Friday, July 31, 2009

The 'war on terror' unravels

The inquiry into New Labour’s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq opens just as unrest is growing over the rising rate of casualties amongst British and American troops in Afghanistan. On both sides of the Atlantic, the fall-out from the “war against terror” is growing.

Yesterday morning, a serving British soldier, Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, handed in a letter to 10 Downing Street in which he said that his fellow soldiers had “become a tool of American foreign policy”. Glenton, the first British soldier to speak out publicly against the Afghan war, is due to return to duty but has refused and has been court-martialled for desertion in proceedings due to start on Monday. He could face two years in prison.

In his letter he said: "I have seen qualities in the Afghan people which have also been for so long apparent and admired in the British soldier. Qualities of robustness, humour, utter determination and unwillingness to take a step backwards. However it is these qualities, on both sides, which I fear will continue to cause a state of attrition. These will only lead to more heartbreak within both our societies." Glenton said he gradually became aware that justifications for occupying Afghanistan rang hollow. "The Afghan people were attacking us, even though our politicians said we were going in to help them. It came as a real shock."

On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans are intrigued by Time magazine’s account of the internecine conflicts between former president George W.Bush and his mentor and vice-president Dick Cheney, who masterminded the “war on terror” in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. and developed plans that neutralised rights enshrined in the US constitution itself.

The Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers are looking into why Cheney insisted that covert CIA policies and actions were kept from Congress and how Cheney protected Scooter Libby, his top aide. In March 2007, Libby was convicted of obstructing an investigation into the leak of a CIA officer’s identity in revenge for her husband’s criticism of the Iraq war. Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison, plus a $250,000 fine. Although the sentence was commuted on appeal, the affair marked a turning point in the Bush presidency, in which Cheney ally Donald Rumsfeld was also sidelined. Cheney hoped to get Libby pardoned but Bush, who had the power to grant a pardon as he left office, refused.

Despite his loss of power in the White House, Cheney pushed ahead with sinister plans to “bolster security” by having 20,000 uniformed troops within the United States by 2011. Supposedly trained to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear terrorist attack or other domestic catastrophe, the use of troops for “homeland security”, has come under strong criticism from within the military and among civil liberties groups and libertarians. They say that the new domestic emphasis could be in breach of the Posse Comitatus Act, a 130-year-old federal law restricting the military's role in domestic law enforcement.

Earlier this week, Jason Leopold of Truth Out, revealed revealed that Cheney pressurised Bush to deploy US soldiers against suspected terrorists in Buffalo, New York in October 2008. A Justice Department legal opinion asserted that the president had unlimited powers to prosecute the “war on terror” on American soil and could ignore constitutional rights, including First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press and Fourth Amendment requirements for search warrants. This has since been rejected by the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, while Bush has gone quietly into retirement, Cheney is leading the right-wing counter-attack on Obama, openly questioning the president’s legitimacy as well as patriotism. Undoubtedly we have not heard the last of Cheney or the sinister groups within the American state that he fronts for. He is only just in the shadows.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Thursday, July 30, 2009

'The world is still being cooked'

A survey of top climate scientists published by Oxfam to try and influence the leaders of the G8 economic powers, says that 2 degrees of global warming, now considered economically acceptable and inevitable by the governments of the rich countries, would wreck the lives of 660 million people.

Poor people living in low-lying coastal areas, island atolls and river deltas, and farmers, are most at risk of flooding and prolonged drought. The scientists, all contributors to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), named South Asia and Africa as the areas that will be most subject to the effects of climate change.

Professor Diana Liverman, a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee advising the US government, said: ”If we do not make deep cuts in emissions now the changing climate will bring heat stress, sea level rise and more extreme drought and floods. Scientific observations tell us that the world is already warming and it appears that many of the most vulnerable people are starting to experience the impacts of climate change.” Oxfam’s report sets out some changes happening now:

HUNGER: Interviews with farmers in 15 countries reveal how once distinct seasons are shifting and rains are disappearing. Farmers from Bangladesh to Uganda and Nicaragua are facing failed harvest after failed harvest.

AGRICULTURE: Rice and maize, crops on which hundreds of millions depend, particularly in Asia, the Americas and Africa, are already suffering significant drops in yields. Maize yields will drop by 15 per cent or more by 2020.

HEALTH: Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are appearing in areas where populations lack immunity or the healthcare infrastructure to cope with them. It is estimated that climate change has contributed to an average of 150,000 more deaths from disease per year since the 1970s, with over half of those in Asia.

WORK: Rising temperatures will make it impossible for people to work at the same rate on hot summer days without ruining their health. This will affect day and hourly-paid workers most and reduce productivity.

WATER: Major cities dependent on glacier run off, including Kathmandu and La Paz, may soon be unable to function.

DISASTERS: Extreme weather events including hurricanes, fires and storms could triple by 2030. A record $165 billion was lost in the 2005 hurricane season – and poor people have no insurance.

DISPLACEMENT: An estimated 26 million people have been displaced by climate change, mainly by extreme weather and drought. Each year there are a million more. Rising sea levels have already forced out island communities from Vanuatu, Tuvalu and the Bay of Bengal.

But the G8 leaders who met in Italy earlier this month were immune to these facts – the gulf between the science and the real world, and the fantasy finance world of global capital, is wider than ever.

