Thursday, November 30, 2006

Charities, aid and the status quo

An unseemly row has broken out in the world of charitable giving about "ethical" Christmas presents which, it is claimed, double-up as valuable aid to people in poorer countries. Aid agencies like Oxfam, Christian Aid and World Vision offer people the chance to purchase farming animals like goats, chickens, sheep, donkeys, pigs and cows for people in developing countries. Prices vary. Send A Cow want £750 per animal, while Farm Friends ask £30 for a goat. This novel twist to do-gooding has caught on to the extent that even Help the Aged is "selling" a cow for only £70. Some agencies even have photos of animals wearing Christmas hats to get customers, if not the animals, into the spirit of the thing. You might have thought Animal Aid would be ecstatic about all this. Not a bit. Director Andrew Tyler has laid into rival charities, using immoderate language and biting sarcasm. Writing in The Independent, Tyler said: "The message might bring comfort to the target audience, but such schemes, sadly, are not a good thing. They serve only to increase not diminish poverty. Why? Because farming animals is an inefficient, expensive and environmentally destructive way of producing food. All farmed animals require proper nourishment, large quantities of water, shelter from extremes of weather and veterinary care. Such resources are in critically short supply in much of Africa." Tyler is supported by the conservation charity World Land Trust, who denounced animal gift schemes as "environmentally unsound and economically disastrous". Goats, apparently, eat "everything in sight", while lactating cows require 90 litres of water a day. The response from Oxfam was equally biting, with a spokeswoman saying: "Animal Aid and World Land Trust’s suggestion that Oxfam is acting irresponsibly in providing animals to poor communities is completely unfounded. Instead of promoting their own product ranges, their allegations are deeply misleading and undermine the entire sector’s attempts to change lives in poor countries."
Oxfam’s retort raises several important questions. Does such giving actually help people in poorer countries? Or does it, as Tyler claims, reinforce poverty because the infrastructure is missing? Does gift-aid of this type primarily allow well-off people in Britain to feel that they are actually doing something about world poverty while they tuck into their expensive, organic, free-range turkey? Do all of these agencies by their activities actually reinforce the status quo by diverting resources and energy away from changing the fundamentals? Lest we forget, that status quo is a world dominated by transnational corporations, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They are responsible for the fact that more than billion people – one-sixth of the world’s population – live on less than a $1 a day. They are the reason why climate change has resulted in severe drought in some areas and torrential rain in others. For all the efforts of the aid agencies, the number of food emergencies in Africa each year has almost tripled since the 1980s. Across sub-Saharan Africa, one in three people is under-nourished. Each year, 3.4 million people, mostly children, die from water-related diseases. It’s getting worse all round. About 3 billion people lack adequate sanitation facilities compared with 2 billion in 1990. Overall aid agencies, for all their good intentions, are not even managing to hold the line against the powerful forces that really decide people’s futures. Oxfam and others certainly expose the exploitation of people in the developing world. Yet their ambition of persuading the corporations, the WTO and the World Bank to function "ethically" has failed, as the statistics of life and death show. Changing the fundamentals is patently more challenging a project than giving aid on an individual basis. But it is impossible to envisage a future worth having for regions like sub-Sahara Africa unless we do. Helping to overturn the status quo would be the best kind of aid you could give.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Too late - the wheels are falling off!

Gordon Brown, the most likely successor to Tony Blair, wants Britain to become "an evangelist for globalisation". Speaking to the CBI, the employers’ organisation, he argued that free trade, open markets and flexibility were the preconditions of success in the global economy. "I want globalisation's children - the coming generation - to enjoy the vastly increased opportunities it brings," Brown told the employers’ annual conference. You can be sure that he’s not talking about the lifetime of debt, the loss of pensions, or the decline in standards of healthcare and education experienced by the majority in the Britain. Or the housing crisis that has resulted from a market free-for-all. Nor does he mean the absolute decline in income in the early years of the new century experienced by the already impoverished 200 million Chinese people at the bottom of the pile, many of whom have to exist on less than £1 a week. Nor does he include the cleaners at Goldman Sachs in the City of London whose £5.35 per hour minimum wage compares badly with the $3.5 billion the US investment bank has set aside to pay Christmas bonuses. Nor was Brown talking about the devastating impact of climate change, even though a recent report commissioned by the Chancellor called it the "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen". Brown also did not refer to the resources wars that globalisation has produced, most notably the invasion of Iraq, nor the authoritarian, market states that have emerged over the last 30 years.

In fact, Brown did not even mention manufacturing, although he was speaking to an organisation that represents the country’s ever-declining production sector. The only sector he mentioned was the City, a point picked by up Jean-Louis Beffa, head of the French building materials giant Saint-Gobain and an adviser to President Jacques Chirac. He told the audience that the Anglo-Saxon, free-market model of globalisation led to short-term investment and greater volatility and instability than the less flexible, long-term attitude taken by continental European countries. His view that the UK system was based on the success of the British financial services sector is supported by the fact that overseas companies spent £50 billion buying UK firms in the last year, including the British airports Authority and Manchester United Football Club, while the City lashed out £33 billion buying overseas companies. And it is the turmoil in the international financial system that in turn signals the reality that the global economy is heading for recession and slump. One of the main consequences of globalisation is the interdependence of global and national economies. The accelerating decline of the dollar – having lost more than 31% of its value in the last four years as measured against a basket of other currencies, reflects a stream of figures which reveal that the US economy is in bad trouble. Orders for durable goods showed a massive 8.3% drop in one month, and house prices dropped 3.5% on a year earlier - the third straight month of decline and the worst year-on-year fall since records began in 1968. The US trade deficit is running at more than $800 billion a year, reflecting growing imports and a dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs at home. Brown can extol the alleged virtues of globalisation all he wants to. But the wheels are coming off the global economy in a big way and his friends in the City will be powerless to do anything about it.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Asylum seekers are big business

Running detention centres for asylum seekers is big business for global corporations like Sodexho, which has the contract for Harmondsworth in west London. It is also a brutal and violent business, as today’s report on the centre by the chief inspector of prisons confirms. High levels of force and intimidation are routine and half of those held have complained of bullying by staff, says Anne Owers’ report. She describes her report as the worst she has issued. Two thousand foreign nationals are brought to Harmondsworth every month, prior to removal from the country from nearby Heathrow airport. There have been repeated complaints of ill-treatment of detainees. Two years ago a riot broke out after a Kosovan was found hanging in his cell. Earlier this year, 26-year-old Bereket Yohannes, from Eritrea, was found hanged in the showers at around 5.25am after several warnings that he would kill himself if deported. The following day, fellow inmates declared a hunger strike, demanding a meeting with the prison’s management. All those involved in the peaceful protest were moved to "secure cells" – a polite term for solitary confinement. Owers reports that 44% of detainees claim to have been victimised during their spell at the centre, which is run by United Kingdom Detention Services. UKDS is part of the global corporation Sodexho, which specialises in providing catering facilities in schools and colleges. Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London have tried to remove Sodexho from the site in protest at UKDS’s operations at Harmondsworth.

