Friday, December 29, 2006

For a new kind of politics in 2007

As 2007 beckons, behind the façade of consumerism and the "success" of globalisation a ticking time bomb of popular revolt is waiting to go off. A few things are clear in an uncertain world. Global warming will continue to threaten to extinguish human, animal and plant life. Starvation, disease and wars will plague Africa. Bloodletting will go on in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan as the United States, Britain and Israel pursue their strategies of making the world "safe". Closer to home people will fall ever more deeply into debt as they struggle to meet their bills. Affordable housing will remain non-existent for countless households. Innumerable new laws, including the proposed imposition of identity cards, will give the state ever greater powers over us. Faceless bureaucrats and the police will hold our personal details in ever-growing surveillance systems and databases. Public services will continue to deteriorate as they are opened up further to the private, corporate sector. Meanwhile, business will go on as normal. Profit making and incredible bonuses like the £35m for the chairman of investment bank Goldman Sachs will enrich a few and increase wealth inequality in Britain.

There is evidence of growing world-wide anger and resistance. People of South America have re-elected the anti-imperialist president Hugo Chavez, and neighbouring countries have elected progressive candidates. In the United States, the Bush regime is increasingly isolated and unpredictable. In Britain, New Labour is despised by the majority of the electorate and the party’s membership has halved in 10 years. The question is: how can this popular hostility find an expression? Like it or not, the answer is politics. But not the politics of the existing parliamentary parties, who seek only to preserve the status quo. Government contempt of those who have elected them to power is clear in their policies and practice. A new survey shows that majority of people in Europe and the US favour the withdrawal of troops from Iraq (France 90%, Spain 84%, UK 83%, Germany 82%, Italy 73%, US 66%). And yet clearly their wishes are totally ignored. Other forces are waiting in the wings as discontent mounts. In the last few days there have been more rumblings from within the British military establishment about the debacle in Iraq. They don’t want to be bogged down in a quagmire and are appealing over the heads of the Blair regime to popular opinion. In other words, the state is divided against itself and this instability will only grow, especially if Blair goes along with plans to attack Iran and Syria. This capitalist state is only concerned with preserving the private ownership of the world’s resources which is essential for the rule of the corporations and investment banks like Goldman Sachs. As we have seen, the parliamentary political system is exhausted and no longer offers a way of solving society’s most pressing problems, while authoritarian take-overs cannot be ruled out. Alternative forms of democratic control of the levers of power can provide the answer if we have the courage and conviction to develop these as a popular solution to key issues. We urge you to join A World to Win in developing the policies and actions that will help bring about the economic and political transformation so urgently required in the coming period.
Corinna Lotz

AWTW secretary

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Beware attacks on Syria and Iran

The first few months of 2007 could see a major escalation of the war in the Middle East, with attacks on Syria and Iran. That’s the view of the respected investigative reporter Robert Parry who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s. He has talked to his intelligence sources and thinks that George W. Bush will be tempted to "double-down" his gamble in Iraq by joining with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair to widen the conflict beyond Iraq. According to Parry, Bush's goal would be to transcend the hopeless position in Iraq, where US troops are bogged down, by achieving "regime change" in Syria and by destroying nuclear facilities in Iran. The Israeli army and air force would carry the brunt of any new fighting with the support of beefed-up US ground and naval forces in the Middle East. Bush is now considering a "surge" in U.S. troop levels in Iraq from about 140,000 to as many as 170,000. He also has dispatched a second aircraft carrier group to the coast of Iran. According to Parry’s intelligence sources, the expanded-war option which has been discussed in one-on-one meetings among the principals - Bush, Olmert and Blair. Since the November 7 congressional elections, the three leaders have conducted a round-robin of meetings that on the surface seem to have little purpose. Olmert met privately with Bush on November 13; Blair visited the White House on December 7; and Blair conferred with Olmert in Israel on December 18.

All three leaders are in a corner and desperate acts may seem to them the only way to recapture lost political legitimacy. Bush has lost control of Congress to the Democrats, largely as a result of the failure of the Iraq war; Blair is on his way out, also weakened by Iraq as well as domestic failures while Olmert has never recovered from Israel’s failure to smash Hizbollah in Lebanon. Bush has rejected advice from the Iraq Study Group to bring Iran and Syria into talks as part of the withdrawal strategy. He has continued to insist on "victory" in Iraq and now talks about waging a long war against Islamic "radicals and extremists," not just the original goal of defeating "terrorists with global reach". Blair last week called for "moderate" Arab states to isolate Iran in a further ratcheting up of the rhetoric. At his news conference on December 20, Bush suggested, too, that painful decisions lay ahead in the New Year and said that America had to demonstrate to the enemy that "they can't run us out of the Middle East, that they can't intimidate America". He added: "I'm not going to make predictions about what 2007 will look like in Iraq, except that it's going to require difficult choices and additional sacrifices, because the enemy is merciless and violent." So rather than scale back his neo-conservative dream of transforming the Middle East, Bush argued for an expanded American military to wage this long war. There is evidence that the White House has toyed with the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities but were overruled by the generals, who feared the consequences for US troops around the world. The joint chiefs of staff apparently also sense the end of the Bush era and want to keep their distance after having their fingers burnt in Iraq. They are also resisting the sending of more troops to Iraq without a clear strategy. But Bush is the commander-in-chief and the generals will ultimately have to do as they are told. One suggestion, according to Parry, is that the sending of more troops will be accompanied by a provocation that can be blamed on Iran or Syria, giving the excuse for a pre-emptive strike against those countries. The consquences of such an act will be far-reaching and totally unpredictable.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Nigerians pay a cruel price for oil

The cruel inequalities of corporate-driven globalisation have claimed their latest victims in the hundreds of people burned to death on Boxing Day as they tried to scoop up oil from a broken pipeline in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. In the world’s seventh largest oil producing nation, the country’s poor cannot afford to buy fuel at market prices and in desperation risk their lives in search of oil. The oil pipeline from Tuesday’s incident ran through one of the city’s poor suburbs and when it was vandalised by oil thieves, thousands of local residents ran to grab as much of the precious fuel as possible. Then came the explosion. In the past decade, some 2,000 people have been killed in similar accidents. A blast in May left 300 people dead. In 2003, at least 225 were killed by a pipeline inferno. Nigeria derives 90% of its total annual income from oil exports yet despite the country’s oil riches, a majority of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day. According to Amnesty International, Nigeria "has not provided enough essential services, nor built the social and physical infrastructure in large parts of the country, necessary to ensure a minimum acceptable level of the rights to health, education, and access to drinking water, and an adequate standard of living". Fuel shortages are common because a succession of corrupt military dictatorships and civilian governments have let refining plants fall into decay. So crude oil is exported and refined oil imported.

