More than 100,000 people in the UK have died as a result of COVID-19, according to the latest official figures. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, claims that the government have done everything in their power to save lives. That is not true. At every stage of the pandemic the government have made decisions driven by economic imperatives rather than public health concerns.
The government dithered initially about locking down the economy; failed to set up an effective test, trace and isolate system; gave out optimistic signals that Easter, Summer then Christmas would be the point at which the death toll would slow down and the government would ‘control the virus’.
Mask wearing took months to become the norm, schools re-opened in September and, along with the impact of the summer Eat Out to Help Out scheme, saw the beginning of the second spike in infection rates. The furlough system has been a lifeline for some but many more still cannot access support other than through Universal Credit. Even there the additional £20 which the government provided to help the most vulnerable is in danger of being withdrawn at the end of March.
Thousands of jobs are being lost with 25,000 in the retail sector alone this week. On the day the death toll crossed the 100,000 line the highest unemployment figures in the UK for five years were announced, with 418,000 people losing their jobs in the last year alone. That is not a coincidence, that is negligence on the part of a government that can neither protect the population through its public health measures, nor sustain the economy it claims it is doing its best to protect.
The inept test and trace system fails fundamentally because people in a zero hours and low pay economy cannot stay at home and self isolate, for the simple reason that they cannot afford to do so. Unless the government addresses this fundamental issue infection rates amongst the poorest communities will continue to rise.
The highest death toll in Europe, the fifth highest death toll in the world. What has happened in the UK over the past year is a national scandal. The government’s response has not only failed to tackle the issues at the core of the rising rate of infections but at every turn has compounded them, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths.
It is ironic that Johnson’s Brexit campaign rhetoric placed so much emphasis upon the UK taking back control of its borders. Any measures to actually do this, which may have helped stem the flow of infection through minimising cross border traffic and quarantining visitors, have only been under consideration in the past week.
The light at the end of this very long tunnel is the vaccination programme. The government will try to milk whatever credit it can from the fact that the roll out is, at present, reaching thousands every day. That this is good news cannot be denied, although Big Pharma will no doubt see a profit, but it should not get the Tories off the hook.
The virus has been catastrophic for working class people and their families. It has hit working class communities the hardest. Its long term effects in both health and economic terms will stay with the working class for longer and recovery will be slower. Recovery for employers will mean maintaining low pay and trying to maximise profits, given the additional pool of labour created by the crisis, the additional numbers desperate for work.
This is the very nature of capitalism, exposing the Tories’ protection of their class, their interests, at the expense of those who are the real wealth creators. The wealthiest have not lost out in the pandemic nor have they been made to pay their share. The working class have suffered over ten years of austerity, paying off the gambling debts of bankers following the 2008 crisis. It is time for payback, in every sense.
The Israeli democratic rights group, B’Tselem, which tracks human rights violations, published a report this month claiming that the Israeli state is effectively running a system of apartheid in relation to its treatment of the Palestinian population in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank.
“Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it,” said the body’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad. “It is one regime between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid.”
The response of the Israeli establishment has been predictably dismissive with Ohad Zemet, the spokesperson for Israel’s UK embassy, dismissing the report as “a propaganda tool”, stating that,
“Israel rejects the false claims in the so-called report as it is not based on reality but on a distorted ideological view.”
B’Tselem’s report illustrates that Israel has created a system over all of the state of Israel and the illegally occupied territories, in which Jewish citizens have full rights. Palestinians on the other hand are divided into four tiers with various levels of rights depending on where they live, but always below Jewish people.
At the lowest end are the roughly 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant group, Hamas, subject to an Israeli blockade, which effectively gives the Israeli state complete control over people, goods and services which can enter or leave the territory.
Only slightly better off are the roughly 2.7 million Palestinian “subjects” in the West Bank, who are described by B’Tselem as living in “dozens of disconnected enclaves, under rigid military rule and without political rights”.
The roughly 350,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem fare marginally better. Although Israel has offered citizenship to these residents, many have refused on principle and the rejection rate is high for those that try.
Palestinian citizens of Israel, also called Arab-Israelis, have full citizenship and make up about a fifth of the population of Israel. However, as B’Tselem point out, they are also subject to land ownership discrimination, immigration laws that favour Jews and laws that give Jewish people extra political rights.
While Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has put on hold plans to annexe part of the West Bank, B’Tselem argue that there is already a “de facto” annexation, with more than 400,000 Jewish settlers living there and enjoying the same rights, and many of the same services, as other Israelis.
The report comes at a time when the Israelis are gaining huge international media profile for their COVID-19 rapid vaccination programme, with 25% of the 9 million population already having had a first shot and 850,000 a second jab, including 80% of the population over 60 years old.
However, while the Jewish population enjoy the benefits of vaccine protection the Palestinian population are excluded from the programme. In the West Bank the vaccine is distributed to Jewish ‘settlers’ but not to the Palestinian population. In Gaza the impact of the Israeli blockade makes a desperate situation even worse, with even routine medical supplies being difficult to access.