The number of detention centres in the UK has expanded quickly over the last decade and there are now 10 used solely to detain people subject to immigration controls. Seven are currently run by the private sector. Five new pieces of New Labour asylum legislation have created an atmosphere of fear and whipped up the right-wing press. As a result, the capacity of the centres has risen from 250 places in 1993 to the present capacity for 2,644 persons. Contracts with the Home Office provide the private contractor with a fee per inmate per day, which encourages them to keep the centres full at all times and costs down. UKDS reported a turnover of £12.18 million for its operation at Harmondsworth immigration detention centre for the year ended 31 August 2002. Asylum seekers, who are not suspected of or charged with any offence, are stripped of many of the legal safeguards suspected criminals are entitled to. Time limits are imposed on the detention of people arrested on criminal charges, while an immigration detainee can be detained for an indefinite period. Asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable and scared people. They have fled oppression in their own countries and endured unimaginable hardship to make it to Britain. Here they are placed at the disposal of profit-driven corporations, deprived of any rights, subject to indiscriminate violence and then thrown out of the country. So when Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, in response to the Owers’ report, says that it is "critical" that detention is "done with humanity and dignity", the only thing to do is reach for the sick bag.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, November 27, 2006

The real history of slavery

The political establishment’s attempt to distance itself from the slave trade, rewriting history in the process, has begun in earnest. With the bicentenary of the trade’s abolition just four months away, the New Labour disinformation machine is already swinging into action. First up is that well-known purveyor of truth and honesty, Tony Blair. He claims that it is "hard to believe" that what "would now be a crime against humanity" was legal at the time and that we should express "our deep sorrow" that it ever happened. First of all, we should reject any attempt to put us all in the frame through the use of "our". The slave trade was actually conducted by a few hundred aristocratic families and merchants. Secondly, slavery was no aberration but was the world's first global industry, producing the money for the development of industrial capitalism in Britain. At the same time as slaves were being bought and sold, in Britain itself the accumulation of capital also took a brutal form. In England, people were forcibly driven off their land and into the towns through the enclosure of the commons by the landowners, while in Scotland, highlanders were swept aside by the clearances. In assessing what he called "primitive accumulation" through enclosures and slavery, Karl Marx remarked that historically capital came into existence "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt".

From 1730 until its abolition, the British became the world's leading slave traders. Between 1700 and 1810 they transported about 3.4 million Africans. Slave trading in Britain started in London and Bristol but between 1750 and 1780 almost three-quarters of the British slave trade was financed by Liverpool merchants. During this period Liverpool was the biggest slave trading port in the world. The Atlantic slave trade started sometime in the mid-16th century when African labour began to replace Indian labour on the Spanish sugar plantations of Brazil. From this time to the 1860s slave traders transported some ten and a half million Africans into the Americas; another two million did not survive the sea crossing. This was the greatest enforced movement of people in history. Slave ships followed a triangular trading pattern. Vessels left their European home port with manufactured goods which were bartered for slaves and produce on the ship's arrival on the African coast. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic to the Caribbean islands or North American colonies, on what became known as the notorious "Middle Passage". On arrival they were auctioned like cattle, the majority becoming field hands on the large plantations. The third leg to Europe carried produce such as cotton, sugar, coffee or tea which were then sold for vast profits.

The slave trade’s illegalisation in Britain came only after brave campaigners, led by women, exposed its brutality in a struggle lasting more than 25 years. It took a revolution of the slaves to destroy France's system and a civil war in the US to free the slaves of the Southern States. While the slave trade was abolished in 1807, it remained illegal to form a trade union and to strike in Britain until 1824. Only in 1867 did the first industrial workers get the vote. British imperialism went on, of course, to enslave hundreds of millions of people through a colonial empire which was only thrown off through revolutionary struggles after 1945. By 1807, capitalism had created a modernised, more efficient form of bondage in the shape of the wage slave. The industrial or agricultural worker had been "liberated" from the land in order to sell his or her labour power to an employer for a price – the wage. But the wage slave was separated from the products of labour as well as the value added by labour, which became the source of profit. The worker then as now was utterly dependent on the employer for providing the means to work with and would have to return to the employer’s place of work on a contracted basis to earn enough to live. Plenty of abolition struggles still lie ahead.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, November 24, 2006

Putting New Labour's MPs to shame

While overpaid and overfed New Labour MPs plan their extensive and expensive Christmas break from swanning around the bars at Westminster, a lone campaigner faces jail for challenging the legality of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Chris Coverdale, a development consultant, will appear in the High Court today for refusing to pay a bankruptcy order of £3,500. A week later, he is due to appear in court again for refusing to pay £250 costs imposed on him for an unauthorised protest in Parliament Square. Thanks to New Labour, the right to protest in the area is now illegal unless you have prior police authorisation. Coverdale is refusing to hand over his money because for him paying fines and taxes are "complicity in waging a war of aggression" - a crime under the Nuremberg Principles - and "conduct ancillary to genocide", a crime under the International Criminal Court Act 2001.

He says: "Under no circumstances will I agree to hand over any money to any agency of government whilst it uses the money to pay for the murder of innocent women, children and men. In all conscience I cannot take part in the genocide of Iraqi people. At least 15,000 of the victims are children, yet Tony Blair tells us that attacking them with Cruise missiles, rockets, cluster bombs and depleted uranium artillery shells is the ‘right’ thing to do. How can anyone believe that this massacre of children is right or lawful? I am totally bemused that so many British citizens, such as MPs, police officers, crown prosecutors and judges are supporting the criminal actions of the British government. Didn’t we learn anything from the Second World War? George Bush, Tony Blair and hundreds of our leaders are committing the same crimes for which Hitler’s henchmen were tried, convicted and hanged at Nuremberg in 1946."

