Afghanistan – darkness falling

14th August 2021

The Western media are not using the words defeat or retreat when reporting on the withdrawal of US and British troops from Afghanistan but it is hard to characterise the present situation in any other way.

Nowhere in the NATO objectives will the return of the Taliban have been on the list of desirable outcomes after 20 years of occupation.  The British media wheels out US generals and pundits by the hour to wax lyrical about the amount of time, effort and training NATO forces have expended on supporting the Afghan armed forces over this period. 

Yet, when it comes to the crunch, the Afghan army appears to be walking off the job.  Like the Afghan government itself, the army is fragile and reliant on the West to such a degree that it has little or no independent identity.

The Afghan crisis is yet another international humanitarian disaster of the West’s making going back, not to the intervention following 9/11 in 2001, but to the late 1970’s when the will of the Afghan people to choose a new road, a socialist road was thwarted by the machinations of the West and the foundations for what became the Taliban and al-Qaeda were laid.

Geo-politically Afghanistan has for centuries been an important trade route, linking China, India (the long border which is now Pakistan) and Iran as well as the former Soviet Republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on its Northern border.   Landlocked and mountainous it has always relied on neighbours for overland trade routes and itself been a conduit for trade between its more prosperous neighbours.

That role has historically meant that, given the tribal nature of Afghan society, key routes were controlled by local leaders, looking to benefit from granting safe passage for goods and travellers passing thorough their territory.  Inevitably this resulted in the enrichment of a few tribal warlords but was of little benefit to the mass of the impoverished population. 

As British imperialism expanded its grip across the Middle East and beyond it was not hard to see that whoever controlled the warlords controlled key strategic trade routes.  One of the key trades through Afghanistan, has been opium, making it a centre for the international drugs trade and into the 20th century a major supplier for the heroin trade.  Much of the enrichment of tribal leaders has historically relied upon access to the opium crop and links to the criminal underworld which has benefitted across the West.

Tensions between the impoverished many and the enriched few came to a head in Afghanistan in 1978 when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power, on a programme of stamping out the heroin trade, lifting the population out of poverty and backing education and equality for women, bringing light to the Islamic darkness of the largely feudal structure of the country.

This challenge to the entrenched orthodoxy and the prospect of further socialist expansion into the Middle East was not a prospect the West could tolerate.  Moves were quickly made to strangle any revolutionary momentum at birth with the CIA funding mujahadeen opposition operating out of Pakistan in order to undermine efforts of the Afghan government. 

The decision of the Afghan government under the PDPA to call upon support from the Soviet Union, widely reported in the West as a ‘Soviet invasion’, was precisely to defend against the return to feudalism which the CIA backed mujahadeen represented.  The ten year presence of Soviet troops, until their withdrawal in 1989, provided a bulwark against the worst excesses of the reactionary forces backed by the West.  The defeat of the Soviet Union in 1991 however turned the tide internationally and precipitated a degeneration into civil war in Afghanistan from which the Taliban emerged as victors in 1996.

The five year reign of terror by the Taliban was effectively ended by Western intervention in 2001 following the 9/11 attack in the United States, widely believed to have originated with Islamist militant groups based in Afghanistan, ironically previously funded by the US to fight the Soviet forces stationed there.

For Western politicians and the Western media it is convenient to talk about the past twenty years in relation to Afghanistan, the point at which the West was forced to overtly intervene to defeat the Taliban.  It is less comfortable to focus on the preceding twenty years when Western arms and training effectively built the forces which went on to perpetrate terror attacks upon Western targets.

Taliban forces have captured much of the country again at present and are on the brink of mobilising their forces for an assault on the capital Kabul.  The US are planning to employ 3,000 troops to ensure the safe passage of American diplomats and aid workers from Kabul, the British army is deploying 600 troops to do the same for British nationals.  

Billions of dollars spent, thousands of working class lives lost, in an unwinnable war, and another foreign policy calamity for the West.  The real losers over the past forty years have been the Afghan people who have seen their hopes of progress to a democratic future thwarted at every turn. 

If a Taliban led Afghanistan once again becomes a training ground for Islamist militant attacks on the West the bloodletting may not yet be over. The West halted the possibility of social progress in Afghanistan with its initial interference in the 1970’s.  There can be no doubt though that achieving that objective has come at a heavy price.

Individual choice vs social responsibility

7th August 2021

Vaccination roll out – Britain begins to lose ground

At a community centre in North East England earlier this week a group of masked men with bodycams entered the building.  They proceeded to film noticeboards, question staff about the times of the vaccination clinic and, when challenged, claimed they could do what they liked as they were in a public building.  Police were called but arrived too late to make any arrests.  Staff were shaken by the incident but unharmed.

Similar scenes have taken place across the country as the intimidation tactics of the anti-vaccination lobby underline the governments failure to take a hard enough line on vaccination resistance.  Those opposed to the vaccination programme either hail from the right wing libertarian position of individual choice above all else or, the equally reactionary anarchist view that anything the government suggests must be bad, therefore must be opposed.

There are of course many reasons to oppose governments, not least the British government and its overall inept handling off the pandemic.  However, that should not blind anyone to the necessity of behaving in a socially responsible way in the face of an international public health emergency.  There is rarely, if ever, a good case for putting individual choice over social responsibility.  A pandemic is certainly not the time.