After the summit Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director, Oxfam International saw no results: “For Obama it was ‘yes we can’, for Berlusconi’s G8 it’s ‘no we won’t’. This summit has been a shambles, it did nothing for Africa, and the world is still being cooked. Canada 2010 is the end of the road for the G8 - all the promises they have made are due. They have 12 short months to avoid being remembered as the ones who let the poor and the planet die.”

Capitalism as a system is not opposed in principle to allowing people to die in order to sustain its own continuing existence, whether by war, hunger or genocide. As writer Naomi Klein said in a recent speech: “Capitalism can survive this crisis. But the world can't survive another capitalist comeback.”

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

No arguing with the profit motive

Extreme weather events throughout the world mark the impact of profit-driven capitalist growth on a changing climate brought about by burning fossil fuel. Wildfires are sweeping across swathes of Southern Europe and Canada, Turkey is hit by floods, and mid-summer torrential rain is lashing the UK.

Yet the logic that motivates capitalist producers abounds. As it shuts the only UK wind turbine facility, Danish manufacturer Vestas has issued dismissal notices to 11 of the workers occupying its Isle of Wight factory and is seeking a possession order today. Vestas prefers to concentrate on its cheap labour venture in China competing with local producers in a less regulated economy, while the New Labour government is totally deaf to pleas to nationalise the firm.

Meanwhile BP, the third largest private energy company in the world is forging ahead with its plans to extract more profit from more oil whilst riding out the global economic storms. With the price of oil down to $52 a barrel during the second quarter– less than a half of last year’s price, and a more than 50% drop in profits – BP actually increased production by 4%. No sign of any concessions to the green agenda there.

Between March and June, BP generated $6.8bn of operational cash flow. Against that it spent $5.2bn on capital expenditure and paid out $2.6bn in dividends. That totals a $7.8bn outflow. In other words, after excluding changes in working capital, BP spent $1bn more than it brought in.

With no sign of a recovery in demand, the global squeeze on profits makes the drive to cut costs all the more urgent. BP says it has already reduced its costs by $2bn in the first half compared with the equivalent period of 2008, and hopes to be more than $3bn lower for the year as a whole. How does it do it? 5,000 jobs have already gone and many more are certain to be lost. That’s how capitalism deals with a slump in demand.

Longer term consequences of the impact of oil extraction and the chase for profit can be found in Nigeria where, in the 1950s, BP became the first to bring the black gold to the surface. As one commentator puts it: Nigeria is now “a country whose electricity grid has totally collapsed, whose ruling elites are almost uniformly corrupt and heedless, whose citizens have often appeared to accept that it is their cursed fate to live in such wretchedness, and whose government, with some happy exceptions, is clueless and dysfunctional.”

So where that leave us? We have BP pumping up production – it’s just won a new contract in Iraq – and slashing jobs, while renewable energy production in the shape of Vestas is shutting up shop on the Isle of Wight. There is a logic to all this – it’s the quest for profit, regardless of human and environmental costs. Arguing with the likes of BP and Vestas is a waste of time. Their primary obligations are to shareholders – not communities or the workforce. Replacing shareholders with forms of co-ownership has to become our obligation.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Obama's healthcare plans run into the sand

If the Obama administration thought that controlling both houses of Congress, backed by a popular mandate for change on the back of last year’s elections, would get them what they wanted, then the stiff resistance to modest healthcare reforms is a revealing story of where power in America really resides.

The powerful insurance industry makes huge profits from healthcare, along with the drug companies, and they are not about to see this power eroded any time soon. Together with the Republican Party, the industry is determined to sink Obama’s plans – or water them down so much that they make little difference. In fact, the right wing is planning to wreck the Obama presidency altogether, predicting that healthcare plans will be his Waterloo.

Democrats in Congress have also taken fright, refusing to pass legislation before the summer recess despite pleas from the White House. Some are even comparing Obama’s dilemma to that of the Clinton administration, which eventually caved in to vested interests and abandoned healthcare reform.

Most Americans under 65 get healthcare through insurance policies connected to their jobs. But 46 million who have poorly-paid jobs or work for smaller firms don’t have any cover at all while those with insurance often find it is inadequate and have to find money from their own pockets. About 22,000 Americans die each year because they lack health insurance.

Obama’s plan is to build on what exists by expanding eligibility for government insurance schemes for low-income workers, creating a new scheme for the insured and requiring employers to provide coverage or pay a tax to the government. The programme would not take effect until 2013 while millions would still remain outside the schemes, notably immigrants without papers. The overall estimated cost to the state of the Obama plan is a massive $1 trillion.

The idea of just allowing consumers to choose between a government plan (people would still have to pay) and private health insurance is sufficient to draw the fire of big business. The Chamber of Commerce has announced a major campaign of rallies and advertising to crush the White House plan for a competitive public option.

Advocates of radical change are increasingly dismayed. Bill Moyes, a senior writer for Public Broadcasting Service, says: “Meanwhile, supporters who want to scrap the present system for fundamental change are staring glumly though the fog of war at a battlefield in total disarray. They fear that in the White House's desire to get a bill – any bill – passed by Congress, it will have been so compromised, so bent to favour the big interests, that it will be less Waterloo than watered down, a steady diluting of the change they had hoped for and that America needs.”

The pharmaceuticals are celebrating lobbying successes, including no cost-cutting steps, no cheaper drugs to be allowed across the border from Canada, and protection against competition from generic drugs for 12 years after they go on the market. These concessions were achieved through right-wing Democrats on Senate committees.

