Monday, April 30, 2007

A tale of two Britains

Two stories that have hit the headlines inside 24 hours just about sum a decade of New Labour. The fortunes of the richest 1,000 soared by £59 billion in the past year, according to the Sunday Times "rich list". Meanwhile, four in 10 black and Asian people in Britain live in poverty, twice the rate among white people, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has revealed. They also continue to face prejudice in job interviews and are paid lower wages than their white counterparts. The Blair government has made Britain the best place to be rich. You can park your money in tax-free zones abroad, no questions asked and don’t worry about immigration issues. For example, if you are a Russian or Indian billionaire just turn up at Heathrow and there’ll be a welcoming party. But if you’re, say, a worker from Mexico, don’t bother because those less-than-delightful people from immigration will put you on the next plane back. So in the globalised, casino economy it’s no surprise that wealth of the country’s richest rose faster than anywhere else in Europe, with the top 1,000 "earning" a phenomenal £360 billion. There has also been a three-fold rise in the number of billionaires in Britain - now standing at 68 - over the last four years, with 14 new billionaires in the past year. Top of the pile is that friend of New Labour, Lakshmi Mittal, who controls one of the world’s largest steel firms. He has a fortune of £19.25 billion, up by more than £4 billion from last year. Second is Roman Abramovich, the Russian owner of Chelsea Football Club. He is thought to be worth nearly £11 billion. What did he do to accumulate this wealth? He simply took part in the ripping off of Russia’s assets under Boris Yeltsin. Over 220 of the richest 1,000 made their millions from property, according to the researchers. The Duke of Westminster is third place, with a £7 billion fortune calculated from his property ownership in London's Mayfair and Belgravia, as well as estates in Cheshire, Lancashire and Scotland.

The other Britain is the one of communities in dire poverty, especially among black and Asian people. A series of reports by the JRF discloses that 65% of Bangladeshis, 55% of Pakistanis, 45% of Black Africans and 30% of Indians and Black Caribbeans are in poverty. The overall poverty rate for ethnic minorities is 40%, compared with 20% for white Britons. Almost half of all black and Asian children are growing up poor, including a staggering 70% of Bangladeshi youngsters. The JRF reports show that only 20% of Bangladeshis, 30% of Pakistanis and 40% of Black Africans of working age are in full-time employment, compared with more than 50% of white British people of working age. Disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority workers are in low-paid jobs. Half of Bangladeshi workers, one-third of Pakistanis and one-quarter of black Africans are earning less than £6.50 an hour, the JRF discovered. As a result, 60% of Bangladeshi and 40% of Pakistani families in which at least one adult is working face poverty, compared with only 10 to 15% of white Britons. Its research concludes that people from ethnic-minority groups do not receive the same rewards as white British people with equivalent academic qualifications such as degrees. Fewer and fewer working people are prepared to vote for the capitalist New Labour party, as Thursday’s elections will undoubtedly show. Why should they?

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, April 27, 2007

Rights for migrant workers

An estimated 175 million people world-wide live outside their countries of origin, most driven by globalisation and hopes of jobs and higher pay. Migrant workers make up 10% of the working population in Britain, an increase of a third since 1995. Yet their dreams are often dashed as they are become the victims of exploitation and abuse. The plight of the Lithuanians, revealed this week by a BBC investigation, who ended up as bonded labour in Britain, permanently in debt to their gang master, is only one example. Yet they were officially entitled to work in the Britain as citizens of the European Union. Even more vulnerable are those who work "irregularly", without papers or legal rights. In Britain, there are thought to be 570,000 irregular workers and campaigners are fighting to end their enforced isolation. A report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in July 2006 found that most of the irregulars entered, or remain in the UK, "to escape developing world poverty or human rights violations". They were compelled to live in an unregulated immigration capacity because they were denied legitimate migration routes and full rights. As a result, the report added, the system created "an underclass vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation". Some are in Britain as a result of being people trafficked, ending up as sex workers or, tragically as it proved, collecting cockles in Morecambe Bay. Most, of course, live in fear of being dragged off to a privatised detention centre and eventually forced on to a plane at Heathrow and thrown out of the country. Habib Rahman, chief executive of JCWI, said: "It's a political reality that around half a million irregular migrants can't readily be deported and EU migration alone cannot be relied on to fill the jobs many of them are doing. It's time to get real, put this beyond politics and start talking practical solutions. The starting point must be rights for all migrants. In the end a system that denies full rights to all migrants in the UK is both socially unjust and is creating losers all round. It makes life difficult for business, workers and for any government."

But the JCWI’s pleas for cross-party support for regularisation have fallen on deaf ears. The New Labour government has used migration as an issue to win support from reactionary sections of the suburban electorate who are terrified by the stories they read in the Daily Express or Daily Mail. On April 18, for example, Immigration Minister Liam Byrne declared that immigration was harming Britain’s poor and had deeply unsettled the country. The government then announced new immigration controls would begin next year aimed at allowing only skilled workers into the country. Meanwhile, the European Union has set up a militarised system called Frontex to keep would-be migrants out. Between August and December 2006, they held 3,500 refugees in the Atlantic ocean, and without investigating the migrants’ reasons for fleeing, deported them to Senegal and Mauretania. Official estimates of the Spanish authorities estimate that 6,000 people died on the same routes between West Africa and the Canary Islands. Hundreds of people who were deported with the help of Frontex starved in the deserts of the north African states to which they were sent.

On May 7, campaigners representing a wide range of organisations, will march from Westminster Cathedral Piazza (Victoria Street, SW1) at 11am to demand an amnesty and regularisation for all migrant workers, and for the abolition of racist immigration controls. Their campaign needs urgent support.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The truth about Guernica

Seventy years ago today, on 26 April 1937, the small market town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain, was virtually destroyed by German and Italian bombers in the first mass air raid in history. What is not often mentioned in accounts of the atrocity, however, is that the Italian planes were flying on oil sent by Stalin. This was only one of many duplicitous acts by Moscow in the Spanish Civil War, which included the liquidation of revolutionaries and anarchists by Stalin’s secret police. Moscow had signed two economic and friendship agreements with Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator in 1933. They were part of Stalin’s fantasy of building alliances aimed at containing Nazi Germany and Japan. Oil and other commodities started flooding into Italy. Alliances came at any price, as far as the Stalinists were concerned. The following year, Moscow signed an agreement prolonging the trade protocol as well as a new agreement for export credits. In 1935, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, with tacit Soviet support. After the invasion, the two states signed agreements to provide petroleum products and payment for purchases even though the League of Nations, which the USSR was a member of, had imposed economic sanctions on Rome. In October 1935, Time magazine reported: "Since July cargoes of Soviet wheat from Sebastopol, coal and coal tar from Nicolaiev, and oil from Batum have been regularly arriving at Massaua and Mogadishu, Italian war bases in Africa. Much Soviet oil is also being sold to Italy direct, as Communists paradoxically fuel the Fascist fleet." The USSR continued to supply oil and other goods to fascist Italy throughout the war in Ethiopia as well as the civil war in Spain.