The British vaccination programme has been hailed as the one great success of the government’s pandemic strategy, if it can be described that coherently, but latest data shows that the Britain is starting to lag behind European countries in vaccine take up.

According to figures collated by OurWorldInData there are six EU states now ahead of the UK in having a larger share of their populations with two shots of a Covid vaccine.  Malta, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Ireland are all ahead of Britain in terms of the percentages of their populations who are double jabbed.

Among 18 – 30 year olds in Britain an estimated 33% are yet to get their first shot, yet 20% of those in hospital with Covid symptoms are in this age group.  This gives the lie to the perception, not challenged strongly enough by the government, that young people are not at risk.

Elsewhere in Europe vaccine incentives are becoming the norm with France, Denmark, Italy and Greece all adopting various proof of vaccination measures before permitting access to public events and indoor activities such as cinemas and museums.  Britain has deferred introducing similar measures till the end of September.  In the meantime social mixing proliferates and infection rates amongst younger people continue to be high. The right to infect others, by refusing vaccination, is not a right which should be encouraged.

The anti-vaccination lobby are tacitly encouraged by the right wing of the Conservative Party and, in particular, the so called Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Tory MPs, who have been pursuing a herd immunity strategy, effectively holding Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, hostage if the economy is not opened up further.

Johnson’s libertarian tendencies are only slightly tempered by the rising death count, still the hghest in Europe, but as that slows the temptation to be sucked further into the orbit of the CRG may prove too much for a politician not known for sticking to any fixed position.

The propensity to elevate individual choice over social responsibility is a function of capitalism itself and finds its most heightened expression in the USA around the ‘right’ to bear arms.  It is no surprise that the anti-vaccination lobby in the US is not only vociferous but aligned to the most reactionary elements in the political spectrum.

Even where ‘health pass’ plans have been implemented in the EU there is no guarantee that the population will comply, as recent protests in Paris have illustrated.  Persuasion is still necessary. The push within the British political establishment, away from notions of social responsibility and towards a greater emphasis upon individual choice, has been marked in the past forty years.  The deconstruction of Council housing, comprehensive education, local government, trade union rights and attempts to privatise sections of the NHS are all examples of this.

The idea expressed by the masked men in the North East, that they could do what they liked because they were in a public building, flows from the same mentality.  However, public space is about sharing, co-operating and managing for the collective good.  It is not there for any individual to do as they please, just because it is public.

Sometimes lost in the practicalities of the pandemic is the ideological battle that is necessary to shift people’s thinking away from an exclusive focus upon personal circumstances to the challenge of addressing the collective need.  This banner was raised briefly during the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and the establishment moved quickly to tear it down.  In part because they were opposed to it but more significantly because of the resonance they saw it was having with many people.

The idea that things should be done ‘for the many, not the few’ was in danger of becoming more than a political slogan.  It needs to be rediscovered, applied to the present circumstances of the pandemic and carried well beyond if the battle of ideas is to be won. 

Beating Crime – more hollow rhetoric

31st July 2021

Dogged by controversy – Patel watches on as Johnson blusters

Having failed to convince even his own cheerleaders in the right wing press with his big set piece ‘levelling up’ speech, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, this week fell back on a tried and trusted Tory reliable; law and order.

Flagging in the opinion polls, the vaccination bounce having deflated and ‘Freedom Day’ having flopped, amongst a myriad of caveats, Johnson was desperate to be seen to be setting the agenda.  Flanked by his Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who had one eye on the media and the other on Johnson’s job, a package of measures amounting to little more than window dressing to placate the Tory faithful was revealed.

Johnson unveiled his plans to relax stop and search powers, allegedly in order to tackle knife crime; increase electronic tagging for released thieves; and make offenders clean the streets in hi-viz, so that they could be seen to suffer.

Writing in the Daily Mail this week Patel asserted that,

“Our Beating Crime Plan contains a range of measures to reduce crime and level up the country so that everyone has the security and confidence that comes from having a safe street and a safe home.

From day one as Home Secretary, I’ve made it clear that I will back the police. We have already recruited nearly 9,000 extra police officers as part of our unprecedented recruitment drive to bring in 20,000.”

With a passing nod to the ‘levelling up’ mantra, Patel then fails to acknowledge that the only reason the Tories have committed to recruiting 20,000 police officers is that this is the precise number cut due to Tory austerity measures since 2010.  Having restored 9,000 is hardly a great achievement.

Patel demonstrates further sleight of hand by failing to recognise the fact that the same austerity agenda is the very reason that for many “having a safe street and a safe home”, or even any home at all, may be little more than a pipe dream.  Best estimates suggest that for the last five years core homelessness has been rising year on year in England, reaching a peak just before the pandemic when the numbers of homeless households jumped from 207,600 in 2018 to over 219,000 at the end of 2019.

Those who are not actually homeless often live with housing uncertainty in the private rented sector.  Others struggle to maintain a foothold in Council housing as the Tory Right to Buy policy continues to be a constraint on the ability of local authorities to retain quality housing in the public sector.

Security of health, housing, employment and the opportunities provided by education, are undoubtedly key factors in tackling the desperation, poverty and hopelessness which can be the breeding ground for criminals to exploit working class communities.  That these social gains have been systematically undermined by Tory policy since the 1980’s and exacerbated by the past ten years of austerity is not a reality recognised by Johnson or Patel.

