Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Action plan for climate chaos

Although the Stern report on climate change is primarily concerned with measures that could avoid a catastrophic meltdown of the global capitalist economy, it has the merit of focusing minds on the need to act sooner rather than later. The question is: what actions are necessary and who is to carry them out? The answer to the second half of the question is obvious - not New Labour. Prime Minister Blair, while referring to global warming as the greatest challenge of them all, will restrict New Labour’s response to expanding the carbon trading market and negotiating a post-Kyoto treaty. These will not even begin to make an impact in time to stop sea levels rising and overwhelming the Low Countries, Eastern England, Shanghai, Bangladesh and Southern India, as well as Florida and New York. Hiding behind the fact that climate change is a global phenomenon should not be allowed to prevent emergency actions on a national scale that could open the way to alternative, longer-term solutions. A crash programme could, for instance:

  • ban car use in congested city centre areas
  • take rail and bus networks into public ownership and slash fares
  • create complete networks in cites open only to cycles and motorbikes
  • encourage car sharing and establish car pool schemes which people can use for free
  • have publicly owned and serviced cycles in cycle pools which people can take for free
  • ban the selling of private vehicles that average less than 60mpg immediately, and 80mpg by 2008
  • encourage people to work at home or at new local network centres
  • set up dial-a-ride for commuters to take them to transport hubs
  • organise children into walking groups that use roads closed to traffic to get to school
  • bring airlines into public ownership and set fares to reflect true costs
  • bring agricultural land back into use instead of subsidising it to lay fallow
  • install free solar panels where practicable in local communities
  • expand wind, wave power and bio-fuel resources
  • invest massively in research into non-carbon power sources
  • offer financial support to developing economies to avoid any unnecessary food exports
  • launch an international effort to protect the Amazon rain forest from further clearances
  • ban import of soya that comes from deforested Amazon sites
  • establish new systems for distributing and buying food and other commodities without unnecessary packaging, advertising and promotion
  • encourage new ideas and holistic types of production, consumption and disposal of all commodities taking into account the real cost to the planet
  • phase out the sale of electronic goods with built-in obsolescence
  • set up a not-for profit version of e-bay which allows people to exchange existing goods and products easily
  • end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and scrap Trident II to free up resources
  • ban hedge fund speculation on vital commodities like wheat and corn
  • take action to redeploy pension funds and other financial resources currently used as sources of speculation

Putting this crash programme into practice is clearly beyond the capacity of the existing political system. Yet without something like these actions, the catastrophe facing the planet is unavoidable. Therefore immediate steps to cut carbon emissions will have to go hand-in-hand with creating a democratic political alternative that will act while there is still time. Such a political change would create the possibility in the longer term to develop an integrated plan to tackle climate change. We need to harness all the potential that exists in science and technology, bringing it together across borders, and without interference from profit and commercial secrecy. Society could then, for example, move to not-for-profit production, improving the quality of goods so that they last for as long as possible, and building the recycling of components into the production process and pricing structures. Mobilising people to turn a looming disaster into an opportunity for social and political change would, just as importantly, inspire people in other countries to do the same and thus provide a global solution to a global crisis.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Stern report - waving while drowning

According to Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, climate change represents the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen. Ignoring climate change could lead to economic upheaval on the scale of the 1930s’ Depression. But his reliance on the very same market economy for solutions fatally undermines his much-trailed report into the economic consequences of global warming.

His report obscures the starker reality that the heating up of the planet is a direct and observable consequence of the expansion of capital since the industrial revolution, accelerating towards global catastrophe in the last three decades. As a result, Stern, whose report was commissioned by the New Labour government, is left with solutions that are either inadequate or beyond the capacity of the existing economic and political system to deliver. His warnings are stark enough. If no action is taken, climate change will reduce global consumption per head by between 5% and 20%, and is likely to be at the upper end of that range. In other words, everyone in the world would be a fifth poorer than they would otherwise have been. Except that these costs will not be shared evenly. The poorest countries and the poorest people in each nation, will suffer most. Failure to act would turn 200 million people into refugees as their homes will by hit by drought or flood.

Stern’s core argument is that spending large sums of money now on measures to reduce carbon emissions will bring long-term dividends on a colossal scale. It would be wholly irrational, therefore, not to spend this money. Part of his solution is taxation. Another is through rationing the amount of carbon emissions that any business - or any individual - can make. Stern’s answer to market failure is… to resort to the market with a major expansion of carbon trading, whereby you can buy and sell credits to emit CO2. Another imperative for governments is to encourage research and development on low-carbon technologies. Governments should also encourage "behavioural change", through regulation - such as imposing tighter standards on the energy efficiency of buildings - as well as educating the public about the true costs of wasting energy.

So what can we expect to happen? Anticipating the potential profits to be made from Stern’s proposals, and in an attempt to corner the market, on Friday, global investment bank Morgan Stanley announced its intention to invest $3 billion in carbon trading. New Labour’s Environment Secretary David Miliband has leapt up with his proposals to pass the cost onto consumers with a raft of taxes. He was immediately trumped by Gordon Brown’s huge enthusiasm for "massive expansion of carbon trading to tackle global warming, rather than raising billions of pounds in green taxes". Al Gore, whose global campaign to reduce climate change places virtually all the blame on consumersm, will be Brown’s newest adviser.

All this is the equivalent of waving while drowning. Time is running out – fast. The polar caps are already melting away. Extreme weather is decimating grain crops in many parts of the globe, including the US and Australia. Corn and wheat prices have risen 60% this year and these vital commodities are now increasingly the subject of control by investment speculators. Where there’s a shortage there’s always a fast buck to be made. Immediate and drastic actions to cut carbon emissions are needed right now, covering production, distribution, patterns of work, travel and consumption. These measures should point towards a complete reorganisation of economic life, putting science and technology at the disposal of society as a whole rather than shareholders and stock markets. We can’t expect or rely on capitalism and its markets, or the politicians and governments they sponsor in London and Washington, to propose these kinds of actions. To save the planet from catastrophe means taking the making of history into our own hands.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Friday, October 27, 2006

How not to revive local democracy

New Labour’s cosmetic proposals about "rebalancing" power in favour of councils and their citizens simply ignore the fact that local democracy in Britain was effectively destroyed by the actions of successive governments over a period stretching back to Tory attacks in the early 1980s. Now Britain boasts the most centralised state in Europe and the white paper produced by Ruth Kelly does nothing to address that question.

In the 1980s, the Tories abolished the power to raise revenue at a rate decided locally by councils, a right which had dated back to Elizabethan times. Councils that resisted, like Lambeth and Liverpool, were confronted by the government, which used the courts to fine and remove elected councillors. Spending per head of population was from then based on a formula determined in London. Local authorities lost their powers in key areas like housing. They were, for example, compelled to sell off council housing and not allowed to use the proceeds to build new ones. Services were privatised under "competitive tendering" laws and amenities and services went into decline. The Tories abolished key local authorities like the Greater London Council. Participation in local elections plummeted. New Labour simply built on the Tory edifice. Spending is still tightly controlled from London and services in many inner city areas face year-on-year cuts. Staff in many cases remain extremely poorly paid. The Greater London Authority created by New Labour is, for example, a pale shadow of the old GLC, and is a toothless body which is built on the undemocratic basis of rule by an executive mayor and unelected advisors paid vast sums of money.

