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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.

Offshoring proposals inhumane and no protection for asylum seekers, says Liberation

16th April 2022

Home Secretary, Priti Patel, pushing through offshoring proposals

The British government’s decision to offshore asylum seekers to Rwanda is clearly aimed at intimidating those fleeing from harm into not attempting to enter Britain.   The government’s policy is effectively an extension of the ‘hostile environment’ approach, which sought to make life difficult for asylum seekers who reached Britain, by preventing them from getting here in the first place.

The British government’s proposals have raised alarm bells at the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency, which is the guardian of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and to its 1967 protocol.  This is international legislation to which the UK is a signatory.  There is no evidence that UNHCR has been consulted on any plans to send asylum seekers abroad.

The government are planning to adopt the measure to demonstrate that they are tough on immigration and that the UK is not a ‘soft touch’ for those seeking asylum.  However, as Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UK representative for the UNHCR has pointed out,

“…what’s often forgotten amid all the recent noise around Channel crossings is that asylum claims in the UK have been falling, and remain far lower here than in countries like France and Germany. The situation in the UK is manageable.”

British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, claims that the proposals are “humane” and that they will “stop the abuse of these people by a bunch of traffickers and gangsters.”

The evidence to date suggests quite the opposite.

The Australian government initiated a policy of placing asylum seekers in detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in 2001. The policy ran until 2007, and restarted in 2014.  The result has been that thousands of asylum seekers have found themselves in detention camps, at a cost of around $12bn in the eight years to 2021.

The centres have been characterised by harsh physical conditions, with detainees suffering from poor mental health due to prolonged detention and uncertainty about their future prospects. Inadequate and unhygienic living conditions, as well as poor standards of healthcare have also been well documented.

The detention centres were also plagued by violence, with rape and sexual abuse of unaccompanied female detainees rife – enabled and often perpetrated by local islanders and even the very personnel subcontracted to oversee and manage the facilities by the Australian government. Not only does this highlight the danger of these policies particularly for lone women asylum seekers, but also that posed by at best opaque subcontracted arrangements where safeguarding, proper oversight, and accountability become weaker with every rung down in the structure.

In a submission made to an Australian Senate inquiry into conditions at the Nauru detention centre, Ms. Charlotte Wilson, a former Save the Children worker, stated, “I firmly believe that the level of trauma that asylum seekers have been subjected to has caused profound damage to nearly every single man, woman and child who has been arbitrarily interned in Nauru.”

A migration deal between Rwanda and Israel in 2014 saw an estimated 4,000 people leave the country immediately, many attempting to return to Europe through people smuggling routes, and falling prey to trafficking and human rights abuses.  Not quite as “humane” as Prime Minster Johnson would suggest.  This is aside from the long-held concerns regarding the human rights record in Rwanda itself and the autocratic nature, to state the least, of the regime of President Paul Kagame.

By 2018 the Israeli government claim that around 20,000 of the estimated 65,000 asylum seekers who had arrived in the country had been deported under one scheme or another.

The government’s proposals have been opposed by bodies as diverse as the British Red Cross, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Refugee Council.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, has been direct in his criticism of the proposals stating,

“It is an inhumane policy that undermines our nation’s proud tradition of providing protection to people fleeing persecution and terror, many of whom have gone on to work as doctors and nurses in the NHS.”

There is no indication that the policy will apply to those deemed to be seeking asylum from the war in Ukraine, who have been given active encouragement through the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, with an estimated 12,000 Ukrainian refugees so far in the UK. It is also worth noting here the recent rebuking by the UN of the Homes for Ukraine scheme and its warning that the current system of pairing female refugees with single male hosts is ‘massively open to safeguarding and abuse issues’.

Ukrainian refugees who come to the UK will receive a visa giving them the right to remain for an initial period of three years. They will have the right to work, to receive public funds such as Universal Credit, and access to public services such as schools and health care. By contrast, nationals of other countries claiming the right to asylum in the UK are not normally allowed to work while their claim is being processed.

The new proposal appears to prioritise the offshoring of non-European asylum seekers, many displaced from areas such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan as a result of foreign military interventions, occupation, economic sanctions and NATO interventions in those countries.

Quite apart from the obvious humanitarian concerns already outlined, such a differentiation of asylum seekers, depending upon their country of origin, can only be deemed as racist.

As an organisation rooted in opposing colonialism, opposing unjust wars and supporting those in need of assistance and political asylum, Liberation has added its voice to those opposing the government’s proposals. 