There was some recognition of this by Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy, who was critical of the government’s proposals stating,

“Delays in the courts are at a record high, while convictions for the most serious crimes including rape are at a record low. The government’s tinkering proposals do little to reverse the effects of the closure of 295 courts in England and Wales, or to deal with the massive cuts to drug treatment services, the police, the CPS and the whole justice system his government has made since 2010.”

Even police chiefs, usually bastions of support for Tory law and order measures have variously described the proposals as “weird…and a bit gimmicky”, that the proposals do “not address the big issues” and that “Its like there has been an explosion in a strategy factory.”  Hardly ringing endorsements.

Patel had not endeared herself to the Police Federation a week earlier by announcing a pay freeze which the 130,000 strong federation saw as evidence that the government “could not be trusted” and warned “warm words are no longer enough”.  The federation went on to support a vote of no confidence in the Home Secretary.

The realities ignored by Johnson and Patel include a 73% reduction in services for young people across England and Wales since 2010-11, with reductions in budgets for youth provision of up to 85% in some areas of greatest need such as Haringey in London.

The same areas are those where police stop and search powers are disproportionately used to target black working class youths.  The monitoring organisation Stop Watch estimates that police stopped and searched 115 out of every 1,000 black people compared to 17 per 1,000 white people.  That was in 2010-11 making black people 6.7 times more likely to be searched than whites.  By 2019-20 black people were 8.9 time more likely to be searched.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that policing in capitalist Britain is institutionally racist, that government policy encourages this tendency and that policy on crime is only seen by the Tories as a means of containing the legitimate frustrations of working class communities.   

The so called Beating Crime plan provides no comfort for those victims of ruling class crimes of negligence, under investment, cronyism or tax evasion.  It is no more likely to ‘level up’ the chances of working class communities than the Tory handling of the pandemic, which has seen working class lives lost in their thousands due to government ineptitude.

In practical terms the government’s new initiatives, like it’s so called ‘levelling up’ agenda, have no value but even fail as a PR exercise to get their own side on board.  It is simply more hollow rhetoric. Recovery from the pandemic must include recovery from the illusion that the Tories will ever act in the interests of the working class.  That is a message which needs to be hit home hard by the Labour leadership linked to policies which will give Labour’s working class base hope for real change.

Tories follow the herd

24th July 2021

Herd immunity at the heart of Tory strategy?

How much of the British government’s approach to the pandemic is ruling class bias and how much sheer incompetence can be hard to disentangle.  There is no doubt that decision making has been driven more by economic considerations than public health outcomes, at least until the public health question becomes too overwhelming to ignore.

The three lockdowns to date have all followed this pattern.  Clear advice from scientists and public heath experts has indicated that at each stage lockdowns should have happened two to three weeks earlier but the government, in thrall to the private sector, has allowed infection rates to escalate to the point where intervention and lockdown was unavoidable.

The sense throughout the pandemic has been of a government claiming to be led by the science but not really being prepared to keep up with it, especially if it contradicted the desires of the private sector to open up and get back to profit making.

The latest dogmatic adherence to Step 4 of the government roadmap reflects the same thinking.  Warwick University and Imperial College London have been predicting for weeks that, based upon the government’s plans, a spike in infections would occur in mid-August to early September.  The two universities have only diverged on how high the spike might be but a daily infection rate of 100,000 a day is even accepted by Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, and some indicators suggest that could get as high as 250,000 infections per day.

It does not require the skills of a SAGE scientist to figure out that this level of infection will increase pressure upon the health service, due to higher levels of hospitalisation, and that it will result in more deaths, in spite of the relative success of the vaccination programme.

The Tory government have released all mandatory requirements to work from home, wear face coverings or to socially distance.  Nightclubs, theatres, restaurants, bars and events can all function without any legal requirement to impose controls or check vaccination status.  In effect the government has given the virus carte blanche to run riot through the younger population, many of whom are unvaccinated or have only had a single dose.

Young people are more resilient and less likely to die from the COVID virus.  They are less likely to end up in hospital.  However, something being less likely to happen does not mean that it will not.  The scientific understanding of how the virus behaves is still in its infancy.  There is preliminary evidence to suggest that young people are more at risk of the condition being termed long COVID, where symptoms of fatigue and lethargy can persist for months.

It is increasingly being seen that even double vaccination is not an absolute defence against the virus, although severity of symptoms and likelihood of death are significantly reduced.

The Tory government has been keen to present its strategy as the only course of action, that the roadmap is irreversible, although now tempered with some words of caution.  The reality however is that the government has had choices at every stage of the pandemic and has made political judgments to inform the actions it has chosen.

Delaying the widely misnamed Freedom Day from the 19th July to the end of the summer for example, combined with a concerted drive to increase double vaccination levels, would have given greater protection to individuals as well as reducing community transmission.  The argument against this has been that it would simply delay a spike in infection till the autumn.  A spike in a population with higher levels of vaccination would surely be less of a spike in the long term though?

Meanwhile those who thought that the relaxing of controls on 19th July would mean a rush back to normal trading are finding that the streets are not paved with as much gold as they anticipated. 

Greater social mixing increases the scope for community transmission and the so called ‘pingdemic’, where individuals are advised to isolate by the NHS test and trace app, is impacting upon businesses across the country.  More than 600,000 people in England and Wales were advised to isolate by the app last week.