Kelly’s proposals reinforce this trend. She is proposing more executive mayors – without allowing local people a chance to vote on the idea – and new powers whereby councils can fine people on the spot for breaking bye-laws. Wow! Even The Guardian, normally a cheerleader for the Blair government, was distinctly unimpressed, with an editorial declaring: "A recipe for cheesecake whose instructions did not run beyond the biscuit base would be bound to disappoint. In much the same way, it was always going to be hard for the government to paint a compelling new vision for local authorities that stopped short of recasting their powers or settling their means of finance. Yesterday's white paper contained some worthwhile ideas, but was silent on so much that it is most unlikely to rescue councils from the anonymity and obscurity to which they have been consigned by decades of centralisation under governments of both stripes." The Campaign for a 21st Century Democracy – C421 – is among those struggling to extend democracy in ways that New Labour is congenitally opposed to. C421’s new campaign statement proposes the transformation of the present political system along democratic lines. Its aims, principles and draft proposals for rights that a new constitution would embody are worth studying and supporting.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Even a sense of identity has its price

Cutting off your nose to spite your face could be one way of describing Bury Council’s decision to auction off its painting, The Riverbank, by one of England’s best-loved artists, LS Lowry. The council now risks expulsion from the Museums Association and the government's Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). It would be only the second-ever such expulsion if Bury goes ahead with the sell-off. The loss of accreditation would mean that Bury Museum and Art Gallery stands to lose considerable amounts of public funding. The Museum Association’s director, Mark Taylor, interviewed yesterday on BBC Radio 4, described the sale due to take place in two weeks’ time, as “deeply irresponsible” and as a “breach of trust”. Lowry’s “matchstick men” paintings are particularly treasured in the artist’s native Lancashire and a key part of the local sense of identity.

And yet, surely Bury council should be commended and not condemned for its entrepreneurial spirit. Under New Labour, following in the Tories’ footsteps, local authorities, have been starved of funds and encouraged – indeed virtually forced – to go down the road of “Private Finance Initiatives” to fund public projects. Public libraries, museums and sports facilities have been cannibalised, minimised or sold off. Bury is clearly a go-getting council after New Labour’s heart. It has recently approved a £58 million mixed-use master plan of offices, apartments, a hotel and retail space on top of Bury town centre’s last remaining piece of open green space. The plan is to have a new multi-story car park and a 14-story concrete tower block. In addition the government has just given the nod to a £20 million plan to build a school and 1,000 homes in the Radcliffe district of the town. Wayne Campbell, Bury Council leader, says that the alternatives to the Lowry sale are “redundancies and closures of valued services”. So why cling to things from the past when you can raise £500,000 by selling a canvas? Shouldn’t preserving and enhancing culture be balanced against “sound commercial initiatives”? Is it not a good thing to raise money and try to fill the £10m deficit in the council’s books, even if it does mean that Bury’s only Lowry may go out of public ownership, possibly leaving British shores forever?

Seriously, the threat hanging over Bury’s Lowry is symbolic of the cavalier treatment of Britain’s former industrial heritage and local authority collections, especially in working class areas outside the privileged cultural “hubs” (where, by the way, it costs £12 to get into the National Gallery’s Velazquez exhibition). Earlier this year, British museums joined forces to ask the government for an extra £115m a year at what they say is a "critical time" for their services. A Manifesto for Museums, contained a warning that large London attractions may not be able to keep going at their present levels. An extra £50m a year is needed to keep current services running, it said. Another £15m is also needed for work with regional museums - which require an extra £35m on their own, it said. A further £15m per year is required to buy new objects, it added. Meanwhile, Bury is going ahead with its Lowry sale.

Corinna Lotz, culture editor

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Danger: cornered fantasists at work

The crisis facing Britain and the US over Iraq is not just about how to withdraw troops without admitting defeat and losing face. It is also about a collapse in political credibility at home. Most Americans now believe that the Iraq occupation is going badly wrong, while a clear majority in Britain – including the generals – want troops removed. Bush’s Republican Party is facing defeat in next month’s mid-term elections, while Blair’s New Labour is, according to a new poll, back to 1987 levels in support, 10% behind the Tories.

The invasion of Iraq was, in part, the acting out of a fantasy scenario drawn up by the neo-cons in Washington and endorsed by New Labour in London. They seriously believed that a new, democratic state would emerge from nowhere in Iraq. So they destroyed the existing state institutions, demobilised the Iraqi army and police and took direct control themselves. You didn’t have to be a genius to see the flaws behind this. Today there is no functioning state in Iraq, just religious-based militias fighting for control of their territory. The Iraqi government’s writ doesn’t extend beyond the fortified Green Zone. In three years, the occupation of Iraq has produced virtual civil war, ethnic cleansing, corruption on a mass scale, the collapse of health and education, mass deprivation among the Iraqi people and the growth of Islamic-inspired terrorism where none existed in the country before. Some achievements for Bush and Blair to mull over as the disarray in Washington and London over the Iraq adventure grows by the hour.

Cornered fantasists can do desperate things to hang on to power. So we should be on the look-out for state-inspired provocations and campaigns that divide people against each other and provide pretexts for a clampdown. The hue and cry about Muslim women wearing the veil is one such event. Whipping up a storm about North Korea’s nuclear test is another. Leaked briefings about the supposed strength of Al Qaeda in Britain is another sign of a government looking for a diversion. Both in the United States and Britain, the slide to a police state has resulted in a framework of dictatorial legislation. Ostensibly aimed at terror groups, the new laws are in fact targeted at everyone. Bush and Blair will not simply fade from history. In any case, the parliamentary alternatives in the shape of the Democrats and the Tories do not exactly represent beacons of hope. The turmoil in government, the divisions between generals and politicians, are clear signs that the state is in a spin. The need to advance democratic alternatives was never more urgent.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A caring Britain?

Paul McCartney. Heather Mills-McCartney. "Oh, I wonder what will happen between them today?" The situation in Iraq has worsened to such an extent that it cannot be long before Bush and Blair are forced to say they were wrong. Their legacy and place in history secure. Meanwhile in Iraq, millions are forced to leave their homes and flee the country in fear of continued ethnic cleansing.The same is happening in Darfur.Hidden away on page 45 in The Independent on Sunday, Jonathan Erasmus wrote: "Up to 2,000 refugees a day are now flooding into camps, many travelling hundreds of miles crushed together like livestock, piled one on top of the other, often with 300 people in a single truck. Other refugees have made the journey on foot, walking for 20 days or more in searing heat in order to reach the camps. Many though, whether through ill health or militia attacks, did not survive." This situation will undoubtedly continue, maybe for months and years. Darfur is another Iraq, minus the press coverage. This shows us, as if we didn’t know, that politicians do little unless an issue is in the press. A few weeks ago, George Clooney and his father made Darfur news across the Western world, talking tirelessly to the media. Tony Blair responded, saying all that could be done, would be. Who is at fault then? Tony Blair? The media? Us? All three?I think, sorry - largely - US! If we cared, the media would report it, the politicians would have to do something. Oh well… Where shall I go shopping at the weekend? Hey - what about Paul McCartney, hey?