The route to the vaccine for Palestinians is through the World Health Organisation (WHO) programme, Covax, designed to support poorer nations gain access to vaccines. Even this route, should supplies get through, would only see vaccines reaching the Palestinian population by mid-February at the earliest. Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of office at WHO Jerusalem, said it could be “early to mid-2021” before vaccines on the Covax scheme were available for distribution to the Palestinian territories.
While Israelis claim that they are not responsible for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, the ongoing occupation places humanitarian and legal obligations upon the Israeli state. Moreover, while the Israeli rapid vaccination programme aims for a quick return to some form of normality, Palestinians could remain trapped by the virus. That may have a negative impact on Israel’s goal of herd immunity, as thousands of West Bank Palestinians work in Israel and the settlements, which could keep infection rates up.
Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law include a duty to maintain “public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” (Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention).
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has placed particular emphasis upon the plight of those in the blockaded Gaza Strip stating,
“Israel’s blockade on Gaza will have catastrophic effects on the spread and fatality of coronavirus within the besieged strip. We must urge the UK to use its diplomatic power to put end to this, so that Palestinians can gain access to the healthcare they need during this crisis.”
The Israelis continue to claim that they are not presiding over an apartheid regime. On this evidence it is difficult to see how else to characterise it.
While the likelihood of the British government taking up the Palestinian cause is slim, the same can also be said of the Labour opposition. Labour leader, Kier Starmer, has just appointed former Israeli spy, Assaf Kaplan, to a key post in his office to manage social media output and surveillance.
Kaplan spent five years in Israeli military intelligence cyberwarfare outfit, Unit 8200, specialising in spying, hacking and encryption. This included spying on Palestinian civilians living under Israeli occupation.
The appointment hardly inspires confidence that the Leader of the Opposition’s Office will be providing objective information on the situation in the occupied territories and the Middle East generally.
PSC has asked Keir Starmer to make a public statement making clear his abhorrence of the activities of Unit 8200, in accordance with Labour’s stated commitment to an ethical foreign policy rooted in respect for international law and human rights. PSC have also demanded that he should outline the steps he has taken to ensure that these values are held by all of those working in his office.
The self styled “land of the free and home of the brave” will this week inaugurate its 46th President, Joe Biden, inside a capital that has effectively become a military fortress, with the deployment of an estimated 20,000 troops across the city. Washington DC has been transformed, since the Donald Trump inspired neo-fascist storming of the Capitol building last week, in the failed attempt to subvert the confirmation of the election outcome.
The militarisation of Washington for the Inauguration Day ceremony on 20th January is a reflection of the ongoing threat of neo-fascist violence to which the Trump presidency has given licence. That threat is, according to the FBI, a real and present danger in the capitals of every state across the so-called United States, with gun toting white supremacists threatening a show of strength across the country in opposition to Biden’s presidency.
The tension across the United States is reflected in the fear expressed by those opposed to Trump, as reported this week by the People’s World,
“One thing Trump has clearly been successful with is instilling fear in anyone thinking of coming out against him. People with anti-Trump t-shirts and bumper stickers and those with Biden-Harris signs in windows or on cars are removing them, also out of fear for themselves or their property. A young couple with a reputation in the Hyde Park section of Chicago for driving a car with no less than 30 bumper stickers promoting liberal causes said they spent time Thursday soaking and removing them.”
Through the variety of social media platforms used by right wing groups, neo-fascists across the US are calling on people to join a so called Million Martyr March on Inauguration Day. The same right-wing groups have been known to use a wide variety of tactics to achieve their ends, including posing as left or progressive activists to smear the reputation of those groups, as well as mounting attacks on police departments that they think are not right-wing enough for them.
The reality of institutional inequality and racial injustice in the United States has been brought to the fore in recent months with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-Trump coalition which has delivered Biden the presidency.
However, while the challenge for Biden has been exposed by the four years of Trump’s presidency the underlying rot in the United States had taken firm hold long before. In 2016, after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Pew Research Center thinktank estimated that the median wealth of white households in the US was $117,000, ten times that of black households at $17,100. This was larger than in 2007, the year before Obama was elected.
Pew also estimates that income inequality in the US increased by 20% between 1980 and 2016. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that Chief Executive Officers have seen salary rises of 940% since 1978, while the typical workers wage rose a mere 12% over the same period.
Racial division is used by the right wing in the United States to mobilise disaffected poor whites but it is clear that the real divide in the US is along class lines. Racial prejudice is used, as ever to divide and rule as the US establishment fears, more than anything else, a united working class response to oppression and injustice.
The constitutional consensus which has sustained US capitalism in its one system, two parties approach has been breached in the past four years. The final days of the Trump administration have been designed to ensure that the breach in the system cannot be closed and that the ‘healing’ of Joe Biden’s rhetoric cannot occur.
Inauguration Day this week will be one further test but it will by no means be the final battle. Republicans are already looking ahead to 2024 and planning a way to regain the White House. Trump himself, or a family member, may be deemed a step too far for some Republicans but acolytes, such as outgoing Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, are not just waiting in the wings but are actively planning a path to the Republican nomination.