The economic impact upon those workers on low wages, insecure contracts and unable to access financial support remains significant.

The government are now scrambling to set up 200 testing sites across the country with a view to introducing a system of daily testing, rather than isolating, for workers in key sectors of the economy, including food distribution, NHS and care workers.  However, claims from the police, fire service and transport staff are now being made to be included as essential workers, not required to isolate but to engage in the daily testing regime instead.

Capitalism is characterised by anarchy in production, uncertainty and job insecurity for many and decision making which prioritises private greed over public need.  That would be in any normal year.  The pandemic has exacerbated these aspects of the system itself and they have been further compounded by a Tory government which has lacked any coherent strategic decision making focus.

Insofar as the Tories can be said to have had any consistent strategy during the pandemic it has been to fall back on the concept of herd immunity.  That certainly seems to be the strategy for this summer.  It is still less than a week since the government released all mandatory controls on 19th July.  The full impact of that particular political decision is yet to be felt.

Gesture politics

18th July 2021

Home Secretary, Priti Patel – gesture politics her stock in trade

If British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, spent any time reflecting upon his actions, pronouncements or their consequences, he may find the mantra that a week is a long time in politics weighing heavily at the moment.

It all started so well that Johnson must be wondering how it went so badly wrong.  Just a week ago the nation, or at least the English part of it, was being whipped into a sense of euphoric expectation as the Italy v England Euro 2020 final at Wembley approached.  No one expected a walkover, give the Italians some respect, but the sense that victory was certain was palpable.

So called ‘Freedom Day’, the 19th July, was looming, with even talk of a national Bank Holiday to celebrate.  Cabinet Ministers were buying up England football shirts like they were going out of fashion.

Things began to unravel even before kick off when thousands of ticketless morons manged to breech Wembley stadium security and gain access to the ground.  This in an operation for which Metropolitan Police Chief, Cressida Dick, has boldly stated,

“I am very proud of my officers and the command team.”

As the Euros had earned a place in the government’s herd immunity project, otherwise known as the Events Research Programme, see Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone for further examples, the police were presumably unconcerned about the public health implications of the security breech.

Luke Shaw’s goal after two minutes was cause for great national (English) optimism but was soon frittered away as the team’s lacklustre efforts to break down a sterling Italian defence dwindled into extra time and penalties.

That a penalty shoot out was necessary then lost is a discussion for the sports pages.  That right wing Neanderthals on social media drew attention to the fact that those who missed penalties were three of England’s black players, implying that this made them unworthy to play for the national team, took things to a new level.  The so called Culture Wars, which Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Priti Patel and, ironically, Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, have been keen to stoke in recent weeks were catching fire.

The post match antics of the St. George’s flag waving moron tendency, unable to accept defeat, was accompanied by stamping upon and burning Italian flags.  Violence across the capital resulted in 49 arrests. 

While Johnson and his cohorts were compelled to condemn the racist tweets their hypocrisy was immediately called out by England Centre Half, Tyrone Mings, who pointed out in response to Priti Patel that,

“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

Patel had been critical of England players taking the knee in order to demonstrate their opposition to racism in general and racist abuse directed at players, adding that England fans had a “choice” over whether or not to boo players as they made their protest.

With his finger, as usual, on the 21st century pulsebeat Tory millionaire dilletante, Jacob Rees-Mogg, weighed into the debate suggesting that there “wasn’t any evidence” that fans who boo players taking the knee do so motivated by racism.

The subsequent vandalising of a mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester has generated an outpouring of support for Rashford and the other targeted players.  Vacillation over condemnation of racist abuse by Johnson and his crowd, contrasted sharply to the response of the people of Manchester, and across the country, in calling out those responsible for racism.

Johnson may have hoped that a keynote speech on his so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda, scheduled for midweek, would get rid of the weekend blues. Typically though, Johnson waffled interminably, trying to please all of the people all of the time, but not actually getting down to the main business of what ‘levelling up’ was all about.  Perhaps because it is mainly about waffling for so long that no-one will notice?

Such politically incisive phrases describing levelling up as,

“…the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up”

hardly added clarity.  Such promises as could be gleaned included £50m for new football pitches and a National High Streets Day, hardly agenda defining promises.

Of course, ‘levelling up’ is no such thing for Johnson and Co, who are quite content to ensure that the playing field remains as tilted as it is presently and that they retain their power and privileges.  If that means adopting the rhetoric of being on the side of the common people, in order to win a few votes, then they will do it.  This has for a long time been the oldest trick in the Tory book. 

Any real levelling up is not fundamentally about regional disparities but about class differences and where the real levers of economic power lie.  No amount of hot air from Johnson is going to address that.   It is, in fact, expressly designed to detract attention from it.  It could even be described as gesture politics!

The concern for the political establishment is that Johnson’s bluster is being increasingly exposed as shallow and may not deliver the necessary votes to keep the Tories in office.  Alliances in the Tory party are swift to change when there is electoral danger and another term with Johnson at the helm may be too much, even for them.

As 19th July approaches the hollow ring of ‘Freedom Day’ rhetoric continues to echo across the land.  Johnson’s tub thumping has become more cautious as the day approaches and public health experts from across the globe regard the British plan as fundamentally flawed.  At an emergency summit last week more than 1,200 scientists backed a letter to the Lancet warning that the UK strategy could allow vaccine-resistant variants to develop.  