Early in his presidency, Obama admitted that he hadn’t realised how little real power the White House exercised. He was then talking about the financial and economic crisis, when interests inside and outside Congress watered down his stimulus package. Obama has tried to mobilise public opinion in favour of healthcare changes but that may not be sufficient to turn the tide.

America’s state structures, and its major political parties, are inextricably connected to big business. And the Obama presidency is not going to challenge these anytime soon, even though the most reactionary forces in America are determined to wreck his administration within its first year in office. A veritable political crisis is brewing in Washington.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, July 27, 2009

Banks show who rules Britain

So Alistair Darling is going to “get tough” with the banks over their lending rates. Don’t make me laugh! The fact is that the banks have simply stuck two fingers up to the government and let New Labour know that when it comes to real power, they are in charge.

After all, the banks have called the government’s bluff once and they know they can do it again. Since the autumn of 2007, when Northern Rock collapsed, the government has propped up the banks to the tune of £1.3 trillion– more than half the value of a whole year’s output of the entire economy.

The outcome? Closures and government-enforced mergers have left the banking sector dominated by just a few operators, who are using their monopoly position to charge exorbitant interest rates while rationing the scale of their loans to those in need like homeowners and small businesses.

The official bank rate is 0.5% yet according to a recent survey, the banks are often lending at between 4-5% in a desperate bid to rebuild their balance sheets at the expense of customers. Mortgage rates have seen the sharpest rise. Three months ago, the price of a typical two-year fixed mortgage was 4.65%. Now it's 5.17%.

Michelle Slade, of the financial information website Moneyfacts, said potential profit margins – the difference between what it costs a bank to borrow the money itself and what it charges its customers –are the highest ever on record. "Typically we would have seen a 0.8% margin on top of their product. Now we are seeing a 3.1% margin," said Ms Slade.

Behind the scenes, the banks are still not lending to each other for the simple reason that the real extent of toxic debt in the system is still a secret – especially from the government! What this clearly indicates is that another stage of the global financial meltdown is on the cards.

This could centre on credit card defaults, which has already hit major American banks. The International Monetary Fund estimates that 7% consumer debt in Europe will be lost, with much of that falling in the UK, the continent’s biggest nation of credit card borrowers. A UK national debtline says calls about debt arrears reached 41,000 in May – double the number it received in May 2008.

With millions of homeowners in negative equity, for example, the previous practice of remortgaging to pay off credit cards has disappeared. Banking analyst Sandy Chen says that the poorer sections of society are being hit hardest, with roughly half of UK households “facing negative cash flows, an inflationary environment and the combined threats of negative equity, difficulties in refinancing or remortgaging, and unemployment” while top earners are seeing their real incomes actually rise.

The bank bail-outs (which have signally failed to revive the financial system) and falling revenues from the economic recession have led to the spectre of state bankruptcy itself. Add in the political bankruptcy gripping Britain and you could see what a dangerous moment this is. It could conceivably produce a national coalition government to “save the nation” by imposing massive spending cuts and tax rises.

The price to try and save a failed capitalist economy and banking system is not worth paying. Far too much hard-earned taxpayers’ money has been wasted already. A more practical solution would be to bring the banks under public ownership and control without further compensation or bail-out payments. Then we could strip out the toxic debts and bury them somewhere deep in the ocean. Mortgage and credit card debts would be renegotiated or written off so that ordinary people did not suffer. In other words, we need to relaunch the entire banking system on a new footing, a task patently beyond the capacity of the bankers’ government, New Labour. Drastic? Too revolutionary? Got any other suggestions?

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, July 24, 2009

From South Korea to Isle of Wight - occupations show the way

Occupations of factories on opposite sides of the world show us different aspects of the problems facing workers as the state backs capitalist companies determined to restore profitability whatever it takes in the midst of the deepening global recession.

At Ssangyong Motors, in Pyeongtaek near Seoul, South Korea, the occupation is now in its eighth week. According to the Korean Trade Union Confederation , about 800 sacked employees are in a paint shop, armed with iron bars, air guns and Molotov cocktails. They have been confronting forces including more than 3,000 police using helicopters to spray tear gas, and company strikebreakers. Ssangyong – 51% owned by China’s Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation – plans to eliminate 36% of its workforce to return to profit and thus meet a 15 September court deadline to avoid liquidation.

Following industrial action in anticipation of the layoffs, the workers launched their current strike on 27 May when the company announced the layoffs of 1,700 out of 7,000 workers, with immediate additional sackings of 300 casuals. The workers slated for layoff immediately occupied the plant, demanding no layoffs, no casualisation and no outsourcing.

On 26-27 June, a serious government and employer attack began, as hired thugs, scabs recruited from the workers not down for the sack, and riot police tried to enter the factory. They secured the main building after violent fighting in which many people were injured. The occupying workers retreated to the paint sector, as part of a defensive plan based on the belief that police would not fire tear-gas canisters into the highly flammable area. Since then, solidarity actions outside the plant have been taking place to build broader support.

Meanwhile, on the Isle of Wight, 600 workers have occupied the Vestas factory which makes blades for wind turbines. The workers are trying to stop production being transferred elsewhere, and pointing out the contradiction between the threatened closure and New Labour’s promise of new, green jobs. But the highly successful company says UK planning restrictions are too obstructive and the plant just isn’t profitable enough.

For those who run the capitalist profit system it doesn’t matter whether a company is producing oil-burning cars which contribute to climate change or green energy generators designed to reduce the use of fossil fuels – the only question that matters is what they must do to restore companies to profitability. No amount of appeals to New Labour’s Ed Miliband will change that.