As a recent People’s World article concludes,
“Unless the mass movements and broad coalitions that ousted Trump and elected Biden remain united and continue their fight for social and economic justice, what happens in this country over the next few years will likely be much worse than what happened in the Capitol last week or what will happen next week in our country.”
The scenes from the United States last week shook the world but they are unlikely to be the last we see the as the struggle escalates. Working class unity, in the face of the onslaught, will be more vital now than ever.
The United States is not the world’s greatest democracy. It is, if anything, the world’s most cunning dictatorship. The scenes on Capitol Hill yesterday were the latest phase in a power struggle within the ruling circles of the US to maintain the grip of a particular faction which represents the hawkish political line as personified by Donald Trump.
To date, the margins in US politics have been slight. The ‘liberal’ Barack Obama was no less hawkish than many US Presidents before him when it came to foreign policy but clearly had a more open approach on certain social questions. A presidency under Joe Biden would be expected to continue down a similar path, tough on ‘enemies’ abroad, softer on social policy at home.
This in itself is largely illusory. Whoever becomes US President has to have garnered financial support from corporations and billionaire sponsors, has little room to challenge the grip of the military industrial complex and will only be allowed to be socially liberal insofar as they do so without undermining the profits of those backers.
The Electoral College system is inherently anti-democratic and can result in the candidate coming second in the popular vote still winning the presidency. Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes than Donald Trump in 2016 but Trump has been in the White House for the past four years.
It should not be forgotten that the US has imposed an illegal 60 year blockade against the island of Cuba. There are detainees held without trial at Guantanamo Bay. Interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have been examples in recent history of the US using its military might to assert its position in the world. The US is the world’s most highly armed nuclear power. This is not a paragon of democracy.
The backers of Donald Trump have nevertheless sought to break with this consensus and push the US even further to the right. The Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ message has provided the focal point for those in the US ruling circles who fear the US losing its military role as the world’s policeman; who fear it will lose its ability to throw its financial weight around to reinforce US ‘interests’; who fear the growing economic and military power of China.
Trump has been the vehicle by which the establishment consensus has been challenged. The Trump presidency has tested the potential for a right wing demagogue to occupy the White House. Trump’s support is still estimated to be 30% of the American people. That is by no means a majority but it does represent a potentially substantial power base in the wrong hands.
The claim that the 2020 election was ‘stolen’ has no basis in fact and the Trump camp has produced no evidence, yet the claim still resonates with a political base disillusioned with a political system which does not meet their needs.
Trump’s supporters are wrong and misled on many counts but it is a fact that the US system does not serve the needs or interests of the mass of working class Americans. It has concentrated power in the hands of a rich political establishment backed by a few corporations which protect their vested interests. The tragedy of Trump’s supporters is that they are being manipulated by an alternative faction which wants to use their disillusionment to destabilise the system, in order to pursue their own interests.
A real challenge to the politics of the US establishment would be a united working class front, with no racial divisions, supportive of progressive policies at home and abroad, and capable of challenging the obscene levels of military expenditure which drain the economy while enriching a few military corporations.
This would be worthy of insurrection, this would be worth storming Capitol Hill to demand. That four people should die for a fake president perpetuating fake demands is a tragedy. The working class of the United States deserve better. They must unite to demand it.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and millionaire wife Akshata, not suffering wealth loss at present
The agenda of the UK government, to protect profits ahead of public health as the core driver to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, continues to inform their decision making and will result in greater numbers of unnecessary deaths. All of the evidence points to the return to school of pupils across the UK as being likely to cause a spike in infections, at a time when the NHS is on the point of being overwhelmed and a new highly transmissible form of the virus is rampant.
In a system which put the health and wellbeing of its population before the profits of business there would be only one course of action. Close schools, lock down the economy and drive down infection rates to a level which can be managed within existing NHS resources.
A truly planned approach would also ensure that health and care workers, as well as teachers and support staff, would be prioritised for vaccination in order to allow them to get back to their professions as quickly as possible with the least risk of catching the virus.
Some caveats would also need to be applied. The children of key workers and the most vulnerable need to be accommodated, both in COVID secure childcare settings and potentially in socially distanced classrooms. Workers who cannot afford to stay off work due to financial hardship must be compensated by the State, businesses forced to close need to be supported, prioritising the recovery of the cultural sector and workers in the arts needs more attention. An effective test, track and trace system is long overdue.
It all costs money but the recent report of the Wealth Tax Commission identified a potential £260bn which could be raised from a windfall tax upon the wealthiest, over a five year period. A more radical approach could raise even more. Researchers at the Resolution Foundation think tank have this weekend found that the richest 1% in the UK have almost £800bn more wealth than previously thought, due to around 5% of the wealth of the richest households having been missed by official measures.