Prof José Martin-Moreno of the University of Valencia, a senior adviser to the World Health Organization (WHO), said,

“We cannot understand why this is happening in spite of the scientific knowledge that you have.”

With daily infection rates at 50,000 and climbing, Heath Secretary Sajid Javid’s target of 100,000 infections a day by the end of the summer looks all too achievable.  Javid has even gone to the trouble of contracting the infection himself, just in case the numbers drop.

With nightclubs set to re-open and restrictions on social distancing and mask wearing either going or being downgraded to an ‘expectation’, no table service in pubs and cafes required and Premier League football around the corner, who needs the usual round of winter infections and flu bugs to stay busy in the NHS? 

Polish up that George Cross, it must be better than a decent pay rise?  Or even a government that gives a damn about public health?  Gesture politics of the highest order.

Washing their hands of it all

10th July 2021

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid cannot mask reality

The government’s hands, face, space mantra is set to take on a whole new meaning as the government washes its hands of the pandemic, fails to face up to its responsibilities and attempts to put space between its decisions and the rising infection rate.

UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, last week confirmed that face masks will no longer be legally required and social distancing rules will be scrapped at the final stage of England’s coronavirus lockdown roadmap. The rule of six inside private homes will be removed and work-from-home guidance abolished, as Johnson said he expected the final step would go ahead as planned on 19th July, following a review of the latest data on 12th July.

In what can only be described as a monumental abdication of responsibility at the height of a public health crisis, the government have resigned from any semblance of leadership and exhorted the public to take personal responsibility for their actions.

Air cover for this strategy was provided by Chief Medical Officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, who asserted that maintaining the current coronavirus restrictions through the summer would only delay a wave of hospitalisations and deaths rather than reduce them. Whitty stated at the Downing Street briefing last Monday that while scientific opinion was mixed on when to lift the last remaining restrictions in the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, he believed that doing so in the summer had some advantages over releasing in the autumn.

However, government scientists have said “stronger” restrictions could be needed this autumn and winter. Newly released documents from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) reveal that ministers were urged to keep “baseline” restrictions such as face masks and working from home, and warn that new freedoms could create “superspreader” events.

With infections likely to rise to a rate of 100,000 per day pressure is building on an already overstretched NHS.  In part this is due to the increase in hospitalisations, in part due to people with other conditions now coming forward and in part due to the staffing pressures as a result of NHS workers having to isolate.   A letter from the Queen and the awarding of the George Cross is not going to solve the crisis.  A meagre 1% pay award is also scant compensation for the challenges NHS workers have had to face.

The rules on self isolation will also affect a whole range of local government workers if the Tories persist in their proposals for the 19th July.  At present teams maintain social distancing in the workplace meaning that, if a colleague tests positive, entire services do not have to be closed down and individuals can be sent home to isolate.  With the relaxation of social distancing in the workplace a worker who tests positive may have been in contact with any number of co-workers, resulting in the possibility of whole services being sent into isolation.

For frontline local government services, such as libraries and leisure centres, add the public into the mix, with no requirement to socially distance or wear face covering, and the potential for whole sections of service to be shut down are very real.  Add to that the risks faced by social work teams, housing repair staff and those running care homes and the mix becomes even more toxic.

The same rules will also apply to the private sector, where there will be no obligation in pubs, cafes or restaurants to socially distance or use face masks, thus increasing the danger of the virus spreading.  While the level of vaccination across the population will provide some mitigation, the dangers of the summer 2020 ‘eat out to help out’ debacle loom large.  It may be that those led by the right wing Covid Research Group of Tory MPs, who have been banging the drum to put opening up the economy before public health concerns, find that their dream turns quickly to a nightmare for many.

In spite of their talk of ‘levelling up’ the Tories know that the risks associated with the pandemic are more prevalent in the poorer parts of the country.  According to a nine-month inquiry by the Health Foundation charity, into the health impacts of the pandemic, the chances of dying from COVID-19 were nearly four times higher for adults of working age in England’s poorest areas than for those in the wealthiest places. The Foundation said a decade of widening health inequalities and cuts to public services had contributed to the UK’s disproportionately high coronavirus death toll compared with similar countries.

Johnson appears to have signalled his intent by putting Sajid Javid in charge of the Department of Health and Social Care, to replace the hapless Matt Hancock.  A clearer example of putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank could hardly be found.  Javid has said that ending lockdown is his “absolute priority”, it would have been good to see saving lives at the top of that list, and that “we have to learn to live with” coronavirus.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday Javid said,

“… no date we choose will ever come without risk, so we have to take a broad and balanced view. We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu.”

Rising infections may not be resulting in the number of deaths we saw earlier in the year but the government’s de facto herd immunity approach is still allowing the virus to spread at an alarming rate, especially amongst young people and children.  That, in turn, allows for the possibility of further mutations of the virus, potentially resistant to current vaccines, putting us all back to square one.

With one of the highest death rates in the world, and the highest in Europe, is this really what the Tories mean by ‘levelling up’?

Iran – election turnout further undermines regime

3rd July 2021

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi – a further indication of the regime taking a hardline

The election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, in presidential elections in Iran recently, may indicate a further period of isolation for Iran on the international stage.