We are urging the government to reconsider its policy towards asylum seekers and, in line with international conventions to which it is a signatory, drop any measures which could be deemed hostile or inhumane to those seeking asylum in the UK.

That means, in addition to dropping the current proposals, in line with the views of the UNHCR, demanding a better-designed UK asylum system, properly resourced, with simplified procedures that will result in fairer and faster assessments.

visit http://www.liberationorg.co.uk

Tax dodging, privilege and power

10th April 2022

Sunak and Murty – too many more also evade taxes

The Rishi Sunak story, which has been dominating the news this week, is not really about Rishi Sunak.  It is not even about his multi-millionaire heiress wife, Akshata Murty, though both are clearly implicated as individuals.  The headlines have centred around the fact that Murty, by virtue of holding an Indian passport, has claimed non-dom status in the UK for tax purposes, effectively avoiding taxes of an estimated £4.5 million per year, on dividend payments from shares she owns in her father’s IT company.

All of this while she has snuggled beneath the sheets at 11, Downing Street next to her Chancellor husband, the perpetrator of a massive tax hike for the majority of the population, whatever type of passport they hold.  Following the furore which has followed the revelation that the Chancellor’s wife is essentially a tax dodger, Murty has said she realised many people felt her tax arrangements were not “compatible with my husband’s job as chancellor”, adding that she appreciated the “British sense of fairness”.

How very magnanimous!  However, while Murty has promised to pay UK tax on all income from last year and subsequently, she will retain her non-dom status, which could in future allow her family to legally avoid a significant inheritance tax bill.  UK taxpayers are required to pay 40% on inheritance (above £325,000), while non-doms are exempt from the tax. Murty has assets of at least £690m held in shares in her father’s IT company, tax charged on this at a rate of 40% would be £276m.

Exposing hypocrisy at the heart of government is never a bad thing and Sunak has been twisting and turning over this issue, with his political aspirations clearly turning to dust before his eyes.  As the main political beneficiary of this uproar, Boris Johnson has been suspiciously quick to say that he knew nothing, denying that anyone in his office was briefing against the Sunaks, and praising the chancellor for doing an “outstanding job”.

Sunak’s “outstanding job” in delivering Tory policy, it should be remembered, includes a 54% price rise in the energy cap with average household energy prices hitting an estimated £2,300 by October.  In order to deal with this, according to the Resolution Foundation, the typical working age household will experience a 4% reduction in income this year, an estimated £1,100.  With inflation running at 8% and the cost of living crisis hitting the poorest hardest, an unemployed person will see a 15% drop in income, a further 1.3 million, including 500,000 children will drop below the poverty line.

The political judgement of Sunak, in attempting to defend the indefensible, has led many to write his political obituary, including many in the Tory press and those on Tory benches in the House of Commons.  

The reality for the working class at the sharp end of Tory policy however is that replacing Sunak will make little difference, as there are any number of “Sunaks” waiting in line to take his place.  The character and judgement of individuals has its role in politics but the real issue is not the political judgement of Rishi Sunak, or even the tax arrangements of his wife.  The real issue is the system which allows millionaires to exist while others are unemployed, starving or homeless.  At some point Sunak will be replaced but the system which allows the rich to launder their wealth, protecting the privilege and sense of entitlement of the ruling class remains firmly in place.

The response from the Labour Party has been led by Louise Haigh, shadow transport secretary who, when interviewed on BBC Radio 4 stated,

“The chancellor has not been transparent. He has come out on a number of occasions to try and muddy the waters around this and to obfuscate.  It is clear that was legal. I think the question many people will be asking is whether it was ethical and whether it was right that the chancellor of the exchequer, whilst piling on 15 separate tax rises to the British public, was benefiting from a tax scheme that allowed his household to pay significantly less to the tune of potentially tens of millions of pounds less.”

Haigh makes a fair point but it does not go far enough.  Labour consistently fail to raise questions about the whole system of capitalism and the extent to which the privileged few continue to protect their position at the expense of the many.  This is the role and raison d’etre of capitalism as a political system.  The role of the Tory Party within that system is to defend wealth and privilege, however much they may try and divert attention with warm words about levelling up.

Labour’s attacks upon Rishi Sunak will only be of value if they go beyond the criticism of even Tory supporters who cannot defend Sunak’s position.  Labour need to be mounting a challenge which questions the system which gives rise to millionaires and tax dodgers while at the same time tolerating mass poverty.

‘For the many, not the few’, as a political slogan and an actual aspiration has not outworn its relevance by a long way.    