The residents in the Niger Delta, where Shell and other oil corporations pump the oil, suffer the most appalling living conditions. They live in squalor, with hardly any services. The land is heavily polluted by decades of ruthless oil exploration. Desperation has forced militias to kidnap oil workers and sabotage facilities in order to try and get a fairer share of the country’s wealth. In 1995, the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and either others who had campaigned for the Ogoni people in the Delta, were executed by a military tribunal on trumped-up charges. Shell was complicit in the judicial murders and refused to intervene in order to protect its oil contracts. Meanwhile, as the Nigerians suffer, Shell continues to prosper at the expense of other people – as well as the environment. Earlier this year, soaring oil prices helped Shell report a record annual profit for a UK-listed company of £13.1 billion – up nearly a third on the previous year. And in November it started pumping oil from a huge new field off the Nigerian coast. While transnationals like Shell and the tame Obasanjo regime in Nigeria are in charge, the wealth will continue to flow into the pockets of shareholders and ordinary people will die in infernos.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, December 22, 2006

‘Fit only for nightmares’

The term “rendition” was used during the slavery era in the USA to describe the capture and return of runaway slaves to their respective states. Today the term is synonymous with the wholesale abandonment of the rule of law by the Bush-Blair axis, as a new report demonstrates. Domestically, their crimes and misdemeanours include the suppression of civil liberties and increased, unlawful surveillance. Abroad, they are guilty as charged of breaking international law with illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and for the process infamously known as ”extraordinary rendition”. This term is, as the report by Cageprisoners points out, a euphemism for abduction, kidnap, false imprisonment, torture and even death. The report estimates that over 14,000 people around the world are being held in ghost detention sites under direct US control, or by others at their behest. In a recent investigation, the European Parliament condemned the British government’s role and accused ministers of a concerted attempt to obstruct investigations into it. It expressed "serious concern" about 170 stopovers at British airports by CIA-operated aircraft which on many occasions came from, or were bound for, countries linked with "extraordinary rendition circuits". The MEPs expressed outrage at what they said was the view of the chief legal adviser to the Foreign Office, Sir Michael Wood, that "receiving or possessing" information extracted under torture, was not banned under international law. He declined to give evidence to the committee in an arrogant display of New Labour’s contempt for the rule of law.

The report, Beyond the Law - The War on Terror’s Secret Network of Detentions for the first time brings together information that has been collated over the last year from different sources working to reveal the global system. Asim Qureshi, who led the Cageprisoners research team, says: “Of the more important findings that the list highlights are the alarming number of countries involved in the practice, the extent to which the US has been complicit in many of those detentions, and also the complete lack of due process throughout the system.” He adds that the system often to people being held in circumstances which are “fit only for nightmares”, adding: “The practice of torture is prevalent in the prison systems of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, and other countries across the Middle East and Sub-Continent, and yet many detainees have been outsourced to these places with full knowledge of what will take place against them.”. While the United States and Britain preach democracy to the rest of the world, the report reveals how they are engaged in enforced disappearances on a mass scale in the name of the so-called “war on terror”. In practice, theirs is a war of terror, whose victims include not only the thousands held in ghost camps around the world, but the rule of law itself. We have been warned.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Looking back in anger

One day, people of the planet Earth will examine the records for 2006 and see it as the year climate chaos really took off. They will read about the data provided by members of the World Meteorological Organisation
(WMO) just before the end of that year and look back in wonder and anger at the international paralysis in the face of overwhelming evidence about global warming. The WMO reported that the global mean surface temperature in 2006 was estimated to be +0.42°C above the 1961-1990 annual average, while since 1976, the global average temperature had risen sharply, at 0.18°C per decade. Canada experienced its mildest winter and spring on record, the USA its warmest January-September on record and the monthly temperatures in the Arctic island of Spitsbergen for January and April included new highs with anomalies of +12.6°C and +12.2°C, respectively. Persistent extreme heat affected much of eastern Australia from late December 2005 until early March with many records being set (e.g. second hottest day on record in Sydney with 44.2°C on 1 January). Several parts of Europe and the USA experienced heat waves with record temperatures in July and August. The July European-average land-surface air temperature was the warmest on record at 2.7°C above the climatological normal. In England it was the warmest autumn since official measurements began - records in central England go back to 1659.

Long-term drought continued in parts of the Greater Horn of Africa including parts of Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania. At least 11 million people were affected by food shortages; Somalia was hit by the worst drought in a decade. Severe drought conditions also affected China. Millions of hectares of crops were damaged in Sichuan province during summer and in eastern China in autumn. Significant economic losses as well as severe shortages in drinking water were other consequences. In northern Africa, rare heavy rainfall in the Sahara Desert region of Tindouf produced severe flooding in February, damaging 70% of food stocks. Again in October and November, the Great Horn of Africa countries experienced heavy rainfall associated with severe flooding. The worst hit areas were in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Somalia underwent its worst flooding in recent history; some places have received more than six times their average monthly rainfall and hundreds of thousands of people have been affected. Landed tropical cyclones caused more than 1 000 fatalities and economic losses of US $ 10 billion in China, which made 2006 the severest year in a decade. Typhoon Durian affected some 1.5 million people in the Philippines in November/December 2006, claiming more than 500 lives with hundreds still missing. In the eastern North Pacific 19 named storms developed, which is well above the average of 16. On 25 September, the maximum area of the 2006 ozone hole over the Antarctic was recorded at 29.5 million km², slightly larger than the previous record area of 29.4 million km² reached in September 2000. The year 2006 continued the pattern of sharply decreasing Arctic sea ice. Including 2006, the September rate of sea ice decline was about -8.59% per decade, or 60 421 km² per year. Looking back, people in every country will be glad that they decided to take action themselves when their leaders proved incapable of protecting the earth’s eco-systems. In dislodging the corporate and political elites from power, and replacing the anarchy of the global market economy with sustainable forms of production and exchange, the people of the planet had acted just in time.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Burmese Gulag