The attack on Guernica was ordered by General Franco, the leader of the nationalist forces in the civil war which had broken out in 1936. Nazi Germany, like fascist Italy, was officially not involved in the war and both had signed a non-intervention pact. But they had armed Franco’s troops and Hitler was keen to send the rest of the world a message through his Luftwaffe. The Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombed the town of 5,000 for over three hours, creating a firestorm which killed over 1,600 people and injured another 800. Only 1% of the town's buildings were said to have survived - most of them on the outskirts. In Paris, Pablo Picasso read about the outrage – thanks to the work of the journalist George Steer. Franco blamed the destruction of the town on left-wing forces, accusing them of trying to smear the nationalists. But Steer collected fragments of German bombs and told the world what had happened. In response to the killings, Picasso painted one of the great works of the 20th century, Guernica, which, on his wishes, was only shown in Spain after Franco’s death. It was taken to Madrid in 1981, six years after the death of the fascist dictator. The air raid on Guernica was a dress rehearsal for the Second World War, which consumed the lives of more than 55 million soldiers and civilians. Was world war inevitable? Only after a certain point, which included the defeat of the Spanish Revolution. Moscow’s role, which later included the infamous Stalin-Hitler pact and the purges which destroyed the leadership of the Red Army, is key to understanding how the alternatives were closed off one by one.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The right to land

The 75th anniversary this week of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District to demand the right to roam is a timely reminder of a deeper and unresolved issue – the private ownership of land in Britain. Organised by the British Workers Sports Federation, the 400 marchers fought a short, pitched battle with keepers to force their way on to the high plateau in Derbyshire. Along the way, they sang The Internationale and the Red Flag. When they returned to their starting point, the leaders were arrested and subsequently jailed. Boycotted initially by the established ramblers’ organisations, the imprisonment of the trespass leaders united all those who wanted the right to walk the hills and peaks. While there is greater access than 75 years ago, much of it is still conditional on the permission of the landowner. Private ownership of land is an essential feature of capitalism. So much so in Britain that is extremely difficult to discover who actually owns land. Kevin Cahill’s Who Owns Britain made a valiant attempt to put the story together, trying to get behind the veil of secrecy that obscures land ownership. He found that:

  • 70% of the 60 million acres of land in the UK is owned by 1% of the population
  • Just 6,000 or so landowners - mostly aristocrats, but also large institutions and the Crown - own about 40 million acres
  • Britain's top 20 land-owning families have bought or inherited an area big enough to swallow up the entire counties of Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire, with more to spare
  • A building plot now constitutes between half to two- thirds of the cost of a new house
  • 10.9 million homes carry a mortgage of some kind
  • The land registry after 76 years of work has still failed to register up to 50% of the land in England.

The shortage of housing has forced land prices higher and higher during the last 20 years. While house prices have risen more than three times, land has gone up even faster. The cost for a hectare in London in 1983 was £759,000; the same land would now cost you £5.5 million, an increase of 624% in land value. Land prices in Wales have grown the fastest. In 1983, a hectare cost just £85,000. By the end of 2002, this had soared to £980,000 - a 1,053% increase. Across the UK, land prices have risen from £174,000 a hectare to nearly £1.6m - an increase of 808%. How land came to be in private hands in the first place is another story that embraces forced enclosures of common land of the 17th and 18th centuries, land handed out by feudal monarchs to aristocratic families for services rendered and accumulation for speculation by capitalists. Either way, it is robbery on a massive and historic scale of a natural resource that is literally the foundation of society. The case for taking land out of private ownership to hold it in common for the benefit of society is unanswerable.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Yeltsin - the IMF's man in Russia

Boris Yeltsin, who has died aged 76, will be remembered as the populist who helped bring down the Soviet Union and then impoverished the Russian people with Western-funded "shock therapy" market economic policies. Under Yeltsin’s rule, state assets were ripped off and handed to oligarchs, while the democratisation process that began with Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced with authoritarian rule. In 1993, Yeltsin ordered tanks to attack the Russian Parliament and seize the deputies who opposed his policies. As an archetypal Russian nationalist, Yeltsin in 1994 ordered the savage assault on Chechnya to block its moves to independence, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands over the next decade. Yeltsin was feted by the major Western powers, who by contrast were ultra-cautious in their dealings with Gorbachev, offering him little financial support. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. Gorbachev had set out on a course of political revolution to end Stalinism in the Soviet Union – and Eastern Europe - while preserving a non-capitalist economy. He had challenged the Stalinists with moves to free elections and an open discussion on the country’s history. Works by former non-persons like Bukharin and Trotsky appeared in bookshops and were discussed at conferences. Yeltsin, meanwhile, had by 1990 already repudiated the 1917 revolution and was virulently anti-Communist. He denounced Gorbachev’s policies and, by now president of Russia, withheld taxes from the federal government. In this way he helped to destabilise the Soviet Union and make Gorbachev’s policies unachievable.