Dylan Strain

The criminal youth 'justice' system

One way to judge a country’s culture, it is said, is by the state of its penal system. On that basis, Britain comes somewhere near the bottom of so-called civilised nations. Today comes the news that the number of young people in custody in England and Wales has reached a record high. The Youth Justice Board, which administers the system, said it faced a "meltdown". Young offenders under 18 are being held hundreds of miles from their families in breach of regulations and being forced to share cells against their will – also against the rules – because of overcrowding. Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, commented: "I fear the system is approaching breaking point. And I am particularly concerned about the number of young people with mental illness who end up in our prisons because of the lack of adequate provision outside." The Youth Justice Board said the rise in numbers at young offenders' institutes had caused an increased risk of self-harm and suicide by youngsters.

What a criminal state of affairs this is. Nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales, where 143 people per 100,000 are in prison. Since the start of 1993 the prison population has risen 90% - from 41,600 to more than 79,600 in autumn 2006. This is state-sponsored revenge against offenders, who mostly come from poorer and minority ethnic communities. This is punishment pure and simple, a kind of medieval-type of retribution enforced by the state under the direction of the New Labour government. As for rehabilitation – forget it. With prisons full to bursting point, there is no room for education or other initiatives.

A Howard League for Penal Reform report published earlier this year studied 86 offenders aged 18 to 20 in England and Wales. It said young men had high offending and re-offending rates but were largely ignored by initiatives to cut crime. Report author Finola Farrant said: "Sending these young men to prison does virtually nothing to ensure that they will live crime-free lives on release." She added that prison could make their re-offending "all the more predictable". More than 1,000 young men are sent to prison each month, and it costs £35,000 a year to keep them inside, said the Howard League. But its study - called Out For Good - claimed little constructive work took place in prisons or on release, and that nearly 70% of those released from prison would be re-convicted within two years. New Labour’s response to the prisons’ crisis? Launch a search for disused ships to lock even more people up. And try to merge the independent Prison Inspectorate out of existence so that it can’t issue any more embarrassing reports. The House of Lords recently rejected this plan by a huge majority but the government says it will reinstate the scrapping of the inspectorate when the proposals reach the House of Commons. The fact is that any independent inspection of the Blair government would surely conclude that it is a brutal, inhumane and reactionary regime and that for society’s sake it should be shut down sooner rather than later.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, October 23, 2006

50th anniversary of a people's uprising

When students gathered on a crisp, bright autumn morning in Budapest exactly half a century ago today, for a march in support of a 16-point manifesto, no one could have predicted that by late evening an armed insurrection would break out and that revolution would sweep the whole of Hungary, challenging the might of Kremlin rule. The students’ 16 points included an end to Soviet military occupation, the democratisation of political life and a public inquiry into the crimes of Hungary’s Stalinist leaders. Literally handed to Moscow by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta conference in February 1945, Hungary became Moscow’s puppet Stalinist state. Factories were stripped and sent back to the USSR. Customs were Russified. By the early 1950s, there was famine, widespread poverty, falling wages and a reign of terror that touched one in ten of the population of 10 million.

In 1956, Hungarians became emboldened, however. In February, Khrushchev had denounced Stalin in a bombshell speech to his party congress. A mass movement in neighbouring Poland in June had successfully defied Moscow. In early October, 200,000 people attending the reburial of a show trial victim in Budapest had turned the occasion into a protest rally. As military cadets and workers joined the October 23 demonstration, feelings rose. A giant statue of Stalin was brought down with the help of heavy lifting equipment. Later that evening, students peacefully gathered outside the radio station and asked for their 16 points to be read out. The response was a hail of gunfire from the hated secret police, the AVH. Soon police and soldiers were handing out weapons to anyone who wanted them and the Hungarian Revolution had started. The next day, Red Army tanks appeared in Budapest in an attempt to restore order. Workers from the factories around Budapest led the resistance that over the next six days fought the Soviet forces to a standstill. It seemed as if a famous victory had been won as the tanks began to withdraw.

Within days, the Hungarian party-state collapsed overnight throughout the country. Where there was resistance, people took up arms against the AVH secret police, often executing them on the spot. The political and administrative vacuum was filled by the people themselves. Hungarians had never experienced any kind of freedom, apart from a brief period after World War One. After that they had suffered at the hands of Europe’s first fascist regime, which lasted until 1945. Now Hungarians took matters into their own hands. As a 1957 report of the UN General Assembly noted: "No aspect of the Hungarian uprising expressed its democratic tendencies or its reaction to previous conditions more clearly than the creation of Revolutionary Councils in villages, towns and on the county level, and of Workers’ Councils in factories. Within a few days, these bodies came into existence all over Hungary and assumed important responsibilities. Their chief purpose was to ensure for the Hungarian people real, and not merely nominal, control of local government and of factories, mines, and other industrial enterprises. There was even a suggestion that a National Revolutionary Committee might replace the National Assembly, while another proposal was that a Supreme National Council could exercise the prerogative of Head of the State." By October 27, Revolutionary Committees also existed in the government ministries and promptly denounced what had taken place under the old regime.

The pure, revolutionary character of the revolution – which had won support from Poland and inside the USSR itself – was too much for Moscow. A massive army invaded Hungary on November 3 and eventually crushed the revolution, despite the resistance of factory workers that lasted until December. Tens of thousands were killed or deported while 200,000 fled the country. Imre Nagy, who had been propelled into the leadership of the revolution, was eventually lured out of the Yugoslav embassy and executed in 1958. The rest of the world did nothing. The UN was silent as was the White House. President Eisenhower had let the Soviet Union know that Hungary remained within their "sphere of influence". But the struggle and sacrifices of the Hungarian workers and students were not in vain. The crimes of Stalinism were exposed before world opinion, creating a crisis for Moscow from which it never recovered. Meanwhile, the socialist democracy created by Hungary’s revolutionary and workers’ councils is just as inspiring today as it was 50 years ago.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, October 20, 2006

GM crops consultation fraud

New Labour has tried, and failed, repeatedly to introduce commercial, genetically-modified crop growing in Britain. Opposition from environmental groups, shoppers and organic producers have thwarted the government so far. But just in case you thought the government had given up, think again. Today is the deadline for responses to a "consultation" paper which proposes that GM crops can "co-exist" with non-GM crops in the British countryside.

Michael Meacher was once the government’s environment minister, so he should know what’s going on. He was blunt: "This consultation is the government’s latest attempt to back the GM industry over the wishes of the British public." Which brings us to the real forces at work here – giant biotech corporations like Monsanto, who are desperate to enter the European market. So far, the EU has acknowledged the widespread opposition and made it difficult to grow GM crops on a commercial basis. New Labour hopes to change that. As Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "Government proposals for rules that allow GM crops to be grown alongside conventional and organic crops are a thinly veiled attempt to introduce GM crops through the back door. Allowing routine, unlabelled, GM contamination of conventional and organic crops is not only unacceptable to the public, it is legally flawed."

Early this month, FoE had to take legal action to force the government’s Food Standards Agency - surely they need to change their name - to issue new advice to British retailers on illegal GM rice that found its way on to supermarket shelves. A leaked memo had revealed that the FSA had earlier told retailers that it did not expect them to test for contamination, or to remove any contaminated rice from their shelves. This followed the announcement by US authorities that unauthorised genetically modified rice grown experimentally in the US had contaminated long grain rice supplies.