Attempts by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to bring the military government of Burma to book over its use of forced labour came to a head this week. The ILO finally decided to bring its concerns to the United Nations Security Council after years of denial by the Burmese government. But the ILO’s criticisms are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that has suffered brutal dictatorship since 1962. Human rights organisations, pro-democracy and religious groups are united in condemning not only the use of slave labour but an endless list of horrors. It is illegal to make or join a political party, to voice a political opinion, to speak out against the dictatorship, to have a printing press, own a computer for personal use or discuss human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s elected leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has lived under house arrest for 11 years. Recently the junta extended her arrest by another year. She won over 80% of the vote in Burma’s last free election 20 years ago. Amnesty International estimates that there are more than 1,300 political prisoners. Attacks on ethnic minority villages are on the increase. Rape is used as a standard weapon by the Burmese army. The dictatorship headed by General Than Shwe wallows in luxury in a land where the lowest proportion of GDP is spent on health of any country in the world. One million live in camps in a country that resembles a vast Gulag. Many are indigenous peoples like the Shan, Kachin, Hmong, Karen, Karenni, Burman and Rakhine.

Burma is a country rich in gems, timber, oil and gas. But all the money is going into the hands of the generals who run the government. Recently one of their daughter’s lavish wedding parties made it on to YouTube, causing a rumpus. The general did not have to worry, though, since access to the Internet is controlled by the government through a US company called Fortinet. The chief props of the regime include the British and French governments. While New Labour pretends otherwise, Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK says that "foreign companies are using British dependent territories to channel new investment to Burma so that Britain is not directly implicated". Under New Labour there has been a surge of British imports from Burma from £17.8m in 1997 to £74m in 2004. The bulk of the imports are clothes on sale in British high streets. A major financial pillar of the regime is the French oil company Total. Others include Daewoo, Texaco, Proctor and Gamble, Black and Decker, Hitachi, Samsung, Caterpillar, Halliburton – and more of the usual suspects. One campaigner, who cannot be named due to fear of reprisals, says: "As a tourist to Burma, you will travel on roads, railways, airport runways, see temples, palaces and gardens, go to international companies and buildings… that if built from 1988, will contain the dead bodies of the people who were forced to make it for you as slave labourers. If you go to Burma as a tourist you will pay at least 50-80% of your money to help pay the State Peace and Development Council (= The Burma military dictatorship) to rape and torture, forcefully relocate to people camps run by the military, human minesweeping and mass murder of the people you go there to see." Aung San Suu Kyi But is prominent amongst those calling for a tourism boycott. A benefit concert in London will take place on February 1 at the Royal College of Music to support the oppressed peoples of Burma.

Corinna Lotz, AWTW secretary

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

American scientists in revolt

American scientists are so angry with the Bush administration’s manipulation of and interference in their work that 10,000 of them have now signed a statement calling for integrity in policy making. The signatories include 52 Nobel laureates, 62 National Medal of Science winners, 194 members of the National Academies of Science, and science advisors to both Republican and Democratic presidents dating back to Eisenhower. The scientists’ statement says: "When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions. This has been done by placing people who are professionally unqualified or who have clear conflicts of interest in official posts and on scientific advisory committees; by disbanding existing advisory committees; by censoring and suppressing reports by the government’s own scientists; and by simply not seeking independent scientific advice. Other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front. Furthermore, in advocating policies that are not scientifically sound, the administration has sometimes misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies."

Organised by the Union of Concerned Scientists, this unprecedented display of unity follows years of documented manipulation by political appointees. The UCS has compiled its own A to Z Guide which showcases dozens of examples of the misuse of science on issues like childhood lead poisoning, toxic mercury contamination, and endangered species. At the Federal Drugs Administration, now in its 100th year, hundreds of scientists reported significant interference with the FDA's work, compromising the agency's ability to fulfil its mission of protecting public health and safety. Verification has come from the National Academies Institute of Medicine, which in September released a report critical of the FDA and its ability to protect the public from unsafe drugs. A confidential internal FDA survey which was leaked, revealed that nearly one in five scientists (18%) said that they "have been pressured to approve or recommend approval" for a drug "despite reservations about the safety, efficacy or quality of the drug". The hand of Bush appointees is felt everywhere, even by Gunnison’s prairie dog, which lives in sagebrush grasslands in the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Its current habitat has been reduced by more than 90% of its historical range by oil and gas drilling, urban sprawl, sylvatic plague, and continued shooting and poisoning. Documents show that as of January 19, 2006, the Gunnison's prairie dog was on track for a Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determination that the species deserved protection as endangered based on scientific evidence. Then came an explicit order from political appointee Julie MacDonald, FWS deputy assistant secretary. She forced the regional office to change their positive finding to a negative one. Whether it’s the situation in Iraq, before and after the invasion, or animal life on the prairies, the White House is good at one thing – lying through its teeth. In the end, however, truth will out as American scientists have demonstrated.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, December 18, 2006

America goes cap in hand

A falling dollar, growing import deficits, a loss of domestic manufacturing jobs and the election of a more protectionist Congress, which takes office next month, add up to one thing – increasing trade tensions between the United States and its main creditor, China, which could derail the global economy. In the latest twist, hard-pressed US manufacturers have persuaded the Democrats to launch a controversial Bill permitting the use of anti-subsidy laws in response to alleged "currency manipulation" by Beijing. The US trade deficit with China, which is expected to grow to $229 billion for 2006, has allowed China to build up $1 trillion in foreign currency reserves. A high-level American delegation to Beijing last week came away empty handed, however, not least because the Chinese economy has its own severe domestic problems. Leading the attempt to get China to take some of America’s pain was Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, appointed earlier this year from his position as chairman and chief executive officer of the investment bank Goldman Sachs and adviser to the Chinese Government. With him went six other cabinet members and the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. At the top of Paulson’s list of "reforms" is getting people in China to buy more goods. Or in the words of his opening remarks: "By continuing to pursue economic reform, opening its markets further, and rebalancing its growth to allow for increased domestic consumption, China will be sustaining its own growth while contributing even more to the global economy."