Soon after helping to thwart the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 by Stalinist hardliners, Yeltsin took it upon himself to ban the Communist Party and seize its assets – the first of many illegal acts. Gorbachev had won a referendum on a reformed Soviet constitution allowing the republics greater democracy than they had enjoyed under Stalinism. This is what had prompted the August coup in the first place. But Yeltsin eventually achieved where the coup leaders failed in removing Gorbachev. In the decisive months that followed, Yeltsin formed an alliance with the ultra-Stalinist leaders of Ukraine and Byelorussia in a conspiracy to topple the Soviet Union itself by the end of the year. On December 31, 1991 Gorbachev left the Kremlin and the USSR was no more. Its end ushered in a full-blown counter-revolution of a social character as Yeltsin’s regime restored a wild, mafia-type of capitalism in Russia supported by the International Monetary Fund. The major Western powers encouraged Yeltsin to bring in a constitution that concentrated massive power in his hands. With Harvard economists like Jeffrey Sachs in key positions, Yeltsin ended all price subsidies to drive the economy towards the market. Inflation rose by 2000% in 1992. Millions of Russians saw their savings wiped out while others struggled to buy the basic necessities. The privatisation programme soon followed. All the assets developed under the Soviet Union by the sacrifices of countless millions were effectively given away, creating a group of powerful oligarchs. Next time you watch Chelsea play, just remember where owner Roman Abramovich’s money came from. While the oligarchs took their ill-gotten gains abroad, the government failed to pay pensions or the wages of workers in the state sector. In 1998, the Yeltsin government went bankrupt, defaulting on its international loans. The rouble lost three-quarters of its value. Yeltsin, who was now an alcoholic, had one last political act to carry out. He appointed his successor in the shape of Vladimir Putin. With the help of state-controlled television and some unexplained bombings in Moscow blamed on Chechens, Putin eventually became president of Russia and has ruled the country since 2000. Today Russia boasts more billionaires than any other country – and the lowest life expectancy rates of any developed nation.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, April 23, 2007

Arts funding a real lottery

The outrage expressed by arts and sports bodies over cuts to their budgets to help fund the 2012 Olympics highlights the fact that the existence of many cultural and sporting projects is a real lottery. They often hang on the proceeds garnered through the National Lottery, which is a not-so-subtle way of redistributing money from those on lower incomes to the state. The Arts Council, for example, has used more than £2 billion of lottery money since 1994. The lottery also funds most of the one-off grants that the Arts Council hands out. Of course, as lottery dependency has grown, so the New Labour government has reduced the amount of support given to the arts out of general taxation. The Arts Council budget was frozen last year and cut for 2006/07. More severe cuts in budgets are being planned by the government, which has already led to protests from the British Library and other major institutions. Now the latest raid on lottery funds means that Arts Council England will have another £112.5m sliced from its budget to help foot the £9.3bn Olympics construction budget, the Heritage Lottery Fund will lose £161.2m and Sport England faces a £100m cut. Altogether, the contribution of the lottery to the Games has soared to £2.2bn – 50% higher than the original estimate.

Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said: "There is a spectacular lack of logic in using money earmarked for the arts to plug the holes in the Olympics bills. The money raided from the lottery will largely affect small, innovative, experimental organisations and individuals who are the lifeblood of creativity in the UK. Pulling the carpet out from under them and nobbling their money is undermining the future of our major arts institutions." Grassroots sport will also be affected by cuts in funding, which the Central Council for Physical Recreation described as "perverse", considering that one of the stated aims of the 2012 Games is to increase participation in sport. By all accounts, no such strategy exists, which reinforces the view that the 2012 Olympiad is destined to be a profit-driven, commercial free-for-all that benefits sponsors, surveillance companies and property developers. Sport will come a far distant second in the order of priorities. Blair, as we know, is concerned about his legacy as he prepares to step down as prime minister. Everyone has their view, including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who is no less than Master of the Queen's music. He recently described New Labour as "an utterly philistine government". He added: "Perhaps one should modify Descartes' dictum 'cogito, ergo sum' [I think, therefore I am] to 'consumo, ergo sum' [I consume, therefore I am]. That could well be the motto for our government." You would be hard pressed to disagree with this assessment.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, April 20, 2007

Bio-fuels madness

Propelling new commodities into the profit-focused system of production that caused the climate crisis in the first place is like seeking the cure by doubling the disease. The gadarene rush to bio-fuels is perhaps the most destructive of this self-defeating approach to global warming. There are now two competing types of buyers in the agricultural commodity markets – those interested in food and those interested in fuel. From 2000 to 2005, world production of ethanol and bio-diesel tripled. One of the consequences has been higher food prices. Earlier this year, tens of thousands of poor people marched in Mexico City to protest against a 400% increase in the cost of tortilla flour, resulting from increased demand for corn to make ethanol. In Europe, farmers are planting oilseed in preference to barley, because subsidies are higher for rape which can be made into bio-diesel. The price of beer and beef will rise as a result. Cuban leader Fidel Castro has called the shift to bio-fuels a form of genocide. He was joined by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in warning that rich countries will buy up the food crops of poor nations to meet their energy needs, threatening millions with starvation. Both were critical of the deal struck recently between the presidents of Brazil and the United States to increase the output of ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels. George Bush has pledged to cut America's petrol use by 20% by 2017 by switching to ethanol and the EU states plan to switch at least 10% of transport fuel by 2020.

Giving land over to producing fuel has other dire consequences too. For example, this week Professor Bill McKelvey, head of the Scottish Agricultural College, told a conference that only more intensive farming could prevent soaring food prices, and even shortages in the UK. Demand for bio-fuels and increasing market competition for food from countries like China, where meat consumption doubled in the last decade, will lead to higher prices, or perhaps even shortages, of imported food, he remarked. And, he argued, with thousands of acres of agricultural land turned to desert in southern Europe, due to climate change, more intensive use of remaining land is inevitable. In other words to resolve the crisis driven by a system of profit-focused, intensive farming and industrialised food production we need - more of the same. Madness! More of the same illnesses too, as scientists are warning that cars run on ethanol could be as damaging to humans as petrol-driven vehicles. Professor Mark Jacobson, at Stanford University, used a computer model to compare the effects and found an increase in ozone that can inflame the lungs and impair the body's immune system, whilst still producing cancer-causing compounds. Governments and the transnational corporations they serve are using human society as a vast laboratory to test these new commodities. Producing them will speed up the destruction of forests, the exhaustion of agricultural land, pollution and destruction of water supplies and add to global hunger. There is now an urgent need to remove the power to take decisions affecting the future of people and the planet away from the transnationals and their client governments. As Running a Temperature, an action plan for the eco-crisis published by A World to Win, concludes: "…It is time to move from a globalised world capitalist system to a concept of local stewardship in the interests of global society. To achieve this we will need to challenge the political and moral support for capitalism as the organising premise of society."

Penny Cole, co-author Running A Temperature

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Big Brother's European project

If you thought New Labour just attacked human rights in Britain you would be wrong. Four detailed Statewatch analyses of draft European Union measures show the extent to which powerful member states, including Britain, are driving down protection standards in the creation of the so-called EU "Area of Freedom, Security and Justice". These cover suspects' rights in cross-border criminal proceedings, data protection in the area of police and judicial co-operation, and the expulsion of migrants from the EU. It was only on March 1 that its new Fundamental Rights Agency officially began operations. According to Professor Steve Peers, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, the agency has no competence to deal with the issues of policing and criminal law, due to the insistence of the British government and other powerful member states. Professor Peers, in his analysis for Statewatch, notes: " But even if the Agency had such competence, would it make a difference? The powers of the agency are limited anyway. More importantly, the EU's human rights record as regards legislation on the issues of policing, criminal law, immigration and asylum is so poor, and becoming rapidly so much worse, that is hard to imagine that political gestures such as the creation of this Agency could have a significant impact."

