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Seismic change required

6th September 2020

Sell by date

Boris Johnson – past his sell by date even for the Tories?

Boris Johnson has carved out the unlikeliest of political careers based on bluster, bigotry and blagging his way out of a tight spot, like the class clown at a public school.  As the class clown, Johnson has been able to get by on a whim and a smirk, poking fun, getting the odd laugh and finding a way to scrape through when any tests come up.

Only in the English class system, with a private education, a privileged university and the right connections, could such a combination of attributes land you the top job in 10, Downing Street.

There was always the minor matter of becoming leader of the Tory Party and winning an election but Johnson has had the remarkable knack of being in the right place at the right time and the eye of opportunists throughout the ages of being able to adjust his politics to suit the moment. 

The right wing press and the BBC, now under fire for having too many left wing comedians, have been complicit in his rise.  A four year long assault on the politics of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, and the robotic performance of the Tories under Theresa May, helped many Tory MPs and party members buy into the illusion that Johnson was fit for leadership.

To suggest that the joke is wearing thin is to put it mildly.  Over 40,000 deaths from COVID-19 by the official count, inept handling of everything to do with the pandemic from late lockdown to lack of PPE, inadequate test and trace arrangements and confusion over the exams and return to school process, have left even Tory MPs wondering at Johnson’s incompetence.

The chattering classes are already talking up Chancellor Rishi Sunak as a successor, as Johnson is regularly out manoeuvred by Kier Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions.  Resorting to accusing Starmer of being an IRA supporter this week, because he had served in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, even caused some blushes on the Tory benches.  Press outrage seems to have been confined to the accusation against Starmer rather than the slur against Corbyn.

Johnson was always a compromise for the British ruling class, a populist figure who could temporarily unite the Tories and be a focal point for opposition to Labour under Corbyn.  Having served his purpose UK ruling circles face a quandary.  Do they stick with Johnson through to the next General Election, by which time his character fault lines and political charlatanism will have been completely exposed, or do they change horses early to allow another leader to establish themselves?

The question is widely discussed in the columns of political commentary at the moment but for much of the nation the outcome will be academic.  Whoever leads the Tory Party will preside over another round of austerity in order to pay for the costs of the pandemic.  Rishi Sunak will soon be presenting a budget which will take the first steps down that road.  Unemployment over the 3 million mark already looks likely by Christmas, as the furlough scheme comes to an end.

As it stands, a Labour Government under Kier Starmer is unlikely to change that trajectory.  The desire to live up to some right wing media, Bank of England and City of London definition of economic competence will freeze out any radical thinking from a Labour manifesto, effectively taking us back to a choice over who can manage capitalist austerity most competently.  Competence being defined as the least threatening path for existing ruling class interests.

That can all change.  Pressure from within the Labour Party and mass extra parliamentary action to resist an austerity programme which makes the poor pay, more than they do already, for the pandemic is possible and is certainly desirable.

As the party conference season looms the first formal signs of how the Tories and Labour are looking to set out their stalls will become evident.  Popular pressure must build to make those who can afford to, pay their share.  Redefining economic competence, as running an economy by, for and in the interests of the working class must also be a battle cry going forward. 

Mealy mouthed words about ‘heroic’ health workers will no longer cut it.  For any change to be meaningful it needs to be seismic.  Labour need to grasp that reality.

Black Lives Matter, not just black votes

29th August 2020

Protesters in Washington, 28th August 2020

No one thinks Joe Biden is a radical.  He certainly does not.  His address to the Democratic Convention last week was all Mr Middle America.  Mr Don’t Rock the Boat.  Mr Mainstream American Dream.  Nowhere did he suggest, or even hint, that he was Mr Radical.  He got the Democratic nomination precisely because of his lack of radical credentials.  In short, he was not Bernie Sanders.

The Republicans for their part are doing their best to portray Biden as a radical.  A vote for Biden, they claim, is a vote to open the floodgates to a socialist America, an America of conflict, an America in which opportunity is trashed and the State steps in to make every decision for you.

Any reasonable person will of course see this as arrant nonsense but that is not the audience to whom the Trump team are playing.  Trump is playing to an audience he expects to believe when he says,

“I say very modestly that I have done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.”

To be fair, that is not a very high bar, given the record of successive US Presidents on the race question but it is still a bold claim, especially in the context of recent events and the growing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter protests.

Trump is also bold enough to claim that he took “swift action” to control COVID-19, in spite of the US death toll now being at 181,000 with more than 1,000 people dying every day.  However, in a world where your target vote gets its news diet from Fox News and Breitbart any relationship with reality is at best tangential.