Coverdale’s defiance puts to shame the all but 12 of New Labour’s 354 MPs who in October voted against a motion calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the war in Iraq. These MPs are indeed complicit in the destruction of Iraq over the last three years in a war launched to make the region safe for oil extraction and global corporate investment. Coverdale should not be bemused, however, by the illegal and lying actions of the British state. The state we live under is neither democratic nor accountable for its actions in any meaningful way. When it was drawn into World War II, it was not on the basis of defending democracy either but to protect its own economic and political interests. The British state, it should never be forgotten, knew full well about Hitler’s tyranny after 1933 and during the war itself did nothing to halt the murder of millions of Jews. Ultimately the British state’s power rests on maintaining the capitalist status quo through force. It has a long history of "criminal actions" in this regard, including the slave trade and the enforced colonisation of whole continents. Coverdale’s brave challenge by itself cannot be expected to alter the nature of this iniquitous and increasingly authoritarian state. But it could and should inspire others to create a mass movement to replace Blair’s warfare state with a truly democratic, responsive and representative political system.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Financial murders and acquisitions

A corporate merger mania is sweeping the globe, reminiscent of the frenzy of the late 1990s. That ended in tears and all the signs are that the same will happen this time – only on a larger scale with far-greater consequences for the global economy and millions of jobs. The common denominator about current deals is debt. In 72 hours, beginning on Monday morning, more than $75 billion changed hands as mergers, buyouts and other forms of acquisitions gripped the markets. These deals are in the main being financed by loans and, as a rather concerned Wall Street Journal noted, "some target companies are being loaded with increasingly risky levels of debt in the process". Capitalism’s premier newspaper added: "One important factor behind the year's take-over boom is a well-oiled financial machine: buyout firms searching out prey and raising cash with bonds and loans that are then sold off to investors around the world. Leveraged [debt-financed] buyouts account for some 17 percent of the $3.4 trillion in transactions announced globally so far this year." Even the investment bankers who make mountains of cash out of the deals are getting edgy. Edward Marrinan, a credit strategist at J.P. Morgan Chase, said that companies and their private equity buyers "are pushing the envelope in risk-taking and testing the outer boundaries of the market's tolerances".

Take the largest of this week’s megadeals. That was the Blackstone Group’s record-breaking agreement to buy Equity Office Properties Trust, America’s largest office-building owner and manager, for about $36 billion. Analysts ranks it as the largest "leveraged" buyout in history. It’s the same across the globe. Corporate merger and acquisition activity in Canada hit a record $90.3 billion in the third quarter, according to investment bank Crosbie & Co. The new record came about largely from the $19.9-billion take-over of Canadian nickel giant Inco by Brazil's CVRD. Other big deals included Goldcorp's $9.5-billion US bid for Glamis Gold, Advanced Micro Devices $5.4 billion US take-over of ATI Technologies, and Canadian Natural Resources' $4.6-billion take-over of Anadarko Canada. Eighteen of those deals were "mega-deals," worth $1 billion or more. Five of the 10 largest deals were by foreign interests acquiring Canadian firms.

A significant feature of the spate of acquisition is the role played by private equity firms. These are high-risk, secretive bodies using other people’s money, including pension funds unable to meet their obligations who are in search of quick, high returns. They operate beyond the bounds of financial regulators and will offload and asset strip if that’s what it takes because at heart they are speculators with no real interest in the enterprises they buy. Businesses are being taken private at such a rate that the total value of British companies listed on the stock market reduced by almost £47 billion in the first half of 2006. While interest rates remain relatively low, take-over companies are betting they will be able to service their fast-rising debt loads. You don’t have to be a financial genius to work out that the smallest change in economic conditions or higher interest rates will bring the pack of cards tumbling down. Debts will become unserviceable and that in turn will have a high impact on banks and other financial institutions who put up the money in the first place. Calling in loans will exact a high price in terms of jobs and livelihoods. Global casino capitalism will then look more like a financial Armageddon. Meanwhile, down in the City of London, those who work in mergers and acquisitions are looking forward to the biggest Xmas bonuses ever. They better spend them while there's time.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cashing in on the Olympics

One thing is certain - the soaring costs of the 2012 London Olympics, with a final bill of perhaps £8 billion compared with a bid figure of £2.4 billion – will not fall on the big corporations who will cash in whatever happens. Because make no mistake, the modern Olympics are just one big commercial feast, with sport coming a long way second. The modern Olympics are essentially a golden triangle, between the International Olympic Committee, the media and sponsors. By the time the Games get going, the sponsors' logos will be everywhere, on everything from transport to burgers. The superbrands of the world will, of course, be able to buy official sponsor tags for premium prices. Everyone else will be barred by laws already passed that restrict the ability to advertise and trade in the vicinity of the Olympic venue. Already, the use of the famous five rings is banned unless it is officially authorised. Most of the revenue for the Games comes from the sale of world-wide TV rights. These are negotiated by the IOC, an organisation with a long track record of corruption. The media then gets to have a huge say about when events are staged to maximise TV audiences. The commercialisation of the Games has also compromised the actual events themselves. Pressure on athletes to perform as a route to earning large sums of money from sponsors is a major factor in the increased use of performance-enhancing drugs. Add in the fact that we will still in the middle of the so-called “generational war” on terror (courtesy of T.Blair) by 2012, and you get the picture of a Games surrounded by the army and police and sponsored by Nike and CBS TV. A mouth-watering prospect indeed.

In London itself, the plans for the Games are already taking their toll on people who live in East London. Travellers, allotment holders and small businesses are being uprooted by the secretive and unaccountable Olympic Development Authority that was set up by the New Labour government. Large-scale regeneration of the run-down area is promised, with new jobs and housing. Housing conditions in the area are some of the worst in Britain but only one-third of the planned new home will be affordable, while the rest will go to those who can buy on the open market. The quality and future of the Olympic facilities is also in question, with architect Lord Rogers attacking plans for the main stadium as second-rate. Meanwhile, plans to revitalise the Crystal Palace sports stadium in south London, which is falling apart, have been put on hold by the Mayor of London until after the Olympics. No doubt other urgent projects will go the same way as the cash runs out and Londoners are asked to pay through the nose to meet the final bill. Of course it’s great to have the Games in London – but not on this basis. Free them from commercialism and sponsorship and divert the resources from the Iraq /Afghanistan wars to pay for a real public-spirited event, accessible to all, and the 2012 Games would really be something to look forward to.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A goose that lays golden eggs

For an average person, spending more money than they have is certain to result in ever-growing debt, unless they are lucky enough to know someone who is prepared to bail them out. Paying off debt, especially on credit cards, seems never-ending as the outstanding amount hardly ever seems to go down. Students are now leaving university with up to £20,000 in outstanding loans and it’ll take them a good deal of their working lives to get straight. When the story switches to the lives of private-sector corporations, the contrast is stark. Here, for example, you can run up debt and then go bankrupt quite legally. Directors are personally free from liability under the laws that govern companies. It gets even better if you are involved in the win-win schemes under the government’s “private finance initiative” (PFI) or the even more exotically-named “private-public-partnership” (PPP). In this case you are guaranteed profits, whatever the outcome.

