Blog

The truth, the whole truth…?

17th March 2018

 

May pmq

Theresa May – a dodgy dossier moment?

Misinformation has been the stock in trade of the British state and media for decades.  From the famous Zinoviev letter of the 1920’s, implying Soviet involvement in the first Labour Government, to the disinformation campaigns of the 1984/85 Miner’s Strike, to the 2003 ‘dodgy dossier’ claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there has been no limit to the extent to which the British public has been consistently misled.

It is not surprising then that many have greeted the current furore about the attempt on the life of British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with some degree of scepticism.  There can be little doubt that the Russian state is more than capable of disposing of those deemed traitors.  The use of a nerve agent, developed in the former Soviet Union and therefore likely to implicate Russia in an assassination attempt, does not however, seem to be an efficient means of execution.

The fact that Skripal appears to have survived the attempt would appear to underline the point.  Also, as an MI6 asset, having shared Russian intelligence of behalf of the UK, Skripal was either not very well protected or not regarded as a likely target, having been traded in a spy swap for UK spooks some years earlier.

The UK government initially held back on blaming the Russian state directly for the attack but from the outset was straining at the leash to do so.  Finally, on Wednesday in the House of Commons Theresa May stated that,

“There is no alternative conclusion other than the Russian state was responsible for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter.”

On Monday May had set a 24 hour deadline for the Russians to explain the attack on Skripal and when they failed to do so, the Russian side claiming that they had no idea what had happened, May set about expelling 23 Russian diplomats, freezing Russian assets, cancelling a planned visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and pledged to send no dignitaries or members of the royal family to the World Cup in the summer.

The UK government response, even by its own admission, is based on its assessment that the nerve agent is ‘likely’ to have emanated from Russia, although no concrete evidence as to its origin or method of delivery has yet emerged.  The latest UK media speculation suggests that the agent was somehow smuggled into the luggage of Yulia Skripal, in Moscow, the day before she met her father in Salisbury in the UK.  Quite how she avoided any contact before reaching the pub or restaurant with her father is not clear.

In contrast to the government response Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has called the attack an “appalling act of violence”, has called for the matter to be referred to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague.  Corbyn has a long history of opposition to chemical, nuclear and all weapons of mass destruction, so it came as no surprise for him to stress,

“Nerve agents are abominable if used in any war.  It is utterly reckless to use them in a civilian environment.”

Corbyn’s response was in part informed by the claim made by Theresa May, in the House of Commons on Monday, that one explanation for the attack may have been that the Russian state could have lost control of supplies of the nerve agent.  As Corbyn asked May directly,

“If it is possible Russia lost control of a military grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW?”

May’s only response was to go on the offensive and attack Corbyn for not condemning the Russian state outright, even though she had previously raised the possibility of an alternative explanation herself.

May claimed that the government had sought consensus on the issue but to jump to such a quick condemnation of the Russian state, without any concrete evidence was always going to raise issues for Labour.  It seems to have been equally calculated to stir up divisions and bring the anti-Corbyn tendency out of the woodwork.  That certainly worked with Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes and Anna Turley all weighing in to criticise Corbyn aide, Seumas Milne, for comments on the situation.  Briefing journalists, as the debate went on in the House of Commons, Milne stated,

“I think obviously the government has access to information and intelligence on this matter which others don’t; however, also there’s a history in relation to WMD and intelligence which is problematic to put it mildly.  So I think the right approach is to seek the evidence; to follow international treaties, particularly in relation to prohibited chemical weapons, because this was a chemical weapons attack carried out on British soil.  There are procedures that need to be followed in relation to that.”

The Russians have asked for a sample of the nerve agent from Salisbury so that they can test it.  The UK has not complied with this request but has said it will send a sample to the OPCW for investigation.

Less reported in the UK media is the debate in the scientific community as to the properties of the alleged nerve agent, known as novichoks, and how easy it is to manufacture.  One school of thought suggests that such agents can be easily manufactured using common chemicals in relatively simple pesticide factories. Any such admission would make it difficult to simply point the finger at Russia, as any number of state or non-state agencies could be implicated.  This view would certainly not fit with the current political agenda.

