October 20, 2015

The resignation of Lord Warner from the Lords’ Whip is very good news for the Labour Party, and an indication that its policies are heading in the right direction.

In a grandiloquent letter to Corbyn to announce his resignation, Warner branded the democratic election of the Labour leader “unacceptable” and slammed Corbyn’s policies, writing that “The approach of those around you and your own approach and policies is highly likely to worsen the decline in the Labour Party’s credibility.”

Again betraying a fundamental distaste for party democracy, Warner bemoaned “activists secur[ing] ever greater control of the party’s apparatus and processes” before making the bizarre suggestion that Labour adopt “a policy approach that wins back people who have moved to voting Conservative and UKIP, as well as to the Greens and SNP.”

No wonder senior Labour figures like Lord Prescott and the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Owen Smith have said that Warner’s departure will be “no great loss.”

Smith rightly noted that Warner has become notorious for advocating heavily privatised NHS services, including charging £10 per week for patients occupying hospital beds.

Warner has also served as a lobbyist for firms that stand to benefit from privatisation of hospital services, and also serves as a senior figure at Reform – one of the leading pro-privatisation think tanks. Deriving its funding from firms like KPMG, Barclays and Deloitte – Reform never misses a chance to advocate creaming off public money to private corporations.

As Health Minister under Tony Blair, Lord Warner constantly agitated for hiving off work from clinicians to technocratic managers or private companies, arguing that they were naturally more efficient and, conversely, that the NHS was hopelessly inefficient.

He had nothing to say about the findings of the Commonwealth Fund that, across the world, the NHS “ranks first overall, scoring highest on quality, access and efficiency.” Taxpayers in the UK spend around £2000 per head on their health service, compared with £5000 in the USA – and we receive much better outcomes.

According to Warner, under New Labour the workforce of the NHS expanded uncontrollably, leading to nose-diving productivity and “lousy services”. In a 2011 book to publicize his views, he wrote that “No one else in the world would be running an £80bn or £100bn business based on the kind of appalling financial management we have in the NHS.”

Warner also argued for “an end to national pay bargaining to allow flexibility in local labour markets” He even channelled Normal Tebbit, bloviating that “It’s not about handing stuff over lock, stock and barrel to the private sector; it’s actually getting on your bike and going to look at how other businesses do their business.”

The key word there is “business.” Lord Warner reduces the complexity of the NHS – which achieves near-miracles of health provision on a slender budget – to the ledger book of a corner shop.

The surprise is that Warner held on as an official Labour whip for so long. His outlandish views rightly jibe with those held by the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, and there is no place for a man who holds them in any left-wing party.

I wasn’t much taken by the analogy of Blairism to a “virus” by one union leader during the Labour leadership campaign. However, due to Warner’s health background, the comparison is irresistible. The immune system of democracy has purged one pathogen from the party. Let’s hope others follow.

U-Turn If You Want To

October 13, 2015

Despite accusations of a u-turn, the decision by John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn to oppose the government’s “Charter of Fiscal Responsibility” is absolutely the right thing to do. It’s a shame that McDonnell chose to be so mealy-mouthed about wanting to “balance the books” and out-compete George Osborne on deficit reduction.

The charter was never anything more than a trap to ensnare the opposition, and so it has proved. It intends to mandate that the government must run a budget surplus during what it calls “normal times” outside of an economic crisis.

McDonnell writes that “I believe that we need to underline our position as an anti-austerity party by voting against the charter on Wednesday.” This is key. Regardless of how the Labour Party plan to cut the deficit, they need to hammer away at this issue – the major dividing line in the public eye between them and the Tories.

Until it is not seen as irresponsible to make the poor pay for the excesses of the rich, there is no moral excuse for Corbyn and McDonnell to change tack.

At this point, talking about cutting the deficit in a more responsible is not helpful. The next election is five years away. We cannot know how the economy will look in 2020. We do know that people are angry at the government, and that Osborne’s recent cuts to tax credits are increasing that anger considerably.

When confronted with an open goal, you don’t turn around and dribble around the centre circle. You smash the ball home.

Regarding the Charter itself, there is a pressing need to ensure that such measures are rejected. The Tories kicked off the coalition by passing a bill which bound Parliaments to a certain fixed period. They now want to try to bind Parliament to a fiscal orthodoxy of their choosing. This is not democratic in any way, and Labour should make that point very clearly.

Economic policy shifts with circumstances, and in any situation there are many different policy options available. To lay down a single measure of fiscal probity is to reject both democratic input into economic policy making and the contribution of economic experts on a contingent basis. It is fundamentalism dressed up as sound money – and it won’t wash.