The Levelling Up illusion

2nd April 2022

Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, attempts a conjuring trick

So called independent think tanks are rarely the place to look for a radical critique of government policy.  The Institute for Government (IfG) styles itself as “the leading think tank working to make government more effective.”  It is mainly funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, hardly a hotbed of revolution.

The IfG has recently published a report considering the government’s flagship levelling up agenda, which Secretary of State, Michael Gove, attempted to give some credibility recently with the publication of a White Paper.  The White Paper contained 12 levelling up ‘missions’.  The government web site proclaims that delivering these missions will see them,

“…investing billions in our railways, rolling out next generation gigabit broadband and moving more government functions and civil servants out of London as part of investment across the country.”

The government have followed up with the UK Community Renewal Fund, the Levelling Up Fund, the designation of 109 local authority areas as Levelling Up for Culture Places.  It would appear that there is no end to how level British society can become!

Voices on the Left, which have cast doubt on just how redistributive a plan the White Paper really is, have been shouted down as doom mongers who have failed to get on board with the government’s vision.

The IfG hardly fall into the Left camp but have been critical nonetheless of the levelling up agenda reporting that,

“Most of the missions are poorly calibrated because they do not set the right objectives, provide clear direction, or show the right level of ambition.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement.  In its summary of the White Paper’s missions the IfG claims:

  • Five of the missions lack ambition
  • Three are too ambitions to be realistic
  • Four fail to define what success looks like
  • Two have too narrow a focus
  • One – on R&D spending – fails to line up with the overall policy objective

The IfG critique follows on from that of another think tank, the IPPR which noted that allocations in 2021 from the levelling-up fund added up to £32 per person in the north of England. That compares with a £413 per person drop in council spending on services during the austerity decade.   If levelling up is defined by leaving communities flat on their backs then Gove may be on the right track!

The long held suspicion that the levelling up rhetoric of the government is little more than a smokescreen was confirmed when millionaire Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, revealed his Spring Statement recently.  Sunak juggled with a combination of taxation measures and rebates, wrapped in language designed to suggest that the worse off were, in some way, being helped.

However, the net effect of the Chancellor’s measures mean that someone on around £27,500 a year will be about £360 worse off in the next financial year than in the current year. Someone earning around £40,000 will be getting on for £800 worse off.  On top of which the Office for Budget Responsibility are forecasting the biggest hit to real household disposable income per person since comparable records began in the 1950s.

With inflation set to hit 8% and energy bills set to rocket, with the cap on energy costs being increased by over 50%, there will be little if anything spare for those at the sharp end of the current cost of living crisis.

The economic upheaval of Brexit and the impact of the pandemic provide handy excuses for the Tories at the present time, even though the failings associated with both are largely of their own making. The current war in Ukraine adds further cover.  However, Tory economic mismanagement goes way back to 2010 and the austerity programme forced upon local communities, to pay for the gambling debts of the banks, caught out in the 2008 financial crash.

Whether the illusionist is Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak or even illusionist in chief, Boris Johnson, no amount of trickery can disguise the fact that the Tories continue to look after their own class at the expense of the rest.

Mass collective action to displace the Tories and demand a lasting change in society, which will address the real needs of the many, not the few is urgently required.  The current Labour leadership continues to let the Tories off the hook on the cost of living crisis by seeking to present a united front with the government over the issue of Ukraine but, as usual, that is a diversion. 

The real problem is systemic.  Capitalism is set up to defend the privileges of the rich and protect big business.  No amount of choosing between different ways of managing the system will avert its inevitable degeneration into crisis as class antagonisms come to the fore.  The Tories are fighting to defend the power and privilege of their class.  Only when the working class are conscious of the need to overturn the system, in favour of their class interest, will we see any real levelling up.  

Hung out to dry with the sports washing

27th March 2022

Qatar 2022 – a World Cup built on slave labour

The Formula 1 (F1) Grand Prix in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, scheduled for later today was under threat of cancellation for a while due to a rocket attack which hit an oil refinery less than ten miles from the circuit.  The rocket was part of the response of Houthi rebels in Yemen to the seven year long bombardment of that country, by a Saudi led coalition, supported and largely armed by NATO member countries.

The Houthis do not have such eminent international support, their main allegiance coming from Iran, a beleaguered Islamic dictatorship whose economy is being crushed by US led sanctions.  As a dictatorship the West approves of, the oil rich Saudi regime enjoys access to the political elite in the West; its finance is approved of to buy a Premier League football club; and it plays host to a prominent Formula 1 event.