 

A Very British Arms Deal

11th March 2018

bin Sulman

Unelected heads of state take tea – bin Salman meets the Queen

This week, an Arab dictator took tea with the Queen.  That was followed by dinner, jointly hosted by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge. The same dictator spent time with the Prime Minister at her country house retreat, Chequers.  To round the week off the dictator met Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, in order to put the seal on yet another major weapons deal with the dictatorship he heads up, namely Saudi Arabia.

As Saudi Arabia calls itself a kingdom the British press shy away from the term dictator and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been afforded all the courtesy’s the British state could drum up.  Apologists for the Saudi dictatorship have been busy all week justifying this performance.  The Daily Telegraph started the week fawning over bin Salman stating, “the young Saudi royal charged with undertaking the most radical reform agenda in his country’s history, is the epitome of a human dynamo.”

Not satisfied with transforming the Saudi economy from one dependent on oil, gushed the Telegraph, the young dynamo will ensure that, in a few months time, Saudi women will be allowed to drive.  What fabulous progress! While the UK celebrates the centenary of women being allowed to vote, while the whole world marks the occasion of International Women’s Day on 8th March, the magnanimous Crown Prince will, “in a few months time” permit some of his compatriots to drive.  There have even been photographs in the press of Saudi women attending jazz festivals.  Where will it end?

The three day visit allegedly resulted in trade deals worth £70 billion between the UK and Saudi Arabia with state energy company, Aramco, considering an overseas listing on the London Stock Exchange.  A new UK-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council has been established, with a view to meeting annually, to discuss boosting trade between the two countries.

The real crux of the relationship with Saudi Arabia is weapons sales.  The latest package includes a further £5 billion deal with BAE Systems for 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, existing examples of which are deployed by the Saudi led coalition in the bombardment of schools, hospitals and civilians in Yemen.

Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has called upon the government to abandon weapons sales to Saudi Arabia stating,

“Theresa May should use this visit to announce the UK will no longer supply arms to Saudi Arabia while the devastating Saudi-led bombing of Yemen continues and make clear Britain’s strong opposition to widespread human and civil rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.”

Andrew Smith for the UK based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) added,

“Despite the spin surrounding the crown prince, he is a figurehead for one of the world’s most authoritarian dictatorships.  The regime has carried out atrocities against Saudi people for decades.”

The United Nations, in a report published late in 2017, has accused the Saudi-led coalition of failing “to mitigate the impact of its operations on civilians”, in relation to its intervention in Yemen.  According to UN figures the war in Yemen has resulted in 10,000 dead and 40,000 injured. The war and its economic effects are driving the largest food security emergency in the world with more than 17 million people facing dire food shortages. Nearly seven million of those are one step away from famine in Yemen.  The situation was further exacerbated by a cholera outbreak late last year, claiming 1,500 lives according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

How much of this was discussed over tea with the Queen, dinner with the Princes, or over sherry with the Prime Minister is open to speculation.  Just to make sure that no stone was left unturned in the welcome afforded by the British state, bin Salman also popped in to Lambeth Palace to meet Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Welby is reported to have expressed his “distress” about the humanitarian situation in Yemen and in a statement from Lambeth Palace is said to have,

“shared his concern about limits placed on Christian worship in the kingdom and highlighted the importance for leaders of all faiths to support freedom of religion.”

Looks like another tough day for the Crown Prince there!

Thousands did turn out in Whitehall last week to oppose the visit and draw attention to the use of UK manufactured weapons in the killing of civilians in Yemen.

BAE Systems also found themselves on the sharp end of protests about their sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North, organised by the NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI).  Reluctance to engage with the Exhibition was voiced by a number of high profile celebrities including Nadine Shah and Lauren Laverne. Linked to a public petition, protesting against the war in Yemen, this resulted in BAE withdrawing its £500k sponsorship for the event.

The online protest petition, Art not Arms, was launched by a “coalition of artists and cultural workers”, calling for the Great Exhibition of the North to end its “unethical partnership with weapons maker BAE Systems”. It described the company’s involvement as “artwashing on a grand scale”, and “all about brand association and PR based upon the false notion of ‘corporate social responsibility’”.