The campaign to mobilise against  racism and for reform of policing in the United States continued yesterday with the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks March, timed to coincide with the 57th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, which culminated with Martin Luther King’s famous, ‘I have a dream…’ speech.

Organised through the National Action Network under the slogan ‘No justice, no peace’ the march mobilised a powerful lobby of speakers from the families of those who have most recently been victims of racist policing methods in the US.  Many moving declarations and expressions of solidarity followed but little in the way of political analysis or any explanation that systematic racism is endemic to capitalism in the US, as it is elsewhere in the world.

The suffocation of George Floyd on 25th May brought the Black Lives Matter movement front and centre into America’s homes. However, black people are dying quite unnecessarily in the United States in other ways.

Life expectancy is far shorter and infant mortality far greater for U.S. blacks, for example, than for white people.  The COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact upon the black community as more people from ethnic minority backgrounds play key roles in frontline health and care services.

W.T Whitney, writing recently in the US People’s World observed that,

“Racism serves as an adjunct to classed-based oppression. Causing pain, racism works for maintaining social-class boundaries. The combination of the two has resulted in Black people being relegated to a generally precarious role within U.S. society and remaining vulnerable to lethal violence.”

This is the reality which the Black Lives Matter movement ultimately has to come to terms with if it is to make progress and really make an impact upon the shape of society in the United States. 

In the short term the exhortation is to get the black community to register and then to vote on 3rd November to get Donald Trump out.  The Trump camp are already preparing their response.  Wheeling out conservative blacks who applaud the United States as the land of opportunity, while condemning violence in black communities, thus portraying victims as perpetrators, is one tactic.  Portraying a Joe Biden presidency as the gateway for an unleashing of all the evils of the world is another.

Getting Trump out would undoubtedly be a step forward.  Whether Biden can make any great strides in terms of tackling racism and inequality in the United States, even if he really has the inclination, will depend upon the momentum the Black Lives Matter movement can continue to build.

The extent of change that Black Lives Matter can affect will in turn be dependant upon the extent to which that movement becomes class conscious, recognising the need for the unity of the black and white working class if progress is to be made.

The Democrats will embrace Black Lives Matter to the extent that it serves their purpose, to get rid of Trump.  History shows however that it is not so much black lives as black votes that matter in US elections.  It will certainly take a movement more radical than anything Joe Biden is likely to acknowledge to move on from that position.     

Privilege is the priority

18th August 2020

students

Students opposing the A level results debacle

The failings of the Boris Johnson government become more evident daily, as one debacle follows another and control remains just out of reach at every turn.  The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a calamity at every level for the working class, ethnic minorities and the elderly in care homes.  The death toll includes very few from the leafy suburbs and gated properties of the rich, while thousands who started out in poor health and poverty have paid the ultimate price.

There is little, if any, indication that the government cares about this.  The welfare of the poor has never been high on the agenda of any Tory government, even the most benign, and Johnson and his cronies will not be winning any accolades in that regard.  While not quite at the level of the systematic destruction of working class communities in the Thatcher years, Johnson is clearly more closely aligned with that brand of Conservatism than any so called One Nation approach.

Talk of ‘levelling up’ is purely that, talk to keep the newly elected Tories in Northern seats onside, in the hope that a few crumbs from the Westminster table will fall their way and they might scrape through into a second term in Parliament.   There is not, and never will be, any levelling up with the Tories for the simple reason that their whole raison d’etre is to ensure that the playing field is not level, that their class interests are defended and their privileges are protected.

None of this will every appear in any manifesto.  Just as their racist immigration policies, antipathy to local government and craven adherence to weapons of mass destruction over social investment and hospitals, will never appear in black and white in those terms.  Credit where it is due, the Tories have always been smarter than that.  Their core strategy of keeping enough of the people fooled, enough of the time, with a helping hand from a compliant BBC and right wing press has generally paid off.

Home ownership, share ownership, a stake in the country’s wealth, private health schemes, more private cars than ever, get rich, win the lottery; all holding out the hope to people of jam tomorrow. A flurry of Royal Family sagas and more war anniversaries and commemorations than anyone thought possible in recent years have also reinforced a national narrative that plays into the narrow jingoism of the Tory nationalists.

When did VJ Day ever merit two minutes silence?  Certainly, no discussions have featured the US war crimes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as part of the ending of the Second World War narrative, over the past weekend.

The government is now embroiled in a debacle over A level exam results, with what can only be seen as a class based algorithm handing out lower grades in underprivileged areas, while reinforcing top grades for the private school sector.   It is being presented as a problem with regulator Ofqual but is part of a wider picture of reinforcing the privilege of those who ‘expect’ university places, rather than those who deserve them on merit.