In the hands of agribusiness corporations, GM is a mechanism for increasing the power and control of business over food production at the expense of small farmers, organic production, consumers and the developing world. The corporations are not overly-concerned about the long-term effects or repercussions as GM crops interact with other organisms. The fact remains that transgenic modification is certain to have unpredictable results, because of the nature of the process. While GM is a source for profit making rather than helping to meet people’s needs, risk-taking and the distortion of field trial results remain the norm. None of this will stop New Labour, the corporations’ friend, from distorting the latetst "consultation" and trying once more to smuggle GM crops into Britain.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ripping off Iraq's oil

The invasion of Iraq was driven by a desire to open Iraq up to the global, market economy under a pretext of searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction or combating terrorism. Now the four major oil corporations are on the verge of achieving access to Iraq’s oil on the most favourable terms imaginable. While both the American and British governments come under increasing pressure to set a date for ending their occupation, the race is on to tie up that country’s massive oil reserves by the end of the year.

Iraq's energy reserves are an incredibly rich prize; according to the US Department of Energy, "Iraq contains 112 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the second largest in the world (behind Saudi Arabia) along with roughly 220 billion barrels of probable and possible resources. Iraq's true potential may be far greater than this, however, as the country is relatively unexplored due to years of war and sanctions." Iraqi oil is close to the surface and easy to extract, making it all the more profitable. Oil companies can produce a barrel of Iraqi oil for less than $1.50 and possibly as little as $1, including all exploration, oilfield development and production costs. Iraq’s barely-functioning government faces a December deadline, set by the major economies, to pass laws on access to oil. This is expected to give the big four –Exxon-Mobile, Chevron-Texaco, BP-Amoco and Royal Dutch Shell– access to Iraqi oil regardless of the policies future Iraqi governments might take.

During the UN-imposed sanctions period, the Iraqis made deals with Russia, China and France, and the Big Four sat on the sidelines. Lack of investment by an Iraqi government starved of technology by sanctions created a decline in the productivity of the industry. Enter the Anglo-US invasion of 2003 closely followed by the Big Four’s executives. They want access on terms that would be inconceivable unless negotiated at the barrel of a gun. These terms are embodied in Production Service Agreements (PSAs) for the extraction of Iraq's oil. PSAs allow countries to retain technical ownership over energy reserves but, in reality, give the corporations control along with extremely high profit margins - up to 13 times oil companies' minimum target, according to an analysis by oil watchdog Platform. PSAs are not used in Iran, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, all of which maintain state control of oil. PSAs often have long terms, up to 40 years, and clauses that protect them from future legislative changes.

The plans for Iraq's legal framework for oil are part of the overall transformation of the Iraqi economy. When the US occupation forces ruled directly, rules introduced allowed transnationals to pull all of their profits from the country. These were then integrated into the Iraqi constitution. The constitution also requires the government to "develop oil and gas wealth… relying on the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment" and opens up Iraq’s oil to foreign companies for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s regime nationalised the industry in 1975. If you’re looking for a reason for the US-UK occupation forces to hang on in Iraq, despite the mounting casualties and the emerging civil war, the prize of control over Iraqi oil is your answer. Whether future Iraqi governments will honour these "agreements" is another thing. Why should they?

An in-depth analysis of the carve-up of Iraqi oil reserves can be found on Alternet, which provided the facts for this blog.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

UN as a US toy

Once again the United States and Britain are on the warpath. Once again they are using the United Nations to pave the way for pre-emptive action. In 2003 Iraq was the target – this time North Korea is in the firing line. Three years ago, the charade of weapons inspections and sanctions gave the US/UK cover as they prepared the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The secretary-general, Kofi Anan, stayed silent. Now the UN has authorised foreign navies to stop North Korean ships in international waters to search for goods covered by last weekend’s Security Council resolution. Although they voted for the resolution, China and Russia say they won’t stop ships. But the Americans have no such qualms and have despatched a fleet to the region.

The North Koreans have declared the resolution an "act of war". So the scene is now set for a provocation aimed at driving North Korea further into a corner, and ultimately providing the pretext for a US attack. Thank you the UN for coming up with such a recipe for disaster. The major capitalist powers who control the Security Council will always use and abuse the UN in line with their interests. They will block any attempt to hurt their "friends". So India and the military dictatorship of Pakistan can keep their nuclear weapons because they are allies in the so-called "war on terror". Israel can retain hers too, of course. But North Korea is considered too dangerous to possess nuclear weapons and considered by the Bush regime as part of the "axis of evil", which is a bit rich coming from the present, lawless incumbents of the White House.

The UN’s double standards are truly breathtaking. For example, the General Assembly has passed no fewer than 65 resolutions on Israel’s repression of the Palestinians. What has the UN done to enforce them? Precisely nothing. The UN is silent while Israel imposes collective punishment on Gaza and the West Bank, destroying power supplies, kidnapping and assassinating Palestinian political leaders at will. So much for the article in the UN Charter on the rights of countries to self-determination. It remains a dead letter as far as the Palestinians are concerned. In recent years, the UN has taken to promoting the alleged virtues of the global market economy, trying to persuade the transnational corporations that they should direct their activities towards helping the 600 million children who live in families surviving on less than a $1 a day. The UN set development goals at a major conference around the millennium. Recently the UN admitted that since then the number of hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia has increased by tens of millions. Nearly 1 billion people live now in urban slums because the growth of the urban population is outpacing improvements in housing and the availability of productive jobs. Whichever way you look at it, the UN as it is presently constituted is simply a waste of space as far as the hungry and the oppressed of the world are concerned.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Corporations fight to keep Chinese workers down

Global corporations moved to China for one simple reason – a plentiful supply of labour, low wages, a compliant government and few, if any, health and safety restrictions. Super-exploitation has produced a growing wave of anger and militancy. Now the same corporations are lobbying hard against a decision by the Chinese government to respond to this unrest by introducing modest labour reforms.

The proposed legislation will not provide Chinese workers with the right to independent trade unions and the right to strike. But even so, foreign corporations are threatening to withdraw investment if the laws, that deal mainly with contracts and health and safety, go through. This campaign is promoted publicly by three major organisations representing foreign corporations operating in China: the American Chamber of Commerce (ACC) in Shanghai, which represents over 1,300 corporations, the US-China Business Council, which represents 250 US companies and the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, which has more than 860 members.
ACC comments on the draft legislation warn that the law may "reduce employment opportunities for PRC [People’s Republic of China] workers" and "negatively impact the PRCs competitiveness and appeal as a destination for foreign investment". ACC goes on to criticise the proposed changes in the law for making it harder to fire workers and for "rigid" restrictions on "business administration of enterprises." It concludes: "We doubt whether it is necessary to carry out such significant changes." Dr Keyong Wu, on behalf of the British Chambers of Commerce, warned: "Business is attracted to China not only because of its labour costs but also because of its efficiency. If regulation starts to affect that and flexibility, then companies could turn to India, Pakistan and South-East Asia."