The role of the president in a theocratic dictatorship, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, may appear to be superfluous, with ultimate power being concentrated in the hands of Supreme Leader, Ayotollah Ali Khameini. However, the selection of president is often an indication of the attitude of the theocracy in relation to its international position. 

While the president may lay claim to having an elected mandate this is illusory in any real sense as the choice of candidates open to the public is strictly controlled by the regime.  Any hint of opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy is weeded out.  Thus, for the recent presidential elections, of the 40 candidates originally submitted, only seven were allowed to stand.  These represented a very narrow range of political views, effectively reflecting varying shades of support for the regime.  Any semblance of genuine opposition was excluded.

The 40 year history of the Islamic Republic has seen the legitimacy of each presidential election questioned as the political differences amongst candidates narrows each time.   Gerrymandering, vote rigging and intimidation have also featured heavily in the election process to ensure that the regime’s preferred candidate is successful.

It was an open secret that the regime’s preferred candidate for the recent election was Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric and Chief Justice.  Raisi is infamous amongst the opposition in Iran for having been a member of the notorious “death committee”, which saw the execution of thousands of Iranian political prisoners, mainly socialists and communists, put to death in 1988 by being hanged from cranes.

There was a widespread call from opponents of the regime to boycott the election, with a record low turnout of only 48.8% of the electorate voting. 

Iran went into the elections at a time when the country is blighted by economic bankruptcy due to the implementation of macro policies formulated by the clerical regime to serve the interests of the country’s capitalists and powerful super-rich class.  This is exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed by the United States in contravention of international law, following the unilateral withdrawal of the US in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal.

As a result, tens of millions of Iranians live below the poverty line; unemployment levels are sky-high, especially among the youth; and inflation is rampant. In addition, Iran has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, wholly exacerbated by the regime’s feeble response, which has led to the deaths of more than 80,000 people and a further sharp deterioration in the economic situation.

As a consequence, opposition to the regime in the form of street protests, openly denouncing corruption, economic mismanagement and demanding economic equality and social justice, have been growing.  The spirit of defiance, which is building amongst the population as a whole, is met with increasing ruthlessness by the security forces involving both violence and mass arrests. 

Most recently the strike by workers in the oil and petrochemical industries, which began on the 19th June, has spread to numerous sites across the vast oil and gas exploration fields as well as the oil industry in general.  According to a statement released by the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI), 28,000 workers have downed tools and remain determined to stay out until their demands are met.

The human rights record of the Iranian regime continues to be an appalling litany of arrest, imprisonment, trumped up charges and little or no access to legal representation or medical care.

The regime is setting great store by the latest round of negotiations in Vienna, to revive the JCPOA, as a means to reverse the economic decline.  While taking a belligerent stance towards the United States in public the Iranian regime are all too aware that to engage in international markets access to dollars and international financial institutions is vital.

For its part the US is equally aware of Iran’s weakness and this will no doubt form part of US calculations as the negotiations progress.   It will certainly take precedence over any human rights concerns as the US looks to open up Iranian markets and exploit the potential for utilising Iran as a source of cheap labour.

Decades of neoliberal economic restructuring based on IMF prescriptions and internal corruption within the regime, have vastly increased the private wealth of the upper layers of the clergy in Iran, while producing a weak and hollowed-out national economy, fully reliant on the export of crude oil, itself restricted due to the sanctions regime.

The outcome of the election on 18th June has seen the installation of an even more vicious, anti-democratic, and fiercely entrenched Islamist administration in Iran. This will necessitate the beginning of an era of reinvigorated campaigning for the rights of the Iranian people.  This will be for trade union rights, women’s rights, the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of association, and much more. The international campaign of solidarity with the struggle of the Iranian people for peace, human and democratic rights, and social justice, must step up and demonstrate its effectiveness.

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COVID-19 – Co-operation not competition vital

26th June 2021

Vaccine equity – essential for poorer nations

Big Pharma drug firms, led by US companies Pfizer and Moderna, stand to make billions of dollars from their COVID-19 vaccines, boosted by the recent G7 pledge to vaccinate the entire world by the end of 2022, with the global market for the vaccines at an estimated $70 billion (£50 bn).  The G7 pledge to donate a billion doses to the international body Covax, by the end of the year, is still well short of the 11 billion doses the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates is need to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable people over the same timescale.

Pfizer and Moderna alone, charging $30 per person for the necessary two shots, could make more than $50 bn in revenues.  Pfizer has already announced that it is likely to make $26 bn in 2021, a third of its annual revenue.  Moderna, funded by the US government to develop its vaccine, is expected to generate revenue of $19.2 bn this year.

The British-Swedish produced Astra Zeneca and the US based Johnson and Johnson have pledged to provide vaccines on a not for profit basis until the pandemic ends. However, even Johnson and Johnson are looking to generate $6.6 bn in revenue this year with a forecast $5.2 bn in sales forecast in 2021 for Astra Zeneca.

Latest data suggests that 2.5 billion doses of vaccine have been administered in 180 countries.  However, distribution is massively uneven, with higher income countries vaccinated 30 times faster than those with lowest incomes.

The campaign to waive patents is gathering some international momentum however.  Estimates suggest that the world’s population could be vaccinated at a cost of up to $25 bn (£18 bn) compared to the estimated $100 bn if drug firms maintain their current level of charges.