The petition, pointed out that “British arms companies including BAE” had made more than £6bn from sales to Saudi Arabia during the ongoing war in Yemen said there was no place in arts and culture “for those involved in the international arms trade”.

Perhaps the Queen, the Princes, the Prime Minister, or even the Archbishop of Canterbury, could bear this in mind next time they decide to invite one of their pet dictators round for tea.

 

Brexit – the hidden agenda

4th March 2018

MaySpeech

Theresa May – desperately trying to keep the Tories together

Billed as a clear statement of the UK’s bargaining position regarding Brexit, the speech by Prime Minister, Theresa May, on Friday offered little by way of clarity and barely served to hold off the crisis in her own party.  The speech has been welcomed by 18th century throwback Jacob Rees-Mogg, from the hardline Brexit European Reform Group, and by soft centred Remainers such as Anna Soubry.  Long standing Europhile Michael Heseltine however has characterised the speech as more “phrases, generalisations and platitudes.”  All of which underlines the lack of clarity in May’s rhetoric.

In May’s view, three things were made ‘clear’.  The UK would not participate in the single market, or the customs union, or tolerate a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

In her statement May said,

“I want to be straight with people because the reality is that we all need to face up to some hard facts.  We are leaving the single market.  Life is going to be different.  In certain ways, our access to each other’s markets will be less than it is now.  How could the EU’s structure of rights and obligations be sustained, if the UK – or any country – were allowed to enjoy all the benefits without all of the obligations?”

In short, May is insisting that the free movement of labour ends, implying stricter immigration controls, and that the UK has a free hand in negotiating trade deals with third parties post Brexit.  A “customs partnership” sitting alongside a “highly streamlined customs arrangement” would be on offer, although most observers seem bemused as to what either of these things mean.

The reality is that May is not being straight at all.  In spite of pitching the speech at critics who state that the government is pursuing a “cake and eat it” strategy over Brexit that is precisely what May is attempting to negotiate.   What is being obscured by May and the Tories generally is the politics beneath the surface of the UK position, in the context of the changing face of Europe.

The bargaining position of the UK is not just predicated upon the items May has indicated publicly but also by two significant others.  One is the dominance of the City of London in the UK economy, the second is the level of military expenditure as a percentage of GDP.  Both of these are distorting factors in terms of the economic development of the UK but are highly prized by sections of the British ruling class as defining national identity and maintaining the illusion of great power status.

The pre-eminence of the City of London as a clearing house for international capital means that the UK can effectively function as a safe tax haven for the dirty money of anyone from Russian oil gangsters to Saudi dictators. The major international transactions of the key banking groups within the EU all pass through the City, or rely upon its largesse at one time or another.

In relation to the Brexit debate the discussion has been framed in terms of the dangers of Brexit to the City, as financial operations relocate to Paris or Frankfurt.  While aspirations to this effect may be harboured in some quarters, the French and Germans also know that the City can only maintain its position by sucking the life blood out of the manufacturing base of the UK, contributing to the low wage, low skill economy that the Tories have dreamed of since the days of Thatcher.

Quite why the French or Germans would want to take on this role, when the City can do the dirty work, may never come out publicly in Brexit negotiations but will form part of the sub plot.

Likewise, military spending has a similar function.  The only two nuclear powers in the EU, and therefore permanent members of the UN Security Council, are France and the UK.  The French have always pursued a slightly leftfield policy based upon the Gaullist “force de frappe” concept and, notionally at least, not tying their nuclear capability to NATO.

The UK on the other hand has placed great store by its “special relationship” with the United States. It also boasts more spend on its military than other EU partners thus assuming a, somewhat perverse, moral high ground.  The “special” element of the relationship with the US amounts to little more that the UK agreeing to buy an overpriced and militarily redundant nuclear arsenal, Trident being the case in point, in order to protect a small number of defence jobs while the NHS and other essential services go to hell in a handcart.