Just what the corporations are trying to defend is outlined in an excellent report published this week by Global Labor Strategies, an American research organisation, which exposes the campaign to block the new law. "Foreign corporations want to maintain the current system which creates a large underclass of highly precarious workers with no rights," says GLS. The report adds: "Despite extraordinary economic growth most Chinese workers live on the edge of poverty. They earn little and often work under abysmal conditions. Most lack basic rights or access to those rights. About 150 million Chinese urban and rural workers are unemployed — more than the entire workforce of the US. China abandoned its so-call ‘iron rice bowl’ cradle-to-grave social security system in the 1980s when it ended traditional central planning and embarked on its wide open, laissez-faire, development model. During the 1990s state enterprises were closed, private enterprises mushroomed, foreign investment skyrocketed and workers were left to fend for themselves." Labour contracts are supposed to stipulate wages, basic terms of employment, and the duration of employment. The report adds: "The reality is that many workers lack contracts and basic protections. Seventy per cent of all rural workers and about 15% of urban workers do not have a contract which means they can not access even minimal rights or benefits. In China’s booming construction industry 40% of all workers have no contract."

And that’s the way it will stay if the global corporations get their way.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, October 16, 2006

New Labour does the BNP out of a job

New Labour and the Tories are now in a sordid bidding war to see who can demonise the Muslim community the most over the question of women and veils. They are even outflanking the extreme right British National Party, which worships Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Yesterday the BNP praised government ministers. Under the headline ‘Ministers caught telling the truth,’ the BNP said: "New Labour ministers are scrambling over one another to become number one hate figure amongst the Muslim community, leaving BNP spokesmen trailing, by a series of statements which show that some of our rulers are capable of speaking the truth and acknowledging common sense after all."

The BNP was cock-a-hoop over the intervention by race relations minister Phil Woolas yesterday when he called for the sacking of a Kirklees teaching assistant who refused to take off the veil in class. Woolas deliberately raised the temperature with his inflammatory comments. Even some government supporters have had enough. The New Labour peer, Lord Nazir Ahmed, in response said that there was "a constant theme of demonisation of the Muslim community" and that politicians and journalists were jumping on a bandwagon because "it is fashionable these days to have a go at the Muslims". Today it is reported in The Guardian that university lecturers are being asked to spy on Muslim students and report signs of "extremism" to the authorities. Meanwhile, Opus Dei minister Ruth Kelly is hosting a meeting with councils and police chiefs to discuss "Muslim extremism".

The issues over the veil are many and complex and it is right that communities and even politicians should debate them in a harmonious and open way. Some find it hard to accept that any women would want to wear a veil because they view it as a sign of oppression of women by men. Clearly, some Muslim women disagree and are not wearing the veil under instruction but out of choice. Ultimately it is for Muslim women themselves to decide what to wear. But New Labour ministers have an agenda that has seized on the veil as a means to rather different political ends. They assert that the spurious "community cohesion" they seek is endangered by what some Muslim women wear. In this they are supported by the Tories, with shadow home secretary David Davis claiming that Britain is encouraging a form of "involuntary apartheid" through the separate development of communities.

We should reject all this dangerous nonsense. Firstly, "community cohesion" is specifically aimed at inner-city areas only. Nice, middle-class people who live in the leafy suburbs are not required to display any concern for their community whatsoever or even get on with their next-door neighbours. Secondly, where there is tension between inner-city communities, its source lies in the policies of successive governments in supporting the deindustrialisation, deskilled low-wage economy that is Britain. Many of Britain’s cities are characterised by poor communities – both white and Asian – whose prospects of decent, well-paid jobs are low and where educational under-achievement is widespread. This is not a basis for cohesion but for division, despair and even isolation. A few deeply alienated Muslim youth have turned to terrorism and these social conditions are probably behind some women’s decision to adopt the veil.

What the Blairites want is a Britain where difference and diversity is frowned upon, where people who express their identity through dress, culture, music, religion, politics or even separateness are made to feel isolated. In their crude attacks on identity and difference, New Labour is simply adding to the nasty, intolerant authoritarian state they have built, hoping, no doubt, that their Islamaphobia will bring them a few racist votes along the way.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, October 13, 2006

General declares war on Blair

When the Chief of the General Staff calls for an end to the British army’s presence in Iraq, choosing the right-wing Daily Mail as his platform for a vehement attack on the policies of the New Labour government, you know you are living in dangerous times politically. While anti-war campaigners fall over themselves in the rush to congratulate Sir Richard Dannatt, it’s worth considering some of the wider implications of his intervention.

The New Labour government is drifting hopelessly and helplessly under the weakened leadership of prime minister Blair, who gave an embarrassing performance when challenged by Tory leader David Cameron in the Commons earlier this week. With Blair clearly determined to prevent Gordon Brown from succeeding him, the scene is set for civil war inside New Labour. Meanwhile, British troops are locked in hopeless military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan where, by all accounts, their equipment is inadequate and their mission ill-defined and unattainable. The military top brass don’t like it all and Dannatt is no doubt reflecting their views as well as the discomfort of the soldiers on the front line.

Dannatt reportedly said: "The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in. Whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance. That is a fact. I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them." He added: "I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."

No doubt the generals have been telling ministers this kind of thing in private for some time. But what Dannatt has done is to attack the government publicly – and in doing so effectively launch an unconstitutional challenge to the authority of an elected government. Dannatt told the Daily Mail that he had already given the defence minister Des Browne a "dressing down" about the "unacceptable" treatment of injured soldiers, warning him that the government was in danger of breaking the "covenant" between "a nation and its Army" and should not "let the Army down." If that’s not a threat, what is it? What would Dannatt do if he considered the army was being "let down"?

Nor does Dannatt confine himself to Iraq. Under the headline, ‘Army chief declares war on Blair’, Dannatt launches into a tirade about the decline of "Christian values" in Britain, adding: "When I see the Islamist threat in this country I hope it doesn’t make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind."

Is the implication here that some tough action is needed to prevent further moral decline in Britain and to defeat the "Islamist threat"? If New Labour can’t get a grip on this agenda, who will? Men in uniform escorted by tanks? This is not paranoia. We have seen this kind of stuff before in Britain, most recently in 1968 and 1974, and the subject of a previous blog. Will Blair dare to sack Dannatt for overstepping the mark politically? If he doesn’t, the prime minister’s authority will evaporate even faster and New Labour’s crisis over Iraq and other issues deepen ever more quickly. If he does fire Dannatt…

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Concerns over financial ‘weapons of mass destruction’

Some of those who claim to know are getting nervous about the record growth of hedge funds. There is concern at the European Central Bank and the Financial Services Authority in Britain. Those who don’t seem to be worried - and are investing heavily - include the people managing the pension funds for the staff of Sainsbury’s, the railways, and British Telecom. But what are hedge funds, I hear you asking? Well, you could say that they are a way of rich people – and pension funds - giving huge sums to someone called a hedge fund manager, who claims special expertise, to place bets on movements in the financial markets.

There are an estimated 10,000 hedge managers in charge of an estimated $1.5 trillion of assets, trading in global markets. They borrow against their assets so that their investments – and commitments - multiply in value. Pretty much what these hedge fund managers do is to guess which way a particular market is moving and bet accordingly. A lot of the managers place each-way bets. They charge their clients huge sums to do this, and the successful ones make obscene amounts of money. When they aren’t so successful, the rich folks lose out. Brian Hunter, a 32-year-old Canadian was, until recently, the golden boy at Connecticut-based hedge fund, Amaranth. He was said to have been $2bn ahead for the year by the end of August, having taken risky bets on the way natural gas prices were heading. Things then went badly wrong. The market didn’t perform according to forecasts and Amaranth told investors that Hunter had lost $5bn in just one week.