From 18th – 21st June a four day summit organised by Progressive International involved the national governments of Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela as well as the regional governments of Kisumu, Kenya and Kerala, India, alongside political leaders from 20 countries, healthcare workers, vaccine manufacturers and public health experts, to make concrete commitments to advance vaccine internationalism.

At the summit Cuba and Mexico offered their nationally developed vaccines in clinical trials, Cuba’s Soberana 2, Abdala, and Mambisa and Mexico’s Patria, to new partners to openly collaborate on vaccine trials and licensing. The offer of open, rather than exclusive, licensing is hugely significant. The majority of Covid-19 vaccines operate as full monopolies, and have not been offered to any other manufacturers to make. The minority of vaccines that have been offered to others, have been licensed on a limited or exclusive basis, such as AstraZeneca’s agreement with India’s Serum Institute, which shuts out other Indian manufacturers from making it.

It has been extensively reported that the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, which developed the vaccine, had originally intended to offer it to the world on an open license basis, but instead entered into an exclusive arrangement with AstraZeneca on the urging of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The summit also saw a pledge from Argentina to share the advanced regulatory capacities of ANMAT, Argentina’s state regulatory entity, to collect data on new vaccines and share this with countries throughout the region, including Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, to speed up the process of approval of vaccines.

Dr. Carla Vizzotti, Argentina’s Health Minister, committed to extending this facility to any country in need. She said,

“We have worked with Summit participants like Cuba and Mexico to synchronise our regulatory systems in order to facilitate stronger cooperation and enhance access of the entire population to vaccines, medicines and new technologies from a regulatory standpoint. Without a doubt, we extend this cooperation to all countries of the world – above all, those in the region of Africa. It’s a pleasure to be able to offer our regulatory capacity to the world.”

Countries at the summit with considerable production capabilities, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela, pledged to increase manufacturing in order to produce enough doses to export to other countries.  Venezuela, in an official government paper tabled at the Summit, offered to lend its manufacturing industry to “ensure the distribution of supplies to the areas of greatest need at any given moment.”

The Progressive International plans to organise further meetings to provide a framework for the proposed integration of capacities and ongoing collaboration between participants, aimed at expanding the emerging alliance for vaccine internationalism.

Meanwhile the economic forecasts of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predict that the world economy is on course to bounce back from the pandemic.  This official optimism appears to be largely based upon the success of vaccination roll out in Europe, China and the United States.  However, even across Europe vaccine success is patchy and the Delta variant is gaining ground across the continent.

Without international co-operation, without a relaxation of patent exclusivity, without a real commitment to ensuring vaccine equity in the world’s poorer nations economic predictions will not be worth the paper they are printed on. 

The striving for market dominance and profit, endemic to the capitalist system, remains the greatest barrier to bringing the virus under control and ending the current pandemic.  The WHO has repeatedly stressed that no-one is safe until everyone is safe.  The fact remains that safety will only come from co-operation and not from competition, a concept the capitalist world struggles with, the result being thousands of unnecessary deaths worldwide.

More work, less pay, no protection

19th June 2021

Greek workers show their opposition to further austerity

The programme of the European Union, to undermine its weaker economies at the expense of supporting the stronger economies of Germany and France at its core, continues apace this week with the attempt to further impoverish the Greek people.  European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen attempted to sugar the pill saying that,

“The Commission has given the green light for Greece’s national recovery plan”, adding, “This plan…belongs to the Greek people and will transform the Greek economy.”

Von der Leyen may have missed the obvious fact that thousands of the Greek people have been out on the streets in protest against the plan and even the vote in the Greek Parliament only showed a majority of 158 to 142 in favour of the Bill, hardly a landslide by any means and a reflection of the deep divisions in Greek society.

Right wing Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has conspired with the EU to come up with a package which will undermine workers rights.  The Labour Bill will allow for a working day of up to 10 hours, based upon individual contracts between workers and employers, it will undermine the right to strike and restrict trade union activity.

The anti-trade union Bill is aimed at unlocking a further €30.5 billion from the EU to support the business sector, adding to the already staggering €240 billion debt owing to the EU and burdening the people of Greece.

General secretary of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), Dimitris Koutsoumbas, was trenchant in his criticism of the Bill in the Greek Parliament, stating,

“The anti-labour bill that you are preparing to vote for today is, according to the Minister of Labour, a bill of the contemporary era! If so, then why do they take the working conditions back a century, turning workers into slaves in the 21st century? Why do they bring about an increase instead of a decrease in working time, work from dusk till dawn, persecutions of trade union, and strike-breaking? In the contemporary era, of the huge development of technology and science, what is contemporary is to reduce working time, to work 7 hours–5 days–35 hours a week. What is contemporary is to secure a job for everyone, with satisfactory terms of pay and rights; and not to return to the working conditions of the Middle Ages. That is why your monstrous law will remain on paper, like so many other unjust laws before that.”

As the Bill was being passed, tens of thousands of demonstrators were participating in demonstrations protesting against the anti-labour bill all over Greece.

The anti-labour bill is the latest step in a decade of attacks upon the public sector and working class in Greece, as EU imposed austerity programmes continue to impose compliance with EU rules and the intensification of exploitation in favour of the Greek business class and European corporations.