The burgeoning support for Vestas workers, with rail union RMT leader Bob Crow championing their cause, shows the potential for building a movement throughout the country. Vestas workers should, for example, appeal to the 3,000 workers at the Corus steel plants on Teesside who are in imminent danger of losing their jobs.

An occupations movement would challenge the “right” of the employers to close down production and destroy people's lives in the process. Workers wherever they are have to challenge the capitalist state for ownership itself, in which they control the factories and the banks, running them not for profit but in a sustainable fashion, deciding what can and should be made, to provide jobs, meet people’s needs and tackle climate change. The actions in Pyeongtaek and the Isle of Wight show the way forward!

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cashing in on swine flu

Swine flu is to be avoided – unless you own shares in the pharmaceutical industry that is. The world’s second biggest drug company GlaxoSmithKline is expected to reap around £3 billion by January from sales of its swine flu vaccine and its anti-viral drug Relenza.

Aware of the widespread hostility to its exploitation of disease to make ever fatter profits, GSK recently went to great lengths to put a nice face on its operations. Andrew Witty, its new chief executive, has announced announced a new strategy whereby the company “would help the poor”. Medical charities have pointed out, however, that lowering prices would undercut companies that produce generic drugs, thereby leaving the poorer countries still at the mercy of Big Pharma.

The swine flu pandemic is an example of not just how the pharmaceuticals cash in on disease but why profit-centred research and production actually makes it impossible to tackle diseases in a systematic way. This is demonstrated by two US scientists, Christopher Walsh and Michael Fischbach, writing in the Scientific American magazine.

They point to the challenges in discovering cures for the new “super bugs” which have arisen in recent years. Not only swine flu, but the lethal MRSA are bugs which have emerged from a combination of modern medical treatments and the evolutionary process of bacterium. Like MRSA, the “hospital bug” which caused 19,000 deaths in the US in 2007 alone, the H1N1 strain, which causes swine flu, does not respond to antibiotic treatment.

Walsh and Fischbach say that “modern medicine is losing the war against disease-causing bacteria that were once considered vanquished, and new approaches to discovering and creating antibiotics are needed to turn the tide.” They add:

Unfortunately, all the antibiotics sold today are blunt instruments; they not only kill the pathogens that cause infections, they also kill the helpful bacterial mutualists that inhabit our gut. In some cases this eradication of a patients gut micro flora clears the way for a different strain of bacteria, such as clostridium difficile, to multiply and cause a new, ‘secondary’ infection, that can sometimes be more dangerous than the first.
A new strategy of developing “narrow spectrum” drugs that target the pathogen more accurately and leaving other bacteria intact is needed, they say. But the financial incentive for Big Pharma is missing because such drugs would have limited applications and require rapid diagnostics, they “might be economically unattractive to drug companies”.

Walsh and Fischbach explain that the urgent need to discover new antibiotic classes is a complex process requiring novel discovery strategies. There was a “golden age” of antibiotic discovery from the 1930s-1960s, but such discoveries ground to a halt. One reason, they claim, were the small profit margins in antibiotic research, “compared with so-called lifestyle drugs” as well as the challenge of finding brand new antibiotic classes.

The spread of pandemics like swine flu is seen by many as the result of the over-use of antibiotics in factory farming as well as in medical treatment in general. The blunt instrument approach, in which millions become unpaid and unconscious guinea pigs, yields bigger profits than the innovative strategy and precise targeting that is urgently needed.

The outbreak of swine flu has led to a race between the drug giants, GSK and rival Hoffmann-LaRoche, which is earning vast profits on its drug Tamiflu. During the bird flu epidemic of 2005, the US government purchased $2 billon worth of Tamiflu doses. Some 50 million doses of were prescribed for it before and during the bird flu epidemic. Dangerous side effects were noted amongst Japanese teenagers. The antiviral was developed by a company whose chairman was gung-ho Bush ally Donald Rumsfeld, by the way.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

in praise of the National Gallery

Established early in the Victorian age, the National Gallery has matured over the 171 years of its existence to become a well-loved symbol of art for all. Its imposing position overlooking Trafalgar Square, was specially chosen between the east and west sides of London so that it would be accessible to all social classes in London.

During World War II, when its treasures were buried deep in Welsh mines, the gallery became “a defiant outpost of culture right in the middle of a bombed and shattered metropolis", as critic Herbert Read put it, by holding exhibitions and musical recitals in the midst of the Blitz.

Yesterday the gallery announced a further step to make its collection available to the public. Not only is the entire collection online, but there is now a full-screen zoom facility. Visitors to the current landscape show, “Corot to Monet”, which opened earlier this month, have already been savouring this technological feat. Interactive computers allow you to touch the screen and move around a painting to explore parts and the whole in tandem.

The landscape exhibition which is drawn from the permanent collection is free of charge and has been attracting large visitor numbers. It is an unusual move in the summer, when blockbuster shows with admission charges of up to £12 a throw are a tried and tested way of generating income.

In addition to its upgraded site, where 12,000 images, plus audio and video can be accessed, the gallery also provides a Love Art service where images of 250 paintings from its collection can be viewed in detail on mobile phones. So far over 100,000 people have download images and audio to their mobiles. Last year the gallery also pioneered the posting up of large-scale reproductions of its favourite paintings around the streets of London.