Most of the bets are placed on "derivatives". But what are derivatives, I hear you asking? Well, in the world of finance, "derivatives are financial instruments that have no intrinsic value, but derive their value from something else". In 1997 the Nobel Prize for economics went to Professor Robert C. Merton of Harvard University and Professor Myron S. Scholes of Stanford University, for their method of determining the value of derivatives. A year later, Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund in which they were among the principal shareholders, had to be rescued at a cost of $3.5 billion because the authorities feared its collapse could bring down financial institutions around the world.

Warren Buffett, the world’s most successful stock market investor, and the second richest man in the world after Bill Gates has said: "We view them as time bombs both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system... In our view... derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal." No wonder the regulators are getting nervous, although the sums involved are now so enormous it’s difficult to see what they could do when the casino side of capitalism unravels.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

'No’ to war against North Korea

You can hardly blame North Korea for developing nuclear weapons, given that the government of the United States has labelled it part of the "axis of evil" and is undoubtedly preparing an Iraq-style, pre-emptive war against the country. Even so, it’s possible that Washington has hyped up what some experts describe as a primitive nuclear test by North Korea precisely to give President Bush the excuse to bomb North Korea in the near future. War is always good for business. And with things going badly in Iraq, an attack on the "mad, bad and dangerous" North Korea might also take voters’ minds off other issues. It could even swing them back behind the discredited Republican Party in the US and New Labour in Britain.

As strategic and military expert Dan Plesch has written: "Far from being crazy, the North Korean policy is quite rational. Faced with a US government that believes the communist regime should be removed from the map, the North Koreans pressed ahead with building a deterrent. George Bush stopped the oil supplies to North Korea that had been part of a framework to end its nuclear programme previously agreed with Bill Clinton." He added: "The background to North Korea's test is that, since the end of the cold war, the nuclear states have tried to impose a double standard, hanging on to nuclear weapons for themselves and their friends while denying them to others. Like alcoholics condemning teenage drinking, the nuclear powers have made the spread of nuclear weapons the terror of our age, distracting attention from their own behaviour. Western leaders refuse to accept that our own actions encourage others to follow suit."

The hypocrisy of Washington and London is obvious. While North Korea and Iran are targeted, India, Pakistan and Israel, all of whom possess not just nuclear weapons but the means to deliver them, are excluded. Japan’s new ultra-nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe is almost certainly planning to rearm that country with nuclear weapons, with America’s blessing. North Korea is a despotic Stalinist state, of that there is no doubt. But that does not give the US or anyone else the justification to launch a war that could easily spiral out of control. During the 1950-53 Korean War, US forces came face to face with the Chinese army. At one point, US military chiefs urged the use of atomic weapons against the Chinese because American troops faced defeat. The real threat to peace as always comes from the corporate-military complex that runs the White House. An alternative policy of aid and fuel to the hard-pressed North Koreans is totally beyond their will and imagination.

Paul Feldman, communications editors

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

ID cards and the surveillance state

New Labour’s announcement that implementation of its ID card scheme will cost an estimated £5.4 billion – which is bound to be far below the true cost - is just one of many reasons to oppose this further extension of the surveillance state. At the heart of the ID scheme is the National Identity Register. When completed, the NIR would be the world’s biggest biometric database, holding 52 pieces of information on every adult who remains in the UK for longer than three months. Bypassing existing data protection laws, the information would be swapped between different state agencies. Add in the increasing sophistication of CCTV and Britons will become the most watched people on the planet.

Each week the government comes up with another wretched reason to justify ID cards. As Shami Chakrabarti, director for Liberty said: "Excuses for ID cards are like a many-headed Hydra, shoot one down and another one pops up. Including everything from illegal immigration to anti-terrorism, no doubt at some point ID cards will be the cure to obesity and global warming as well." In its opposition to ID cards, Liberty says that the ID cards scheme:

  • will fundamentally change the relationship between individual and state
  • will have a detrimental impact on race relations and will adversely affect vulnerable groups in society
  • will intrude on privacy as the amount of information held on the database and the uses made of that information will increase dramatically
  • will have no impact on illegal immigration as asylum seekers have been required to carry ID cards since 2000
  • will not protect the UK from terrorist attacks. The men responsible for the 9/11 and Madrid terrorist attacks had valid identification
  • will have minimal impact on benefit fraud, as this is usually about financial circumstances rather than identity
  • will not stop identity fraud as this mostly takes place remotely via the Internet

NO2ID has warned that ID cards will give unchecked powers to the executive. Data entered onto the NIR is arbitrarily presumed to be accurate, and the Home Secretary made a judge of accuracy of information provided to him. Meanwhile, the Home Office gets the power to enter information without informing the individual. But there’s no duty to ensure that such data is accurate, or criterion of accuracy. Personal identity is implicitly made wholly subject to state control.

The campaign group warns: "Without reference to the courts or any appeals process, the Home Secretary may cancel or require surrender of an identity card, without a right of appeal, at any time. Given that the object of the scheme is that an ID card will be eventually required to exercise any ordinary civil function, this amounts to granting the Home Secretary the power of civic life and death." The slide to the police state continues unabated.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, October 09, 2006

Putin’s crimes against humanity

The silence of Russian president Vladimir Putin following the murder of campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya speaks volumes about his government’s attitude to human rights. Politkovskaya was undoubtedly gunned down because of her trenchant criticism and exposure of Putin’s ruthless policy of torture, kidnappings and murder in Chechnya. She was due to publish another investigation on Chechnya today.

The Kremlin is almost certainly linked to the killing of Politkovskaya in one way or another. "You just have to look at the subjects of her latest work and there's your list of chief suspects," said radio and television commentator Viktor Shenderovich. He added: "The culprits will never be found, because the people who will be investigating this murder walk down the same corridors as those who ordered it." The abuses in Chechnya, which began under Boris Yeltsin, have continued unabated under Putin. In March 2005, Human Rights Watch concluded that enforced disappearances by Russian forces and their proxies in Chechnya are so widespread and systematic that they constitute crimes against humanity. Local groups estimate that 2,000-5,000 people have "disappeared" since 1999. The perpetrators, in the majority of cases, are clearly identifiable as Russian troops or as belonging to pro-Moscow Chechen commandos.

Pro-Moscow Chechen forces under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov run their own prisons — entirely outside any official structure — where they detain and torture people. These troops are also responsible for taking hostages among relatives of rebel leaders. Putin has given Kadryov the Hero of Russia award. While the European Court of Human Rights earlier this year held Russia responsible for the disappearance and subsequent killing of a Chechen man, there is official silence from Britain, Europe and the United States. Bush, Blair and the rest don’t want to offend Putin, who is an ally in the so-called "war on terror" and, of course, controls a huge chunk of the world’s oil and gas reserves.