As a consequence of this research the Resolution Foundation estimate that the total share of UK wealth held by the top 1% of the population is up from 18% to 23%, as economist Jack Leslie put it,
“The UK has undergone a wealth boom in recent decades, which has continued even while earnings and incomes have stagnated. But official data has struggled to capture these gains, and misses £800bn of assets held by the very wealthiest households in Britain.”
For workers in the NHS, care homes, public health and local government, on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19, the news of a wealth boom will no doubt come as a surprise. Apart from having had to struggle thorough the past decade of austerity, most of these workers were handed a pay freeze, effectively a cut in real terms, in the recent budget by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Not that Sunak has any personal interest but a wealth tax would require him to dip into his vast personal and family fortune in order to make a contribution. Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murthy, and her relatives hold a multimillion pound portfolio of shareholdings in her family’s tech firm. Murthy’s assets alone are estimated to be £430 million.
A screeching u-turn has seen the government concede that all primary schools in London must remain closed this week, although the same instruction is not being applied to other Tier 4 areas. The National Education Union (NEU) has advised staff at primary schools that it is unsafe to return to the classroom this week and should resort to online learning. The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) has initiated legal action against the government demanding to see the safety evidence for the re-opening schedule.
In short the situation is chaotic. Instead of consulting with the key professionals and workers in the health, care and education sectors the government has attempted to manage by kowtowing to the needs of business and avoiding an unpopular headline in the Daily Mail. The irony is that the UK not only has one of the world’s highest death rates from the pandemic, it also has one of the deepest recessions and will take longer than most comparable economies to recover. The government is failing on every front.
A public health crisis, dealt with more effectively, would not have generated such an economic crisis which in turn need not have escalated into an education crisis of such proportions. There is only one cure for capitalist incompetence, arising from greed and self interest, that is to change the system fundamentally, so that it is based upon the needs of the people not those with vested interests in the status quo.
The case for socialism becomes clearer with each day. In the meantime the workers having to follow the twists and turns of government policy will continue to deliver services to the best of their ability. The vaccination programme is underway. There is hope at least that some relief is on the horizon for those at the greatest risk. The death count must be brought under control and stopped.
Goodbye and good riddance. The UK has left the European Union (EU) and, in spite of the hand wringing on sections of the Left, whose opposition to Brexit was instrumental in bringing about Labour’s General Election defeat in 2019, it is no bad thing.
The split is the latest chapter in a protracted tale of inter-imperialist rivalry which has shaped post Second World War Europe and highlighted the fault lines in the UK political establishment for half a century. Under the banner of creating a peaceful post war Europe the six original founders of what has become the EU, West Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands and Luxembourg came together to form the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950 before creating the European Economic Community (EEC), popularly known as the Common Market, through the 1957 Treaty of Rome.
While the UK struggled to come to terms with its declining global power and the gradual breakdown of its imperial empire in the post war period, the EEC formed a protective bloc fuelled by generous aid from the West’s newly established global power, the United States, through the Marshall Plan.
The United States provided $15 billion in aid through the plan, officially the European Recovery Programme, which also invested significantly in the UK, but in mainland Europe was seen as a tool to shore up Western economies against the advance of the perceived socialist threat from Eastern Europe. West Germany was a particular focus, as the capitalist ‘shop window’ aimed at demonstrating the superiority of the Federal Republic over its neighbours in the socialist German Democratic Republic.
The creation of the military bloc NATO in 1948 and the establishment of a network of US bases across Europe, as quid pro quo for economic aid, was crucial in shaping the Cold War politics of the post war period.
The wave of independence successes in the post war period, from India in 1947 onwards, underlined the decline of the UK’s colonial empire, although the post-colonial grip of UK corporations, in terms of economic engagement and military presence, remained strong. However, having ceded its dominant global role to the United States and with the increasing might of the Soviet Union and its allies becoming evident, fissures in the political establishment concerning the future role of the UK became sharper.
The debate over whether the UK should join the Common Market, or not, was a feature of the political narrative of the 1960’s, with pro and anti EEC trends emerging in both of the major parties, Labour and Conservative. The broadest consensus across both parties was sufficiently pro-European Community, as it had then become, to lead to the 1975 referendum result being a yes vote and the UK membership of the European club which it had formally joined on 1st January 1973, being confirmed.
Concluded in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty brought the, by then, 12 European Community states into the European Union, with the goal of ever greater “economic and monetary union”. The treaty was concluded at a point when defeat had been inflicted upon the Soviet Union, nationalist governments of various hue were emerging in Eastern Europe and the annexation of the German Democratic Republic, sold as the unification of Germany, was being celebrated as symbolic of the end of communism.
German capital moved swiftly to extend its orbit into the former socialist states, by investing heavily in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the former GDR. The attractions of a highly skilled but relatively low paid workforce proved to be too great an attraction not to exploit. German pressure upon Europe to recognise the breakaway states of Slovenia and Croatia effectively fired the starting pistol for the civil war in Yugoslavia. A network of relatively weak states dependent upon German capital, while also providing new markets for German goods, was quickly established.