Of the 377,000 people the United Nations estimate have died since the bombardment of Yemen began in 2015 it is further estimated that 70% are children under 5 years old.  The Houthis have targeted economic installations in order to hit Saudi Arabia economically. There is no evidence that they have hit schools, hospitals or any other civilian locations. This stands in stark contrast to the record of the Saudis in Yemen.

Seven years on much of this is no longer deemed ‘news’ and the Saudis continue to enjoy a place at the top table with other members of the ‘international community’.

A discussion with F1 race organisers and drivers did follow the oil refinery attack but does not appear to have resulted in much soul searching on the part of those involved.  The main concerns ahead of the race appear to be those for driver safety, given the tight cornering on sections of the track, a fact underlined by the withdrawal of Mick Schumacher following a major crash in qualifying.

British driver, Lewis Hamilton, has been vocal in raising concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia, demanding that F1 organisers do more to press for reform if the sport is to continue to race there.  Given that this weekend’s race is going ahead, in spite of the Saudi authorities having recently executed 81 people in a single day, is a measure of how seriously Hamilton’s concerns have been taken.

Elsewhere England footballers, or at least Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, were reported to be shocked at the human rights record of 2022 World Cup hosts, Qatar.  Henderson is quoted to have said,

“It’s horrendous really when you look at some of the issues that are currently happening and have been happening over there.”

Henderson’s awakening is not to be dismissed and no one expects professional footballers to have their fingers on the political pulsebeat.  However, the realities of human rights abuse in Qatar, including the use of slave labour to build football stadia for the tournament, have been on the record for some time.  None of this should be news to the FA or to FIFA.

In 2017, the charity Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report into the conditions of migrant workers in Qatar. It found that regulations meant to protect workers from heat and humidity were woefully inadequate. It found that hundreds of migrant workers were dropping dead on construction projects every year.  However, HRW stated that it was hard to be sure exactly how many and how they were dying, because Qatari authorities would not say, or even carry out post-mortems. The few deaths that were officially accounted for were given vague descriptions like “unknown causes”, “natural causes” or “cardiac arrest”.  

Like Saudi Arabia, the Qatari links to the British state are far reaching, from major property investment, including the Shard in London, to Qatari Holdings being the largest shareholder in Sainsbury’s.  The Qataris also own major French football club, Paris St Germain.

The Gulf Arab states have poor human rights records going back decades but are closely tied into the dollar driven international finance system, are major purchasers of Western weapons systems and are major suppliers of oil and natural gas to the Western economies.  So, a little sportswashing to distract from some of the more unsavoury aspects of the day to day realities in these regimes clearly goes a long way.

The same rules do not appear to apply in relation to the action of Russia in Ukraine, where the exclusion of Russian teams from international tournaments was swift, the exclusion of individual Russian athletes from competition almost as rapid, and the cultural boycott of Russia has even extended to orchestras refusing to play works by Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers.

The recent comments of US President, Joe Biden, that Putin must go, have widely been interpreted as the US calling for regime change in Russia, though the White House Press Corps have been quick to suggest that these remarks were off the cuff and should not be interpreted as a policy change.

The reality however is that Russia represents an oligarchic regime which is not in full compliance with the US view of the international order, while the Saudis and other Gulf States, whatever their human rights records and war crimes, are prepared to fall in line.  Also, in terms of their geo-political position and relative economic strength, they pose no threat to the US.  Given the rapid retreat of Roman Abramovich from ownership of Chelsea Football Club, there is also little likelihood of Russians being able to match their Middle Eastern counterparts in the sportswashing stakes any time soon.

However much the White House back pedal there is no doubt that the US would dearly love to see a compliant regime in place in Russia.  It may not yet be politic to openly say so but the NATO encirclement of Russia over the past 30 years and the trap Putin has walked into in Ukraine tell another story.  An economically strong Russia, with a significant nuclear capability, which is not prepared to follow the Washington line, is not a scenario the US wants to contemplate.

The growing economic strength of China is enough for the US to worry about at the moment.  The mounting body count in Ukraine may be seen as a price worth paying by the US, if the outcome is an economically weakened and politically isolated Russia.

Yemen – a war not to be forgotten

20th March 2022

Yemen – the death toll continues to climb

This week marks the seventh anniversary of the Saudi Arabia led coalition bombardment of Yemen.  As the world focuses upon events in Ukraine, and the action taken by the NATO led sections of the international community in that conflict, there is still a need to ensure that the war in Yemen is higher up the international agenda.