But the Chinese leadership wasn’t impressed by a delegation which could almost be said to have arrived cap in hand. They are only too aware of the looming revolt against the widening gulf which has opened between the tiny group of suddenly super-rich and the increasingly impoverished hundreds of millions who have lost everything to capitalist globalisation. The current leadership is reported to be moving to rein in the excesses of market economy introduced by Deng Xiaoping. More than two decades after Deng's changes, the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) had risen to only $1,700 in 2005 and is expected to reach only $3,000 in 2020. Even with a purchasing power parity of 4:1, Chinese 2005 per capita GDP was $6,800, still substantially below the US 2005 per capita GDP of $35,000. The lowest-income families, comprising the bottom 10% of all families, owns less than 2% of all the private assets in the economy, while the highest-income families, or the top 10% of all the families, own over 40%. No wonder Chinese leaders have started warning against extremes of poverty and wealth, rising unemployment and intensifying social conflict. There is also recognition China is overly-dependent on foreign investment and energy resources. So, far from rushing to help Washington, Chinese planners are working to make the country more self-sufficient in the next five years. At the end of the talks in Beijing, Vice Premier Wu Yi said "a number of differences remain". She added: "China and America are two completely different countries. The economic structures are different, the value systems are different, so it is natural to have this or that kind of disagreement. The key lies in what attitude is embraced to address those differences." Meanwhile, the US economy teeters on a financial precipice while China has a unique ability to push it over the edge. The fear is that the continuing four-year decline of the dollar will persuade China to start selling some of the mountain of dollars it has amassed. Such a move would destabilise international financial markets as well as starve the US of funds to finance the government’s own deficit. It looks like American capitalism is on its own in its hour of greatest need.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Friday, December 15, 2006

By your friends you shall know them

It was not exactly a dawn raid, but the knock on the door at No.10 Downing Street on Thursday marked the first time a sitting prime minister has been quizzed by police in connection with a criminal investigation. Unfortunately, police inquiries were to do with the sordid cash-for-honours affair rather than the illegal invasion of Iraq or the government-led conspiracy to demolish cherished democratic rights. Nonetheless, Tony Blair is one of about 90 people who have been interviewed by police during the probe. Three people have been arrested but no charges laid. One of those arrested was Lord Levy, New Labour's chief fundraiser, once dubbed "Lord Cashpoint", who also doubles as the prime minister's Middle East envoy. Levy ran the Labour Leader's Office Fund to finance Blair's campaign before the 1997 general election and received substantial contributions from such figures as Alex Bernstein and Robert Gavron, both of whom were given peerages by Blair after he came to power, as was Levy himself. Levy then secured a £1m donation to New Labour from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone. Shortly after, the government changed its policy to allow Formula One to continue being sponsored by tobacco manufacturers. The subsequent row led to the return of the donation. It was the first sign that New Labour were just as sleazy as the Tories they had replaced.

As for his Middle East role, Levy is hardly a neutral. He is a supporter of Labour Friends of Israel and has been described by The Jerusalem Post as "undoubtedly the notional leader of British Jewry". He is also a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the self-appointed establishment leadership of the Jewish community. Levy has close ties with the Israeli Labour Party (now part of a right-wing coalition) and maintains a home in Tel Aviv. His son, Daniel Levy, is active in Israeli political life, and has served as an assistant to the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Levy has praised Blair for his "solid and committed support of the State of Israel". Little wonder then that New Labour joined Washington in refusing to call for a ceasefire when Israel systematically demolished Lebanon’s infrastructure and targeted civilians during its summer war, or that there is silence in London while the Palestinians face daily attacks and a denial of their rights. But back to the cash-for-honours scandal. In September 2005, Levy was appointed President of the Council of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, the body overseeing the government's carve-up of state education. The men who lent money to Labour and were then nominated for peerages are Barry Townsley, a stockbroker who has also donated money towards a city academy school, Sir David Garrard, a property developer who also donated money to a city academy, Dr Chai Patel, chief executive of Priory Clinics and millionaire business Sir Gulam Noon, who says he was advised to keep a £250,000 loan secret. He was knighted by New Labour in 2002. As the saying goes, by your friends you shall know them. Assistant Commissioner John Yates, of Scotland Yard, has said he expects to complete his inquiry next month. He will then deliver a report to the Crown Prosecution Service, who will decide whether to prosecute any individuals in connection with the affair. Meanwhile, voters’ trust in the political process continues its free fall.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Two Britains

This is a story about the two groups of employees working for Goldman Sachs, the international investment bank. One group are cleaners, employed by ISS, the biggest building services company in the world. ISS operate out of 42 countries. The overwhelming majority of their workers are migrants and have to survive on the minimum wage. Their working conditions are extremely poor and cleaners will struggle to find the money to spend on presents and food this Christmas. ISS Cleaning Services is owned by Goldman Sachs. The other group of employees are dealers - speculators to you and me - operating in the global money markets. They gambled so well in 2006 that Goldman Sachs is handing them a total of £8.3 billion in end-of-year salary bonuses and other benefits . One trader in London is reported to have been rewarded with no less than £50 million as a bonus. Others will have to be satisfied with between £5m and £10m, poor souls. Apparently, the staff at Goldman Sachs are dubbed the "haves and the have yachts", which only adds to the obscene nature of the whole business. City bonuses as a whole are up 30% on last year as the investment banks cash in on record levels of mergers and acquisitions, which inevitably lead to "restructuring", or redundancies in plain English. The telephone number bonuses at Goldman Sachs emphasise the extreme inequality of wealth in Britain, where office cleaners earn £5.35 an hour while speculators receive bonuses of about 2,000 times the average wage. It really is a story about two Britains. The Transport and General Workers Union is campaigning for decent wages for ISS and other cleaning staff, and picketed Goldman Sachs' offices in Fleet Street recently. Whatever the union achieves, it will still leave cleaners at the bottom of the pile. Yet they do productive work and make a positive contribution to society, which is more than you can say about City speculators. As the TGWU campaigners' placards said, "Goldman Sucks".