German economic dominance of Europe by this time had been built largely upon investment in manufacturing and production. The UK had taken the path, upon which it continues, of being a centre for international speculation through the City of London, with manufacturing and production capacity remaining sadly under invested.
For British capital the choice has been between going with the flow of European integration and flexing its economic muscles, as one of the bigger fish in an ever expanding pool, or building upon the UK’s global economic investments and challenging the might of Germany to be the dominant economic force in Europe, implicitly and more recently explicitly, outside of the EU.
These fault lines have largely played out in the Conservative Party, traditionally the UK party of ruling class interests, but are reflected in a slightly different form in the Labour Party and wider labour movement.
The British Labour Party, whether in government or opposition, has rarely if ever broken with the post war consensus on economic and foreign policy. Those voices that have opposed the economic neo-liberal straightjacket of the EU, or opposed wars of intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, have been sufficiently marginalised by the Party leadership, not to be deemed a threat.
After years of battering by the Tory government under Margaret Thatcher sections of the labour movement were ready to cling on to any apparent lifeline by the time Maastricht came along. The Social Chapter provisions of the Treaty became the rallying point for those hoodwinked into thinking that the EU could provide a defence against the ravages of British capital, something it had signally failed to even attempt throughout the Thatcher years.
The Social Chapter provisions did not outline anything that could not have been enacted by a reasonably progressive social democratic government in the UK, in terms of limits on working time, access to parental leave and access to health and social services. Quite how well any of this stands up to scrutiny in the zero hours, low wage, underinvested and austerity ridden world of the UK in 2020 is a moot point.
In short, the EU was never going to provide a defence against the excesses of capital because its whole raison d’etre is to act in the interests of capital. Sending in the vampires to save the bloodbank was never going to work.
The legacy of this illusion however has had toxic repercussions within the Labour Party. The call for a second referendum for example, with Kier Starmer leading the charge, was the product of just such misjudged thinking. Better inside the EU than out. It was not the only factor undermining the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, but it was a significant one, and Labour went into the 2019 General Election with a policy that was neither fish nor fowl, but smelled worse than both, as a result.
The liberal Left are currently outraged that the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital will cease on 1st January 2021. The reality is that none of these so called freedoms have benefitted the working class in the UK. Goods and services will continue to move and various forms of tariff control will ensure that trade continues in the interests of business on both sides of the channel. Capital will roam within the boundaries imposed by international trade agreements and the limits of inter-imperialist rivalry, as one competitor seeks to gain advantage over another. No change there.
Restrictions on the movement of labour may stem the flow of low paid workers from eastern Europe in the short term but without sustained trade union pressure to increase wages British capital has been relatively adept at driving down terms and conditions to suit its interests in recent years.
A few prospective university students may find the opportunity to travel Europe in a gap year a bit more difficult but for most working class children the prospect of even getting to university, let alone enjoying the luxury of a ‘gap’ year, is something of which they can only dream.
The interests of the working class in Britain, or elsewhere in Europe for that matter, are not served by having to fight on more fronts than are necessary. Tackling the cronyism, entitlement and economic power of the British ruling class is a big enough task. Adding a European layer to that only serves to divert attention from the real sources of exploitation and inequality that need to be addressed.
The EU is not ally of the British working class. It is a wolf struggling to look good in ill fitting sheep’s clothing. It was created in the interests of capital and will act in the interests of capital. The focus here in the UK remains the same, to build mass opposition to the Tory government; to tackle all forms of racism and prejudice; to argue the case for a society which can truly realise the creative potential of every individual; and to build a future which does not allow for billionaire property speculation while thousands sleep on the streets.
Capitalism cannot deliver these things. Experience has shown that, time and again, capitalism delivers only mass unemployment, racist violence, increasing poverty, an inability to tackle the climate crisis and, at its worst extreme, war. The solution lies not in tinkering with the system, inside or outside the EU, but with the system itself. The solution is the demand for socialism.
UNICEF support to feed hungry children, condemned as shameful by Rees-Mogg
The incompetency, corruption and lies which have characterised the Tories’ response to the pandemic so far looks set to continue into the New Year and beyond. The lack of backbone which has seen the Tories fail to take decisive action act at keys points over the past nine months, for fear of doing something unpopular with the right wing press, is showing itself in the government’s handling of arrangements over the Christmas period.
Rising infection rates and a new strain of the virus has finally forced the government to concede that London and the South East should now be under tighter Tier 3 restrictions, a decision which could have been taken weeks ago and saved many lives. However, the general rise in infection levels and deaths is apparently not enough for the government to revise the five day period of family contact over Christmas.
As ever, the government’s approach is blinkered, concentrating on this Christmas, rather than taking a grip and persuading people to focus on the measures necessary to make sure friends and family are still around to see Christmas in 2021. Short term populism trumps longer term thinking every time with the Tories.
What should be seen as the scandal of the government’s approach, but is generally reported deep on the inside pages of the press and rarely by the BBC, is underlined by two stories which have emerged over the past week.