The much vaunted German economic miracle of the post war years relied on a massive injection of US dollars into the former West Germany, to prove its superiority to the socialist German Democratic Republic, and a miniscule level of military spending.   This has enabled investment in more productive areas of German industry and facilitated expansion eastwards into former socialist countries.  When it comes to the crunch would the Germans look to exchange this for being a US nuclear outpost?

Like the role of the City, the military issue will not be front and centre in the Brexit negotiations but it will also form part of the sub plot.  In Tory hands the hidden Brexit agenda will inevitably seek a quid pro quo which recognises both the City of London as Europe’s banker and preserves the role of the UK as a NATO nuclear power allied to the EU.

It is an irony of the Tory Party schism that the right wing forces of Brexit are happy for the economy to be run by unelected bankers, and defence issues to be dictated by the foreign policy of the US, yet they struggle to co-operate with their capitalist cohorts elsewhere in Europe.

May stated in her speech that the Brexit process would be governed, amongst other things, by “bringing our country together, strengthening the precious union of all of our people.”  Front and centre in this respect is the status of the Northern Ireland statelet, created as a bulwark as the Irish revolution ran out of arms and energy, in order to keep a foothold in the island of Ireland.

The Rees-Mogg’s of this world quite possibly cherish the hope of the whole of Ireland returning to British control.  For the moment however, the Tories they are not going to let Northern Ireland leave the “precious union” and certainly not when their Parliamentary majority is reliant on the neo-fascist thugs of the DUP.  That particular negotiating point may not make it onto the published Brexit agenda either.

The Tories are divided between the dogmatic believers in Empire on the one hand and the Eurocentric capitalists on the other, who see the EU as their salvation.  The EU is divided between those who want to embrace the UK as a military and economic power and those who see that as a threat to their own ability to exploit the European market.

Every effort is made to dress the debate in the language of principle and philosophy.  In reality it is like any other capitalist negotiation, nothing more than an attempt to see who can get the upper hand.  Until there is a collective socialist approach to the problems facing the people of Europe, not just its bankers and corporations, that is all it will ever be.

 

Gun violence is a class issue

24th February 2018

GunMarch620x350

Protests against gun violence in the US continue

The endless slaughter of schoolchildren in the United States has seen 18 incidents so far this year, of which the killing of 17 students in Parkland, Florida this week was by far the worst.  In response the US President, Donald Trump, far from looking at ways to de-escalate the crisis, has suggested that the solution is to arm school teachers.

Adding more guns into a situation in which psychopaths can buy automatic weapons and then go on the rampage does not sound like a way to address this issue.  It is certainly not the way millions of US school children and students are telling the President that they want to proceed.  On the contrary, the de-escalation of gun ownership and access to weapons capable of mass killing is on the agenda in the US with a force not seen for decades.

The philosophy articulated by National Rifle Association (NRA) Vice-President Wayne LaPierre that “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” sums up the delusional position of the American Right, sounding increasingly archaic and outdated as the death toll rises.

Arming teachers may satisfy the profits of the arms manufacturers and their NRA cronies.  It may add to the $30m the NRA spent backing the Trump presidential campaign.  There is no evidence to suggest that it will save the life of one student or school child.  Gun deaths claim an average of seven children a day in the US, as well as around 80 adults.

The anti-gun lobby in the US has raised the issue of the dangers of more widespread gun ownership.

“Over the past two or three years we’ve seen an explosion of legislative proposals to force schools to permit guns or to arm teachers,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “And it’s not just pushing the idea that people need guns in schools to be safe, it’s the idea that people need guns everywhere – city streets, public parks, even government buildings.”

The lack of control and regulation of firearms means that young people can easily access guns indirectly through their parents.  As Skaggs went on to say,

“If we want to talk about preventing school shootings, we should be talking about stopping kids getting their hands on guns in the first place.  Those are the laws we should be looking at.”

In a 2013 poll by the National Education Association only 22% of teachers said they approved of the idea of arming staff, while 68% of teachers said they were opposed. In another survey the same year, 72% of teachers said they would not want to carry a gun even if the law allowed.

The demand for stricter gun laws, in spite of NRA propaganda claims, is widespread in the US while the support for more rigorous background checks has majority support.  The gun lobby in the US however maintains a stranglehold on the legislature and Senators and Congressman, for fear of losing their seats, will not stand up to them.

