a Radio 4 interview this week.  The interview was on the back of a ComRes poll last week which showed that 9% of 18-24 year olds thought communists were “the most dangerous in the world today” while 24% thought it was “big business”.

While the apologists for capitalism trot out the hoary old reds under the beds propaganda whenever their interests are threatened, it is becoming increasingly clear that such tactics do not work.

For most young people the Cold War is history, while the day to day absurdities of capitalism are all too real on a daily basis.  Whether that is the absurdity of Donald Trump, the resurgent right wing across Europe, or the crime of private companies making profits from public projects, it does not paint a very convincing picture.

It is little wonder that young people are looking for an alternative.  It is vital that Marxism is the alternative they recognise if the future is to hold out real hope for them.

 

 

Public need, not private greed

14th January 2018

Carillion

Carillion are on the point of collapse and the government may have to bail them out.  It’s the current UK headline news.  So what?  Who are Carillion, why should we care about them and why should the government be considering propping them up?  All good questions, which go to the heart of how public services in the UK are financed and supported.

Any notion we have of Carillion is probably that they are something to do with construction, their name appears on the billboards surrounding major capital works and their adverts feature men in hard hats.  Yet like many companies in the capitalist market place, Carillion has branched out beyond its initial base of expertise and embraced areas in which, quite simply, money can be made from the public sector.

Carillion employs 20,000 staff in the UK alone and is one of the government’s biggest contractors.  A large number of those staff, 8,000 in fact, work in Carillion’s healthcare division, providing facilities management to the NHS.  In practice this means engineering teams carrying out 200,000 maintenance tasks on 1m square metres of NHS space.  It means Carillion having responsibility for 200 operating theatres with 300 critical care beds and 11,500 in-patient beds.  It prepares 18,500 patient meals per day.  Carillion’s NHS helpdesks manage more than 1.5m calls each year.

Carillion is the love child of construction companies Tarmac, Wimpey, Mowlem and Alfred McAlpine, private sector construction companies brought together to get fat on private finance initiative (pfi) contracts, dished out by successive governments keen to divert financial risk and appear economically astute.

The collapse of Carillion’s market value from an estimated £2bn to a mere £61m on Friday, with share prices down from 300p two years ago to 14.2p last week, suggests that the economic astuteness of the pfi process may be flawed.  It may even give cause to reflect on who thought a bunch of road builders were suited to manage sections of the NHS, not to mention prison contracts and Ministry of Defence work.

Ironically it is the building projects which are at present causing Carillion’s downfall.  Three major pfi schemes are overdue and over budget, these being the £350m Midland Metropolitan hospital in Birmingham, the £335m Royal Liverpool University hospital, and the £745m Aberdeen bypass.  These at least you would think a bunch of road builders would be able to manage but it appears not!  Certainly, it does not inspire confidence in your next NHS patient meal.

Main lenders to Carillion, previously keen to cash in on the profits are Barclays, HSBC and Santander UK, all now looking likely to pull out as they are exposed to huge potential losses.  The options under consideration include a debt for equity swap, basically the government stepping in to guarantee loans, thereby shielding lenders from losses in the event of a collapse.  The capitalist free market is truly a wonderful thing!

Professor Karel Williams, a bit of an expert in these matters from Manchester University, sums it up nicely when he says,

“The whole rational for PPP (public private partnership) – where Carillion has been a big player in the UK – is that, notionally, you transfer risk to the company that takes the contract.  But, fundamentally, the limit of that risk is the balance sheet of the outsourcing company.  If you move beyond that it becomes a crisis for the government.”

This means that in practice the inefficiencies of the private sector are covered up through the use of public funding, so the public, in effect, get hit twice.  Firstly, by the private sector syphoning off resourcing from vital services, such as the NHS, in order to pay their shareholders dividends.  Secondly, by the government having to use more public money to bail out those services when the private sector is in danger of going belly up.

Is it a scam?  Of course it is!  You can bet that not many NHS nurses or hospital porters will have shares in Carillion in order to have profited from dividend pay outs in previous years.  On the other hand, a large part of the £1.5bn Carillion debt is a £590m pension deficit.  Will the government honour that as well as protecting the pockets of the shareholders and the banks?  Keep an ear out for the news in the next few days, lets see where that one goes.