New Labour has fought a long rearguard action against the principle of actually setting out suspects’ rights within Europe. Following a watering down of the text in a bid to accommodate Britain, the Council of Europe is no longer certain that the wording is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Independent of the EU, the Council of Europe, which was created in 1949, is a leading advocate for human rights throughout the Continent. If the revised text is adopted, it could mean that the ECHR is bypassed by the courts. As is well recorded, the Blair government is building the biggest co-ordinated database in Europe, embracing fingerprints, DNA and ultimately biometric details linked to an ID card. So it is not surprising that New Labour is leading the opposition to an EU framework decision on data protection. According to Professor Peers, the latest draft removes basic protections that apply domestically, such as the accuracy of data. It weakens protection relating to the transfer of data between member states and leaves wholly unregulated the transfer of data outside the EU as well to private companies. Key rights for individuals such as to access and erasure or correction of inaccurate data, are also weakened. Meanwhile, the Fortress Europe project is nearing completion, thanks to a new directive on the expulsion of migrants. Barrister Francis Webber says: "The idea is that there will be no hiding place anywhere in the EU for those entering or staying illegally. Wherever they go, once traced they will be liable to be removed. Someone who is ordered to leave Italy, or Spain, or Denmark, can be picked up in the UK, France or Germany and removed from the EU. The original ‘Return Action Programme’ emphasised the importance of proceeding as far as possible by voluntary returns. But in the process of agreeing the Directive, the principle of voluntariness has been abandoned, as have a number of safeguards which were designed to ensure that expulsion was fair, and that the rights of vulnerable people – children, the mentally or physically ill and torture victims – were properly protected. What is left is legislation which, if implemented, is likely to result in the spread of the worst expulsion practices, emphasising speedy removal over due process and human needs." The message from New Labour and other governments is clear: All those entering the EU should leave their hopes of human rights behind while existing residents face an emerging European-wide Big Brother state.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Inflation soars - nurses resist

A deluge of debt and higher profits are key factors behind the sharp rise in inflation reported yesterday. After ten years in which inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has stayed within the threshold set by the Bank of England, increasing volatility has driven the rate across the line to 3.1% in March, having risen from 1.8% a year ago. Mervyn King, the Bank’s Governor was duly obliged to write an open letter to Chancellor Gordon Brown giving both an explanation and setting out measures intended to bring the rate back on track. King’s letter sheds a little light on New Labour’s priorities. Part of the rise is attributed to unexpectedly sharp increases in domestic energy prices and part to a rise in food prices caused by a weather-induced global reduction in supply – climate change by any other name. Together these are said to account for around a half of the increased rate. Much of the rest, however, is due to increased spending in the UK economy associated with continuing rapid growth of money and credit. This has given businesses confidence to raise prices and increase profits.

In other words, the expansion of consumption has been fuelled by a rising mountain of debt resulting from deliberate action by the Bank and other agencies to favour businesses starved of profit as a result of increases in the price of oil arising from the protracted war in Iraq. Oil prices measured in sterling have risen 25% since February. King doesn’t say it, but it is the also the rapid growth of money and credit that has allowed house prices to rocket – but this is excluded from the CPI. Other, more bizarre effects of attempts to fuel the frenzy of consumption and boost profits come from the furniture retailers who, according to the Office for National Statistics, raised prices by a record 10% in March - in the lead up to Easter special offers. Cheap tricks to clear cheap sofas. We’ll see how many were tempted in next month’s figures.

As usual, ordinary working people will be asked to pay for the rise in inflation, through higher interest rates that will make mortgage and loan repayments that more difficult. For its part, New Labour will have the support of the Bank of England in holding down public sector wages below 2%. No wonder yesterday’s news on inflation was accompanied by a resounding 95% vote for industrial action over pay at the Royal College of Nurses conference. It would be the first nationwide action since the union was founded in 1916. Nurses’ anger follows Brown’s decision to withhold part of a 2.5% pay award. He allowed nurses 1.5% this month and they will get a further 1% in November. While this move saves the government £60m in 2007/8 it is an effective pay cut for nurses. The public service union Unison is also expected to back industrial action by nurses at its annual conference next week. The GMB union, which represents ambulance workers and auxiliary staff, said 90% supported action to force the government to give the pay award in full from April 1. It looks like Brown’s first days as prime minister could be accompanied by a summer of discontent.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Buying your way to the White House

Democracy, or what passes for it, comes at a hefty price in the United States. It now seems that between them the Democrat and Republican hopefuls for the 2008 presidential race will raise $1,000 million dollars in campaign funds, the first time this has happened in American politics. Hillary Clinton is trying desperately to buy the Democrat nomination by raising more money than her rivals to force them out of the race. She raised $26m in the first quarter of 2007, more money than was raised by all nine Democratic candidates combined in the equivalent stage of the 2004 campaign. But she still can’t shake off Barack Obama, who raised $25m. Republican contender Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, has also joined the big league, with a declared total of $23m. By the time the parties make their choices early in 2008, major Republican and Democratic nominees are likely to raise upwards of $500m apiece, hence the first $1 billion presidential election.

While individuals are giving through the Internet, the big money comes at a price – influence when your candidate gets to the Oval Office. The Bush administration is a prime example of how money talks in politics. Bush raised more than $350 million in campaign contributions for his two elections. It is believed up to half of that huge sum came from just 630 people, organised by an elite Texas-based group. A report by Texans for Public Justice, a group that monitors the network, revealed that, out of 630 elite donors from 2000 and 2004, almost one quarter were given an appointment by the Bush administration - including 24 ambassadorships and two cabinet positions. In 2002 more than $3.5 billion of federal contracts were given to 101 companies that between them boasted 123 members of the Texan group.