The National Gallery, as one of its former keepers has noted, has reflected the declining fortunes of Britain on the global arena, as it could not afford to buy major art works sold off by the country’s own aristocrats. Over recent decades, public galleries and museums have introduced steep ticket prices for special exhibitions which often include many publicly-owned works, even from their own collections.

Many institutions have used blockbuster shows to increase revenues, by focussing on popular artists guaranteed to pull in big crowds, rather than bringing to light neglected artists or movements. The gallery’s director Nicholas Penny, has sought to buck this trend along with a number of other directors.

But even the National Gallery, for all its great achievements and refreshing anti-commercialism, is in a difficult position and is itself planning a Canaletto blockbuster for the autumn. At a time when financial insecurity on the global markets has pitched Old Master prices at all-time high rates, the National Galleries of Britain and Scotland had to appeal to the public to raise the £84 million needed to pay the Duke of Sutherland for two great paintings by Titian he was selling.

In addition to its expanded website facilities, the National Gallery allows users to reproduce its images on a not-for-profit, educational basis. At a time when images are increasingly owned and monopolised by corporations such as Getty, Corbis and Jupiter, making art available to all online is a shining example of the potential held by technology freed from the profit motive.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How to fight spending cuts

As Britain heads for state bankruptcy, we urgently need a bold strategy that rejects the massive cuts in public spending being planned by New Labour and the Tories because, clearly, the present economic set-up is not sustainable.

On the one side is growing mass unemployment, especially among young people, a rise in repossessions and growing poverty; on the other side, there are hidden plans for government-inflicted pain on key services because the economic and financial meltdown has devastated public finances.

A report today from the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals the steepest decline in government revenues since the 1920s. They fell by an estimated £32 billion or 5% in 2008-9, as the recession took its toll on taxes and VAT receipts. Taking this and bank bail-outs into account, the government will have to borrow a massive £230 billion in the coming year or about 40% of 12 months’ public expenditure.

There’s no guarantee that the financial markets will stump up this sort of money or, if they do, the interest charged will rise to take account of the possibility that the state may not be able to meet its repayment obligations. All this means that whoever wins the next general election will slash and burn to balance the books.

If you want to see the consequences of losing control of state finances, you need look no further than Ireland. The country has gone from being the so-called Celtic Tiger to the toothless pussycat in the flicker of an eye, joining Iceland as one of the most precarious economies in Europe.

Irish prime minister Brian Cowen has put his name to a 300-page report that includes proposals to slash social welfare payments and make cuts in healthcare and education. “The scale of the issues are such that no area of expenditure is immune from consideration,” he warned.

The Cowen government, which includes the Greens, has already passed two emergency budgets to stop the deficit soaring to 15% of the country’s annual wealth. They have not been enough. At least 17,300 public sector workers could now be laid off, even though unemployment is already 12% and heading for 16% next year.

Education faces severe cuts. Scores of rural schools will close, and 6,900 teachers must go. "The attacks outlined in this report would represent an education disaster and light a short fuse on a social time bomb," said the Teachers Union of Ireland. Child benefit is being reduced by 20% in a desperate bid to cut government borrowing, which is running at £345m a week, with punitive interest rates a large chunk of the bill.

If ever proof was required of the insane nature of capitalism, what is taking place in Ireland and what is planned for Britain is surely enough evidence to convict. Services built up over decades as the result of the campaigns and struggles of ordinary people are suddenly to be dismantled because global capitalism not only isn’t working but is on a path of self-destruction.

A crash programme is required to stabilise the position as a first step to reorganising the economy in a more sustainable way. The programme has to include:

* Public ownership of the entire banking and financial sector, without compensation to the former owners
* Redirection of the billions made in interest payments by corporations to shareholders in order to maintain services
* A recycling of UK pension funds, which have lost out by being tied to stocks and shares, to help public finances
* Creation of new jobs for the unemployed through public infrastructure projects and the seizure of all workplaces threatened with closure such as the occupied Vestas wind turbine plant on the Isle of Wight.
*The scrapping of Trident nuclear missiles and a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Of course, neither New Labour nor the Tories would dare to challenge the vested interests of capitalism in this fashion. Carrying through this alternative to horrific spending cuts will require the building of a movement for revolutionary change that can turn society upside down – or perhaps put it the right way up!

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, July 20, 2009

Towards a giant step for humanity

The first landing on the moon by US astronauts 40 years ago today illustrates what amazing deeds humanity is capable of, while at the same time showing the limitations immediately placed on these achievements by the narrow confines of the existing social system.

When in May 1961 President Kennedy announced that America would send men to the moon by the end of the decade, he was prompted by Cold War fears of losing out to the Soviet Union in missile technology as well as national pride. Six weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States in the race to put the first man in space when Yuri Gagarin was sent into orbit around the earth.

Kennedy’s challenge required a huge leap in technological creativity, as well as a large-scale commitment of resources. At its peak, the Apollo programme employed 400,000 people and required the support of over 20,000 industrial firms and universities. The US government committed the equivalent of $150 billion at today’s prices to the NASA moon mission.

In 1961, the United States was then at the height of its economic power, after emerging from World War II as the only significant industrial nation. Advanced methods of standardised production of military hardware had enabled the US to overwhelm the German and Japanese armies before launching an economic boom.

But when Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin stepped out on to the lunar surface on 20July 1969 – watched by an estimated one-fifth of the world’s population – this power was waning. America was in a deep social and economic crisis and embroiled in an unwinnable war in Vietnam. The year before, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and Richard Nixon had become president.