In a further move to reinforce its support base part of the function of Public Health England will be hived off to be merged with the NHS Test and Trace organisation, to be led by Tory peer Baroness Harding.  Test and trace is currently being run by private sector sharks Serco and Sitel, yet another example of profit from public health being put ahead of public health itself.  How much the private sector has made from government contracts throughout the pandemic will be a revealing calculation.

There is no levelling up, there is no people’s government, there is pocket lining and reinforcement of privilege.  The Tory leopard cannot and will not change its spots.  A less compliant Labour leadership would be landing blow after blow, exposing the scandal of the government’s handling of the entire pandemic, calling for investment in public health rather than shoring up opportunities for more private wealth.  The Opposition needs to find some bite to its strategy to oppose.

 

Strike action spreads rapidly across Iran

14th August 2020

Iranian workersIranian workers, part of the current strike wave

An unprecedented wave of strike action is underway in the gas and oil fields of Iran, as workers down tools over the late payment of wages, insecure employment contracts, poverty wages and intolerable working conditions.  Temperatures in Iran’s refineries can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius, a danger to health and almost impossible to work in.

An estimated 10,000 workers have been involved in wildcat strike action which has hit major refineries and industrial projects in Iran’s South Pars gas fields.  The strike has remained solid for over a week.  Localised protests have been common in recent years, as employers have squeezed pay and conditions in order to maximise profits, but the co-ordination of action, affecting a number of refineries and many contractors, is a new dimension.

By Saturday, 1st August, of the 10,000 workers on strike, 5,000 had abandoned the gas fields entirely and returned home.  Other remained in their dormitories, waiting for employers to give in to their demands.

Those on strike cover a range of trades including builders, electricians, welders and pipefitters, who work for employment agencies and gang masters on a variety of industrial projects in the world’s largest natural gas field. They work a shift cycle of 20 days on, ten days off, and are housed in dormitories close to the workplace while on shift.

The action has seen hundreds of workers protesting outside the offices of the contractors, declaring their intention to refuse to work for an entire 20-day shift cycle.

IndustriALL Global Union’s Iranian affiliate, the Union of Mechanics and Metalworkers of Iran (UMMI), has to operate under restrictive conditions in which independent trade unions in Iran are not officially recognised by the regime.  In spite of this UMMI is optimistic that, given the scale of the action, workers may have a chance to win concessions and possibly gain representation at major industrial sites.

The development of the South Pars fields is Iran’s flagship hydrocarbons project. The economy depends on the project for foreign exchange as it experiences hyperinflation. The significance of the fields is underlined by the fact that it is the state-run oil and gas company that has jurisdiction over all projects in South Pars.

Lost revenue therefore has a direct impact upon the beleaguered Iranian exchequer.  While this may augur well for a negotiated solution the Iranian regime is not noted for conceding to workers demands and a long struggle may yet be ahead. Organisers are already wary of retaliation by the security forces, a common tactic in Iran, as the strike spreads. There are already reports of arrests and surveillance against key activists.

French energy giant Total signed a deal to develop the fields in 2017, but pulled out due to US sanctions.  The fields are being developed in partnership with other multinational energy companies, but Iran has struggled to raise the necessary financial commitment. Contractors are under pressure to complete work on projects which are behind schedule, and often face liquidity problems due to delayed payments on government contracts due to banking sanctions.

International support will continue to be a crucial factor in sustaining the immediate action but also raising the profile of the struggle for wider trade union recognition in Iran.

Sources inside Iran have stressed the significance of the actions as this is the first time in the history of Iran’s labour strikes that contract workers in the country’s oil, gas and petrochemical industries have managed to organise strikes on such a scale.

Contract workers, make up about 70 percent of the total workforce in the sector, but are generally unable to organise such large-scale protests due to their dispersal across a range of companies and contractors.

The fears of the regime that the action could spread from economic to political demands were intensified recently when 14 independent organisations, from different social classes and spheres, issued a statement in support of oil, gas and petrochemical workers’ strike movement. “A general strike is the only way” is the final sentence of this statement.

Trade union, human rights and solidarity organisations have been quick to respond to the action by the Iranian workers and show expressions of support and solidarity.  In the UK, the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR), has been at the forefront of leading calls for solidarity with the Iranian workers action and soliciting expressions of support from labour and trade union movement organisations.

More details at www.codir.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time to tax the wealthy

9th August 2020

SunakChancellor Rishi Sunak – is a wealth taxing budget likely?

The UK economy is tanking, there is no two ways about it.  Redundancies in the past week alone include Hays Travel, DW Sports, Pizza Express, Currys PC World and WH Smith.  Many others have only been hanging on due to the coronavirus furlough scheme which is now being phased out as employers have to contribute to pension and national insurance costs.  By October, wage subsidies in any shape or form will be over, leaving businesses to make their own way without government support.