The latest scandal in this sector is on the London Underground, where millions of passengers endure nightmare journeys day in and day out as the system reaches breaking point. Gordon Brown, who seems set to replace Tony Blair as the New Labour prime minister next year, insisted that modernisation of the London Underground could not be left in the hands of the elected Mayor and created a Byzantine PPP scheme instead. Two private sector consortia were put in charge of the Tube system and it is estimated that this private finance scheme has added £450m to the investment bill faced by fare payers and council taxpayers. That’s not the end of the story, however. Now comes news that the consortia Metronet expects taxpayers to pick up most of an estimated £750m overspend on investment. Under the PPP contract, Metronet, which makes profits of £1m a week, is required to pay only £100m of the overspend, with the rest falling on hard-working Londoners through the council tax. Metronet’s claim comes after an independent assessor slammed the company for falling “significantly behind schedule” with its station modernisation programme and for “poor delivery of maintenance and renewals”. The Metronet scandal is just one of many involving PFI/PPP. In June 2005 a leaked government report said that a new privately financed hospital in Leeds had "breached every section of the fire safety code". The PFI Skye Bridge infamously cost the public £93m (and required the closure of the existing ferry to prevent competition), although it should have cost only £15m to build. The enormous scale of PFI projects in the health and education sectors since 1997 is now having a serious impact on budgets. Because the projects cost on average 30% more than if they were directly financed, paying for schemes is one key reason why hospital trusts are in serious financial difficulties all over the country, shutting wards and departments and sacking staff. Meanwhile, the private sector is laughing all the way to the bank as the PFI goose lays golden eggs. The trade union bureaucrats whose members are losing their jobs are queuing up to back Brown, Mr PFI himself, to succeed Blair as leader of the big business New Labour government, which just so loves redistributing wealth from the public to the private sector. Are these union leaders actually living in the real world? As far as Brown as successor to Blair is concerned, it is, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, November 20, 2006

Masters of 'doublethink'

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, about a thought-controlling totalitarian state, is built around a never-ending war involving the book's three superstates, with two allied powers fighting against the third. The allied states occasionally split with each other and new alliances are formed. Each time this happens, history is rewritten to convince the people that the new alliances were always there, using the principles of "doublethink". According to the novel, doublethink is: "The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. ... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth."

This description sounds remarkably like the leaders of the unfree world talking about their "war on terror" which, naturally, means precisely the opposite. That is not a problem for Bush or Blair because for them, just as Orwell wrote, the "lie is always one leap ahead of the truth". So, for example, in Afghanistan, where 20,000 NATO troops are destroying villages and mosques, as well as hearts and minds, in their fruitless war with the Taliban, Blair can claim: "Here in this extraordinary piece of desert is where the future of world security in the early 21st Century is going to be played out." Perhaps Bush and Blair are trying to outdo the 100 years war fought between France and England from 1337 until 1453. As things stand, their war of terror is certain to last at least 30 years, according to a security think tank. The Oxford Research Group report published today says recent political changes in the US would make "very little difference" to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan because both major parties were locked into the current strategy. Written by Professor Paul Rogers, ORG's global security consultant and professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, the report analyses the past year of events in Iraq and the Middle East, looking at how, in a classic example of doublethink, the "war on terror" had transformed into what has been called the "Long War" by the Bush administration. ORG’s Executive Director, Dr. John Sloboda, added: "There is a growing consensus among those who have actually seen service in Iraq that the coalition presence is inflaming the problem, rather than being part of the solution. The carnage of the last six months has eroded any lingering doubt that the coalition must leave, and leave soon." Cue more doublethink, this time from priceless brain of George W. Bush. About Iraq, which has all but disintegrated in the wake of the US-led invasion of 2003, Bush said at the weekend: ''We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take awhile. We'll succeed unless we quit.'' A new film for The Guardian/BBC by war photographer Sean Smith shows how hollow this claim is. Bush was, by the way, speaking in Vietnam, where the United States suffered its greatest-ever military defeat. The obvious comparison with Iraq escaped him precisely because it is nearer the truth than his doublethink.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, November 17, 2006

Democrats block Bush impeachment

The storm clouds are gathering around the Bush administration on both sides of the Atlantic following the Republican Party’s defeat in the mid-term Congressional elections. The election have given fresh impetus to the grassroots movement in the United States calling on Congress to impeach Bush and the rest of the White House. In Germany, constitutional campaigners have started moves to launch a prosecution of US officials for war crimes on behalf of 12 torture victims – 11 Iraqi citizens who were held at Abu Ghraib prison and one Guantánamo detainee. One US website has recorded votes of more than 800,000 Americans who want Bush removed from office because he acted illegally by fixing intelligence to start a war against international law, violated the constitution by authorising phone tapping without warrants and authorised torture by the CIA in a network of secret prisons. Of nearly 400,000 respondents to a recent online poll, 87% supported impeachment. And a Newsweek poll found that a majority of Americans wanted to see Bush impeached if he lied about the war in Iraq. Full page ads have appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, USA Today and many other papers urging support for impeachment. Under the constitution, for a president to be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanours", formal charges are introduced in the House of Representatives. If any of the charges are approved, then the president is considered "impeached" and would then be tried by the Senate to determine his guilt or innocence. If a president is found guilty by the Senate on any charge, the constitution states that he must be removed from office. There have been nine formal attempts to impeach a United States President. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned before a vote in the wake of the Watergate scandal where he authorised the burglary of the Democratic Party’s HQ.

The Bush regime is not the campaigners’ main problem, however. That just happens to be the leadership of the Democratic Party who are dead opposed to impeachment proceedings. Democrat Nancy Pelosi is the new Speaker of the House but even before the recent elections she told CBS television that "impeachment is off the table". When asked about this declaration, she went on to assure that "yes it is a pledge", and even called impeachment "a waste of time". This is only of a sample of the lame messages that the Democrats, who defeated Bush despite having no substantial differences with the White House, are sending out. Many Democrats are anti-abortion and take a right-wing line on immigration from Mexico. What the impeachment campaign shows is that the momentum of the movement against the Bush regime is taking it beyond the narrow confines of the Democratic Party. In Britain, the charges levelled against Bush equally stand up against the Blair government. The question for campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic is by what means can constitutional and democratic rights be defended when all the major parties and the political system are part of the problem.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A failed state

At least New Labour is consistent. Its new legislative programme focuses on strengthening the state’s repressive powers and kow-tows to big business when it comes to the question of the day, climate change. The proposals are so far to the right politically that many of them leave the Tories stranded. Just look at the Blair government’s plans: more curbs on jury trials, a "rebalancing" of the criminal justice system to diminish defendants’ rights; enforced treatment for the mentally ill even if they have not committed a crime; more penalties for "anti-social behaviour", including eviction; a fifth anti-immigration bill and new so-called anti-terror legislation, with the possibility of 90-day detention without trial making a reappearance. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil rights group Liberty, was right to say: "Tough talk brings rough justice. Rough justice if you're evicted because your big brother's been in trouble, rough justice when you're accused of serious crime and denied a jury trial, rough justice when migrants are always equated with crime."