By 1971, the US could no longer sustain its post-war role of holding the international currency system together by backing the dollar with gold. On August 15, Nixon was forced to abandon this commitment and a period of inflation and economic crisis followed throughout the world. The last landing on the moon took place in December 1972 as the Apollo programme was scaled back.

Of course, the Apollo programme drove many areas of new technology. Early research into integrated circuits was stimulated by development of the flight computer. The first practical fuel cell was used in Apollo and computer-controlled machining was pioneered in fabricating structural components.

Eventually, these developments found their way into industrial applications and were used to advance the means of production, both in scale and in increasing productivity. They powered the corporate-driven globalisation process from the early 1980s. Just like Apollo, globalisation has given a picture of what’s possible – but what is also out of reach for the majority.

The technology, ingenuity, skills and resources exist to solve major challenges like landing a man on the moon or putting a giant telescope in space. But so long as these achievements remain dependent on corporations that put profit first, they remain out of our hands and cannot be made to serve humanity as a whole.

Today, we have the most advanced technology and science and millions being thrown out of work because of the economic and financial meltdown. Treatment for major illness is restricted by what has to be paid to the pharmaceuticals for new drugs. Billions are squandered on military systems and wars while homelessness, poverty and inequality grows. Corporations and states fiddle while climate change burns up the earth.

These are bigger questions than the often sterile debate about whether to continue with space exploration or not. Socialising the totality of human resources that make such ventures possible is the main priority and spending a moment thinking about how we can achieve that would be a fitting way to mark the anniversary of the historic first moon landing. To paraphrase Armstrong, we need a giant step for humanity.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, July 17, 2009

France prepares 'flight of death'

You might have been shocked to hear about the brutal clearance of camp for migrants in the Greek city of Patras this week. It is now becoming clear that the Patras clearance is not an isolated action by the Greek authorities, however. Several European Union countries are taking extreme action to remove undocumented migrants.

In Patras, bulldozers accompanied by riot police cleared out a camp where asylum seekers and refugees, mainly from war-torn Afghanistan sought escape from both constant US bombardment as well as persecution by the Taliban. The action, followed by a fire that ripped through the camp, was so brutal that the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR warned about the fate of the hundreds who were made homeless, many of whom were minors.

Now the French authorities are getting ready to destroy migrant camps around Calais. Campaigners for migrants rights, including SALAM, Calais Witnesses, No Borders, Migrant to Migrant and Detainee Solidarity are calling for solidarity and protests on both sides of the Channel as the French authorities, with the support of New Labour, prepare for mass deportations.

The Flight of Death, as it is becoming known, is to take place after the authorities break up the camps known as the “jungle”, where around 800 immigrants without papers live in a makeshift tent city. They replaced a Red Cross refugee centre at nearby Sangatte, closed by the French government in 2002 at the prompting of the British authorities.

Up to 2,000 people are thought to live in the northern coastal region, hoping to cross the channel out of France. Most of them are refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Hoping to escape the horrors of war and dictatorship at home, they have travelled thousands of miles to look for political asylum, relatives or work in the UK and other north European countries.

Church sources in Germany and Belgium have also called for action against what they call “human trafficking” by the authorities as plans to deport dozens of migrants from Dutch detention centres through Holland’s Schiphol airport to Africa came to light last week.

In an Anglo-British summit at Evian on 6 July, the New Labour government pledged £15 million to prevent people entering the country through French ports alone. Dancing to the tune of the neo-fascist BNP leader, who said recently that it was a good thing for migrant ships to be sunk in the Mediterranean, immigration minister Phil Woolas boasted of the “state of the art technology being used to boost searches of vehicles and goods heading for Britain”.

The additional £15 million to be spent on border controls is on top of the total of £81.5 million which the UK Border Agency has already spent on removing immigrants by forcing them on to flights back to their home countries, often defying international and European human rights and asylum rights to do so.

Woolas said after signing the joint Franco-British agreement: “Last year we stopped 28,000 individual attempts to cross the Channel and searched one million lorries – these changes will further strengthen the ring of steel that protects Britain.” How proud he is to be such a reactionary and a member of a government whose actions reinforce the prejudices that help the BNP all the way.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Further information:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A sacred peak defies the god of profit

On the website of Vedanta, the mining company claims: “Our focus on sustainability drives our conviction to pursue value creating projects and at the same time achieve positive environmental, social and health and safety outcomes.” Can this be the same corporation that is pushing ahead with plans for an open-cast mine in the Indian state of Orissa against fierce local opposition?

Vedanta plans to extract bauxite from the Niyamgiri Hills, a forested mountain range inhabited for centuries by the Dongaria Kondh tribal people. who regard the mountain peak as sacred. They are receiving widespread support, at home and abroad, for their struggle against Vedanta. Ironically, the name is borrowed from Hindu and means a philosophy that embodies spiritual knowledge and traditional wisdom.

In the first week of March 2009 the Dongaria and other tribes marched through dense forest to create a 17-km human wall along the base of Niyamgiri Hills to blockade the roads and thus to defend their sacred mountain and its biodiversity. Even though they are managing to hinder construction work, the new road has already reached the Dongaria village of Phuldumer, very close to the mine site.

Krushna Wadaka, aged 64, from the village of Katraguma in the Kurli Panchayat in the area, asks: “How can we survive if our lands are taken away from us?” He finds it difficult to understand how the source of their life can be mined for profit. He continues: “We won’t leave our land, come what may, and we will continue to resist any attempt to evict us,” he says in an interview in Seedling, published by sustainable farming group GRAIN.