Labour has a panel of some of the world’s finest economic minds, ready to advise on how to counterpose this Tory trash with a productive, democratic economic policy. They need to use them, regardless of how many Labour Parliamentarians bemoan the shift away from austerity.

Protection Racket

October 11, 2015

Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox argue in the Observer for the creation of “safe havens” within Syria, where civilians can be protected against the depredations of both the Assad government and ISIS militants. These safe havens would be a complement to efforts to bring Assad to the negotiating table, and humanitarian efforts to assist refugees.

Some obvious questions arise. Firstly, where would the safe havens actually “be”? Mitchell and Cox stress that the “international community” should “provide” these havens, but they will at some stage have to transmute from words into actual geographical locations. If they are on Syrian territory, that won’t play well with Assad or his Iranian and Russian backers. How would we ensure that Putin and the Iranians support the safe haven concept?

Secondly, and related to the first question, will Assad return to the negotiating table with rebel groups (and ISIS?) if portions of Syrian have been wrested away by the international community as safe havens? He may not see them as politically neutral spaces that exist purely to safeguard innocent civilians.

It is likely that any safe havens would be created within rebel held territory. In that case, why would the Assad government and its paymasters believe that these havens were not simply a refuge for their military opponents? It stretches credulity to believe that the enforcers of the safe havens would be able to prevent FSA/al-Nusra/etc.. fighters from organizing within the boundaries of these areas.

If that is the case, and Assad sees the safe havens as a tool for those who seek his ouster, then why would he return to the negotiating table?

A related concern. If civilians are moved into safe havens, and bombing of ISIS is stepped up, is it not possible that ISIS militants will target these civilian populations asymmetrically? That is, via suicide bombings in areas where civilians are concentrated. Its not inconceivable. Look at what they seem to have done in Turkey.

Another strategic concern. If the safe haven concept is applied effectively, then does it not amount to “draining the swamp” of civilian support for guerrilla rebels? This may compromise the ability of anti-Assad forces to operate, laying them open to attacks and weakening the anti-government cause. Is that desirable?

I mention this because the safe havens concept is being brandished as a tool to mobilize political support for military action. Labour MPs are said to be ready to “defy” the party leadership over the issue, and scepticism about the whole venture is in short supply.

Yet the article by Mitchell and Cox is alarmingly vague over how their strategy to protect civilians would well, protect civilians by resolving the Syrian conflict. As they accept, “Of course, a military approach by itself won’t work, nor will any of the other components. Only through an integrated strategy with the protection of civilians at its core can we rescue something from this crisis.”

I think that we would be somewhat naïve to believe that the diplomatic, political and humanitarian components of their plan would enjoy parity with the military side, given the propensity of governments to use military ventures to boost their position. After all, the “international community” doesn’t have a great track record in integrating the arts of peace and war.

Mitchell and Cox also stress that their concerns are not based around western strategic imperatives or neo-colonial impulses. They state that “In our view, it is time get back to basics, to see the crisis in Syria as (radical though it may sound) primarily about Syria and Syrians”. Yet their article does not mention any Syrians aside from Assad, nor does it get to grips with the rebel groups of Syrians who must participate in any political solution.

I think that they are right to seek to foreground the desires and needs of Syrians, but that their plan will not do so. Western bombs are not the way to resolve intricate political conflicts, just as Russian bombs and the jackboots of Iranian Revolutionary Guards or the Youtube channels of British jihadis are not. Until a way is found to mobilize the moral force and political resources of Syrians – whether refugees, exiles, fighters or civilians – a lasting Syrian solution cannot be conceived. Yet so few Syrian voices are ever heard. Before any bombs are dropped, it’s time to listen to them first.

First As Tragedy…

October 7, 2015

Can we please dispense with the tiresome accusation that Jeremy Corbyn called Osama Bin Laden’s assasination a “tragedy” on a par with the September 11 attacks? When politicians repeat these allegations as fact, can we please mention somewhere that it is not what the Labour leader actually said?

No. No, we cannot. The Guardian seems to have reprinted a press release from Tory HQ reporting David Cameron’s conference speech, in which our PR-man in chief accused Corbyn of harbouring a ” security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology”. He then “illustrated this point by highlighting the reported remarks by the Labour leader that the death of Osama bin Laden had been a tragedy.”

The Guardian makes it seem as if Cameron agonised over whether to weaponize his bogus accusations. He “finally decided to highlight Corbyn’s remarks” after being bombarded by fellow world leaders at the UN whose only interest was “whether it was true that Corbyn had suggested that the death of the al-Qaida leader had been a tragedy.”