Voting in the United States, purportedly the world’s greatest democracy, is notoriously low.  Elected representatives may think that the current balance of forces is unlikely to change and pandering to the NRA and gun activists is the best way to keep their seats.  They may be wrong.

The young people expressing their anger at the Florida killings are close to voting age.  Many of those affected by shootings will be eligible to vote by the time of the next presidential election in 2020 and some in Congressional mid term elections later this year.

The American Right hide behind the US Second Amendment in defending the “right to bear arms” but as the Communist Party of the USA point out,

“The Second Amendment was adopted to enable the new American republic, lacking a standing army or state national guards, to muster militia to put down domestic uprisings and repulse any attempted return by the British.

The Second Amendment is now being used by right-wing, anti-worker groups and politicians to divide and conquer, in the process threatening the basic safety and security of all Americans. There is no basis for claiming this amendment was intended to permit unregulated personal acquisition of firearms, including amassing military-style weapons and private arsenals for “protection,” including “protection from the government.””

It is poor, working class and families from Latino and African American backgrounds that are predominantly the victims of gun crime.  The class dimension to the issue is evident when any analysis of where the victims come from and where the arms profits go to is undertaken.

While the right wing in the US seek to cut medical aid, health care and social programmes they suggest that the issue of gun violence is about mental health, not access to weapons.  Their cynicism beggar’s belief.

As the CPUSA rightly conclude,

“The battle now being waged for real steps to end gun violence is a major political and ideological battle against the ultra-right. It is a battle against their backward “free market capitalism” ideology of a “you’re on your own” society.

The battle to curb gun violence is a working-class issue.”

For more info go to www.cpusa.org

 

 

 

 

New Hope for South Africa

17th February 2018

Ramaphosa election

South African MPs swear in new President Cyril Ramaphosa

In his first major speech upon being elected President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa has pledged to restore economic growth, fight corruption and tackle entrenched inequality.  The election of Ramaphosa closes a dark chapter in the history of the African National Congress, the continent’s oldest liberation movement and for decades, under the internationally famous Freedom Charter, the guardian of the hopes of the South African people for an apartheid free, democratic future.

The resignation of former president, Jacob Zuma, under pressure from the ANC leadership ends a period when the party and the government have been mired in corrupt practices, self-aggrandisement and economic failure.  The election of Ramaphosa, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, former NUM General Secretary and key founder of trade union confederation COSATU, is seen by the ANC as a chance to get South Africa back on track after the Zuma years.  In welcoming Ramaphosa’s election as President the ANC made clear its priorities stating,

“The African National Congress has full confidence in President Ramaphosa to build on the foundation laid and focus the country on accelerating our program of fundamental and radical socio-economic transformation. This will include giving effect to the ANC resolutions to accelerate land redistribution through amongst other mechanisms, the expropriation of land without compensation, and the fulfilment of our decision to provide fee-free education to children of the working class and the poor. The eradication of poverty, inequality and injustice in our country must shape his legacy as president of South Africa.

To give effect to this requires, amongst others, restoring the credibility of public institutions, state owned enterprises and law enforcement agencies. It will further demand strong, properly functioning and efficient government at national, provincial and local levels, working together with all social partners.”

www.anc.org.za

Ramaphosa was quick to emphasise the need to deal with corruption, straighten out state-owned enterprises and deal with the issue of ‘state capture’, the term given to the undue influence exercised over government institutions and state-owned businesses by Zuma and his cronies.

The election of Ramaphosa is the latest stage in a struggle which has been waged within the ANC for some time, as progressive elements have sought to turn back the tide of corruption and root out those looting state enterprises and undermining respect for the ANC in the country.  The turning point came at the ANC National Conference in December 2017 when opposition forces gained enough momentum to secure the election of Ramaphosa as ANC President.  From that point onwards the demise of Zuma has been only a question of time.

The coalition of business associates around the Gupta family and others which had kept Zuma in place, for their own advantage, started to see the writing on the wall and elements began to gravitate towards supporting Ramaphosa, not for any reason of principle but to shore up their own position.