So called public private partnerships have many flaws.  The most basic one is that they are not a partnership of equals.  The public sector rarely, if ever, benefit and the shareholders either reap dividends during the good times or get protection from the government when things go wrong.  The answer is to cut the private sector out of the equation, make sure key national infrastructure projects and service delivery are publicly resourced, publicly managed and publicly accountable.

Public need should not be fuelling private greed.  Public services are there for people, not for profit.  It’s an age-old adage on the Left, let’s get back to making it count.

 

 

Protests expose shaky foundations of Islamic Republic

2nd January 2018 

iran-protestors-clash-police

Recent protests across Iran have brought the Islamic Republic once more into the international spotlight.  Jane Green, from the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR), assesses the current situation.

The rising tide of dissatisfaction amongst the people of Iran has burst its banks for the first time since 2009 on a large scale, resulting in a wave of demonstrations across the country against the theocratic dictatorship of the Islamic Republic.  The events of recent days, which have escalated from small scale protests against food shortages and price rises, are rapidly becoming more generalised protests against the lack of freedom and democratic rights, which has been characteristic of the Islamic Republic for the past four decades.

The latest proclamation from the regime’s Revolutionary Guards, that protesters will feel the “iron fist” if demonstrations continue, is symptomatic of the regime’s inability to meet the needs of its people and characteristically resort to the use of brute force in order to maintain its grip on power.  Two protestors have already died from gunshot wounds.

According to official figures unemployment is running at 12.4% in Iran, up 1.4% on the previous year.  Even this figure however masks a much deeper malaise within the Iranian economy, with workers pay being delayed or withheld for months, short time and temporary contracts being widespread and the imprisonment of trade union and opposition activists commonplace.

President Hassan Rouhani, elected for a second term just last May, promised greater security and a growing economy following the 5+1 nuclear deal agreed in 2015, where the West promised to withdraw sanctions in exchange for restrictions on the Iranian nuclear energy programme.  The limitations of the deal have been further emphasised however by the imposition of unilateral financial sanctions by the United States, making it virtually impossible for the Iranians to trade in the international oil market.

What little scope the deal may have given the regime in Iran to expand the economy has been effectively strangled at birth.  What little benefit the economy gains from international trade goes into the coffers of the theocratic elite or the Revolutionary Guards, rather than the pockets of the ordinary people of Iran.  Official figures show youth unemployment running at 40% in a nation where over 50% of the population are aged under 30 years old. Iranian authorities have acknowledged that more than 5 million graduates in the country are unemployed.  One BBC Persian investigation has found that on average Iranians have become 15% poorer in the past 10 years.

It is little wonder then that the youth of Iran, alongside the working class, are in the forefront of the current wave of protests.  They are not only protesting about the state of things at present but also against the lack of future opportunities.

The last nationwide protests in 2009 focussed upon the ‘stolen election’, the second term won by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an election which many regarded as having been rigged in his favour to keep any hint of reform at bay.  The Rouhani presidency has attempted to give the gloss of reform to its programme and elements in the West have been persuaded that the regime is one that the West could do business with, while ignoring its ongoing appalling record on human rights.

Recent protests however have focussed not only upon the economic incompetence of the regime but the widespread corruption at its heart.  The thinly veiled ‘promise’ of reform from Rouhani has been stripped bare with the consequences now being seen on the streets. The feeling of demonstrators was summed up by one protestor from the city of Rasht who was quoted over the weekend as saying,

“Everyone is fed up with the situation, from the young to the old.  Every year thousands of students graduate, but there are no jobs for them.  Fathers are also exhausted because they don’t earn enough to provide for their family.”

Opposition forces within Iran have made it clear that the experience of the last two decades has proved that the Iranian people are rapidly moving away from the strategy of making a choice between bad and worse.  They are no longer willing to submit to the manipulation of their demands by the regime and the pro-regime reformists such as Rouhani.  At the forefront of opposition voices the Tudeh Party of Iran (TPI) in particular, has stressed that,

“The majority of the people of the homeland today want to put an end to the despotic theocratic regime; to end the oppression and injustice; and bring about the establishment of freedom and social justice. These demands can only be achieved through a joint struggle of all the national and freedom-loving forces without foreign intervention.”