Director Andrew Wheat said: "We believe this is only the tip of the iceberg, too. This is only the stuff that we have been able to find out about." Some 146 of the donors had been involved in corporate scandals or helped to run companies that have. Most obvious was Kenneth Lay, who led the energy firm Enron into bankruptcy with a whole raft of dodgy, illegal, off-the-books contracts. Staff lost their pensions as the corporation went down. A typical story is that of West Virginia coal baron James Harless who contributed at least $200,000 to the Bush campaign. He saw his grandson appointed to a Department of Energy team working on new policies. Bush then reversed a campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and eased environmental restrictions on opencast mining. "Here is where ordinary Americans are sold down the river. When donations affect policy, it is ordinary people who end up biting the bullet," Wheat said. His report doesn’t even take account of the billions in kickbacks for firms like Halliburton, once run by vice-president Dick Cheney, for "reconstruction" work in Iraq. Heading towards 2008, American voters have little confidence in politicians. A recent CBS News-New York Times poll put trust in government at a rock-bottom 28%. Money patently buys plenty in American politics - but not endorsement from the voters, at least half of whom won’t vote in November 2008.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, April 16, 2007

The World Bank's real victims

The furore at the World Bank over Paul Wolfowitz’s unilateral decision to promote his girlfriend and give her a pay rise, stands in marked contrast to the disastrous results of the organisation’s policies in developing countries. The bank’s loans are often tied to ruthless Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). These require poor countries to reduce spending on things like health, education and development. Debt repayment and economics policies like privatisation have been made the priority. Other "adjustment" policies include currency devaluation, increased interest rates, labour market "flexibility", and the elimination of subsidies on basic food commodities. Forced to join the global market economy on unequal terms, poorer countries are then confronted with falling export prices as a result of competition, which benefits the rich capitalist countries. So countries have had to increase exports on a continuous basis to increase foreign currency earnings and to try to repay international debt. A 2006 study by Oxfam revealed that more than 50% of Africa’s export earnings are derived from a single commodity; numerous countries are dependent on two commodities for the vast majority of their export earnings; and there are a number of other countries in Africa heavily dependent on very few commodities. Ultimately, countries find it increasingly difficult to purchase imported goods and services or generate income for development programmes. The SAPs have contributed to what the economist J.W. Smith has called the "the greatest peacetime transfer of wealth from the periphery to the imperial centre in history".

The term "Structural Adjustment Programme" gained such notoriety, and met with fierce resistance on the streets in a number of countries, that the World Bank and IMF rebranded it, and it is now called the Poverty Reduction Strategy Initiative. This compels countries to develop Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP). While the name has changed, the World Bank is still forcing countries to adopt the same types of policies as SAPs. Africa Action, an organisation working for political, economic and social justice in Africa notes: "The basic assumption behind structural adjustment was that an increased role for the market would bring benefits to both poor and rich. In the Darwinian world of international markets, the strongest would win out. This would encourage others to follow their example. The development of a market economy with a greater role for the private sector was therefore seen as the key to stimulating economic growth." The results? The gap between the wealthiest nations and the poorest has grown. The United Nations has said that the millennium goals set in 1999 will be missed by a "wide margin" on present trends. Six out of ten people in the developing world have no access to basic sanitation, and one in three are without safe drinking water. More than 1.2 billion people exist on less that $1 a day. Wolfowitz, of course, practised structural adjustment elsewhere, most notably in Iraq, before he was appointed president of the World Bank in 2005. He was George Bush’s deputy defence secretary and the chief ideological architect of the 2003 invasion. His alleged crimes and misdemeanours at the World Bank pale into insignificance compared with the ruination of an entire country that is the result of the four years of occupation of Iraq.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, April 13, 2007

The social cost of housing market failure

So infatuated is New Labour with imposing market "solutions" on everything from education to climate change, that it has actually managed to create a series of market failures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in housing. Its policies have helped drive house prices beyond the reach of most people, put large numbers of people in housing debt and added to homelessness. Even the banks are pointing out how bad things have got. Today the Halifax revealed that public sector workers such as teachers, nurses, and firefighters cannot afford to buy homes in seven out of 10 UK towns. It said property was most unaffordable in London and South-East England but property costs were also racing away from wages in other parts of the UK. Of 517 towns and local authorities surveyed by the bank, 363 (70%) were deemed unaffordable. Halifax defined a town as unaffordable if the average price of a house was more than 4.46 times the average wage of the workers. In 2002, just over a third of towns were beyond the means of public sector workers looking to buy property, last year that figure rose to 65%. This reflects a rapid rise in house prices, which have doubled in the last five years. In the past year alone, according to both the Nationwide and Halifax, average UK house prices have risen by about 10%.

Unions point out that prospects for public sector workers are grim. "Health workers are effectively being given a pay cut and the idea that they can get on the property ladder is a non-starter for many," Anne Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Unison trade union said. "There is a real shortage of accommodation, both to rent and to buy, as hospital trusts have sold off a lot of on-site nurses' accommodation." A key factor in this market failure is the drying up of affordable social housing to rent, the result of New Labour’s decision to cut back on investment. The Tories started the rot by allowing councils to sell off their best stock – and then preventing them from using the money to build replacements. New Labour has gone one better. Where the Tories at least encouraged housing associations to build homes for rent for those on lower incomes, the Blairites have compelled many in this group to enter the housing market by way of "shared ownership" and other half-baked schemes. For example, in London in 2004, housing associations built or acquired more than 8,000 homes – but a third of the total was directed towards home ownership schemes. Nationally, the trend is worse. In 1996/7 the last full year of the Tory government, housing associations in England built 24,630 homes. By 2002/03 this total had slumped to just over 13,000. Last year, completions totalled over 18,000. But when you take off the numbers built for sale, the output for renting is probably nearer 12,000 – less than half the number that the Tories built! What are the consequences for ordinary people who can’t afford to buy, either on the open market or through housing associations? Well, in London there are over 62,000 households (150,000 people) in temporary accommodation. Of these, there are more than 48,000 families, containing around 85,000 children. The capital also has a rising level of overcrowding, with over 150,000 overcrowded households (more than half of the national total), of which some 61,000 are severely overcrowded. In terms of mortgage debt, nationally one in four people could enter retirement still owing money on their homes, while the number of people behind with their repayments has risen sharply. The Council of Mortgage Lenders reported in February that 17,000 people had their homes repossessed during 2006 — the highest number since 2001. Oh, the joys of the market!