The virus is not a crisis of the government’s making but the response to it, being too slow to lockdown, too slow to provide adequate testing and too slow to deliver personal protective equipment, is certainly at the door of the government.

The package of measures introduced by the government to mitigate the crisis is likely to cost upwards of £300bn in additional borrowing in this financial year.  Even so, an estimated 25% was wiped off national output in March and April alone.  The prospect of 4 million unemployed by the end of the year is not an unrealistic one.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is preparing for an Autumn Budget in October when it is widely expected that measures to set out who ‘pays’ for the cost of the pandemic will be articulated.  The traditional Tory approach in these circumstances has been to punish the poor.  The outcome of the 2008 banking crisis was ten years of austerity, in which job prospects, wage levels and local services were suppressed in order to pay off the banker’s gambling debts.

The fact of thousands being furloughed and millions potentially facing the prospect of job loss is a clear indication of who is already paying for the crisis.  Redundancies may be on the rise everywhere else but the 15 best paid executives in the technology sector alone have a combined income of more than $83bn.

Older, highly educated and highly paid workers, many working from home through the crisis, have been able to save money.  Bank of England data suggests that household deposits in bank accounts have increased by almost £70bn since the onset of the pandemic.

At the other end of the spectrum it is inevitably a different story.  In poorer households, especially where there have been job losses, savings are a dream.  It is estimated that up to £6bn will be owed in unpaid Council Tax, utility and credit cards bills.

The cost to local authorities, always the area to assist the poorest in our communities, runs into the millions for each local authority, with choices to either cut jobs, services or both inevitably looming.   Rent arrears from Council house tenants are mounting, while homelessness is likely to increase once again as temporary support measures are withdrawn.

The obscenity of capitalism’s disparities is further compounded by the most recent figures for UK wealth, measured by financial and property wealth, which stands at a record £14.6 trillion on latest official figures.  The top 10% richest people control almost half of this wealth; the poorest 30% control as little as 2% of all wealth.

The case for systemic change, which brings control over wealth and power into the hands of those who genuinely create or support that wealth creation, could not be clearer.  While asking workers to make the leap from resisting the pandemic to supporting the case for social revolution may be a step too far for some, there will be many for whom the iniquities of the system have become all too real in recent months and will be open to such conversations.

Sadly, this is not a path down which the current Labour Party leadership is likely to go. Kier Starmer’s most recent priority has been to pay off Labour HQ staff, who worked systematically to undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  Opinion polls still put the Tories in a strong position, in spite of the mishandling of the pandemic and mismanagement of the economy.  So far Starmer’s strategy, even with its limited objective of getting Labour back into office, is not working.

The very least that should be expected from Labour in the current circumstances is the demand for a wealth tax, hitting at least the top 1% richest people in Britain, to help alleviate the impact of the crisis upon the poorest communities.  These are not uncommon in other capitalist economies including, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.

Spain imposes taxes on assets above €700,000 while France raises €2bn a year from wealth taxes paid by the 150,000 richest households.

A recent YouGov poll found 61% of the public supported a tax on those with assets in excess of £750,000, excluding pensions and the value of their residential property, with only 14% against such a tax.  City University’s tax reform advocate Richard Murphy has argued a wealth tax could raise as much £174bn, which could go towards paying down record levels of borrowing.

As measures to address the impact of the crisis go, even a wealth tax would be a limited one.  However, it would genuinely raise finance and symbolically it would shift the emphasis of who pays to those who can afford to, those who have been least affected by the pandemic and those who do not earn or deserve the wealth in which they revel.

At the very least, Labour need to take up the cause and make it clear that they are on the side of the many, not the few.

 

 

Trump threatens democracy with militarized police

2nd August 2020

By Juan Lopez

(from People’s World July 27 2020)

PortlandORFederal officers in Portland, July 25, 2020.

By sending federal militarized units in fascist-like fashion into major cities to attack peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators, President Donald Trump is assaulting democracy and setting a dangerous precedent less than 100 days before the November elections.

Clearly, it is a desperate move to shore up his far-right base and divert public attention away from his criminal mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, both of which are costing him politically. Poll numbers, for now, show him badly trailing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The response by public officials, civic leaders, and civil rights groups in these Democratic-controlled cities and states has been swift and forceful, with pledges to take legal and legislative action to stop the unwelcomed and undemocratic intrusion into local jurisdictions.

In letters fired off to the administration and congressional leaders on July 20, the mayors of 15 cities charged: “Unilaterally deploying these paramilitary-type forces into our cities is wholly inconsistent with our system of democracy and our most basic values.”