As for the climate bill, this is simply a gesture and won’t make a jot of difference to the global warming crisis. New Labour has had CO2 targets before – and ignored them. UK carbon emissions are actually higher now than they were when New Labour came to power in 1997. So setting another general target is simply pathetic. As the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Chris Huhne noted: "We need a Government that proposes solutions, not just targets. If targets alone solved problems, this would be the best-governed country in the world." The leaders of big business were happy, of course, seeing as they will be left to go on polluting the atmosphere. Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the policy framework should "not undermine competitiveness" and that the government was "right to reject the case for annual targets which would be unworkable". All this leave us with a malign political system that is incapable of anything other than deploying a big fist against groups in society in order to curry favour with the right-wing voters. More laws against crime will produce more criminals and more crowded jails. More anti-terror laws will further demonise the Muslim community and do nothing to tackle the sources of terrorism. The state is assuming more and more powers while failing abjectly to deal with the climate crisis because big business wants to be left alone. Add in the cash-for-honours scandal that is running through the major parties and you could be forgiven for concluding that the British state is increasingly corrupt and is neither democratic, representative or capable of delivering on the issues of the day. You could even say it was a failed state.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Art market's winners and losers

A rush by investors and the super rich to get out of stocks and shares into objects that seem safer investments is undoubtedly a major factor behind the soaring price of artworks. Others are cashing in too, with slick lawyers exploiting the claims of Holocaust victims to help fuel the ballooning art market. There are, of course, losers as well. They include the general public because cash-strapped museums can’t compete with the big buyers and, just as seriously, face mounting problems with theft. November opened with No.5, 1948, by American artist Jackson Pollock setting the record for the most money ever paid for a painting at £73.35m. The deal took place in a private transaction between two tycoons in the United States. It beat the previous record for a sale which was an estimated £70m for a painting by Gustav Klimt. Art market specialists point to yet new “thrills” provided over the last week by yet more record amounts paid at New York sales at Sotheby’s and Christies. Sales of paintings by Impressionists and early 20th century artists made £450 million. This is double the amount generated last spring, and much more than the last peak sales in the art market, back in 1989-90.

A bizarre – some might say macabre - aspect to the last spate of sales is that the continuing supply of such high-value paintings have been provided for sale due to a process known as “restitution”. This is the process of restoring property lost by its rightful owners as a result of looting during the Nazi era. Klimt’s portrait of Adele Block-Bauer and a painting by Ernst Kirchner reached the art market in this way. The way in which lawyers, art dealers and tycoons are driving up prices is causing grave concern amongst museum and gallery directors whose job it is to preserve and present art to the public. The hunt for more and more high value works is affecting the works held in public collections. In Germany, Professor Ludwig von Putendorf, chair of the Berliner Bruecke Museum which lost the Kirchner sold last week, has said that lawyers and auction houses were seeking out the heirs of Holocaust victims to get them to make claims. His museum, by the way, is a modest establishment struggling to survive. More often than not, the public loses the chance to see major works in museums and municipal collections. Bury City Art Gallery’s sale of its only Lowry is another example. On a wider level, the ballooning prices of artworks in general are fuelling, not only commercialisation and privatisation but even theft. Recently the world-famous Hermitage museum in St Petersburg was shocked by the loss of historic objects due to insider stealing. Its director said that the huge rise of prices in the antiques market had corrupted some of his staff.

Corinna Lotz, arts editor

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

One law for the rich...

When businesses collapse, the last to lose out are the banks, while the directors usually make sure they are alright too. As for the customers, the idea put about by capitalism that they call the shots is reduced to empty rhetoric when firms go bust. Such is the case with Farepak, the Swindon-based Christmas hamper company that crashed recently. Farepaks’ 300,000 customers were poorer households who were putting a little money aside each week so that they could plan for a decent Christmas. Now £40 million of their savings have gone, along with the promise Farepak made of the “best family Christmas ever”.

The company went into administration after its bank HBOS decided not to extend an overdraft. HBOS bank has been accused by MPs of knowingly accepting savers' money to pay off Farepak’s parent company loans instead of insisting the money was safeguarded in a separate account. It is alleged the bank pulled the plug on Farepak for an outstanding amount of just £1.5m. The bank naturally enough denies this. Farepak took cash in all year round but paid no interest and as such did not fall under the regulation of the Financial Services Authority. Who knows what was really going on at Farepak? No one, for example, can say exactly how many savers Farepak had as there were no central records - only the almost 25,000 local agents know who they dealt with. But it is estimated about 150,000 families are affected. Typical savers have lost £400 but some have lost thousands.

Meanwhile, Farepak director Nick Gilodi-Johnson, the son of Farepak's owner, had an estimated share dividend from the parent company EHR of £445,000, on top of his pay, and stands to inherit £75 million. He has called the collapse a “tragedy”. Yet unlike his former customers he won’t be scrimping and scraping this Christmas. Nor will the Farepak chairman, Sir Clive Thompson, who took £100,000 for this part-time job while earning £894,000 as deputy chairman of an investment company. In 2004, he quit as boss of Rentokill after the company’s shares plummeted. He left with a £14 million pension to soften the blow. Thompson was once head of the CBI, the employers’ organisation, and infamously denounced the minimum wage. The directors of HBOS will do alright this Christmas too. The bank’s profits in the last year amounted to £2.6 billion.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Fiddling while the planet burns

With just a few days to go, the United Nations climate change conference in Nairobi is stalled. As delegates gathered for the second week of talks, there was no sign of setting goals for a Kyoto Treaty Mark II after the present one expires in 2012. India, China, Brazil and other developing economies are reluctant to talk about carbon emission cuts while the developed economies continue to pump out greenhouse gases like CO2 as if there were no tomorrow, which is exactly what will happen one day if things remain as they are. Not that the original Kyoto treaty has had much effect, with figures showing a sharp upturn in global greenhouse gas emissions in the past five years. Dr Mike Raupach, chair of the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of researchers who compiled the latest figures, warns that emissions are spiralling out of control. "This is a very worrying sign. It indicates that recent efforts to reduce emissions have had virtually no impact on emissions growth and that effective caps are urgently needed," he said. Australia and the United States are not even party to Kyoto I, of course. Given the impossibility of getting growth-hungry corporations to stop pumping out products and waste, attention is already turning from reducing emissions to ways of dealing with the impact of climate change. This hopeless approach is known as "adaptation". Even here there is disagreement between rich and poor nations. Western nations want control of a fund to help poorer nations adapt to climate change to lie with a body tied to the World Bank, while developing countries understandably want to decide themselves how funds are allocated.