Nor do Washington and London have anything to say about the rest of Putin’s dictatorial regime. Most of the media is in his hands and last year the government abolished direct elections for governors, ended single constituency voting in parliamentary elections, created onerous new membership requirements for political parties and raised the threshold for entry into the State Duma from 5 to 7 percent. In April 2006, a new law governing the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) came into force, which dramatically increase government control over their work. Politkovskaya was the 13th journalist to be murdered in contract-style killings since Putin came to power in 2000. Putin is waging a dirty war on two fronts – against Chechens demanding their right to self-determination and against his own people’s democratic and human rights. No wonder Bush and Blair see him as a man after their own hearts.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, October 06, 2006

Jack Straw’s veiled threat

What is it about these New Labourites? They just can’t stop themselves from demonising the Muslim community. They are on a kind of crusade. One day it’s Ruth Kelly, a leading member of the reactionary Opus Dei sect, who warns against multiculturalism. Then it’s John Reid, who arrogantly tells Muslim parents to look out for suicide-bomber tendencies amongst their children. Now it’s born-again Christian Jack Straw with his call for Muslim women to stop wearing the veil in order to foster "community cohesiveness" and so that he can gauge their reactions when they come to his constituency offices with a problem.

All this is music to the ears of racists and nationalists throughout Britain. Far from encouraging communities to live harmoniously alongside each other, these statements only reinforce prejudice and add to any existing divisions. Don’t be surprised if a Muslim woman wearing a veil is attacked on the streets in the next few days following Straw’s reactionary comments.

You have to defend people’s right to dress how they want to in line with their customs and traditions, whether you like them or not. After all, Straw has a right to wear those awful pin-striped suits. While we’re on the subject of faces and veils, it should be noted that politicians like Straw are trained to keep a straight face when what they are telling us is the opposite of the truth. Who can forget Straw’s double-act with Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 when the former US secretary of state "revealed" the entirely fictitious story about Iraq’s secret uranium supply from Niger? Straw is playing to the gallery again and the people of Blackburn would do well to get rid of him as their MP as soon as possible.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Climate change and corporate blackmail

Like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, the governments of the top 20 of the world’s polluting nations are paralysed by the unfolding climate change emergency. There is little to show from two days of talks in Monterrey in Mexico, which have just concluded.

Even if countries froze emission levels tomorrow, the world still faces 30 years of floods, heat waves, hurricanes and coastal erosion, the British government's chief scientific adviser David King admitted. "Because we've raised the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere so quickly, the earth's climate system is falling behind. This is way in excess of anything the planet has known, probably for 45 million years."

Already, a roughly one degree celsius temperature rise over the past century has allowed icy Greenland to start growing barley, while farmers in Spain are battling arid conditions. Developing countries at the talks - including South Africa, Brazil and Mexico - were told to adapt for possible floods, droughts, storms and a surge in tropical diseases like malaria.

But, despite a more general recognition that the scientific evidence is irrefutable, governments failed to set any new targets. They did not even propose long-term policy on areas such as the price of carbon, taxation policy or standards which could influence investment in energy-efficient production.

Meanwhile the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change has reaffirmed where real power lies. In a new statement on global warming to be presented at their Paris conference next week they say that climate change "poses risks and opportunities to which investors and companies must respond". Tackling climate change will hinge on the investment decisions made by institutional investors.

"How quickly these institutions move their investments from high-carbon to low-carbon companies will, to a large extent, determine our success in mitigating global warming. These investors’ decisions will turn on assessments of the longevity of oil and gas fields; the ownership and control of energy supplies; the effectiveness of any regulations to control carbon emissions; the profitability of emerging low-carbon technologies and carbon capture techniques; and the willingness of consumers to change their lifestyles."

In other words, action on climate change is determined by profitability. Giving up the current dependency on carbon-based fuels hinges on profit-based decisions made by the global corporations which own the rights to them. And these corporations acting collectively wield their huge power over the governments of the world. Hence the paralysis.

It’s time to end corporate blackmail by establishing a new, more democratic political framework. Then society could reorganise the economy along co-operative, not-for-profit, self-management lines and take the immediate, drastic action required to slash CO2 emissions.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Thursday, October 05, 2006

US soldiers turn war resisters

Increasing numbers of US troops are going AWOL – absent without leave – from Iraq. Many are opposed to the continued occupation while others are traumatised by what they have done and what they have seen. Typical is the story of Augustin Aguayo, who is now in a military prison in Mannheim, Germany.

He first applied for discharge as a conscientious objector in February 2004 as he was beginning his first deployment in Iraq. His application was denied by the Pentagon in 2005. Aguayo was stationed in Germany when he escaped through a window in base housing and fled rather than face a second tour in Iraq. He maintains military commanders told him they would send him to Iraq in handcuffs, if necessary.

US military records show that between 8,000 and 10,000 soldiers are currently unaccounted for. Hundreds of anti-war soldiers are believed to be AWOL in Canada, however. A few have publicly petitioned for asylum, and earlier this week the first US soldier who escaped to Canada turned himself in at Fort Knox. Specialist Darrell Anderson, who was decorated for taking shrapnel to protect the rest of his unit from a roadside bomb, said he deserted the army last year because he could no longer fight in what he believes is an illegal war. "I feel that by resisting I made up for the things I did in Iraq," Anderson said during a press briefing shortly before turning himself in. "I feel I made up for the sins I committed in this war."

In April of 2004, Anderson says, he was ordered to open fire on a car full of innocent civilians. The car had sped through a US military checkpoint and his commander said it was army procedure to fire on any vehicle that did not stop. Anderson refused the order. He returned from Iraq emotionally damaged, with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. When his unit arrived home, he ran away to Canada rather than return to Iraq. This week his mother drove him from Toronto to Kentucky and said:

"I believe everything my son told me," she said. "Darrell said the people he fought were killing American soldiers because they don't know who we are. All they know is that we're going through their cities with tanks. Our soldiers are imprisoning them. When we take people off to Abu Ghraib we don't tell their families. Darrell said they took boys and fathers off and the wives and sisters never knew what happened for weeks at a time. We'd be outraged if that happened in the US."

The occupation of Iraq, which costs US taxpayers £2 billion a week, has provoked a sectarian civil war which claims the lives of 100 people a day. Yesterday the Iraqi authorities said that they had suspended an entire brigade of as many as 1,200 police officers for suspected connections to a mass kidnapping and murder. The school and university system is reportedly close to collapse because of the violence. The Iraqi people are paying an horrific price for the 2003 invasion, which had nothing to do with bringing democracy to the area and everything to do with corporate ambition to impose a market economy on the country. History will make its own judgement on George W.Bush and Tony Blair and their governments.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tescopoly, where every little hurts

"Every little helps", goes Tesco’s marketing slogan. Which is alright if you’re a shareholder but not so good if you’re a dairy farmer, fruit grower, small shopkeeper, someone who enjoys the character of a local community or who cares about the environment. Then it’s more like "every little hurts".

Yesterday the supermarket giant, which controls 30% of the food retail market in Britain, announced profits of more than £1,000 million for the last six months and also announced plans for world domination.

The phenomenal growth of Tesco’s profits is undoubtedly at the expense of its suppliers. In Britain, for example, dairy farmers are being forced out of business at the rate of 40 a week. In the last decade, the average retail price for a litre of milk has risen from 41 to 48 pence whilst the price the farmer gets has fallen from 24 to 18 pence, below the cost of production.

Chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy denied supermarkets like Tesco’s are killing off the high street. But with £1 in every £7 spent on food going into Tesco coffers, and a new Express store opening every day, the effects are self-evident. In the five years to 2002, 50 specialised stores including butchers, bakers, fishmongers and newsagents closed every week. In January 2006, the All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group released a report on High Street Britain: 2015, predicting that independent shops could disappear from the high street altogether inside a decade.