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

No port to call home

One of the consequences of globalisation, with corporate ownership often obscured behind multinational holding companies, is a sharp increase in the numbers of seafarers abandoned in foreign ports, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). One such story concerns the Al Manara, a vessel sailing under the flag of St. Kitts and Nevis, which in January 2006 left Somalia loaded with coal for Dubai. An engine failure caused the ship to drift for 18 days until it was towed in by Seychelles port authorities. Certificates expired, food and water supplies ran out and the ship quickly became infested with rats and cockroaches. The cargo owner wasn’t only unwilling to pay towage fees and supplies for the ship – but was also some six months behind in paying wages to the 18 seafarers from Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia and Ukraine. In July 2006, four crew members were still on board, while four had been repatriated by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The remaining crew members were provided with subsistence by the Seychelles Port Authority. "The case of the Al Manara is by no means exceptional," says ILO senior maritime expert Jean-Yves Legouas. "Sadly, there are still cases of abandonment."

Since January 2004, the ILO database has registered 40 cases of abandonment of seafarers in ports world-wide, from Algeciras to Adelaide, and from Portland to Piraeus. More than 500 seafarers from all over the world were owed hundreds of thousands of US dollars in wages when the vessels were abandoned. "In the past year, very few, if any, cases have found a solution, in spite of a joint initiative of the director-general of the ILO, together with the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), who have personally written letters to those member states having a ship abandoned somewhere in the world, flying their flag," says Legouas. It is not unusual for a vessel to be owned by nationals from one country, be registered under another flag, and be crewed by several other nationalities. "Depending on various factors, such as the port where it occurs, who owns the ship and the level of response of their consular or diplomatic national representation, seafarers may or may not get speedy and satisfactory redress for their plight. Some owners send a few hundred dollars at irregular intervals. Not enough to survive on, but enough to make abandonment unclear," Legouas adds. "The work of seafarers is an indispensable part of all our lives. As about 90 per cent in tonnage of world trade move by sea, and even more because they are workers who have rights, we have to ensure decent working conditions for all seafarers", Legouas adds. The ILO, a UN body, created the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalisation with the aim of improving the lot of workers. In February 2004, it released its report, A Fair globalisation: creating opportunities for all. While praising the "productivity capacity" of global capitalism, the report adds: "Seen through the eyes of the vast majority of men and women around the world, globalisation has not met their simple aspiration for decent jobs, livelihoods and a better future for their children." The seafarers of the Al Manara would agree with that.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Rewriting history in Teheran

Loathsome and anti-Semitic are two words that spring to mind to describe the international conference sponsored by the Iranian government that casts doubt over the historical fact that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime. Small wonder then that those attending the conference include David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, and the Australian racist Fredrick Töben. He actually brought a model of the Treblinka death camp to "prove" the absence of gas chambers. Books prominently displayed included fiction by the jailed historian and Holocaust denier David Irving. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad called for the conference last year after his speech on Israel and the Palestinians in which he asserted that the slaughter of the Jews was a myth. Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in his opening remarks to the conference, took up the same theme, saying that if the "official version of the Holocaust is thrown into doubt, then the identity and nature of Israel will be thrown into doubt". The Iranian leadership’s crude association of the Israeli state’s oppression of the Palestinians with some kind of retribution for the murder of European Jews is theocratic nonsense. Reducing the Palestinian struggle to a kind of world-wide Jewish conspiracy is totally counter-productive as well as racist. Mahmoud al-Safadi, who was sentenced to 27 years in jail during the 1988 Intifada, has said in an open letter to the Iranian president, that Ahmadinejad's stance is a "great disservice to popular struggles the world over". His letter adds: "Perhaps you see Holocaust denial as an expression of support for the Palestinians. Here, too, you are wrong. We struggle for our existence and our rights, and against the historic injustice that was dealt us in 1948. Our success and our independence will not be gained by denying the genocide perpetrated against the Jewish people, even if parts of this people are the very forces that occupy and dispossess us to this day."

With their conference, the Iranian regime plays straight into the hands of Washington and London, who are always looking for excuses to launch an attack on the oil-rich nation before it develops nuclear weapons. The Israeli leadership has, of course, lost no time in condemning the conference and appearing self-righteous at the same time as they reinforce the walls that fence the Palestinians into their ghetto. Teheran’s leaders by their statements and actions also involuntarily assist the campaigns to isolate and demonise Muslims living in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, in Iran itself, repression of opponents is commonplace. In 2004, Tehran’s prosecutor general, Saeed Mortazavi, orchestrated the secret detentions and alleged torture of 21 bloggers and staff of internet news sites known to be critical of the government. Four were eventually charged and their trial is due to resume next week. Shahram Rafizadeh has told Human Rights Watch: "I was held in solitary confinement in a secret prison for 86 days. My cell measured barely 5 feet by 6 feet. The magistrate, Mr. Mehdipoor, was present in the detention centre. He threatened me with execution if I didn’t confess to what he dictated. He told the interrogator, known as Mr. Keshavarz, he can do whatever he wants to me, such as ‘peeling the skin off my head’. The interrogator beat me mercilessly while I was handcuffed and blindfolded. Interrogations continued under these circumstances for more than 40 days." Yet Iranians refuse to be silenced. One journalist outside the conference told reporters he was ashamed of the event, while Ahmadinejad, who missed the opening to give a speech at Amir Kabir university, was heckled by protesters shouting "death to the dictator" and burning his photograph. With luck, Ahmadinejad will be looking for a new job before too long.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, December 11, 2006