The stalemate at the talks is in stark contrast to what is going on in the real world. The fact that the meeting is in Nairobi only reminds delegates that climate change will hit the African continent hardest hit, and lives have already been wrecked as failing rains kill livestock and destroy the livelihood of millions. According to research commissioned by the charity Christian Aid, the people most likely to be wiped out by devastating global warming live only a few hundred miles away from the conference venue. These are the three million pastoralists of northern Kenya, whose way of life has sustained them for thousands of years but who now face eradication. Hundreds of thousands of these seasonal herders have already been forced to forsake their traditional culture and settle in Kenya's north eastern province following consecutive droughts that have decimated their livestock in recent years. The experts in Nairobi say the region's highest mountains – Kenya and Kilimanjaro – will lose their glaciers, leading to the drying up of most of the rivers emanating from the two mountains. They also say that many coastal areas, including much of the infrastructure in East Africa and elsewhere on the continent will be submerged if governments, industry and the society do not take concrete steps to reverse the ongoing changes in the climate. Governments are determined that nothing should rock the business-as-usual scenario of the global market economy, which is primarily responsible for the climate crisis. This is unacceptable and because governments won’t act, others will have to show the way. Nairobi confirms that the political and economic elites in the major capitals are fiddling while the planet burns, paralysed in the face of vested corporate interests. A World to Win’s action plan to halt climate chaos is based on ordinary people seizing the political and economic initiative themselves. Ours is a challenging alternative strategy but at least it tells it how it is.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Friday, November 10, 2006

The state's war of terror

Is MI5 flying a kite for sweeping changes that would further undermine democratic rights? That’s just one of the conclusions you could draw from the claim by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of the spy agency, that MI5 has identified 30 major terror plots in Britain and more than 1,600 individuals engaged in promoting attacks here and abroad. She warned that chemical and even nuclear devices could be used to attack innocent civilians. Apparently – and with MI5 the real truth is always obscured – there is insufficient evidence to arrest the alleged plotters. Cue the opening of the new parliamentary session next week and New Labour’s plans for yet more anti-terror legislation. Will Blair and Brown use the MI5 head’s speech – so conveniently leaked to the media – to justify laws that enable the state to use "preventative detention" to hold terror suspects on the basis that it is better to be "safe than sorry"? We shall see.

One thing is certain, however, and that is the state has no answer to terrorism except to adopt ever more draconian measures. In this way the state imposes on society an endless "war on terror", with no winners and no losers, which then turns inevitably into a war of terror by the state against the population as a whole. MI5’s budget continues to expand – it has recruited 1,000 more agents since 2001 – while surveillance increases still further. Before you look round you have a fully-fledged police state, with identity cards and monitoring of people’s activities on an unprecedented scale. We are not that far from away from this point. State repression is clearly no solution to the fact that increasing numbers of British-born Muslim youth are attracted to martyrdom through indiscriminate acts of terror. Calling for the Muslim community to adopt "British values", as New Labour insists, doesn’t help much either. These cherished "values" presumably include the tradition of invading other countries and promoting crude forms of market capitalism and commercialism. Put like that they don’t seem very attractive. It’s hard to imagine, but think of a government that withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan and apologised for the invasions; broke off relations with Israel until it conceded self-determination to the Palestinians; condemned repressive dictatorship like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt; challenged and socialised the power and resources of the global corporations; drastically reduced social inequalities and promoted secularism in education and society as a whole. The existing political system is, of course, geared up to maintaining the status quo at any cost, so turning imagination into reality will require a massive change.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Collective punishment in Gaza

Under the Geneva Convention on the rules of war, it is expressly forbidden for armies to impose a collective punishment on people who are not involved in the combat. The destruction of people’s property is also banned. You will not be surprised to learn that Israel does not believe that these conventions apply to them when it comes to their treatment of the Palestinians. How else can you explain the massacre of 19 civilians, including seven children, by artillery fire in the town of Beit Hanoun? How else can you justify the uprooting of olive groves and the levelling of homes for "security" reasons? How else can you understand the killing of more than 350 Palestinians in Gaza in the past five months, including unarmed women shot down in cold blood? Or the destruction of the area’s power stations? Whatever the mealy-mouthed Israeli government’s spokespeople say, this is nothing less than the collective punishment of a people who have resisted the attempt to destroy their aspirations to self-determination and statehood. It is the punishment of a people who dared to choose Hamas in free elections. Israel’s barbaric actions in Gaza follow the collective punishment of the Lebanese people recently through the destruction of their homes, schools, petrol stations, roads and bridges.

For sure, Israel did not invent the idea of collective punishment. It was first conceived by US General Sherman in the American civil war, as a method for punishing the South’s rebellion. Nazi forces were responsible for countless collective punishments in occupied Europe and the British deployed these methods in Kenya and the Americans in Vietnam. It is a cruel irony that a state ostensibly founded to protect a people who were the victims of pogroms and the gas chambers adopts the language and some of the methods of their former oppressors. Building walls to isolate Palestinians, for example, looks remarkably like the construction of a ghetto for a people deemed unsuitable as neighbours. Political Zionism, based as it is on an exclusively nationalist outlook, has reached a dead end as shown by the recent cabinet appointment of the openly racist Avigdor Lieberman. He has called, among other things, for the expulsion of Israeli-born Palestinians. Zehava Galon, who leads the parliamentary wing of the left-wing Meretz, describe his appointment is a "terrorist attack on democracy", comparing Lieberman to contemporary fascist leaders in Austria and France. Only one Labour Party minister resigned from the coalition. The Israeli state has degenerated into a semi-military, corrupt regime that spells danger for its own citizens as well as the Palestinians. Time is clearly ripe for Israeli society to move on from the suffocating nationalism of Kadima, Likhud, Labour and the rest in the quest for a secular state solution that can appeal to both Jews and Palestinians.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Bush's new world disorder

The outcome of America’s mid-term Congressional elections lends weight to what Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time. A social shift is under way in the United States and it is mirrored in the turn against George W.Bush’s Republican Party at the mid-term Congressional elections. After 9.11, Bush claimed that there was a clear link between the perpetrators and Iraq. Most Americans apparently backed him and this helped create the sentiment to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now most Americans believe that the war in Iraq is a disaster - which it is, both for the American forces and, more importantly, the Iraqi people. Whereas before the invasion, Iraqis had no connection to Islamic-inspired terrorism, today they queue up to become suicide bombers, targeting both the US troops and other religious groups. Not only that, but the wholesale corruption that has engulfed the occupation has reached the very heart of the White House. In fact, voters put corruption in Washington ahead of Iraq as their main issue of concern.