Citing federal forces’ actions in Portland in recent weeks, the mayors told Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf that “use of significant force against protesters on a nightly basis,” including snatching protesters off the streets and putting them in unmarked vehicles, and wounding one demonstrator in the head, “are tactics we expect from authoritarian regimes.”

The mayors called on the Trump administration instead to focus on battling the pandemic and providing relief to workers, businesses, and cities, which they characterized as totally inadequate.

“But,” they said, “The irresponsible actions of your agencies threaten community safety and progress on policing in our communities.”

In a second letter to leaders of the U.S. House and Senate, the mayors said Trump’s unilateral deployment of paramilitary forces into cities was tyrannical and called on congressional leaders to “immediately investigate the President and his administration’s actions.”

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner went so far as to threaten that “anyone, including federal law enforcement, who unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people will face criminal charges from my office.”

In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats swept to victory in a number of formerly Republican-controlled congressional districts, senate races, and down-ballot contests. Several new progressives were ushered into office.

Currently, the electoral map is looking even more promising for Democrats, as the poll figures show Trump and Republican Senate and congressional candidates trailing or barely hanging on in a number of formerly Republican strongholds.

Last week, the Cook Political Report said six of the U.S. Senate seats currently held by Republicans are in the “toss-up” category while one leans Democratic. Only two Senate seats held by Democrats appear vulnerable.

There are still months to go before the election, and opponents to Trump can’t let their guard down, but these numbers, if they hold, open the possibility that the nation’s Senate majority would flip from Republican to Democratic hands. At the same time, Democrats retaining their majority in the House of Representatives at this point appears assured.

While I am not in the habit of quoting right-wing Republicans, it is worth noting the alarm with which key Republicans view their electoral chances at this time.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, is in the battle of his political career—so much so that he broke with Trump on nearly every major issue related to the coronavirus, including stressing the importance of wearing a mask.

Former House Speaker Republican Paul Ryan, speaking at an event hosted by Solamera, a company with close ties to Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, said that Trump was losing key voting blocks, namely among suburban voters, across the Midwest and in Arizona, a Republican-leaning state “presently trending against us,” the New York Times reported.

Ryan pointed out that “Biden is winning over Trump in this category of voters 70 to 30, and if that sticks, he cannot win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.”

In a sign of how enduring the Black Lives Matter movement has been, Republicans in Congress are also joining with Democrats in a direct challenge to the president as they back legislation that would force removal of Confederate names from Army bases. On July 23, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate passed defense policy legislation containing that provision by an 86-14 majority. The House has also passed legislation with a similar provision by a veto-proof majority.

Targeting cities with large communities of color in his dispatch of quasi-military forces shows the patent racist nature of Trump’s intentions. Furthermore, he is trying to suppress the role of a Black-led movement that is challenging systemic racism and demanding democratic reforms that are bound to benefit society as a whole.

What’s more, the movement has awakened communities, concentrated in the suburbs and smaller cities, which in the past have tended Republican but are now moving into the Democratic camp just as the nation is headed towards one of the most, if not the most, consequential election in history.

It is important to note here that the transformation of politics in the suburbs and smaller cities is a reflection of the antipathy with which an ever increasing section of the population has come to view the political actions of Trump, his far-right cabal, and Republican political figures. But, also noteworthy, is the changing composition of the populace in these areas, which has become more multiracial and liberal as the cost of housing and living has forced many out of the central cities.

Now, as we move toward the November elections, the challenge is to organize and mobilize voters and potential voters everywhere, but especially in electoral swing regions and states.

Find out more about the situation in the United States at https://peoplesworld.org/article_category/news/

 

 

Over “in time for Christmas”

26th July 2020

Boris press

Boris Johnson – still “guided by the science”?

The scramble to find a COVID-19 vaccine is now the major priority of Big Pharma in the West, with the potential long term profits being as much a lure as that of addressing the public health issues concerned.  The much vaunted Oxford vaccine, developed at Oxford University with Swedish company AstraZeneca, of which the government has allegedly bought 100 million doses, is relatively untried and untested.  It has certainly not undergone the rigorous testing regime required before drugs usually reach the market. There is also no evidence yet that any immunity generated will last and if so, for how long.

So far the tests in Oxford have involved 1,077 people and have been described as “extremely promising initial results” but much more work is to be done, testing at higher doses with a greater sample population in Brazil and South Africa, where COVID-19 outbreaks remain high.

As Max Nisen, writing in the online journal Bloomberg has pointed out however,

“Immune responses measured in the lab don’t always correlate to real-world protection, a risk that’s especially acute for rapidly developed vaccines against a novel virus.”

Professor Sarah Gilbert, of the University of Oxford, said: “There is still much work to be done before we can confirm if our vaccine will help manage the COVID-19 pandemic, but these early results hold promise.”