Healthy business for some

The National Health Service is in danger of capsizing as a result of the government’s constant changing of the rules, private sector financing and exploitation by the drugs corporations, otherwise known as Big Pharma. At least 13 NHS trusts are technically bankrupt and about a third of the NHS trusts in England forecast deficits totalling almost £1.2bn this year. Thousands of jobs have been cut and wards closed, despite campaigns by local people all over the country. New Labour’s answer? Health secretary Patricia Hewitt has announced that the NHS must make a surplus next year, which is certain to mean another round of closures. How did the 13 trusts go bankrupt? Partly through government incompetence and partly as a result of the expense of building new hospitals in "partnership" with the private sector. In 2001, Gordon Brown and Alan Milburn in 2001 put NHS trusts under a financial regime known as Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB). The new system was designed to regulate spending by Whitehall departments, but had a devastating effect when it was applied to already overspending hospital trusts. If a trust spent £105m, but had an income of only £100m, it would end the year with a deficit of £5m. The new rules sliced £5m from its income in the following year and obliged it to make a £5m surplus. That required the trust to cut its spending from £105m to £90m. Trusts faced with this kind of punishment could not achieve the target without damaging patient care and so their deficits escalated.

Also weighing down on NHS finances is the "the Private Finance Initiative" which gives property developers the right to build new hospitals and lease them back to the NHS in fixed contracts lasting many decades. This has cost the NHS dearly. Hardest hit has been the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Woolwich, south-east London. The trust is locked into a PFI deal that adds about £9m to the costs of an equivalent hospital built with public sector money. The construction and fitting out of the QE's efficient but not extravagant premises cost about £93m. For two years the health authority gave financial support to cover the extra PFI costs and the trust managed to declare small surpluses. But that cosy arrangement stopped in 2004-05 when the QE began to suffer the bizarre financial consequences of the Treasury's RAB rules. Unsurprisingly, the trust ended 2004-05 with a deficit of £9m. But the combined effects of PFI and RAB have raised the trust’s deficit to a hair-raising £65m. The government’s plans for the NHS to deliver a surplus have drawn a sharp reaction from doctors. Jonathan Fielden of the British Medical Association said: "At this current time, the NHS is under intense financial pressure, which is directly impacting on patients. "There are patients who could be treated quicker being delayed, jobs being frozen, trained doctors and nurses and others not finding jobs to go to while the NHS tries to get its finances sorted. While it is good to produce a financial surplus, surely these aspects need to be sorted first?" You would have thought so. But New Labour has other priorities. The NHS drugs bill has doubled in five years to £10 billion a year. While jobs are axed and services cut, Big Pharma is doing very nicely, thank you.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Friday, December 08, 2006

The real victims of fashion

Workers in Bangladesh producing the cheap fashions that are sold in three high street stores earn as little as 5p an hour, says a report published today. Little wonder then that Tesco and Asda, the supermarket chains, together with clothes retailer Primark, reported profits over the last year totalling more than £2.6 billion. What the three have in common is a ruthless driving down of costs at the expense of suppliers in Britain and world wide. They are then able to sell a range of goods well below the average high street price. Milk farmers, for example, often sell their product to the supermarkets at less than cost price to keep their contracts. Even that is not good enough for the supermarkets, who are now importing cheaper milk from France. Cheap poultry from Asia is flown half way round the world to keep margins high. In its report, the campaigning charity War on Want says that workers in the Bangladeshi factories that supply Tesco, Asda and Primark are regularly at their machines 80 hours a week, in potential death trap factories. Starting wages in the factories researched were as little as £8 a month, barely a third of the country’s living wage. Even better paid sewing machine operators receive only £16 a month, which equates to 5p an hour for the 80 hours the mainly women employees regularly have to work each week. The minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh halved in real terms during the 1990s, and many told the researchers that their pay is too low to cover food, housing and health costs.

Tesco, Asda and Primark claim they have received guarantees that workers would not have to work more than 48 hours on a regular basis. These have proved worthless. War on Want reports that owners have forced staff to work up to 140 hours a month overtime, often unpaid, or face dismissal. In February and March 2006, garment factory collapses and fires in Bangladesh left almost 100 workers dead and many others injured. Interviewees for War on Want’s report also stated that emergency exits are often kept locked in their workplaces. Louise Richards, chief executive of War on Want, says: "Bargain retailers such as Primark, Asda and Tesco are only able to sell at rock bottom prices in the UK because women workers in Bangladesh are being exploited. The companies are not even living up to their own commitments towards their overseas suppliers." The report points out that this is the story of garment workers throughout the world. Transnational corporations like the anti-union Walmart have instituted regimes of super-exploitation in developing countries so that consumers in the West can buy cheap fashions and food. The report’s exposure is welcome, but Louise Richards is whistling in the wind when she says that "the Labour government must bring in effective regulation to end such shameful practices". These are the everyday practices of giant corporations operating in every country. Their power to recruit and exploit cheap labour may be masked by the use of local agents, but they are ultimately in charge. Gordon Brown calls himself a "globalisation evangelist" and it is inconceivable that New Labour would ever press for regulations against corporations like Tesco and Asda in order to help foreign workers. Instead, ordinary people have the responsibility to act. Consumers can boycott clothes produced in sweat shops in Asia. All of us can use the War on War report and other information to build both a case and a momentum for placing the power and resources of the corporations on an alternative, not-for-profit footing.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Property rights and climate chaos

Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups are disappointed that the measures announced by Chancellor Gordon Brown in his pre-budget statement fail totally to address the eco-crisis in any serious way. Economists have predicted that even proposed tax increases on flying and driving will fail to influence consumer behaviour. An angry Tony Juniper, FoE director, said that Brown "continues to tinker at the margins" and added: "The Stern review set out that urgent action is needed ... But the chancellor's response has been feeble." So once again, the environmental movement’s campaigns for urgent action fail to find a place on the New Labour agenda. No surprise there. But wait – there’s always the prospect that the government is planning to boost the carbon trading market, which is the preferred solution of the Stern report anyway. Yet, according to a new independent study by Larry Lohmann, for the Corner House research group, carbon trading is a disaster already happening. His major report says that "as in so many areas of contemporary social life, a vague ideology of market effectiveness and market inevitability is concealing a regressive, confused, contested and environmentally dangerous political and technical project". His report shows how that in order to function, greenhouse gas trading creates a special system of property rights in the earth’s carbon-cycling capacity. Lohmann adds "pollution trading is a poor mechanism for stimulating the social and technical changes needed to address global warming" and that the "attempt to build new carbon-cycling capacity is interfering with genuine climate action". And, of course, it avoids the discussion about the need to move away from fossil fuels.

Lohmann’s report exposes how in current trading schemes, including US pollution trading programmes, the Kyoto Protocol and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, wealthy countries and corporations get emission rights for free. The US acid rain programme, for instance, handed out sulphur dioxide emissions rights free of charge to several hundred large industrial polluters. The Kyoto Protocol dispensed greenhouse gas emissions rights to 38 industrialised countries who were polluting the most already. The first phase of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, "donated" carbon dioxide emissions rights to 11,428 industrial installations. " In other words, like rights to many other things that have become valuable – oil fields, mining concessions, the broadcast spectrum – rights to the earth’s carbon-cycling capacity are gravitating into the hands of those who have the most power to appropriate them and the most financial interest in doing so," concludes Lohmann. He hits the nail on the head. Property rights – the right to private ownership of both the means of production and pollution – lie at the heart of climate chaos. Global capitalism has not only created the eco-crisis with its wanton destruction of resources in the name of profit, it also blocks any solutions that pose a threat to its rights to private ownership and profit. These rights are, of course, not natural. They were seized by early capitalism and reinforced in legal terms by the bourgeois state that emerged in the 19th century. These property rights, as well as the political system that maintains them, are an absolute barrier to ending climate chaos. They should be traded in for a new model based on co-operative ownership and an economy producing for use and not profit.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Green Belt to become a money belt

One by one the achievements struggled for by previous generations come under the New Labour axe. Today you can add the Green Belt around cities to a list that already includes the commercialisation of health and education, the devastation of affordable social housing programmes and the destruction of a whole series of democratic rights. In 1926, the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) urged the protection of the countryside from urban sprawl. The Green Belts around London, Birmingham and Sheffield were among the first to be established in the 1930s, inspired by the CPRE’s campaigns. But it was the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 that first allowed local authorities to include Green Belt proposals in their development plans. That Act was a major achievement of the post-war Labour government, elected by a landslide by soldiers and civilians determined not to allow the hated Tories to return after the war. The Act set the framework for planning decisions that put the public interest high on the agenda and was landmark social legislation on an international scale.

But New Labour is not Atlee’s post-war old Labour. This government hates anything where the public viewpoint is seen as important to the detriment of commercial, private sector considerations. So who better to ask to wreck the old planning system that one of Gordon Brown’s favourite economists, Kate Barker? Her report for the Treasury talks of "green wedges" replacing the Green Belt that has thwarted urban sprawl and allowed people in towns to access clean air and the countryside. She also advocates abolition of the existing planning inquiry system for major developments because is too cumbersome. More to the point, the current system is a venue for campaigners and local people to make their case against, for example, airport expansion projects. Ah, but democracy is such a wearisome thing if you are a supermarket just itching to get that new superstore up in the Green Belt. Other proposals include scrapping regulations in order to save consultants and the private sector £500m a year. The British Property Federation was, naturally enough, ecstatic, declaring: "We are delighted about the recognition of the need to rethink how the planning system can deliver major projects in a timely manner."

Several organisations have reacted sharply to the Barker report. The New Economics Foundation has produced a series of studies that show how many of Britain's towns and cities are in decline because of unchecked superstores’ dominance. NEF commented: "Current planning guidelines, although inadequate, provide one of the few checks and balances on supermarket dominance and out-of-town expansion. To rip them up would be to head 180 degrees in the wrong direction." CPRE Chief Executive Shaun Spiers warned: "If we go down this route, local councils and communities could end up finding they have sacrificed one of our greatest resources – beautiful, nearby countryside – for short term financial gain." Friends of the Earth pointed out that Barker's vision of uncontrolled development "will mean communities have little or no say in how their local area is developed". FoE’s insists that "government must ensure that people have a say on the future of their communities and their environment". The problem for campaigners, however, is that the government is simply not interested in preserving the old when the new is potentially so much more "efficient" and, more importantly, beneficial to supermarkets and property developers.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Iraq – playground for big business

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was, as we know, not simply a military exercise aimed at overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime. What it crucially did was put in place foreign investment rules long sought by corporations, according to Antonia Juhasz, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. Laws instituted by former US administrator Paul Bremer when he headed the Coalition Provisional Authority during the first year of the occupation, provided a flood of benefits for American corporation. These included 100% repatriation of profits earned in Iraq by foreign companies; 100% foreign ownership of Iraqi businesses, including banks; privatisation of Iraq's state owned enterprises; 100% immunity for US contractors and soldiers from Iraq's laws; and "national treatment" which allowed for Iraqis to be all but excluded from the reconstruction for years while the US government paid $50 billion to some 150 US corporations for work in Iraq. What followed was "a US corporate invasion of Iraq," says Juhasz. "Many companies had their sights set on privatisation in Iraq, also made possible by Bremer, which helps explain their interest in 'major overhauls' rather than getting the systems up and running." The US government split the economy into sectors and issued reconstruction contracts among nine big corporations. In most cases the contracts were distributed without competition and the contractors were guaranteed a profit margin calculated as a percentage of their costs, so the higher the costs, the higher the profits. In the rush to get profits flowing, many contracts were signed early in 2004, though hardly any work began until the end of the year, and little has been completed. In between contractors racked up huge bills for wages, hotels and restaurants. Parsons, a California company finished only six of 140 primary healthcare centres before its contract was terminated – but was paid in full. What work has been done has been of outstandingly bad quality. The plumbing in a Baghdad police college built by Parsons left urine and excrement raining down on the heads of the cadets.