What balderdash. I’d wager he’s been chuckling to himself over the urinals at Tory HQ for weeks.

For the record, the remarks by Corbyn were made after Bin Laden was murdered by US Navy Seals in his Pakistani hideout. Corbyn made the completely reasonable point that it was a tragedy that Bin Laden had not been captured and tried, and found guilty under due process for the crimes that he was (allegedly) responsible for. He also suggested that using violence to resolve disputes in that way would perpetuate the cycle of terror and counter-terror, and he was absolutely right.

To be exact, Corbyn said that “This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died. Torture has come back on to the world stage, been canonised virtually into law by Guantánamo and Bagram. Can’t we learn some lessons from this? Are we just going to sink deeper and deeper?… This will just make the world more dangerous and worse and worse and worse.”

Nowhere in those remarks does he state that the death of Bin Laden was a tragedy on a par with 9/11, but he correctly argued that our inability to solve the problem of terrorism through legal means is a tragedy.

Cameron may well disagree that the courts are an appropriate venue for trying terrorists. After all, he is happy to launch drone attacks on British citizens without bothering to ask Parliament, and he’s agitating to unleash extra-judicial missiles on ISIS (and Syrian civilians). Cameron’s attack on Corbyn is utterly baseless and vile.

To its partial credit, the Guardian has an online piece asking the hot button question “does Jeremy Corbyn hate Britain?” This makes the blindingly obvious point that his words about Bin Laden were taken out of context.

The point is that there is no piece asking whether David Cameron believes in his expressed desire to wage total war in the “scourge of poverty” or whether his stated aim to “finish the fight for real equality in our country today” can hold any water at all.

And what about the promise of “a country raising its sights, its people reaching new heights, a great British take-off that leaves no one behind” – when the world economy is facing massive slowdown and deflation is on the cards?

Stop talking about whether Corbyn hates Britain and start reporting on the dissonance between Tory rhetoric and British reality. The real world, not the Westminster bubble.

David Cameron is beating the war drums for a bombing campaign in ISIS held Syrian territory. He has been on the offensive against peaceniks like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as well, branding him ignorant and reckless.

As the PM puts it, ISIS is “a group of people in Iraq and in Syria not only causing mayhem in those two countries but who are plotting day by day to kill and maim people on the streets of Britain and America and Australia and France and Belgium and the rest of Europe. The rest of Europe has woken up to this threat and is taking increasing action, but I don’t think the Labour leader seems to see that.”

With that in mind, it’s worth considering a few reasons to oppose any bombing campaign against ISIS. Many of these points could equally apply to the Russian blitz on Assad’s opponents that so-many leftish and fanatically right-wing commentators are salivating over.

Bombing ISIS will not lead to the group spontaneously dissolving itself. It will galvanise ISIS fighters on the ground as a siege mentality evolves, and it will attract more recruits from abroad, seduced by the prospect of resisting western militarism.

Bombing ISIS will not lead to the Syrian people rising up to create a democratic state, unless serious money is pumped into backing secular fighters, which doesn’t seem to be on the cards. Given the current configuration of support for groups like the al-Nusra Front by the Gulf States, Jihadist groups would be the primary beneficiaries from any ISIS retreats.

Bombing ISIS will inevitably kill civilians on the ground. It simply isn’t possible to target ISIS cells and command centres with any reliability, given their loose organization and (we must assume) willingness to use civilians as human shields, particularly Christians and Shiites.

Bombing ISIS will bolster the position of the Assad government, which has been by far the most brutal and murderous player in the Syrian civil war. It will send a signal to moderate opponents of Assad that the West is more concerned about putative threats to its own security than assisting pro-democracy campaigners in Syria.

Bombing ISIS will do nothing to reduce the risk of terrorism on British, French, German or American soil. In a world where the memory of American savagery in Iraq remains fresh, Israel continues to expand its settlements in the West Bank and US jets rain down hell on hospitals in Afghanistan, nobody needs ISIS to spark them into rage at western behaviour.

In fact, bombing ISIS will drastically raise the risk of catastrophic terrorism by ISIS affiliated groups against western targets in defence of their nascent caliphate.

Bombing ISIS will further entrench militarism within the polities of nations that use violence to achieve their ends. Our knee jerk resort to violence reflects a long-standing inability to understand where movements like ISIS come from, and how our violence is itself a catalyst for fresh horrors in the Middle East.