On Thursday, Tory millionaire Jacob Rees-Mogg, made ripples by criticising the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, UNICEF, for providing assistance to children in the south London Borough of Southwark, over the Christmas holidays and February half-term. UNICEF is providing a modest £25,000 to support children in the Borough, which is struggling because its own scheme to provide free school meals to all primary school pupils is facing the axe due to funding cuts.
In the east London Borough of Newham the universal free school meals offer, which guarantees all 3-11 year olds a free dinner during term time, a benefit to 14,000 children, is under threat. Newham leaders cite £250m in budget cuts over the past decade, the decade of austerity which saw the public sector pay for the gambling debts of bankers in 2008, as the reason for the scheme to be under threat, as core statutory services have to be prioritised.
This picture will be reflected in Councils across the country as underprivileged areas struggle to meet the twin threats of the impact of austerity and the costs of the pandemic, which is hitting working class communities hardest.
Rees-Mogg does not show one iota of contrition for the appalling consequences of his party’s policies merely shrugging that,
“UNICEF should be ashamed of itself.”
Given that the only concessions to feeding children that have been made by the government are those extracted under pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford, the response of Rees-Mogg should come as no surprise.
Anna Kettley, UNICEF UK’s Director of Programmes said,
“In partnership with Sustain, the food and farming alliance, over £700,000 of UNICEF UK funds is being granted to community groups around the country to support their vital work helping children and families at risk of food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic.”
This is the situation in the world’s fifth richest economy, where billionaires bask in unearned wealth while others sleep in cardboard boxes in the street. Where millionaire MPs see feeding children as a shameful act, while their policies continue to be responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands due to their mishandling of the pandemic.
In other areas the government is content to haemorrhage money like it was going out of fashion to ensure that its mates get contracts without any tendering process, whether or not they are capable, competent or contributing to suppressing the COVID-19 virus.
It was reported on Friday that the largest recipient of pandemic deals handed out by the Department of Health is Essex based transport firm, Uniserve, which has scooped a cool £779m from government coffers in a series of deals to ship PPE to the UK. According to internal NHS price benchmarking Uniserve were benefitting from a significant price mark up, selling medical grade masks to the NHS at 86p a time when the average market price, even according to the Department of Health, was 51p per mask. Those figures add up significantly when millions of such masks are being ordered.
There is no record of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, or any other member of the government condemning such practices as “shameful.”
The emerging debacle over mass testing in schools and the delayed return to school for some pupils in the New Year further reinforces the truth that for the Tories the real issue is profit, not people. A post Christmas virus wave and the prospects of a further national lockdown in January, once again closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, appear to be increasingly likely.
With deaths already heading towards the 70,000 mark, according to official figures, it is not far fetched to see 100,000 deaths being admitted in the not too distant future.
The Wealth Tax Commission was established in April 2020 to explore whether a wealth tax for the UK would be desirable and deliverable, as a means of contributing towards paying for the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission’s report, published this week, follows intensive research by a team of over fifty international experts on tax policy and practice. The three Commissioners are academics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of Warwick, and a leading barrister with long experience of advising High Net Worth Individuals.
In summary the Commission concluded that a one off wealth tax could be levied upon any UK resident with net worth over a certain level; include all sources of wealth such as property and pensions, not just income; and be payable over five years. The report does not recommend at what level the threshold for wealth should be set but in one model, setting the bar at £1 million, taxed at 1% per year for five years, the Commission estimates that £260 billion could be raised over the five year period.
Dr Arun Advani, Assistant Professor at the University of Warwick and Visiting Fellow at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, said: “We’re often told that the only way to raise serious tax revenue is from income tax, national insurance contributions, or VAT. This simply isn’t the case, so it is a political choice where to get the money from, if and when there are tax rises.”
Dr Andy Summers, Associate Professor at LSE’s Department of Law and Associate Member of the International Inequalities Institute, said: “Our report provides the first serious look at proposals for a UK wealth tax in nearly half a century. A one-off wealth tax would work, raise significant revenue, and be fairer and more efficient than the alternatives.”
With the economic costs of the pandemic currently running at an estimated £280 billion, the implementation of such an approach would appear to be glaringly obvious, even to a capitalist economist. By way of contrast, raising £250 billion from income tax over 5 years would require a 9% increase to the basic rate, or all income tax rates to rise by over 6%. The report however was not commissioned by the Government and there is no indication that it is likely to influence government policy. On the contrary UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is on record as stating in July 2020, “No, I do not believe that now is the time, or ever would be the time, for a wealth tax”.
Instead, Sunak has adopted an approach which has a public sector pay freeze as its centre piece, making teachers, firefighters, local government workers and the care sector pay for the pandemic. Sunak has so far refused to consolidate the extra £20 per week paid to those on Universal Credit beyond March 2021, to help address the impact of sudden and severe unemployment. Sunak has not seen his way to extend the furlough scheme, to help those businesses struggling to survive, beyond the end of the financial year, in spite of the optimism generated around the COVID-19 vaccine coming on stream.