To that extent the election of Ramaphosa as state President is by no means the end of the struggle to turn the tide in South Africa but merely the beginning.  As the South African Communist Party has made clear,

“…these forces must not be underrated. Disorganised they might now be, but they still have significant resources and strategic positions within the state. The momentum of disrupting their capacity must be sustained. The blows against the Gupta parasitic network must spread to all parasitic networks…”

That warning should be heeded but should by no means undermine the significance of the steps taken by the ANC and the people of South Africa in the past week.  Lenin is reputed to have once said “there are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.”  The people of South Africa have just lived through such a week, a week which will give hope for the decades ahead.

 

SACP statement on the situation in South Africa

10th February 2018

Ramaphosa

Cyril Ramaphosa the progressive candidate to save the ANC

The South African Communist Party condemns tribalism in the strongest terms possible and the ethnic mobilisation, including that of Amabutho (Zulu regiments) that President Jacob Zuma has apparently engaged in as part of his plan to continue overstaying his welcome in office. The SACP reiterates its decision for President Zuma to resign and for the ANC to recall him if he remains intransigent by refusing to resign. The Constitution of our country requires the President to unite, and not to divide, our nation. President Zuma`s conduct is reckless and unacceptable. The SACP is calling on all South Africans to unite in defence of our country and not allow him to go down with our hard-won democracy.

The SACP further challenges President Zuma to, as a matter of urgency, deny or confirm emerging, and considering his desperation probably credible, information that he is preparing to fire Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa anytime from now and replace him with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who he wants to position to take over as Acting President should he find himself removed from office. Dlamini-Zuma was President Zuma`s preferred presidential candidate for the 54th ANC National Conference held in December 2017. To that extent it would be very clear that President Zuma is also determined to divide and destroy the ANC through unrepentant factional conduct.

The SACP calls upon the whole of our movement, as well as South Africans in general, to reject regressive forms of mobilisation and abuse of state power to try and manipulate and further polarise internal ANC and Alliance politics.

Further info from www.sacp.org.za

 

Capita – the next crisis?

3rd February 2018

NCC HQ

 Northamptonshire County Council’s £53m HQ, opened in October, could be for the axe

The government insist that Capita, another private company getting fat on public sector contracts, is not about to follow Carillion into liquidation.  This is in spite of Capita’s value having halved since a profit warning earlier in the week while shares in rival outsourcing companies, Interserve, Mitie and Serco also fell.  Cabinet Minister, Oliver Dowden, however was quick to state that,

“We do not believe that Capita is in any way in a comparable position to Carillion.”

The Capita debt mountain of £1bn and its £381m pension deficit, to add to the plunging share price, would appear to undermine Dowden’s confident assessment.

Dowden’s view is based upon a government meeting with Capita executives, including Chief Executive Jon Lewis, earlier in the week.  Whether the government have been knowingly undersold may be a question but Lewis has certainly been quoted as suggesting that Capita is “far too complex”, not exactly an inspiring assessment from the man at the top.

TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, has stated that

“…the TUC is calling for an urgent risk assessment of all large outsourcing firms.  It’s essential the government complete this quickly and is prepared to bring services and contracts in-house if they are at risk.”

Capita run the governments jobseekers allowance helpline, teachers’ pensions, curfew tags for offenders, collecting the licence fee for the BBC, in addition to a wide range of contracts with local authorities across the country.

Lewis has announced plans to raise £700m to shore up the Capita balance sheet as well as cutting a dividend which has been worth more than £500m to investors over the past three years. Job losses are expected amongst Capita’s workforce of 67,000, of which 50,000 are in the UK, and parts of the existing business will be sold to raise cash.

Labour’s shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Jon Trickett, stated,

“The Tories’ privatisation dogma risks lurching our public services from crisis to crisis, threatening jobs, taxpayers’ money and leaving people without the services they need.  The government must end its ideological attachment to private profit and instead start putting the public interest first.”

The public sector privatisation crisis comes at a time when local Councils are in the midst of setting their budgets for next year.  Many are having to increase Council Tax to the permitted level of the government 6% cap but will still struggle to meet social care demands or continue to provide essential leisure services.