The issue of foreign intervention is a significant one, with the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel all watching developments closely to assess whether they can gain any advantage from the current protests.  It is widely known that all three would welcome regime change in Iran but change in favour of a regime more compliant with their objective to dominate the Middle East, rather than one which would be to the benefit of the Iranian people.

Any foreign intervention would be disastrous for the people of Iran, the chance of a transition to democracy and for the Iranian economy.  Calls for any military intervention or for the restoration of the monarchy, which have emanated from some quarters, and are given prominence by Western media outlets, should not be taken seriously and must be resisted.

CODIR has called for solidarity with the Iranian people’s demands for peace, human and democratic rights and social justice.  CODIR further calls for the release of all political prisoners.   In particular, trade union leaders such as Reza Shahabi of the Tehran Vahed Bus Workers Trade Union and Ismail Andi, General Secretary of Iran’s Teachers’s Trade Association, should be raised internationally. This would be a meaningful contribution from Western public opinion.

The current protests are evidence that the Islamic Republic is built upon shaky foundations.  Only the people of Iran themselves can bring the house down and rebuild it in a style which will reflect their needs and their legitimate demands for peace, social justice and democracy.

www.codir.net

How to Kill Cuba

1st January 2018

Fidel

The start of the year always marks the anniversary of the Cuban revolution, which took place on 1st January 1959, so we are now marking its 59th year.  In that time the Cuban people have thwarted attempted invasions by the United States, numerous attempts to assassinate former president Fidel Castro and, for over 50 years, sustained a remarkable level of development in defiance of the illegal blockade imposed by the United States.

The achievements of the Cuban people speak for themselves.  However, this poem by British poet Adrian Mitchell (1932 – 2008) seems like a fitting tribute and an appropriate way to begin 2018.

 

How to Kill Cuba

You must burn the people first,

Then the grass and trees, then the stones.

You must cut the island out of all the maps,

The history books, out of the old newspapers,

Even the newspapers which hated Cuba,

And burn all these, and burn

The paintings, poems and photographs and films

And when you have burnt all these

You must bury the ashes

You must guard the grave

And even then

Cuba will only be dead like Che Guevara

Technically dead, that’s all,

Technically dead.

Adrian Mitchell

Little hope for prisoner release in Iran

17th December 2017

Boris in Iran(2)

Boris Johnson and Mohammad Javid Zarif, Iranian Foreign Minister

The much publicised trip of UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to Tehran recently appears not to have secured the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in spite of the high hopes that the UK media attached to the visit.

Her case seems to be a clear matter of injustice and a violation of her human rights.

However, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not alone.  Evin prison in Tehran, has been and remains, synonymous with the Iranian regimes oppression of many thousands of Iranian democrats. Top of the governments hit list are trade union activists, socialists, women’s organizers, and student protesters.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ongoing incarceration comes as no great surprise to those who have been monitoring the Islamic Republic for the past thirty years.  The regime in Iran is nothing if not intransigent.  Its track record in dealing with internal opposition over the years is a clear illustration that the regime in Tehran tolerates no dissent and is ruthless in dealing with those it deems to be taking issue with its policies.  Executions without trial and long sentences with no evidence or fair trial are part of everyday life in Iran.

The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) has been engaged in campaigning against the abuse of human rights in Iran for the entire period of the Islamic Republic’s existence.  CODIR has significant experience of the unresponsiveness of the regime to both internal and external pressure.

“Given the track record of the regime in Iran we should not be surprised to hear that the Foreign Secretary’s trip has not brought immediate results”, CODIR Assistant Secretary, Jamshid Ahmadi, said today.  “It is very unlikely that the theocracy in Iran would want to be seen to be responding to such pressure.  If the UK citizens in Iran’s jails are to be freed, the Iranian government will want to be seen to be doing this in its own time, for its own reasons.”

The British government decision to “voice its concern” for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and seek her release, dispatching its bumbling Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson to raise her case with his counterpart, Mohammad Javid Zarif and Iranian President Rouhani is hypocrisy to say the least. Both these men, despite their depiction by some in the West, have the blood of Iranian democrats on their hands, while they manage a corrupt system of theocratic dictatorship.