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Russia's unfinished revolution

Just over 90 years after the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy in February 1917, Russia is due another revolution – this time against the authoritarian Putin regime, the oligarchs who ripped off former state assets and the clique of security and military officers who control the Kremlin. Between them they have impoverished large sections of the population and silenced any effective opposition. Only last week an absurd new law passed by Moscow’s city council restricts the number of people allowed to take part in political rallies to two for every square metre. Police can also break up political meetings if there are more people than chairs! The law is expected to be extended to all other cities, making it virtually impossible to demonstrate against the government. This follows a large anti-Putin demonstration in St Petersburg recently, which shocked the authorities and led to the arrest of over 113 protesters. In the same city, the Putin-controlled courts barred the liberal Yabloko party from contesting the March regional elections, leaving voters no choice at all. In fact, one of the "opposition" parties, Just Russia, is actually a Kremlin creation to siphon off votes! The Communist Party of the Russian Federation was barred from standing in several regions. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, has been dissolved altogether on the grounds that it has too few members. Under the latest laws, parties have to have 50,000 members and be represented in half of Russia’s provinces.

Little of this is reported on national television, which is under the control of the government. Reporting what goes on Russia in newspapers and magazines is a deadly business, literally. In December 2006 a march took place in Moscow – a memorial for the over 200 journalists killed since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The most prominent was Anna Politkovskaya, who exposed the Kremlin’s dirty war in Chechnya. She was gunned down in October last year and no one has been apprehended for her murder. The impoverishment of the people is only matched by the corruption of state officials. Even on the government’s own admission, Russian officials are estimated to take bribes of US$240 billion a year, an amount almost equal to the state's entire revenues. Life expectancy has fallen dramatically since 1991, and now stands at just 58.7 years for men, compared with the West European average of 76.6. The United Nations has warned that Russia's population - which stood at roughly 145 million in a 2002 census - could fall by as much as a third by 2050. In terms of human rights and the rule of law, according to Professor Bill Bowring of Birkbeck College, Russia abandoned the process of legal reform in 2003. He told a recent seminar: "The architect of the procedural reforms, Dmitri Kozak, has been banished to the Caucasus. It has proved impossible to enact the laws necessary to introduce a system of administrative justice, without which effective remedies against official arbitrariness or inaction are impossible." Professor Bowring says that the overtly political nature of the prosecutions of leading businessmen who fell out of favour with the Kremlin "has destroyed any hope for independence of the judiciary or a fair trial". Russia has failed to abolish the death penalty and has lost several high-profile cases over Chechnya in the European Court of Human Rights. Professor Bowring, who has championed the Chechen cause in Europe, has himself been banned from Russia as a result. The Council of Europe itself has repeatedly condemned the use of torture and ill-treatment of Chechens by the Russian authorities. In the 20th century, Russia endured 75 years of revolution and counter-revolution, from the overthrow of the Tsar, the first socialist revolution, Stalin’s dictatorship, Gorbachev’s reforms and then the restoration of capitalism and authoritarian rule. The challenge for the 21st century is to complete the unfinished business.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The destruction of Iraq

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is not exactly a partisan organisation. For example, the ICRC took a long time to make public its views on Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo. So when the ICRC says that the war in Iraq is inflicting immense suffering on the entire population, it is choosing its word carefully. In a report published today, the ICRC says bluntly: "The plight of Iraqi civilians is a daily reminder of the fact that there has long been a failure to respect their lives and dignity." But what was true under Saddam Hussein’s regime is a thousand times worse as a result of the 2003 US-UK invasion and occupation. Where there was a water supply, people in many parts of Iraq do not know where the next drop is coming from. Where there were hospitals, there is now an acute shortage of medical staff as well as supplies. This is the ICRC’s assessment in its report Civilians without protection – the ever-worsening crisis in Iraq:

"Shootings, bombings, abductions, murders, military operations and other forms of violence are forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and seek safety elsewhere in Iraq or in neighbouring countries. The hundreds of thousands of displaced people scattered across Iraq find it particularly difficult to cope with the ongoing crisis, as do the families who generously agree to host them. Health-care facilities are stretched to the limit as they struggle to cope with mass casualties day-in, day-out. Many sick and injured people do not go to hospital because it’s too dangerous, and the patients and medical staff in those facilities are frequently threatened or targeted. Food shortages have been reported in several areas. According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, malnutrition has increased over the past year. The vastly inadequate water, sewage and electricity infrastructure is presenting a risk to public health. Unemployment and poverty levels are rising and many families continue to rely on government food distributions to cover their immediate needs." The report adds that much of Iraq’s infrastructure is in a poor state of repair, power shortages are growing worse throughout the country, including northern areas because despite Iraq’s oil wealth, fuel shortages affect generating plants. As a result, water treatment plants, primary health-care centres and hospitals rely mainly on back-up generators, which often break down or fall victim to the chronic fuel shortages.
Only the present regimes in Washington and London will dispute the words of the ICRC’s director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, when he says: "The suffering that Iraqi men, women and children are enduring today is unbearable and unacceptable. Their lives and dignity are continuously under threat." The fact is that the conditions in Iraq today as reported by the ICRC are entirely the responsibility of the American and British governments, all those in Congress and Parliament who voted for the 2003 invasion or sat on their hands, as well as the military and intelligence agencies that prepared the ground. The occupation broke the ties that held Iraq together and in their place has come sectarian divide and near civil war. Bush and Blair are fond of talking about crimes against humanity committed by anyone except themselves. Yet their imperial brutality has all but destroyed a country that is home to one of the world’s ancient civilisations. Their Iraq policy lies in ruins, overwhelmed by the blood of the Iraqi people. One day, hopefully in the not too distant future, the devastating ICRC report will be used in evidence against the perpetrators.

Paul Feldman, communcations editor

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

World’s poor pay the price for climate change

Buried over the holiday period, when the media was more interested in New Labour’s disastrous attempt to spin the Iranian hostage story, was another devastating report on climate change. Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was clear that "the poorest of the poor in the world - and this includes poor people in prosperous societies - are going to be the worst hit" by climate change. Despite last minute watering down of its contents, the second IPCC report this year described the regional impacts of climate change. China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States were all blamed for changing the scientific conclusions in the report, with some of the scientists walking out of the all-night drafting session in disgust. The report forecasts that climate change will affect the health of millions of people, increase malnutrition, disease, injuries and deaths (from heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts). Some 29,000 observational data sets were looked at during the preparation of the report, which confirmed that the increase in regional temperatures over the last 30 years have had discernible impacts on both physical and biological systems. Over the next 40 years, people in seasonally dry and tropical regions will face increasing droughts and hunger as the productivity of crops decreases, with up to a 30% decrease in water availability. At the same time, more severe storms will increase the risk of floods. Water availability will also decline in places like Lima in Peru, where people rely on water supplies from glaciers and snow.