Bombing ISIS is no substitute for talks. Every bomb that is dropped without seriously pursuing diplomatic resolutions to the Syrian crisis will compromise the possibility of negotiating an end to ISIS, Assad and the fragmentation of the country into sectarian enclaves.

Don’t be fooled by short-term developments. The Middle East cannot be bombed into a shape that is acceptable to western observers. We should not glorify anyone who sees death from above as a panacea in this immensely complex region, and no true supporter of the Syrian revolution should welcome Cameron’s bombs.

A real opponent of the kind of fundamentalism that ISIS/the Taliban/Al Qaeda etc.. represents would place their support behind the millions of Syrians who rose up against the Assad regime, and whose repression and exile is the major reason for Syria’s current chaos. We should guarantee every Syrian a safe asylum and provide backing for all of them to participate in political organization across borders, creating a legitimate government (or coalition of different groups) in waiting that can counterpose the brutal government and the warlords on the ground. That opposition would ally with groups within Syria as it sees fit – it’s not up to us to decide. But my faith is that the millions of Syrians who oppose Assad are a greater force for change than the bombs being bolted to Britain’s creaking Tornado planes.

Dirty bombs, dirty tactics?

By the way, over the next few days we’ll probably be hearing quite a lot about ISIS attempts to smuggle cesium or other radioactive materials to cobble together a dirty bomb. The AP has carried out an investigation which the agency believes shows that Moldovan smugglers have sought to supply ISIS with cesium, specifically so that they can use it to “annihilate America.” A word of caution is advisable here.

a) The dirty bomb scare echoes previous yellowcake related stories that were planted prior to the Iraq War and the press remain susceptible to the same sorts of propaganda campaigns should the need arise. The report is based on investigations “built on a partnership between the FBI and a small team of Moldovan investigators.”

b) The report is extremely vague, referencing a “shadowy Russian named Alexandr Agheenco”. It contains a whole paragraph about what Moldovan authorities don’t know about who has nuclear materials or who they are selling it to.

c) The report smells of entrapment. A key part of the AP report notes that “Wiretapped conversations repeatedly exposed plots that targeted the United States”  while “At one point the middleman told an informant posing as a buyer that it was essential that the smuggled uranium go to Arabs.”

It may be that Russian smugglers were actively seeking out ISIS figures to spread mayhem across the world. If so, that would reflect a shocking lack of knowledge about how ISIS feel about Russia. Handle with care.

How can the Guardian parrot this trash?

Here they are talking about George Osborne at the Tory party conference where he “used his speech to the Conservative party conference to reveal the biggest transfer of power from central to local government in recent history.”

This, the same week that the Tories announced that they would be telling councils how to invest their pension funds, so as to avoid any nasty boycotts of rights abusing regimes or defence companies.

Westminster has also forced local authorities to bear the brunt of the costs of bailing out the financial sector, requiring cuts of between  25 and 40 percent in their budgets – decimating public sector employment and some essential services. In previous budgets, the Chancellor has been happy to tell councils how much they can charge for social housing rents as well.

Robert Peston also notes that the scale of Osborne’s “devolution” of powers over taxation to local authorities is extremely limited. Council’s will be restricted to tinkering with business rates, and will only be able to cut these rates (to attract businesses in a race to the bottom). Directly elected mayors may be able to raise business rates by 2p in the pound, if it’s put a vote amongst local businesses. Some chance.

Osborne will also be phasing out grants from government to LAs, and the money will be replaced by revenues from business rates. Peston notes that “that may be best seen as an administrative reform, rather than one of huge economic substance.”

Peston also makes the astute observation that “t could also seriously widen the gap between rich and needy councils” as “councils with the most serious social problems, and therefore the biggest costs, may find it hardest to woo businesses to their areas, and therefore may find it hardest to increase their revenues.”

What a surprise.

The fact is that any comprehensive program of devolution to local authorities would accelerate inequalities between different communities. By all means hand power over schools and services (and pension funds) to town halls, but this is a policy area where national planning and redistribution are essential. As I’m sure Osborne realises.

This is just another Tory bait and switch. The bait being the promise of devolution and northern “powerhouses” or councils that are creative entrepreneurial, innovative [insert buzzword here]. The switch will be to continually pass on new responsibilities and costs to local government and chip away at their budgets, while forcing them to compete with each other for the crumbs that are available.

Let’s not be fooled by this.

The Guardian reports that Jeremy Hunt has been speaking in defence of the Tory cuts to working tax credits to a fringe meeting at the Party Conference in Manchester.