There has been talk in the media that a deal relating to payments to Iran from the 1970’s may be the key to unlock the release of prisoners.  In 1976 the Shah paid the UK £300m for a delivery of tanks, which never arrived due to the arms embargo following the 1979 revolution and subsequent arms embargo.

While the UK government insist that any release will not be linked to such payments it is known that the release of five US citizens last year followed agreement on a similarly contested payment being settled.

Given that Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been accused of “propaganda against the regime” the Iranians will need significant persuasion to release her without losing face.

The lifting of banking restrictions, which make it difficult for Iran to benefit from the lifting of EU sanctions, is one area, the outstanding payments issue another, which will have been on the agenda in discussions with the Foreign Secretary.

Any deal linked to prisoner release is unlikely to be made public.  Any release of foreign prisoners is unlikely to benefit the internal opposition from trade unions, political parties and women’s groups languishing in the Islamic Republic’s jails.

“We hope that UK citizens imprisoned unjustly in Iran will be freed”, continued Mr. Ahmadi, “but our work will need to continue in order to highlight the ongoing brutality of the Iranian regime against its own citizens.  Until that ends, our campaign will not be over.”

There is still a slim chance that Johnson will influence the eventual release of one Iranian-British national. However, by failing to condemn widespread violations of human rights and freedoms throughout the Islamic Republic and overlooking the crimes of the Iranian government against its own people, he places himself and his government on the wrong side of justice and history.

For more information visit www.codir.net

 

 

 

Walking the Brexit tightrope

10th December 2017

MayJuncker

 May and Juncker – deal, or no deal?

The UK government continues to lurch awkwardly towards departure from the European Union, caught in a web of contradictions that it is struggling to untangle.

First of all, the Tories never intended to be here in the first place.  David Cameron only called a referendum in the certainty that he would win it and thereby strengthen his hand against the Euro sceptics in his own party.   He failed and Theresa May succeeded him.

Theresa May called a General Election in the certainty that she would sweep aside the opposition and strengthen the slim majority she had inherited from David Cameron.  She failed and now leads a minority Tory government propped up by the votes of the gangster Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the political face of paramilitary loyalist thugs in Northern Ireland.

Boris Johnson, now a leading Tory Brexiteer was shouting Remain from the rooftops when that suited him under David Cameron.  Hitching his chariot to the Leave battle bus was purely tactical opportunism on Johnson’s part.  Expecting Remain to win, he could still court the votes of disaffected Tory MPs who voted Leave in a future leadership battle.  As ever, issues of principle are never really matters of great import in the Tory Party.

Theresa May herself was a quiet Remainer who now finds herself in the Brexit driving seat, at least to the extent that DUP leader Arlene Foster allows her to take the wheel. Like their Tory bedfellows the DUP are not great ones for matters of principle either, although they would argue otherwise.  They have been steadfast in their claim that Northern Ireland should not be treated any differently to the rest of the UK in the Brexit negotiations, for example.

The DUP though are very keen for progress to be held back in Northern Ireland when it comes to questions of same sex marriage, abortion and Sunday trading, just three areas in which they insist that Northern Ireland is treated differently to the rest of the UK.

The contradictions multiply.

While the Tories are compelled to drive Brexit forward, in part due to the referendum result, in part due to opportunist considerations inside their own party, the finance houses which are traditional Tory backers in the City of London are no great fans of Brexit.  The great boon for the City of London of EU membership is nothing to do with the free movement of people or goods but the free movement of services, capital and financial services in this case.

It has been something of a heresy on the Left to suggest that membership of the EU is anything less than a good thing.  However, the EU has always been about the best options for Europe’s banks and corporations, not its people.  For the City of London this means significant clout across a wide range of the continent, a position it is not going to give up lightly.

The financial backers of the Tories are not in a strong enough position to suggest a reversal of the referendum outcome.   A minimalist Brexit, which effectively keeps the UK within the orbit of the single market and the customs union, may achieve the next best thing.  The hardline Brexiteers in the Tory Party will go along with this for the moment, as even Theresa May in No. 10 is preferable to Jeremy Corbyn.