Now, according to the US government’s own auditor, the occupation has introduced corruption, waste incompetence and fraud on a massive scale. In the hustle to funnel US taxpayers’ funds through to feed the profits of corporations like Kellog, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Vice-President Dick Cheney’s former company, audit trails are absent. Nearly $9 billion in oil revenues has gone missing, and tens of thousands of weapons are unaccounted for – no doubt having made their way through the black clouds of corruption to stoke the civil war. Much of Iraq’s domestic economy has been destroyed, with not a single Iraqi brand remaining. A businessman who once owned a small textile factory that has gone bankrupt said he had not expected the coming in of an American administration to be bad for business. "The picture of Japan after World War II dominated the minds of businessmen in Iraq after occupation," he said. "Most of us thought the American invasion of Iraq was bad for many things, but it must be good for business in general and industry in particular. We were terribly wrong. The Iraqi economy was meant to be destroyed for political reasons."

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Monday, December 04, 2006

A clear and present danger

The priorities couldn’t be clearer. While climate chaos goes unchecked, while hospitals cut services, while the retirement age is pushed back and back, while millions can’t access affordable housing, while train fares soar, New Labour has spoken. Britain will spend at least £25 billion, and probably a lot more, on a new generation of nuclear weapons. Even if some New Labour MPs somehow discover the courage to vote against, the proposals will go through because the Tories support New Labour’s plans announced today. Not even the Archbishop of Canterbury’s characterisation of nuclear weapons as "evil" will halt Blair from imposing his nuclear legacy. The Trident replacement programme raises several questions. With an effective New Labour-Tory coalition on everything from trust schools to nuclear weapons, the rights of voters are being ground into the dust. That only reinforces the fact that the idea of parliamentary democracy is just that – an idea. Decisions are taken in secret and imposed on parliament by party leaders acting in the interests of the "nation". Most MPs are too cowardly to oppose the executive because they fear for their well-paid jobs. Principles do not run too thick in the blood of the average MP.

Because the existing nuclear submarine fleet will function until at least 2024, the decision to replace it also reveals the way the British state sees the next four decades. The not-so-rosy prospect being held out is one of increasing military tension between states and the possibility of a catastrophic war. Kate Hudson, from the anti-nuclear pressure group, CND, was right when she told BBC Five Live: "If we go ahead with developing new nuclear weapons, we can be absolutely certain that many other countries will proliferate nuclear weapons and we are going to end up with a situation of nuclear war." That war could result from the emerging world economic slump and the struggle for dwindling resources such as oil and uranium. So if climate chaos doesn’t get you, there is always a chance that nuclear fall-out will. Petitions, prayers and protest clearly have minimal impact on New Labour and the market state. They represent a clear and present danger to society and international peace as well as a barrier to future human progress so long as they maintain their power.

Paul Feldman, communcations editor

Friday, December 01, 2006

Education for sale

The conversion of public education into commodities for sale continues apace, with PM Tony Blair’s announcement of a major expansion in England of the city academies’ programme. When trust schools that New Labour is creating are included, it is clear that the systematic and break-up of the local authority-run schools system is well advanced. There are now 100 academies and Blair wants 400 by 2010. The academies, which are independent of local councils and part-funded by business, were originally a Tory idea that wasn’t a great success. That is because the Tories wanted business to put £10m into each academy. New Labour revived the idea – but dropped the price to £2m. You can get an academy for even less these days. And there’s a good chance that sponsoring an academy might even lead to a knighthood or a peerage. This is one of the lines of inquiry Scotland Yard are pursuing in the cash-for-honours scandal. Once the private sector donation is in, the government pays £25m in start-up costs. In return, those who put in the cash have a huge say in the governance of the schools. This has facilitated another of the Blairite projects – the increase in the role of religious bodies and groups in the education system. Sir Peter Vardy, a Christian philanthropist, has been accused of permitting the teaching of creationism at his Emmanuel College in Gateshead. There are reports that other schools have disciplined students for not carrying a copy of the Bible in their rucksack.

Trust schools are the other side of the destruction of comprehensive education, which was fought for and established by the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. Blair wants 100 of the new trust schools to be planned by next spring. Trust schools are certain to reinforce a two-tier education system. Under the legislation parents, businesses and voluntary groups can run trust schools. The trusts will take control of their own buildings and land, directly employ their own staff, and will set and manage their own admissions criteria. They will compete with other schools, which face closure if they don’t attract sufficient students. After hearing Blair’s latest announcement, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Mary Bousted, said: "The government should stop its obsession with academies before it does any further damage. ATL fails to see how academies and trust schools will address the twin evils of pupil under-achievement and inequality of opportunity. Trusts are a solution in search of a problem. We can't see what academies and trusts can do, that foundation schools cannot." This statement unfortunately misses the point completely. New Labour has facilitated the creation of a market state, whose role is to introduce business methods and investment into public services. The idea that competition drives down costs and increases efficiency, while limiting the role of the trade unions, is a central tenet of corporate-driven globalisation. New Labour sponsors and promotes this big business approach in everything it does. While the new academies’ programme was being announced, it was revealed that the government is going to sell shares in new prisons under a "buy to let" scheme being considered by the Home Office. A property company would build jails and then rent them out to private prison operators. Investors would be offered a steady "rental income" because the jails are certain to be full as a result of the government’s lock-everyone-up approach to crime. If you think this is obscene, no doubt New Labour’s policy advisors are working on even more horrific ideas to place business at the heart of everything that moves.

Paul Feldman, communications editor