Up to 30% of the world's plant and animal species could become extinct even with a global average temperature rise of 1.5 to 2.50C , which is now virtually certain. The progressive acidification of oceans will have continuing negative impacts on marine shell organisms, with warming seas increasing coral bleaching and mortality. It is expected that net carbon uptake by terrestrial sinks will peak before 2050, after which they will weaken or go into reverse, feeding global warming. The poor in the developing world, especially those in coastal and river plains, will suffer most from a range of regional impacts. In Africa, up to 250 million people will be exposed to increased water stress by 2020, with agricultural yields reducing by up to 50%. Fish resources will decrease as lake-water temperatures increase and rising sea levels will affecting densely populated low lying coastal regions. In Asia, Himalayan glacial melt will initially increase flooding. But by 2050 decreased river flows will result in reduced freshwater availability in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, affecting more than a billion people. Crop yields in Central and South Asia will decrease by up to 30% by 2050, while the heavily populated mega-deltas in South, East and Southeast Asia will face increased flooding. In Latin America , the tropical forests of the eastern Amazon will be replaced by savannah, and semi-arid vegetation will be replaced by arid-land vegetation by 2050, with significant bio-diversity loss and species. Increased salinisation and desertification of agricultural land will result in decreased crop productivity and declining levels of livestock. On small islands, people will be especially vulnerable to coastal erosion of beaches from rising sea levels and increasing inundation from extreme storm surges. Coral bleaching will negatively effect fishing resources. By 2050 both Caribbean and Pacific islands will find that fresh water availability will not be met from annual rainfall. The picture is stark. As globalised capital continues business as usual, pouring out ever increasing quantities of carbon into the atmosphere in its search for increasing levels of profit, the world's poor are paying the price through increased risks of starvation, drought, disease and death from flooding. The nub of the problem is that global capitalism needs to be replaced with a not-for-profit ecological approach to the economy, based on producing enough for all and not more profits. You can read more about this approach in Running a Temperature, published recently by A World to Win.

Stuart Barlow

Thursday, April 05, 2007

When Thatcher sank peace hopes

The 25th anniversary of the Falklands war is usually depicted as something that became inevitable once Argentina’s army had occupied the islands. Yet the real history is that Thatcher’s Tories rejected a series of peace deals because they wanted a war for political reasons. British officials had been trying to get shot of the islands, which were seized from Argentina – which knows them as the Malvinas - in the 19th century before the military dictatorship of General Galtieri launched a surprise invasion in early April. Thatcher despatched a naval task force, with the full support of the Labour Party under the then leader Michael Foot, to the South Atlantic. During the weeks that followed, US Secretary of State Al Haig tried to broker a deal but this ended in failure. The UN and the Peruvian government then stepped in and a further bout of peace-making was attempted. Britain was in a position to organise harsh sanctions on Argentina, already in a weakened economic state and run by a military junta that had used the invasion to counter its own domestic unpopularity. Negotiations could have led to a leaseback arrangement, which the Foreign Office had already contemplated. Thatcher would have none of it. Unemployment had soared to 3 million in Britain and massive public sector demonstrations and strikes were threatening the government’s future. Jingoism and patriotism whipped up by war with an unpopular regime would, it was calculated, divert the country’s attention away from economic misery.

All-out war became a certainty when on May 2, 1982 the Thatcher government ordered the sinking of the ancient Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. It was torpedoed by a nuclear submarine, with the loss of 368 lives. In the action that followed to recapture the islands, another 1,000 Argentine and British lives were lost. Thatcher and defence officials insisted that the Belgrano was sunk because it was posing a threat to the British fleet in the area. In fact, the 44-year-old ship was outside the exclusion zone set by the British and was heading for its home port when it was sunk. The Belgrano had been tracked for 36 hours by the British submarine before the captain was given orders to sink it. This information took years to emerge, mainly as the result of the work of the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell. He was also told by a senior Conservative that Thatcher was aware of a new Peruvian peace initiative and had given the order to sink the Belgrano in spite of this knowledge. A senior Ministry of Defence civil servant, Clive Ponting, was later arrested and charged with communicating classified information to Dalyell. Ponting was eventually tried at the Old Bailey and acquitted in a sensational case. However, in 1983 the Thatcher government was swept back with a huge majority, thanks largely to the eventual close-run military victory over Argentina.

In 2003, Blair’s New Labour also scuppered attempts at a peaceful solution to a potential conflict, this time with Iraq over alleged weapons of mass destruction. Blair and the White House had, as we now know, agreed a plan for regime change long before the invasion of Iraq actually took place and would not be deflected by weapons inspections or anything else. The consequences of the four-year occupation include the deaths of an estimated 650,000 Iraqis. Not only does Thatcher have blood on her hands, so does Blair. And whereas Thatcher may have been able to fool enough people in 1983 to regain popular support, there is absolutely no chance of Blair and New Labour pulling off the same feat.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

'Oi, Blair - you're nicked'

There are an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain and a recent report by the privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner, warned that Britain was becoming a "surveillance society". But that was before today’s announcement by the guardian of our civil liberties, Home Secretary John Reid, that people in 20 areas will now be subject to loudspeaker warnings by CCTV control staff. “Talking” CCTV is also being planned for the 2012 London Olympics, which is more great news, no doubt at great expense. The possibilities are endless, perhaps even to the point where citizens themselves can use talking CCTV to turn the tables against the state itself.

Loudspeaker: “Oi, you, Blair. What do you think you’re doing? What’s all this anti-social behaviour stuff in Iraq and Afghanistan? How do you expect to get away with that?”

Blair: “Well, you know, it’s my legacy. I am actually bringing peace to the world and, you know, letting people know how great our values are.”

Loudspeaker: “Pull the other one Blair. My CCTV shows me that you’ve been a right nuisance all round. There are dead bodies all over my screens and you’re telling me that’s good news?”

Blair: “Well, not exactly. But we have to stay the course. If we pack it in now, we leave the job half done. And where will the Iraqi people be then?”

Loudspeaker: “ A lot better off. Anyway, I’ve got to take some action. My CCTV doesn’t lie.”

Blair: “Well, actually, I’m a bit of an expert about lying so perhaps I could help. You will remember those images of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Well, I got some of the boys on The Sun to help me out there.”

Loudspeaker: “Just as I thought. Anti-social behaviour plus lying. It looks like you’re in big trouble Blair.”