The reported pace of the vaccine development however has the advantage of fitting in with Boris Johnson’s political narrative that it will all be over by Christmas.   As someone who prides himself on his historical knowledge you would expect him to be cautious about reaching for such claims.  The right wing press, including Johnson’s house journal the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Express are all backing Johnson’s “Plan for the worst, hope for the best” strategy outlined last week.

At the Downing Street press conference to announce new measures, Johnson outlined plans for local authorities to have new powers to close specific premises, shut outdoor spaces and cancel events. In addition, regulations set out in draft in parliament this week will allow central government to intervene in local areas by issuing “stay-at-home” orders, limit the numbers at gatherings beyond national rules and restrict transport.

Johnson went on to say that,

“It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November, at the earliest, possibly in time for Christmas.”

Johnson has also outlined plans to allow people to return to work from 1st August, with the permission of their employer.  This goes against the previous advice to work from home unless absolutely impossible not to and passes responsibility from the state to enforce a clear position addressing public safety, to employers concerned about their profit margins.  The history of the private sector delivering in the service of the public, as the NHS and local government have found to their cost over the years, is not good.

In spite of Johnson’s ongoing claim to be “guided by the science”, the new advice flies in the face of the view of the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who told the science and technology committee,

“I think my view on this, and I think this is a view shared by Sage, is that we’re still at a time when distancing measures are important. And, of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do.”

As ever, Johnson’s bluster and desire to promote the optimistic soundbite, outweighs the real concerns for public health and safety which should be driving the government’s approach.  There is little dispute that, in the early days of the pandemic, the UK made massive errors of judgment.  These include sending people with coronavirus into care homes, not locking down early enough, and not having any real kind of test and trace capability whatsoever.

Those errors undoubtedly cost thousands of lives.  There is every danger that too rapid an easing of lockdown measures could cost thousands more lives.  Government strategy continues to be driven by private wealth ahead of public health.  Johnson may still be good for the occasional soundbite for a sycophantic press but a reckoning is yet to come.  The public may not go as easy on the Tories as their mates in the media.

 

China Crisis?

19th July 2020

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping – spearheading China’s economic development

The anti-Chinese rhetoric of the United States, effectively the declaration of a second Cold War by President Donald Trump, has taken grip in the UK this week with the decision to cut investment from Chinese firm Huawei in the UK’s 5G network.

A report by the European Commission published in March last year indicated that across the European Union, of which the UK was then a member, Chinese investment totalled 9.5%, up from 2.5% in 2007.  This compared to investment from US and Canadian companies, which stood at 29.5% down from 42% in 2007.

The amount of Chinese foreign direct investment in the EU was rising rapidly, peaking at €37.2bn in 2016.  However, it has since fallen away following a slowdown in Chinese investment globally.  Nevertheless, China now owns, or has a stake in, four airports, six maritime ports and 13 professional soccer teams in Europe.  It estimated there has been 45% more investment activity in 30 European countries from China than from the US, since 2008.

Across Europe the major focus of Chinese investment is in the UK, Germany, Italy and France.  In addition, the new Silk Road programme, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to invest in major infrastructure programmes to increase trade between China and Europe, has twenty European countries on board, including Italy and Russia.

The reason cited for the Huawei ban in the UK is security.  Making the UK 5G network so dependent upon Chinese technology, it is argued, poses a risk as the company is allegedly controlled by the Chinese state.

However, the UK has been keen to encourage Chinese investment in other areas, including the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset, and in a wide range of businesses in the manufacturing and financial sectors, totalling over $20 billion in 2017.

The real story in terms of foreign direct investment into the UK is that the United States by far and away tops the list, with over 23% of foreign direct investment in the UK in 2017 coming from the US.  The UK government is keen to keep the US on board, especially to negotiate a post Brexit trade deal, so compliance US foreign policy remains a priority for the Tories.

The situation is further complicated by the situation in Hong Kong.  The reluctant return of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997 has long been a sore point in British ruling circles who see the city as a financial haven and a bridgehead into China, both economically and politically.  Hong Kong was seized by the British in the mid nineteenth century and Britain was subsequently granted a 99 year lease on the colony in 1898 by a weakened and corrupt Chinese state.

The turnover of the island back to China in 1997 came with an agreement to preserve Hong Kong’s capitalist system, the One Country, Two Systems agreement, an attempt by a struggling imperialism to keep a foothold in China and use Hong Kong as a focal point of opposition to the Chinese state.  Recent democracy protests, aimed at securing the secession of Hong Kong from China appear to have been part of this long term strategy.