The bombing of Yemen by the Saudi led coalition has devastated infrastructure across the country. Hospitals, clinics and vaccination centres have been amongst the targets. The blockade imposed by the coalition has resulted in widespread starvation and prevented hospitals from getting essential medical supplies.  Such supplies would be vital at any time but have exacerbated the issues faced by the people of Yemen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Britain, the United States and nations across the European Union are complicit in the ongoing war in Yemen. The US and Britain are providing intelligence and logistics while the use of British-made fighter jets and British-made bombs and missiles has had a devastating impact, including the loss of many civilian lives.  The British government has supported the coalition with billions of pounds of arms sales. 

While anti arms trade groups across Europe have highlighted the role played by a number of other European countries in sustaining the war in Yemen, over half of the combat aircraft used for bombing raids by the Saudis are supplied by Britain.  There can be little doubt that these weapons have been used in the attacks upon civilian targets and researchers on the ground in Yemen have retrieved material which backs this up.  This has included the retrieval of material from education establishments, warehouses and hospitals, none of which could be described as military targets.

Britain has also supplied precision guided missiles and cluster bombs resulting, not only in devastating loss of life, but life altering injuries for those who do survive attacks.  With the medical infrastructure in a state of collapse, due to a combination of the bombings and the blockade of essential supplies, the United Nations has described Yemen as the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.  UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has described Yemen as being in “imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades”.   

Taking into account deaths directly as a result of the war and those from indirect causes, such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure, a new United Nations report has projected that the death toll from Yemen’s war will have reached 377,000 by the end of 2021.

In the report published in November, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that 70 percent of those killed would be children under the age of five. In 2020 the UN launched a $3.4 billion appeal for Yemen to address the humanitarian catastrophe.

The Saudi led airstrike on a prison in the city of Saada in Yemen in January, resulted in an estimated 80 dead and over 200 injured. At the same time, in a strike on the port city of Hodeidah in the south, three children were killed.

The British government has attempted to defend its position by pointing to the £1 billion in aid that has been provided to Yemen since the conflict began in March 2015.  However, as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) point out,

“The most recent government statistics show that the UK has licensed at least £6.5 billion worth of arms to the Saudi-led Coalition since the start of its ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen. The figure covers the period from March 26 2015, when the bombing began, until March 26 2020.”

In June 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government acted unlawfully when it licensed the sale of British-made arms to Saudi-led forces for use in Yemen without making an assessment as to whether or not past incidents amounted to breaches of International Humanitarian Law. This followed a case brought by CAAT. The government was ordered not to approve any new licences and to retake the decisions on extant licences in a lawful manner.

In July 2020 the government announced that it was resuming arms sales. Secretary of State for International Trade at that time, now Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, in a written statement to Parliament, said that the government had completed the review ordered by the Court of Appeal, and had determined that any violations of international law were “isolated incidents”. 

In October 2020 CAAT launched a new Judicial Review application into the legality of the government’s decision to renew arms sales. In April 2021 CAAT was granted permission for the appeal to proceed to the High Court, with the hearing likely to be later this year.

It is vital that the CAAT legal challenge is supported in order to challenge the position of the British government.  Trade unionists and peace activists are being encouraged to lobby their MPs in order to highlight the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and put pressure upon the government to stop the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and its allies. 

It is clear from the speed of response of the international community to the crisis in Ukraine that where there is the political will it is possible to take action, target sanctions and generate widespread public sympathy.  For NATO the Russians are regarded as a threat and their action in Ukraine a potential brake upon NATO’s expansion plans.

The Saudi dictatorship, conversely, is seen as an ally as well as a major purchaser of British and US arms.  The fact that more action has been taken in relation to Ukraine in four weeks, compared to the response of the international community to the seven year long crisis in Yemen, in itself speaks volumes.

The threat to gas and oil supplies due to the Ukraine crisis and the desire of the West to reduce its energy dependence upon Russia, has seen British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, touring the Middle East in recent days in an effort to drum up an energy deal.  With prices rising fast the potential for destabilisation of Western economies is real and the usual blind eye is being turned to the domestic atrocities in the Arab states, as well as their international transgressions.

Peace and reconciliation based upon a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement is vital in Ukraine.  Seven years on it is no less vital in Yemen.  While the international community chooses to focus upon one area of conflict in the world, it should not be allowed to forget that there are others equally deserving of attention.

An online event to mark the seventh anniversary of the war has been organised by international solidarity organisation, Liberation.  Further details are here https://liberationorg.co.uk/events/yemen-a-7-year-long-crime-end-the-conflict-now/