Blair: “Hold on. You know, I’m actually in charge of all this CCTV stuff and I’ve got these great databases for DNA and fingerprints. I can actually tell when a child is in the womb whether he’ll turn out to be a criminal.”

Loudspeaker: “I wish we had that technology when you were in the womb - then we could have done something about it. Anyway, you have had enough warnings. You’re nicked.”

Blair: “But you can’t do that. What about my legacy? What about my place in history? After all, I made the Labour Party safe for big business. I’ve got more great plans to invade other countries like Iran and lock up loads more asylum seekers. You can’t arrest me. I am above the law. I am the state.”

Loudspeaker: “That’s what you think. Things have changed around here. Take him away.”

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Drugs and punishment

The news that drug education and prevention services for vulnerable young people are facing massive spending cuts is par for the course for a New Labour government that lays the emphasis on punishing rather than treating users. Thousands of young people each year end up with a criminal record as a result of a brief flirtation with drugs while the number of people in prison on drugs-related offences has tripled since the 1990s. Treatment is often restricted to those who have committed an offence such as theft in a bid to raise money to buy drugs. This operates as a kind of perverse incentive to commit a crime in order to get treated. Now DrugScope, the leading drugs charity, says children with drug and alcohol problems or those at risk of developing them, will be hit by a 10% cut in government funding for prevention work in schools and amongst excluded pupils. Chief executive Martin Barnes said the cuts would be "disastrous for local services" and were "extraordinary" given that tackling drug and alcohol misuse among young people was an official priority. Services are being cut back and experienced qualified staff being made redundant or moved. Local grant allocations were announced by the Home Office in late February but the cut in funding and its severity has only just come to light. Figures for 2006 suggest 29% of 15-year-olds had taken a drug in the past year, with 4.3% saying they had taken a Class A drug. Drug services for young people are set to face further uncertainty next year when responsibility for them passes to local authorities, which will be free to use them as they see fit.

A recent study by the Royal Society of Arts showed how illegal drugs had been demonised by politicians and the media, and depicted as evil and a threat to society. The RSA report found that this approach did more harm than good. “Our view is that society’s approach to illegal drugs and to those who use them should be calm, rational and balanced,” the authors, which included a senior police officer, said. They described in detail a system centred on crime and the criminal-justice system when “what we should have is a more holistic system, one that explicitly acknowledges that any approach that has total prohibition as its principal objective is bound to fail”. A rise in the use of drugs in society is undoubtedly connected to increased levels of alienation produced by our intense, consumer-oriented society. Globalisation has also created an international, large-scale business in drugs, which operates like any other industry. The market is highly competitive, which ensures that prices remain low and within reach of most sections in society. As the RSA report acknowledged: “There is no reason to think that the illegal-drugs business and its accompanying market can simply be closed down. Certainly all efforts so far to close them down have been dismal and often expensive failures.” Clearly, drugs treatment should be viewed as a health and social issue rather than a criminal system matter. It needs to be linked to services that enable people to overcome dependency such as affordable housing, education, employment, child care and family support. Expert agencies like DrugScope worked all this out a long time ago. But for a right-wing, business-driven government like New Labour, such an approach is all too much to contemplate.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, April 02, 2007

Support the workers of Zimbabwe

President Thabo Mbeke of South Africa cannot bring himself to utter a word about the misery the regime of Robert Mugabe is inflicting on the people of Zimbabwe. But the South African Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU) shows no such reluctance. Tomorrow and Wednesday, COSATU is organising demonstrations in Johannesburg and marching to the Zimbabwean High Commissioner's office. Their solidarity action coincides with the defiant decision by Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) to call for a two-day "stay-away" in protest at the dramatic decline in living conditions inside the country. COSATU secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi said his organisation would proceed with its protest plans despite calls for dialogue by Southern African leaders over the crisis in Zimbabwe. "We are proceeding with the protests. We are not going to let go because there is a promise of dialogue." As for the "dialogue", it’s all one way traffic. Mugabe reportedly told regional leaders, including Mbeke, that his police had beaten up opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai because the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader had "asked for it". On Saturday, Zanu-PF endorsed 83-year-old Mugabe as its candidate for next year’s scheduled presidential elections. On Sunday, nine Zimbabwean opposition activists were abducted from hospital by suspected state security agents. MDC party members had been admitted in hospital on Saturday for treatment for injuries suffered when they were assaulted by the police.

Under Mugabe, the economy has disintegrated and hyper-inflation of around 2000% runs parallel with the 80% unemployment rate. An estimated 3 million Zimbabweans have left - two-thirds of the country's working-age population from doctors and teachers to farm labourers and soldiers. Most have headed south across the Limpopo river, bribing their way into South Africa. "We are saying the worker can no longer cope and the government has chosen to ignore our demands… so we have agreed that the stay away will go ahead on Tuesday and Wednesday," ZCTU leader Lovemore Matombo said. The ZCTU said it wanted an agreement on a minimum wage that was linked to a poverty baseline and for the government to solve the economic crisis. Matombo acknowledged the possibility of a violent backlash from the security forces, and said the workers would not march in the streets this time around, but just stay at home. Mugabe’s thugs recently stormed ZCTU offices and arrested union officials. Police in September last year stopped a planned peaceful march by the ZCTU and arrested its leadership and some workers, beating them and severely injuring them in custody. Matombo added that the ZCTU would organise work boycotts every three months until the government meets their demands. Student leaders have also voiced support for the stay-away. Beloved Chiweshe, secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), said students faced a shrinking labour force and collapsing economy when they graduated and should back the ZCTU’s actions.
Meanwhile, 17 student activists, including the union’s vice-president, were due in court today on charges of holding an illegal demonstration.

Zimbabwe’s workers need all the international support they can muster against a regime that has degenerated into a travesty of the movement that helped throw the British out and secure independence. Meanwhile in South Africa, Mbeke faces a build-up of opposition himself, as the decision by COSATU to stage demonstrations in support of Zimbabwe’s trade unions shows. Mbeke’s government has consolidated the power of capitalism in South Africa at the expense of the working class, while producing a new ruling, corrupt political elite. No wonder he is silent about the plight of the people of Zimbabwe. As are the leaders of China, which last year signed a major minerals deal with Mugabe. In return, the Chinese opposed discussion at the Security Council of a damning UN report into Zimbabwe's slum clearances, which left 700,000 Zimbabweans homeless and destitute and affected a further 2.4 million.

Paul Feldman, communications editor