Not surprisingly the reaction of China has been robust, with the passing of new national security legislation, while the US response has been to ramp up the odds as Donald Trump heads towards a November presidential election.  Latest reports suggest not only an increase in sanctions on Chinese goods by the US but travel restrictions on Chinese Community Party members. The mindset of the US administration was outlined by US Attorney General, William Barr, recently who accused China of conducting,

“…economic blitzkrieg – an aggressive, orchestrated, whole of government, and indeed, whole of society campaign to seize the commanding hights of the global economy and to surpass the US as the world’s preeminent superpower.”

This is the real threat as far as the United States is concerned.  The hegemony of the dollar as the international default currency; the loss of political and economic influence in South East Asia, Africa and Latin America, as developing countries find the terms of trade with China to be less exploitative than those with the West; the loss of influence and investment opportunities in Europe as Chinese technology makes inroads into areas previously dominated by US technology giants.

Concerns about human rights and democracy may look good for the headlines and make Donald Trump feel and, to some, appear righteous ahead of the election in November.  The real deal for the US however, with the UK hanging on its coattails is, as ever, about the cash.  Expect the anti-Chinese rhetoric to continue in the coming months but expect deals to be done behind the scenes all the same.

Like it or not, the West cannot ignore China as an emerging superpower.  Plotting to undermine China will no doubt continue but in the short term the West will have to learn to live with the reality of China’s place in the world.

 

 

 

Levelling up looks hollow

13th July 2020

Boots

Boots and John Lewis – over 5,000 jobs to go

The seemingly inexorable march towards a second spike in the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK continues apace, with shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, libraries, leisure centres all opening to some degree and, to a huge extent, relying upon the public to operate within and observe the rules of social distancing.

The promise of UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to ‘put the brakes on’ if people do not behave sensibly is lost beneath the deluge of welcomes from services desperate to get customers back across the doors and to see income start flowing again.

At the same time, in the space of three months, decisions have been made in boardrooms across the country to cut back the workforce, operate at reduced or minimal levels and hold back on investment until there is a significant sign of upturn in demand. Major High Street names, John Lewis and Boots, are the latest in a long line of companies taking the opportunity to reduce costs by making workers redundant.

The elderly, the poor, black and ethnic minority communities are being hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of the impact upon health.  They are also the most likely to be hit due to their lack of wealth, working in low paid jobs, on zero hours contracts and being disproportionately reliant on struggling public services and the NHS.

It is reported in The Observer this weekend that the government have already drawn up a list of the top twenty Councils in England where the worst levels of coronavirus are located and deemed to need “enhanced support”.  Top of the list are Bradford, Sheffield and Kirklees with the prospect of local lockdowns, similar to that imposed in Leicester recently, being on the cards.

However, these rankings are based on testing which took place between the 21st June and 4th July, before the fuller easing of lockdown took effect. The next two weeks will be critical in terms of assessing what impact the relaxation measures will have on the transmission of the virus.  The COVID Symptom Study, undertaken by King’s College London, indicates that, based upon data up to the 4th July, rates of new COVID cases in the UK have stopped declining, with over 23,000 suspected cases in total.

It is clearly the case that what little disposable income workers have is being drained by the pandemic, as job loss or insecurity means less spending power and certainly less outlay on major items, while people wait to see how their futures are going to work out.  Even the increasing shift to online purchasing, one of the reasons cited by John Lewis Chief Executive, Sharon White, for reducing store numbers, relies on people having money in the bank to pay.

The pandemic has exposed some of the contradictions inherent in capitalism, underlining that it is moribund as an economic system capable of providing for the needs of the people.

At times of crisis the workforce will always be the first to bear the brunt.  Company executives will receive their bonuses, shareholders will receive dividend payments, the banks will call in their loans.  However, without money in the pockets or the bank balances of the workforce consumption, therefore demand, is flat.

Production for greed, not need, demands a level of capacity on the part of the consumer to actually consume.  Low pay, no pay, or the uncertainty of furlough, is not going to encourage the consumer boom the Tories are hoping will pull them through the crisis.

There has been much talk of the coronavirus pandemic exposing another pandemic, that of endemic racism, following the killing of George Floyd and the increased profile of the Black Lives Matter movement. That is undoubtedly the case.  It is also true however that the pandemic is exposing the depths of the disease at the heart of society, the disease of obscene levels of private wealth, which creates billionaires on the one hand and condemns others to sleep on the street.

The government’s measures to address the pandemic may bring short term economic relief for a few but it remains to be seen at what price, in terms of further lives lost.  Even that relief is likely to be short lived as job losses blamed on the pandemic become consolidated, local authorities struggle to deal with the consequences of mass unemployment, homelessness and poverty and the NHS is overwhelmed by the deterioration in physical and mental health in the population.

The Johnson mantra of ‘levelling up’ is looking increasingly hollow.