Stalham, in Norfolk, is probably typical of many small towns, which have seen their high streets change dramatically since the arrival of Tesco. The local paper reports that where once the town boasted a baker, fishmonger and greengrocer alongside the still-existing hardware store, butcher and general shop, those have now been replaced by estate agents and takeaways. A small Somerfield and Co-op have been turned into a factory shop and funeral parlour
respectively. The Tesco-isation of the high street is repeated across East Anglia and nationally.

Last year, Friends of the Earth, in an investigation of Tesco’s power, reported that it planned to open more than 100 new stores in 2005/06. Its world-wide reach is growing rapidly with over 200 new stores planned outside the UK, from Japan to Poland. There are even industry rumours of an entry into the US. The report noted: "Our environment is paying the price of Tesco’s success. Its stores are energy-intensive eyesores. Its food is flown from all over the world and trucked around the UK, contributing to climate change. And the company’s demand for ingredients like palm oil is turning natural forests into wildlife deserts." Surveys have shown that at the height of the UK apple season, more than half of Tesco's apples are imported because they are cheaper.

ActionAid investigated conditions for South African fruit workers in its report Rotten Fruit. This detailed how Tesco is pushing down prices below cost of production, forcing suppliers to rely on cheap seasonal labour, paying poverty wages, and exposing workers, particularly women, to unacceptable working and living conditions. Tesco makes about £1m a week from banana sales, yet all is not well in the plantations that supply them. Between January 2002 and January 2004, Tesco cut the retail price of loose conventional bananas by over 30%.

Some campaigners are hoping that the Competition Commission’s current inquiry into the power of supermarkets will come up with some answers. They shouldn’t hold their breath. An earlier report gave the big supermarkets a clean bill of health. So long as Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and the rest are run for profit then suppliers, communities and the environment will inevitably suffer. No amount of "going green" or "corporate social responsibility" cosmetics by Tesco and the rest will alter that iron law of capitalism.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Cable Street is unfinished business

The battle of Cable Street 1936

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the historic battle of Cable Street when tens of thousands of East End workers blocked a march through the area by Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Given protection by the police and supported by much of the media, Mosley’s home grown Nazi movement aimed to intimidate the local Jewish community. Four local mayors pleaded with the Tory Home Secretary for the march to be banned - but to no avail. The Jewish Peoples Council against Fascism collected a petition of 100,000 signatures calling, unsuccessfully, for the march to be banned.

Jewish workers ignored the advice of their community "leaders" – the upper class dominated Board of Deputies - who told them to stay indoors. Instead, they joined dockers and other trade unionists, the Irish community and members of the Communist Party and Labour Party on the streets. The march was re-routed to Cable Street after a sea of people blocked Gardiners Corner, the gateway to the East End at Whitechapel. A sympathetic bus driver abandoned his vehicle using it as a barricade.

The police were determined to ensure a way through for the BUF. Violent clashes took place in the narrow Cable Street between 6,000 mounted and foot police and protesters. After several hours, with dozens of police injured, and 84 protesters arrested, the police finally told Mosley and his 3,000 supporters that they would have to march in the opposite direction.

The media’s attitude was not unlike that of today – except then Jews were in the firing line while it’s the Muslim community which is the target today. Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany had recently come to Britain and the Sunday Express wrote that they "are over-running the country". In another edition the Express claimed, "Aliens who can hardly speak English are now driving London taxicabs and forcing British drivers off the streets." The Sunday Pictorial waded in with: "Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole", while Evening Standard billboards announced: 'Alien Jews pouring in". Mosley won open support from the press baron Lord Rothemere and his Daily Mail newspaper ran a centre-spread: "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!".

Although workers forced the fascist movement off the streets of the East End that day, the state struck back. Some anti-fascists arrested during the fighting were jailed and The Public Order Act was passed, ostensibly to ban the wearing of uniforms on marches. It was used most frequently against left-wing marches, however. The British ruling class continued to appease Hitler’s Nazi Germany and within three years of Cable Street, workers were conscripted to fight in another inter-imperialist world war.

What Cable Street showed is that only independent action with the aim of changing the course of events can defeat these types of attacks. Just as in 1936, the capitalist state lends comfort to the racists and modern-day fascists and calling on the authorities to take action to protect communities is fruitless. You only have to witness New Labour’s relentless demonisation of minority communities and asylum seekers as part of its "war on terror" to see that that is the case. The right-wing press picks up the government’s line and the sentiments of the headlines of 70 years ago can be found on a tabloid front page most days of the week. Cable Street is unfinished business.

* On Sunday, 8 October the Cable Street Group, and Alternative Arts are planning a commemorative day, starting at 12 noon. The festival will include a procession, street theatre, music, singers, an exhibition of photographs from 1936 and from more recent events, as well as stalls.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The next word on democracy

Advocating alternatives to the existing political system as an immediate rather than a long-term policy, as AWTW does, naturally challenges preconceptions about the nature of the British state. All the major parties, most campaign groups, the education system and, of course, the media, maintain that the system of government that we live under is democratic, accessible, responsive and remains the only route to achieving change.

That view neither stands up to practical examination nor is necessarily shared by people outside of these circles. Increasing numbers of people have lost faith in the way that Britain is governed. The 2004 State of the Nation poll carried out by ICM for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that virtually every person interviewed (99%) wanted one or more democratic reforms. When asked for their views on the present system of governing Britain, only 3% of people agreed that it "works extremely well and could not be improved". The public also had a bleak view of the future of "British democracy". Twice as many people (55%) believed that Britain was becoming "less democratic" as believed (24%) that Britain is getting "more democratic".

The Power Commission, which reported in February 2006, established "that the level of alienation felt towards politicians, the main political parties and the key institutions of the political system is extremely high and widespread" and the report noted: "Citizens do not feel that the processes of formal democracy offer them enough influence over political decisions. In addition, the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle." New Labour, we should remind ourselves, was elected with the support of just one in four of registered voters last year.

There is now a strong case for arguing that the existing state is actually incompatible with democracy and presents a barrier to a peaceful and sustainable future. In the last 30 years, under both Tory and New Labour governments, the British state has more and more aligned itself directly with corporate interests while its actions are directed towards sustaining the market economy. As a result, the political system actually stands in the way of, for example, effective action to tackle the devastating threat from global warming. Sidelining the formal democratic process, the state is increasingly authoritarian and a wrecker of human and social rights. This surely cannot be history's last word when it comes to democracy.

AWTW is often asked how the transition to a new democracy can take place, considering the power that the existing state has over everyone’s lives. One way forward is to build massive popular support for a national constitution that embodies the rights we are struggling to retain and also extends democracy in new ways. A new campaign group – the Coalition for a 21st Century Constitution – which AWTW is part of, is advocating just that. A campaign statement calls for "the transformation of the present political system along democratic lines".

Among the coalition’s goals are the "building a new, independent and decentralised democracy, from below, creating an inclusive written constitution that serves to protect and enhance our liberty and embraces the aspirations of the powerless majority". It says it will encourage "the building of a new, nation-wide democratic tradition from the ground up through, for example, independent Peoples’ Assemblies, as a means of transforming the state". The coalition is holding a second Open Forum on Tuesday, October 17 to take the campaign further and the plan for a constitution will figure in our Rough Guide to the Future event on October 21. Supporting these events is a way to show that the next word on democracy belongs to the mass of the people, not the political and ruling elites.

Paul Feldman, communications editor