Heather Smith, Tory leader of Northamptonshire County Council, has just announced this weekend that it was about to “fall over the edge of a cliff” and has brought in a section 114 notice, the first in over 20 years, banning new expenditure.

Prof Tony Travers, from The London School of Economics, believes other Councils could follow in the wake of the Northamptonshire announcement, stating,

“I think there are others that are quite close to Northamptonshire’s position and, with so-called austerity continuing into the next decade, I would be amazed if Northamptonshire was the only council to get into these circumstances.”

Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has continued to take a firm stand against the privatisation and under resourcing of local government services. Speaking to Labour’s local government conference in Nottingham, this weekend he stated,

“Austerity is unleashing chaos across our country, squeezing our local authorities and putting jobs, and the vital services they deliver, at risk.”

Against that backdrop local residents are sure to question the ongoing creaming off of profit for the private sector.  The fallout from the Carillion crisis alone has 18,000 staff still uncertain about their futures, with less than a thousand having been found alternative jobs through transfer to other companies.

Councils will soon be setting their sights upon the May local elections.  Service delivery and cuts are bound to be an issue.  Carillion has already raised the issue of the use of the private sector to deliver public services.  The Tories are in chaos over Brexit.  Capita, or one of the other outsourcing companies, tipping over the edge may be the final straw.  The Tories will not do well at the local elections but the fallout may be worse than even they are anticipating.

 

 

 

 

 

Stuck in the middle

28th January 2018

maytrump(2)

May joins the Trump roadshow in Davos

If there is a sound that Theresa May cannot escape, it is the sound of sharpening knives.  Since her failed bid to increase her Parliamentary majority at the General Election last June, the Prime Minister has been living on borrowed time.  The swamp that is Brexit is likely to swallow May’s brief premiership and, with any luck, large sections of the Tory Party with it, at least for the time being.

Following this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, where May was reduced to playing a bit part in the Donald Trump roadshow, a ‘keynote’ speech on Brexit has been postponed, as war on the Tory backbenches and amongst her Cabinet colleagues once against spills across the press, social media and our TV screens.

The week began with a Cabinet meeting at which leading Tory opportunist and alleged Brexiteer, Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary last time anyone looked, trumpeted his desire to spend an additional £5bn on the NHS.  Few would doubt the need for such spend, not least Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who may yet pontificate on the Middle East situation next week, or Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has consistently called for the NHS to be at the top of the political and funding agenda.  As Corbyn made clear at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons recently,

“The Conservatives tax cuts for the super-rich and big business are being paid for by longer waiting lists, ambulance delays, staff shortages and cuts to social care.”

That Johnson trailed his views on the health service ahead of the Cabinet discussion clearly illustrates a breakdown in any sense of collective responsibility but also a growing contempt for May’s leadership amongst key members of her Cabinet.

Chancellor Phillip Hammond, in a hamfisted attempt to shore up the government’s position, suggested this week that being outside the EU would look and feel very much like being on the inside.  This sort of snivelling toadyism brought an instant rebuke from 18th century man and pretender to the Tory leadership, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who accused Hammond of working to turn the UK into a vassal state.

Rees-Mogg is the darling of the turn back the clock Leave.EU campaign and is likely to gain more media attention in the coming week as the House of Lords debate the EU withdrawal bill.  Media reports this weekend that May has three months to shape up or be shipped out will mean that the various pretenders will take every opportunity to get airplay.

Add to the mix claims that current opinion polls suggest there is growing feeling in the country for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, with even Nigel Farage pitching in, desperate for publicity over something, and the future for May looks bleak.  She will be damned if she does and damned if she does not.  A Prime Minister stuck in the middle.

The alternative, increasingly looking like a government in waiting, is the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, pressing on the key issues of the NHS, housing, welfare reform and lack of investment in the public sector and infrastructure.  While the Tories tear themselves apart over Brexit, Labour are committing to providing 8,000 homes for the homeless by taking over properties deliberately left empty.

Where the priorities of ordinary people lie, and who can deliver for them, is becoming increasingly clear.

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.