It is interesting to note that, while the one off wealth tax idea in itself presents a challenge to Tory thinking, in the view of the authors of the report, an annual tax would be much more difficult to deliver effectively and would only be justified if the aim was specifically to reduce inequality by redistributing wealth. Shudder the thought that a UK government could have such an objective!
While the report presents the political establishment with an option, in terms of paying the financial costs of the pandemic, it is still an attempt by one element of the political establishment to find a fix. It is not in itself suggesting a fix for the endemic inequalities of capitalism or presenting any fundamental challenge to the system. There is no question raised as to why any society should have such a thing as ‘high net worth’ individuals in the first place, when others are unemployed or homeless.
These questions, the authors of the report would no doubt argue, were not within its remit. However, they are legitimate questions nonetheless, especially in the context of over 60,000 COVID-19 deaths according to official figures, the massive impact upon working class communities of job losses, and the insecurity which continues to haunt many in relation to future income and employment.
The Wealth Tax Commission report makes clear that the wealth is there and could be harvested for public good, even on a one off basis. It could be a source of income for the Exchequer on an annual basis if the political will prevailed. More importantly, the fact of such extreme wealth in society, only accumulated through financial chicanery or exploitation, should come under the spotlight and be challenged.
There are questions which the political establishment in the UK do not want to be asked. That is why even the report of the Wealth Tax Commission is generally buried in the financial pages, rather than being reported as banner tabloid headlines. Even such a relatively tame challenge cannot be given too much airtime, in case the obvious conclusions are drawn.
Capitalism is a moribund system surviving only through a complex deployment of smoke and mirrors, which keeps the real character of the system disguised. The current pandemic however continues to expose the flaws and contradictions in the system. People are increasingly looking for an alternative, an alternative which only socialism can provide.
Vaccination is now the name of the Covid-19 game, with the race being on to roll out as much as possible, as quickly as possible, as safely as possible. From next week the most vulnerable, starting with those aged over 80, will be offered the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine across the country. The NHS are confident that,
“The vaccine has met strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness set out by the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).”
Like much else about the pandemic, the fact that a vaccine has become available appears to have taken the government by surprise. On the assumption that a vaccine would emerge it would be reasonable to assume that some planning may have gone into the programme for rolling out the vaccination, bearing in mind the urgency attached to defeating the virus.
However, as at other key stages in the pandemic (early lockdown, efficient test and trace, coping with a second wave) the government appears to have been under prepared for the consequences and in this case the implementation of rollout.
The past week has seen NHS officials scrambling to find suitable locations in which to undertake the vaccination programme, with sports halls, community centres and the occasional draughty scout hut being dragooned into service to accommodate the first wave of vaccinations.
Selected hospitals across the country will begin roll out this week while Primary Care Networks scour their localities for locations which can deal with almost 1,000 people in a four day period from 15th December, in a Covid secure way, in order to get the first wave of community vaccinations underway this side of Christmas.
No doubt with the engagement of local authority teams appropriate venues will be found and the vaccination programme will be ready to go. Except that, there are already concerns about the number of trained staff available to undertake the vaccinations themselves. Once again, an issue which could have been anticipated, with some thought and consideration given to how additional staff could either have been recruited or trained in advance.
As things stand the NHS are concerned about being overwhelmed as the roll out coincides with the peak winter cold and flu period, as well as having to cope with conditions and operations for patients delayed from the first wave of the virus. If NHS staff are deployed to deliver vaccines they are not going to be available for other duties. Chris Hopson, Chief Executive of NHS Providers puts it succinctly,
“Clearly the perfect storm would be if we have the combination of a third surge at the end of January, triggered perhaps by the looser rules over Christmas, and a cold snap, and the massive backlog of treatment for people that was delayed from the first phase – and having to do the vaccination at the same time. That would be the nightmare scenario.”
Retired medical staff and existing medical students are already being mooted as candidates for vaccination delivery, as well as ambulance staff and even airline cabin crew.
Hamfisted organisation around the pandemic is only equalled by the inability of the government to come to a Brexit deal with the EU to keep goods and services moving into the New Year, when current regulations end on 31st December.
With only 800,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the country so far, with another 5 million doses expected by the end of the year, mass vaccination will depend upon supplies reaching the UK post Brexit, with 35 million doses expected to follow from 1st January. Whether a deal is reached with the EU or not in the next few days extra checks on goods leaving and entering the UK and on those entering from the EU are expected from 1st January.
However unexpected the global pandemic may have been, no such plea of mitigation could be remotely plausible for departure from the EU, which has now been on the cards for four years.
Ironically, with Boris Johnson’s love of inappropriate military metaphor to describe the struggle to suppress Covid-19, it is the military who may be called upon to ensure sufficient quantities of the vaccine are available. The Ministry of Defence has military planes on standby should they be required to beat the lorry queues at Dover and bail out the government. Expect many press stories about the resilience and fighting spirit of ‘our boys’ should such a scenario come to pass.