Vedanta – owned by London-based Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal – signed an agreement with the Orissa government in 2003 to set up a 1-million-tonne aluminium refinery, along with a 100-MW coal-fired power plant. The company plans to dig the bauxite mine to feed another refinery in the area.

The Dongaria get almost everything they need from the forest and the “swiddens” (small patches of forest that they slash and burn in order to grow crops). The forest also plays a dominant role in their culture, domestic well-being and spirituality, as they believe it to be the home of many of their deities. Before they fell a large tree, for instance, the Dongaria Kondh entreat the gods for permission to do so.

In early November 2007, the world’s second-largest sovereign pension fund, operated by the Norwegian government, sold all its shares in Vedanta, saying that investing in the company presented “an unacceptable risk of contributing to grossly unethical activities”. Later in the same month, to the delight of the Dongarias, India’s supreme court banned Vedanta from mining the mountain. But it proved only a temporary reprieve: in August 2008 Sterlite, Vedanta’s Indian subsidiary, came back with a modified proposal and was given the green light.

But the Dongaria are still fighting back. If mining goes ahead, two of India’s strongest constitutional guarantees will be overturned: the right of a “primitive tribal group” to their territorial integrity and to decide on their own path of development; and the right to religious practices and beliefs, since the summit of this mountain is a sacred place of worship to the Dongaria Kondh’s supreme deity, Niyam Raja.

According to Salpu Jakesika, aged 34, a Dongaria from Mundabali village, “The Vedanta company will try to use force once again after the general election is over [in May 2009], but we will continue to resist.” Niyamgiri, he said, cannot be handed over to Vedanta. “The hills belong to the Dongarias and we are not going to let go.” But for Vedanta such a philosophy holds no meaning. The living earth is for them a resource to be exploited for profit.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Regulators dance to the banks' tune

That Goldman Sachs, the world’s largest investment bank, is set to pay record bonuses that even exceed those made before the credit crunch, is only one sign that nothing has changed in the world of global finance. This comes hard on the heels of decisions by Alistair Darling and the European Union to leave the banking system more or less as it was before it collapsed gratefully into the arms of taxpayers.

Sachs, whose former executives include the US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner and his predecessor Henry Paulson – joint architects of the bail-outs – has reported record earnings for the second quarter and if it maintains these profit levels, bonus payouts for the year could reach a staggering $22 billion.

As Matt Taibbi, the fearsome US journalist, writes in a powerful article for Rolling Stone: “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

All of which goes to show two things: how powerful banks like Goldman Sachs remain and how powerless governments and states are in relation to global financiers. Remember the pledges at the G20 summit in London in April? Obama and Brown et al committed themselves to regulate the banks so that the financial meltdown could not happen again. You would do well to remember that the summit began gathering on April Fool’s Day.

The joke, made at our expense, is that the state will use taxpayers’ money to keep the banks afloat – Goldman, for example, got billions from the US government to cover losses incurred when insurance giant AIG went belly up – while only the most cosmetic regulatory changes will be introduced.

Last week, Alistair Darling, the chancellor, published a white paper on the future of banking. While acknowledging that any significant changes would have to be agreed globally, the white paper remains in favour of preserving what many see as a major cause of the collapse – the use by banks of arms-length “special vehicles” for the purposes of speculation.

Although the report is supposed to be dedicated to regulation, it adds that “the government is clear that the financial crisis was not caused by a lack of powers within the UK’s regulatory regime”. Not only that, but “the prime cause of the problem was the action (or, in many cases, inaction) of market participants”. A similar view is being taken by the European Union and by the Bank for International Settlements, leaving one commentator to suggest:

The message, then, is speculative business as usual, though at a higher capital cost. So the crazy habit of running the banking system as an off-balance sheet vehicle of the public sector may still be intact. To put it in the language of former Citigroup chief Chuck Prince, the regulators are still dancing. The taxpayer is still at risk.

What actually exists is an unholy alliance between regulators – aka the state – and the banking behemoths, which politicians like Brown and Obama orchestrate. The objective is to maintain and sustain capitalism at all costs, one of which is years of cuts in spending on essential public services to pay for the banking bail-outs. The moral of this story is there is not going to be a kinder, better regulated, fairer kind of global capitalism at the end of this crisis and the sooner that is understood and acted upon, the better.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Poor bloody infantry pays the price

New Labour lied about the reasons for invading Iraq and now they are doing the same about the purpose of the continued occupation of Afghanistan. In fact, ministers have the blood of the young British soldiers on their hands. They are the sacrificial lambs of a failing neo-colonial policy which messages of condolence cannot conceal.

Prime minister Brown and the rest of the talking parrots in the cabinet are deceiving everyone, including the families of the bereaved, when they claim that the soldiers, some as young as 18, are dying on the front line in Afghanistan so that British citizens can walk the streets safely.

This is simply a repeat of the failed mantra of the “war on terror” that New Labour signed up to under George W. Bush’s presidency (which was extended to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq). Obama’s White House has simply dusted down the doctrine and given it a “human face” with talk of “nation building” and minimising civilian deaths in place of torture and random air strikes.

In any case, the idea that fighting the Taliban makes British citizens safer from terror attacks is clearly delusional. It conjures up a 19th century vision of uncivilised and ungrateful Afghans heading for Britain armed to the teeth in search of revenge. As for defeating the Taliban to thwart Al-Qaeda, they are by common consent in Pakistan not Afghanistan and their reach is global rather than national.