No doubt dealing with a tough audience, Hunt lectured that “We have to proceed with these tax credit changes because they are a very important cultural signal. My wife is Chinese. We want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time. There’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard? And that is about creating a culture where work is at the heart of our success.”

He then reached the core of his theories on how the poor think in modern Britain:

“It matters if you are earning….yourself, because if you are earning it yourself you are independent and that is the first step towards self-respect. If that £16,500 is either a high proportion or entirely through the benefit system you are trapped. It is about pathways to work, pathways to independence … It is about creating a pathway to independence, self-respect and dignity.”

Hunt later defended his comments, arguing that “There was never a suggestion that people don’t work hard enough, only that we need to remove the barriers to a high-wage, low-dependency economy, which the national living wage is designed to do.”

Of course, there wasn’t a suggestion that people don’t work hard enough. It was baldly stated, without any suggestions required. It was also accompanied by the statement that poor people are pathologised by accepting in-work benefits.

There are plenty of things to say about Hunt’s words, but it’s worth recapping the context of huge cuts to working tax credits.

The cuts to tax credits tabled by the Tories are huge, and they will have a massive impact upon the life chances of millions of people. The BBC reports that the introduction of working tax credits helped to sharply decrease the percentage of children living in poverty in Britain from 35% to 19% between 1998 and 2012. They have been instrumental in allowing parents to juggle part time work and raising their children.

The Tories are gradually chipping away at who is eligible for these credits, reducing the earnings threshold before the credits start to decline from £6,420 to £3,850 per year. According to the IFS, this wil cost 3 million households over £1,000 per year, and the cuts will not be compensated by scheduled rises in the minimum wage. The IFS’ director Paul Johnson says that “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the budget on average.”

Hunt wants British workers to behave more like Chinese and Americans (as if the two workforces mentioned are in any way comparable). Presumably this means working longer hours for less pay (but more “dignity”). Tell that to the Foxconn workers in China who have been leaping to their deaths rather than assemble iPhones 99 hours a day.
Or tell it  to the fast food workers in the US who have been courageously fighting for higher wages. Tell it also to the hundreds of thousands of employees of Wal-Mart who rely on federally funded tax credits to survive. According to one study, the supermarket giant subsidises its corporate earnings with some $6.2 billion in tax credits every year.

The assumption is that the more poor people are paid, the lazier they become. This is radically disonant with the way that Tories think about very rich people. In their case, the more they are paid, the more incentivised they become, and the harder they work. A better illustration of class reality in modern Britain could hardly be drawn.

The assumption is also that national economic success is best promoted by making cleaners, factory workers, teaching assistants, supermarket shelf stackers, warehouse workers, delivery drivers – you name it – work harder and harder for less and less money. This is not just brutally immoral, it is also voodoo economics.

When people are paid more, the people paying them have a choice. They can either enforce radical cut backs in staffing and wages to limit costs, or they can invest in measures that allow their workers to work more effectively.

The problem is that for employers to act in this way, there need to be safeguards against the other option – a good old neoliberal slash and burn campaign. Trade unions, legislation, socially accepted norms regarding dignity at work and workers control – those sort of things.

The argument that tax credits lead to laziness is also pure balderdash. The Working Families Tax Credit was introduced to promote work and ease people off benefits, in the context of a relatively low-pay economy, and it hasn’t led to a reduction of working hours in the UK.

And it doesn’t matter how many hours you work in a job, the dignity dividend will be negligible if you feel that it is completely pointless, as around 40 percent of Brits do.

Jeremy Hunt has let the Tory mask slip (not for the first time). He comes from a party whose members probably feel that Little Britain was a masterpiece of social realism; where all poor people are crypto-shirkers, ready to back-slide and sabotage national prosperity at any given moment. They envisage a world where work is dismal, incessant but somehow ennobling and dignified.  Where any receipt of state benefits is fatal to self-respect.

Needless to say, this is not how they view the moral existence of the rich. State assistance for them is ennobling. If that assistance involved shovelling billions of pounds into the maws of bankers, propping up robber barons with their woeful railway firms, privatising every last public body and handing it to coteries of spivs, artfully engineering tax loopholes with the assistance of the big accountancy firms, failing to regulate the city properly, building high speed railways to nowhere, handing out tax breaks and loan guarantees like sweets – gradually ratcheting up the pay of MPs- all of it would be poison for a low wage worker. But for the rich – well, you can’t be dignified without a little state support.

This kind of bullshit needs to be vigorously opposed with a politics that articulates the actual needs of workers – the kind that is emerging from the Peoples Assembly and the protesters in Manchester.