Critics have accused Mitsotakis of exploiting lockdowns imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to push the bill through parliament.

While the bill has survived a parliamentary vote, mass action on the streets has continued and is likely to persist, as the campaign by the trade union movement and left wing political parties continues, with the aim of rendering the bill unworkable and ultimately ensuring its repeal.

The austerity programmes imposed upon Greece by the EU may just be a foretaste of what is to come across Europe, as governments adjust their economic projections in order to claw back essential spend to support the public throughout the pandemic.  Being outside of the EU will not save British workers in this regard.  The costs of any crisis are inevitably passed on to the working class.  In spite of the talk of ‘levelling up’ in Britain the Tory leopard is unlikely to change its spots when it comes to the crunch.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, may have succumbed to public health pressure in order to extend lockdown restrictions for a further four weeks but is unlikely to resist the siren voices of the hardline Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs indefinitely.  Once it comes to paying for the crisis their voices will be the loudest in the ‘pro-business’ lobby, a euphemism for anti-working class action aimed at giving employers greater rights to hire and fire.

The language will not be so stark, it will be dressed in the clothing of economic recovery, as being essential for growth, as being key to getting back to business as usual even to, ‘build back better’ in the already worn out Tory phrase. 

The attack on Greek workers is being carried out under cover of ‘modernising the economy’, a modernisation that Greek workers are resisting.

We must ensure that when similar calls for ‘modernisation’ are made for British workers the response will be equally militant.

China on their minds

11th June 2021

Bonhomie and bluster – Biden and Johnson meet ahead of the G7 in Cornwall

The notional leaders of the so-called free world gather this weekend at the G7 summit in Cornwall to discuss the big issues of the day.  Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and security threats, real or perceived, are all likely to feature as part of the agenda.

In foreign policy terms US President Joe Biden has made the promise, regarded by many as a threat, that ‘America is back’.   The phrase certainly rang hollow in the streets of Gaza recently, as US manufactured missiles rained down upon a largely defenceless population, courtesy of the Israeli Defence Force. 

It certainly plays no better in the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, fuelled by US and UK weaponry, with the Saudi dictatorship this time pulling the trigger.

The UK press has already been effusive about the initial meeting between Biden and British Prime Minster, Boris Johnson, with Johnson himself describing the meeting with Biden as being like a “breath of fresh air.”  The Trump presidency did not set the bar too high in that respect so Biden is going to score initially for simply not being Trump.

The new President’s easy manner and natural bonhomie will no doubt endear him to the liberal press, always desperate to find a glimmer of hope that the leaders of the so called free world can co-operate, can come up with equitable solutions to global problems, can put aside the cut-throat competition which is the basis of capitalism and deliver something new.

It is a hope which can occasionally find its moment.  In World War 2 the forces of capitalism had allowed their usually caged attack dog, fascism, to get out of control and present an existential threat to the world order.  Only through co-operation with the Soviet Union, pragmatically regarded by the West as the lesser of two evils, could the fascist threat be put back in its cage.  It did not take the West long to revert to type however, initiating the Cold War against the Soviet Union and forming the aggressive NATO military alliance as its spearhead.

Following the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1991 however, having supported the forces which turned back the clock on socialist development, initially through the drunkard Yeltsin and subsequently the autocrat Putin, the re-establishment of capitalism in Eastern Europe was not something the West could easily argue against.  The transformation of anti-Sovietism into the routine anti-Russian sentiment which is the common currency of Western politics took a little more time.

The manoeuvrings of Vladimir Putin to retain political control at all costs has made the task of demonising Russia that much easier.  Accusations of interference in elections and of the political assassination of enemies abroad have contributed to the picture being painted of a Russian threat.  Russian actions in the Ukraine, Crimea and intervening at the request of the Assad government in Syria have, for many in the West, sealed the deal, if indeed the deal was ever in doubt.

The extent to which the G7 may agree to co-operate is, of necessity, predicated upon the concept of there being an external threat, against which the economic might of the G7 and the military power of NATO must be in a state of readiness to repel.  The Cold War narrative, subscribed to across the political spectrum, was to hold back the tide of communism, embodied by the Soviet Union.

There is certainly no dissent in the G7 that Russia is anything other than a threat to Western interests.  Capitalism is nothing if not competitive and even a relatively weak capitalist state such as Russia represents a potential threat.  Added to this is the new dimension of the growing economic and technological threat which China poses.

Free from the pressures of monopoly capitalism, China was for many years a source of low cost consumer goods for Western markets. This could be tolerated as being no threat to the market dominance of Western corporations.  That is all changing.

The challenge which Chinese technology represents to the US hi-tech sector has resulted in the pressure to squeeze Huawei out of the 5G market and increase reliance upon US manufactured components.  Chinese investment in South America and Africa is seen by the West as a threat to the interests of Western corporations, while the Chinese Belt and Road programme is seen as a direct challenge to the stranglehold of the West, and its proxy fronts the IMF and World Bank, upon developing economies.

Amid the backslapping, sun bathing and beer swilling of the G7 summit some warm words about tackling the pandemic and addressing the climate crisis will no doubt emerge.  Commitments on both will no doubt find their way onto the summit’s final communique. By all accounts any reference to China will be missing.

There is little doubt however, that on the return flight home on Airforce One, it is China that will be on President Joe Biden’s mind.