The power of working class people taking to the streets, combined with resistance such as the Black Lives Matter movement, in opposition to the cutbacks, job losses and austerity which is inevitably coming, will be vital if a powerful force for change is to be developed, a force which challenges the very raison d’etre of capital itself, putting the real solution, socialism, firmly on the agenda.

 

 

 

Unlocked…but for how long?

4th July 2020

Boris blagBoris Johnson – another day, another blag

Unlocked, unleashed and out on the lash.  If the government was still holding its daily coronavirus propaganda briefings this could be the new slogan, as the shackles come off bars, cafes and restaurants from today.   UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, could shuffle up to a lectern emblazoned with the slogan, flanked by nervous scientists, Patrick Valance and Chris Whitty, hoping for at least a place in the House of Lords out of this but knowing they are more likely to take the rap in any future public inquiry, almost certainly designed to incinerate their reputations.

The government has faced a lot of criticism for its dithering, delay and general tardiness in implementing the necessary measures to stem the tide of deaths arising from the pandemic, now inching towards 45,000 on official figures and counting.

In one respect though the government has been perfectly consistent.  That is in its overarching policy objective of putting private wealth ahead of public health.  Governments over the past forty years have progressively shifted the UK economy away from production and towards consumption.

The UK is over reliant upon the financial services in the City of London, being a corporate tax haven and international money laundering operation.  It is over reliant on capital hungry but socially useless investment in weapons of mass destruction.  It is over reliant on the low paid service sector and tourism economy to bring in foreign spending.

Donning a hard hat and dashing off to Dudley in the West Midlands, in order to proclaim a ‘new deal’ in infrastructure investment, Boris Johnson once again this week used a compliant media to spin his message that Britain will ‘build back better’ and that, in spite of still having the highest death rate in Europe, he could proclaim a form of victory in defeating the virus.

The BBC continues to go along with this nonsense, even though the Tories will rip up the Charter and abolish the licence fee anyway.  Like Johnson’s delusions of taking up the mantra of Churchill and Roosevelt, the BBC appears to be deluded enough to think that its state broadcaster status gives it a form of immunity from prosecution.

Life in the real world is, as ever, a little different to that in the Downing Street rose garden or in the cloistered corridors of Broadcasting House.  People continue to struggle with what may be life and death decisions about whether they can go to the supermarket, visit family or venture to a beach.

Listening to UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, this weekend, he is clearly trying to convey the impression that it is the patriotic duty of the nation to indulge in these activities.  Corporate profits need to be protected after all, even at a social distance, and that will not happen if people simply choose to stay at home and stay safe when they now have so many more opportunities to spend their money.

Of course, the proverbial pound in the pocket has diminished somewhat for much of the population.  Those on furlough face increasing uncertainty, as the scheme changes and employers have to contribute more.  Many others have already had to join the swelling dole queues with redundancies across a range of sectors, from airlines to retail, being announced daily.

As with many aspects of capitalism, the government’s strategy is about gambling.  Just as the bankers gambled incorrectly that the sub prime housing market would not collapse prior to the 2008 crash, a roll of the dice we are still paying for, so Johnson and his cronies are hoping that a second wave of the virus will not kill off any hope of economic recovery.  Johnson is gambling that those who still have money to spend will do so in sufficient numbers to be enable him to talk up the economy and justify his policy choices.

Unfortunately for Johnson, he may be able to blag some of the people some of the time but he will not blag the virus, ever.  The government has presided over far more deaths than necessary already.  It seems set to preside over many more because of pressure from the banks, the corporate sector and the hospitality industry to unlock too many sectors of the economy too soon.

Public buildings are going to be lit blue and another round of applause is planned this weekend to mark the 72nd anniversary of the NHS, which the Tories opposed setting up in 1948 and have clobbered with austerity cuts over the past decade.  It will look good on TV, no doubt.

However, doctors, nurses, other health care professionals and workers in the care sector generally, both in care homes and local government, will need more than a token round of applause to get them through.  There is undoubtedly more work to be done.

The media, the Parliamentary opposition and, most importantly, the people out on the streets need to be galvanised to expose the ineptitude of this government and put forward an alternative which puts public health first; argues the case for properly structured planned public investment, not phoney rhetoric; exposes the lunacy of buying Trident nuclear weapons, when hospitals are underfunded and people are dying; and gives local Councils the powers to build houses for the homeless and modernise ailing public housing stock.

Most importantly, none of this should be couched in the language of reviving capitalism.  Capitalism would be one coronavirus fatality no-one would mourn.  It needs to be argued as the first steps on the journey towards socialism, a journey which puts the people first and, ultimately, takes obscene levels of private wealth entirely out of the equation.