Bush's deeply dangerous and reactionary regime has, of course, enjoyed the complicit support of the Democratic Party for most of its term in office. Democrats supported the 2003 invasion and stood aside while Bush’s proclaimed "war on terror" actually became a war of terror against the American people’s democratic rights. Even now, the Democrats are only saying that it’s time to work up an exit strategy for Iraq because the war has gone so badly wrong. There is also plenty of evidence that many of the Democrats elected to the House of Representatives embrace social policies that are indistinct from – and sometimes even to the right of – the Republicans. Many ran on anti-abortion tickets while others contesting seats along the border with Mexico outbid Republicans for the size of the fences they would erect between the two countries. After all, the Democrats are a capitalist party, just like their opponents. Yet while the shift to the Democrats is a pale reflection of deeper disquiet among Americans, it is clear that the political system has entered a period of sharpened crisis. On the eve of the polls, four US military newspapers actually called for the resignation of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the invasion. The US economy is teetering on the edge of a major downturn following a credit squeeze combined with a loss of jobs to foreign competition, while the position in Iraq can only deteriorate. The new world order is beginning to crumble in its heartland.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Financial tsunami beyond regulation

When the financial regulators start getting concerned about what speculators are up to, it is time to take notice. The Financial Services Authority (FSA) recently expressed worries that some hedge funds were "testing the boundaries of acceptable practice concerning insider trading and market manipulation". Hedge funds engage in very high-risk speculative activity with other people’s money. They borrow against these funds to extend their operations. Now the FSA is sounding the alarm bells about the growth of so-called private equity markets. They use a mixture of funds and debt to provide financial backing to private companies. Private equity funds then restructure businesses, load it with debt, change the management, cut costs, take large dividends and then make a profitable exit by refloating the company on the stock market or selling it on. Firms currently in the firing line include Debenhams, United Biscuits, and the Automobile Association. As many as 20% of the UK workers are employed in companies saddled with private-equity investment. Many banks are also caught up as the speculators gamble in the private-equity markets which are beyond the reach of the regulators. Given rising interest rates "the default of a large, private equity-backed company, or a cluster of smaller such companies, seems inevitable". Risks are getting higher as private equity firms club together to do bigger deals. The FSA suggests that in "extreme circumstances" financial stability as a whole could be threatened. What all this reveals is that the FSA is running to catch up with a financial sector that is beyond control. Hedge funds and private equity markets operate in the shadows, away from the prying eyes of the financial authorities. This unregulated activity is an essential feature of capitalist financial markets. If it were ever to be regulated, the funds would simply move into other financial "vehicles" and areas of activity. In other word, the free market in finance will always outrun any attempt at regulation. However, as the FSA warns, any failure in these sectors could well bring down the entire financial system, including high street banks. Global capitalism has expanded over the last 30 years through the creation of mountains of debt, both personal and corporate. The wave of debt has built into a tsunami that is starting to engulf both companies and individuals in every country. No wonder the FSA is alarmed.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Monday, November 06, 2006

Saddam verdict and the rule of law

The "trial" of Saddam Hussein, with its inevitable verdict, just about sums up the legacy of three years of occupation of the country by US and UK troops following the illegal invasion in 2003 against a tissue of lies and deceptions. So Iraq’s judges took their cue from the invading forces when it came to a total disregard for the rule of law, both domestic and international. Proceedings were a farce, with anonymous witnesses and judges and lawyers who showed no knowledge or regard for international law. Four defence lawyers were murdered and one judge forced to quit under political pressure before, with impeccable timing just 48 hours before America’s mid-term elections, the court handed down its judgement. Even though the British state is formally opposed to the death penalty, this did not prevent New Labour’s very own Margaret Beckett from welcoming the verdict, reconfirming the scant regard the Blair government has for the rule of law as it constructs its very own authoritarian state. Tyrant though he was, it was hard to disagree with Saddam when he accused the court of delivering "victor’s justice". The 2003 invasion deprived Iraq of the right to self-determination, of the ability to rid itself of the Saddam dictatorship in its own way and time. The Bush-Blair regimes have instead tried to impose on Iraq their conception of a new world order based on military might and powerful corporate interests – especially those of the oil companies. In this they have failed miserably, at the expense of ruined lives and aspirations throughout Iraq. The country has descended into near civil war and countless thousands have perished as a consequence of the invasion. Basic necessities like energy, education and food are available to fewer and fewer Iraqis. Thousands leave the country each day. Blair, in particular, declared that the removal of Saddam would hasten the move to a Palestinian state. How hollow this all must seem to the Palestinian people who in the last few days have buried more than 35 people killed by Israeli forces, including women gunned down in the streets by occupation forces. What did foreign secretary Beckett have to say about that? She asked meekly that the Israelis respond in a "proportionate" way when attacking defenceless Palestinians. Yet the cruel oppression of the Palestinian people is a without doubt a crime against humanity. Don't hold your breath waiting for proceedings against the Israeli state or those in Washington and London responsible for the carnage in Iraq, however.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, November 03, 2006

A sick state of affairs

A charity for men with prostate cancer says many face a "titanic" struggle to be prescribed an approved drug. Taxotere can improve the quality of life of patients in the later stages of the cancer, and prolong their lives. It was approved in June by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) for use in the NHS in England and Wales. But each course costs about £7,000 and the charity says some men are denied it on cost grounds. Some doctors have been told by primary care trusts struggling with limited funds to ration the number of courses of taxotere that they prescribe.

One obvious question is: why are drugs so expensive? And why has the NHS drugs bill grown by almost 50% in the last five years to £10 billion a year? You just have to examine the tactics of the major drugs companies, or the Big Pharma as they are known collectively, to find the answer. According to Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB), efforts to cut the bill by using generic drugs rather than their more expensive brand-name equivalents are undermined by Big Pharma. A generic drug can only be introduced once the patent on the brand-name drug has expired. Ways the industry gets round this include:

  • introducing a new brand-name drug that is very similar chemically to the original but marketed as being in some way better
  • presenting an old drug in a different form, for example as a capsule rather than a tablet
  • combining the original drug with another old established drug to form a new product.

The DTB explains: "Companies may also withdraw the original brand-name drug before its patent actually expires, and around the same time, introduce the new brand-name product. Because the old patent protection is still operative, no generic equivalent can be released onto the market. So, by the time a generic eventually enters the market patients may already be well established on, and very unwilling to switch from, the new-brand drug."