The inept handling of the pandemic by the government, compounded by the confusion of measures over supporting the economy and delivering an effective public health message, have resulted in a lack of confidence in the general public over the effectiveness and safety of any vaccine. A recent poll for The Observer suggests that 35% of the public say they are unlikely to take the vaccine; 48% are worried about its safety; while 55% are worried about side effects.
This is not a good situation when mass take up is essential for effective immunity. The Tories demonstrate daily how things should not be done, with the Covid-19 death toll close to 60,000 on official figures. An effective opposition would be outlining a clear alternative programme for how things should be done. There is no sign of Labour under Kier Starmer being that opposition.
The mishandling of the pandemic in particular and its economic impact in general has seen another 30,000 jobs in the retail sector under threat in the past week alone, with Debenhams and the Arcadia group going under. Unemployment will surge in the New Year with no remedy in prospect.
Working class communities, hit hardest by the pandemic are also those being hit hardest by the economic backlash. A cosy consensus in the so-called national interest is not good enough. Labour needs to be on the side of the under privileged and oppressed. It needs to be seen to be fighting their corner. That means action both inside and outside Parliament, around a programme which can begin to address the needs of the many, not the few.
Assassination scene – the car of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh after the attack
The assassination yesterday of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is widely believed to have been the work of the Israeli secret service, Mossad. Having the means, motive and finding the opportunity is part of the Mossad modus operandi. The long standing hostility towards Iran of the Israeli regime, particularly the faction supporting Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been well documented and the danger of further military intervention by the Israelis long feared in the Middle East.
The timing of this particular act is clearly linked to the change in the administration in the United States. Israel has had no stronger supporter than President Donald Trump in recent years and it is feared that Joe Biden will take a more consensual line towards Iran than the openly provocative positions taken by Trump.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), widely known as the Iran nuclear deal, agreed between the Western powers, including the United States, and the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2015 was one of the first foreign policy casualties of the Donald Trump presidency. Since the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, in May 2018, a period of exacerbated uncertainty has existed in relations between the two countries and across the Middle East.
The United States has used the demonisation of the Islamic Republic as cover for changing the balance of forces in the Middle East, in particular the negotiation of agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to recognise and trade with Israel. At a stroke Trump has blown apart the fragile alliance of Arab states supporting the rights of Palestinians to self determination, in opposition to the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
However, the Biden/Harris ticket, while remaining unwavering in US foreign policy terms in its support for Israel, is unlikely to be quite as hostile towards Iran. As Vice-President to Barack Obama, Biden was part of the administration which orchestrated the Iran nuclear deal and is unlikely to view it in terms as hostile as Donald Trump.
The ongoing struggle to control the COVID-19 coronavirus will be a major priority for a Biden administration. With the US still the world leader in the death count from the disease, Biden is unlikely to want to risk body bags returning from an unnecessary conflict in the Middle East. The regime in Iran may be many things but it would not be a pushover militarily.
The prospect of normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and with it the possibility of military action against Iran may not be far away. As well as the assassination of Fakhrizadeh the dangers are underlined by the recent mission of two US B52 bombers which recently conducted a surprise, round-trip to the Persian Gulf area allegedly “to deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies”.
With just under two months left in office there remains the danger that Trump, either directly or through one of the US regional proxies, will take a foreign policy initiative in the Middle East that will damage the chances of a new administration being able to chart a less provocative course.
For the people of Iran the situation remains bleak. Widespread protests against economic mismanagement and corruption continue. The tightening of economic sanctions by the Trump administration has only served to make what was already a bad situation for the Iranian people even worse. The inability to trade major commodities, oil in particular, has plunged the economy into near hyper-inflation with the associated redundancies, job insecurity and impoverishment which inevitably follows.
The economic crisis inside Iran is also affecting the capacity of the regime to continue its extraterritorial military activities in the Middle East (especially in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon) and with it, the financial and moral influence to continue “exporting Islamic revolution”.
There are reports that the Russian government has raised the issue with the regime in Iran of removing its military forces and ceasing its operations in Syria. Since 2011, the regime has annually spent between $5bn and $11bn in Syria in pursuit of its strategic plans. Russia envisages a different future model for Syria to that of the theocratic regime in Iran.
The progress of the much debated 25-year strategic agreement between Iran and China is also likely to be affected by other regional influences with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, recently proposing the formation of a forum in the Middle East to foster multilateral engagements with the “equal participation of all stakeholders.”
As ever in the Middle East there are many players with conflicting interests and the balance of forces can easily be tipped by the slightest action. The question has to be asked, in whose interest is the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh? It is certainly not in the interests of the Iranian people who are only likely to suffer further from economic hardship or, worse still, military intervention.
A destabilised Iran may well suit the agenda of the neo-con backers of Donald Trump and potentially reinforces Israel as the region’s strong man. How Iran reacts, and whether the hardliners in Tehran gain the upper hand, could well determine whether there is any prospect for peace in the short term or whether the people of the Middle East face a further round of conflict.