The DUP share the hardline Tory desire to keep Corbyn out, with the added hope that they can continue to be the tail which wags the Tory dog, as May remains dependent upon their votes in the House of Commons.

The “sufficient progress” which Jean-Claude Juncker declared this week as enough to get the UK and EU into trade deal discussions is merely a staging post.  The UK’s £39bn divorce bill could yet be a cause of division.  The Irish border question, which can only ultimately be resolved by the political and economic withdrawal of the UK and a United Ireland, still has mileage as a sticking point.

Theresa May is simply the visible embodiment of the tightrope act which the ruling class in the UK continues to perform over the question of Brexit.  One slip could be fatal.  There is no safety net.

 

 

 

The myth of social mobility

3rd December 2017

H&M

For many in the UK today a life on benefits beckons

The resignation of Alan Milburn as the government’s so called social mobility tsar, should only come as a surprise to anyone who thinks that the government is even remotely interested in social mobility; hold the front page, they are not!

Milburn has been followed out of the door by deputy chair Gillian Shepherd, Paul Gregg, director for the analysis of social policy at the University of Bath and David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation.  The departures effectively knock the commission on its head.  Key posts have gone unfilled for years and the number of commissioners has shrunk from 10 to four, suggesting that the writing has been on the wall for some time.

The commission’s swansong was its State of the Nation 2017 report, published last week which, even according to its own press release,

“…warns that Britain is in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division and calls on government to increase its proportion of spending on those parts of the country that most need it. Estimates suggest that the North is £6 billion a year underfunded compared to London.”

The move dramatically undermines the proclamations of UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, to be on the side of those struggling to make ends meet, the so called, just about managing.  That the words of Tory leaders are at variance with the reality of their policies and actions should come as no surprise but May has played the caring vicar’s daughter card in an attempt to bolster her social credentials.

In her first speech in Downing Street after taking office, May proclaimed,

“When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few, we will do anything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

Those struggling at the sharp end of the opportunity ladder, struggling to make ends meet under the existing benefits regime or awaiting the joy of Universal Credit, were never going to be convinced by May’s warm words.  They probably care little or nothing about the existence of the social mobility commission for that matter but they will worry about paying the rent, getting a job with decent pay and their kids getting a reasonable education.

Commenting on the findings of, what would appear now to be the commission’s final report, Alan Milburn said,

“Tinkering around the edges will not do the trick. The analysis in this report substantiates the sense of political alienation and social resentment that so many parts of Britain feel. A new level of effort is needed to tackle the phenomenon of left behind Britain. Overcoming the divisions that exist in Britain requires far more ambition and far bigger scale. A less divided Britain will require a more redistributive approach to spreading education, employment and housing prospects across our country.”

The reality is that the commission, in spite of its worthy intentions, has only ever skated around the edges of the real core question in relation to social mobility, which is essentially one of class.  Capitalism can extend a certain amount of largesse when the system requires it and the economy is capable of sustaining a limited degree of social movement.  Indeed, it is a positive advantage to create the illusion that such movement is possible.  The rags to riches, log cabin to president mythology of the United States is one example of this.  As ever, the UK has presented the question in a slightly more restrained way, but the idea that we live in a meritocracy, rather than a system dominated by the aristocracy, has had traction since the days of Harold Wilson’s premiership.

The limited social mobility enjoyed by some sections of the working class in the post WW2 period was predicated on the need to train a skilled workforce in order to rebuild a shattered wartime economy.  The nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, setting up the NHS and widespread council house building, were all outcomes of this process.

By the late ‘70’s, when capital could not sustain the expansion of social provision in terms which suited it and the labour movement was not strong enough to press for a real alternative economic approach, the Thatcher government began the process of dismantling the post war social gains.  In so far as Thatcher and her cohorts paid any heed to social mobility it was in the form of selling off council housing, private health care insurance and the ‘loadsamoney’ culture of getting ahead before you get left behind.

The demise of the social mobility commission will once again throw some media light on the divisions within the UK and the fact that we live in a deeply divided and unfair society.  However, the fact that it will not gain as much media coverage as the marriage antics of a minor aristocrat and his TV star fiancé, who in spite of living off state benefits will not be living on a council estate, probably tell us as much as we need to know about the realities of social mobility in the UK today.