That’s not all. An NHS doctor believes that Big Pharma has additional methods to boost profits:

  • re-invent and re-design the treatment by getting eminent doctors to produce "research" showing that new drugs are better
  • re-define the disease so that more people will need to be treated. Diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity have all been redefined
  • invent new diseases that also need to be treated. Hypertension "experts" created a disease, "prehypertension," when they revised a US treatment guideline for high blood pressure in May 2003.

Another strategy is to make as many people as possible believe that they have a particular disorder and to imply that medicines are the best, if not only, solution. To assist this process, companies initiate "disease awareness campaigns", benefiting from association with patients’ groups. In the UK in 2005, there were six disease awareness months, eleven disease awareness days and 48 disease awareness weeks. Selling cures for imaginary diseases is another tactic. Glaxo Smith Kline took the antidepressant Seroxat and had it approved to treat shyness, now reclassified as "social anxiety disorder". And that’s just in Britain. Meanwhile, in poorer countries, infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria, measles and tuberculosis kill millions of children each year, according to the World Health Organisation. Big Pharma has, of course, also tested new drugs on unsuspecting people in African and Asia who are desperate for treatment. So while NHS staff lose their jobs, and patients from Britain to Bangladesh are denied vital drugs on costs grounds, Big Pharma is smiling all the way to the bank, courtesy of their sponsored government, New Labour. What a sick state of affairs.

Paul Feldman, communications editor.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

They know all about us

You thought states that spied on everything its citizens did only existed in Eastern Europe in the dark days of the Cold War. Think again. Thanks to New Labour, Britain is already a fully-fledged surveillance state, with people more spied on by the authorities and the corporate sector, often working hand in hand, than any other industrialised country. The Surveillance Studies Network report published today for the Information Commissioner says there are up to 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain - about one for every 14 people. Surveillance ranges from the US national security agency monitoring all telecommunications traffic passing through Britain, interception of emails by British security agencies, key stroke information used to gauge work rates to global positioning satellite information tracking company vehicles. The report also highlights "dataveillance" - the combination of credit card, mobile phone and loyalty card information for marketing purposes. Not only that, Britain has loser laws on privacy and data protection than anywhere else. The report's co-writer Dr David Murakami-Wood says: "We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us."

The report ridicules the notion that people have "consented" to surveillance and says: "The issue of choice can be seen at work throughout the criminal justice system. We do not choose to be monitored by CCTV as we walk though public space, and no one has chosen to have their vehicle movements logged at the ACPO’s ANPR Centre. Arrestees do not choose, and are coerced, into providing fingerprint and DNA samples, which will be permanently logged on the police national database, even if they are released without charge. And, while a person cannot be forced to give a urine sample to test for the presence of drugs, it is hardly a matter of choice, as refusal can result in a fine, imprisonment or both." Turning to the forthcoming ID cards scheme, the report adds: "Moreover, existing identifiers relate to single roles, as drivers, consumers or tourists whereas the ID card system gives the government powers to monitor activities across a range of roles that include all of these as well as that of citizen." On the blurring of public and private boundaries, the authors note whilst both sectors share information, more tasks of government are carried out through a sometimes complex combination of public, private, voluntary-sector and market mechanisms.

The hard-hitting report tries to suggest solutions in new forms of regulation and privacy protection, presumably enforced by the very same state that built the surveillance web in the first place. But there is no way that the state is going to give up its new powers, which it accumulated mostly by stealth. This is a self-expanding industry which the government is promoting. For example, New Labour is vastly increasing the budget of MI5, the internal spy agency, so that they can recruit more watchers and analyse the vast amounts of data collected on all of us every day. The surveillance state is a fearful state, concerned by the fracturing of once-settled communities and the disdain that ordinary people show for the authorities. It is a state that is fast losing credibility for its inability to tackle the most basic questions such as climate chaos or housing. The inescapable logic of the surveillance state is totalitarian rule, where even the most basic democratic rights are suppressed in the interests of "community safety" and "national security". This state is definitely not for turning and certainly not for regulating. Dismantling the surveillance state will require more deep-going, democratic solutions.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Britain’s housing crisis: the facts tell the story

The news that Abbey, Britain's second largest home loan provider, is offering borrowers five times their salary, instead of the usual three, in order to help them get onto the property ladder, is a desperate indication of Britain’s housing crisis. The facts and figures really speak for themselves. Increasing numbers of people are in housing debt, unable to meet their mortgage payments and face losing their homes through repossession. Some 770,000 are estimated to have missed a payment in the last 12 months. Almost seven million people would like to buy a home but can’t afford to because of soaring house prices. The average British home costs £179,000 - 187% more than it did a decade ago – with repayments running at about £1,000 a month. The average price of a London home is expected to reach £400,000 by 2011 as things stand. Some 100,000 homeless households are living in temporary accommodation. Over a million children are growing up in overcrowded, unfit or emergency housing, suffer from serious health problems and poor education. There are 585,000 empty homes in England alone.

Meanwhile, the London Housing Federation is warning: "With London’s population expected to increase by 800,000 over the next decade, London’s housing crisis looks set to deepen. There are already over 300,000 people on waiting lists for affordable housing across the capital, more than 63,000 households are in temporary accommodation and one London home in 20 is overcrowded. The number of new affordable homes funded by the government is still being outstripped by those sold through right to buy: 11,549 affordable homes were sold last year and 6,037 built." LHF head Berwyn Kinsey added: "Londoners are increasingly left with the choice of expensive rental accommodation, living in house shares or with parents, or leaving the capital altogether. Many thousands more are homeless or living in overcrowded conditions as demand for affordable housing outstrips supply."

Research into housing need carried out on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by economist Alan Holmans was published in 1995. Holmans concluded that at least 117,000 new social rented homes per year would need to be provided from 1991 to 2011. He identified a need for at least 90,000 new rented homes per year over 1991-2001 rising to 100,000 per year until 2011, with a further 500,000 homes required to clear the backlog of unmet need. What is New Labour’s record? A House of Commons research paper into housing need, calculates that in the last eight years, the total number of new homes built for rent in England since 1998 is 128,157, or just over an average of 16,000 a year compared with Holman’s figure of 100,000. The Tories actually did better. In the last year eight years of the previous Tory government, more than 192,000 homes for rent were built by housing associations. New Labour’s obsession with home ownership and market "solutions" has helped create a massive housing crisis in Britain. Now the average person cannot afford a mortgage, is highly unlikely to access rented social housing and is left with a private sector that charges exorbitant rents for not very much. Meanwhile, the Bank of England seems certain to raise interest rates shortly, sending even more home owners into debt and increasing the level of repossessions. Who needs the Tories when you’ve got New Labour?

Paul Feldman, communications editor