The only significant terror attack in Britain, in July 2005, was carried out by British-born Muslims angered by US and British support for Israel’s war on the Palestinians while they invaded Iraq. Significantly, a recent survey for the BBC found that 76% of young Muslims in Britain thought that Britain and the US were wrong to intervene in Afghanistan, while only 25% “fully understood the reasons” for the occupation. You can draw your own conclusions about the implications of this finding if the occupation is allowed to continue.

Rory Stewart, who has been a soldier, diplomat and academic and has travelled extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq, has exposed the government’s policy of building a “stable Afghanistan” as a nonsense when he wrote recently:

Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising language that can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.
It conjures nightmares of "failed states" and "global extremism", offers the remedies of "state-building" and "counter-insurgency", and promises a final dream of "legitimate, accountable governance". It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy. It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists. It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable. It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable. It does this so well that a more moderate, minimalist approach becomes almost impossible to articulate.

As always, the poor bloody infantry, or the PBI as British foot soldiers have referred to themselves down the ages as they suffered under incompetent leadership and failed strategies, are paying the price for the Afghan military adventure. Evidence is mounting that New Labour is not even prepared to spend the money to protect and equip the PBI adequately in a war that produces nothing but misery for ordinary people in both countries. Perhaps Brown and company ought to be sent to Afghanistan to try their hand at “nation-building” themselves following their great successes in Britain.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, July 13, 2009

Durham Gala brings past struggles to life

It was an awesome and poignant sight that sent shivers down your spine and brought a lump to your throat - the first colliery band entering the pristine, green old racecourse at Saturday’s 125th Durham Miners Gala.

The men and women playing the shiny brass instruments marching behind their colourful pit banner were not some quaint folk tradition. No, they stand for much more. They, and the dozens of other colliery bands, who took pride of place at the Gala, or “the big meeting”, are living symbols of a working class movement that has gone through the harshest of histories.

These communities have endured two centuries of sheer backbreaking drudgery and high mortality rates, the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike, the erosion of jobs, and, finally, the trial of strength between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers, led by its president Arthur Scargill, a quarter of a century ago.

The magnificent attendance of around 50,000 at the gala is a demonstration that those workers and their families have not forgotten that history. On the contrary – the grandparents, mothers and fathers and their children strolling through the sunshine – were only too aware that today’s generations stand on the shoulders of their ancestors.

The Gala has been held continuously since 1869 interrupted only by miners’ strikes and the two world wars. At its height, it attracted 250,000 workers and their families. On Saturday, three new banners, Westoe, Boldon, and South Hetton, joined the parade. Two of County Durham’s worst pit disasters - West Stanley in 1909 when 168 men and boys were killed and Easington in 1951, when 83 died – were also commemorated. Gala co-ordinator George Robson said that enthusiasm for the Big Meeting was growing, with groups restoring their banners: “I am dealing with 46 or 47 lodges or community groups and they are springing up all the time."

Amongst those present was an acute awareness that what the miners’ endured in their year-long strike 25 years ago was on the agenda again today, albeit in a new and more comprehensive form which affected all workers as a vast new economic meltdown takes effect. Matt Wrack, secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and Bob Crow of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union joined Dennis Skinner MP and NUM president Ian Lavery and Durham Miners Association and former NUM general secretary David Hopper on the speakers’ platform. Hopper accused Labour MPs of "paving the way for the return of the Tories” while Crow denounced the government and said the future for workers did not lie in the direction of New Labour.

Surveying from the edges and even strolling through the racecourse for the first time at a Gala, police Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) armed with batons and cameras, strutted their stuff, despite the entirely peaceful and festive nature of the occasion. They were a reminder of the confrontation with state forces in the 1984-5 strike for jobs.

Although the miners were forced to end their strike in the spring of 1985, without achieving their objective of preventing the pit closures, they demonstrated the fighting capacity of their union and their class. The strike marked the end of the post-war epoch in which pressure politics of trade union action could achieve aims such as higher pay and the protection of jobs. The image of the British state as an even-handed mediator standing above the classes in society was stripped away as police cavalry charges and jail sentences rained down on those who had dared to fight for their jobs.

As A World to Win’s new book, Unfinished Business, launched at the Gala concludes:
“The miners in 1984-5 found that they were unable on their own to save their jobs and communities. Ultimately, the power to determine their futures rested with the state and capitalism. Today, new generations and other communities will, like the miners, rise to the challenge and create a leadership that sets its eyes on the main prize: the conquest of power. This is the way to prevent capitalism from turning another industry and its communities into a wasteland. The great miners’ strike remains unfinished business.”

Corinna Lotz
Secretary, A World to Win

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Warm words - and global warming - from G8 leaders

Global warming more than 2 degrees higher than today’s temperatures was accepted as inevitable at the G8 summit meeting in Italy yesterday, as the world’s richest capitalist countries failed to agree any measures to reduce emissions.

A 2 degree rise will have serious consequences for many large population areas. This reality was hidden behind a fake target of an 80% cut in emissions by 2050 or sometime around then, depending on which baseline year a country works from. But no interim targets nor any specific measures to reduce emissions were agreed.

As a result, discussions taking place today between the G8 and emerging economies led by China, India and Brazil seem doomed. These countries want to see specific commitments, and cash to help them make the transition to a lower emissions economy, before they will agree to any significant cuts.

The absence of any real commitment results from the Obama administration’s inability to move forward. A Bill on reducing emissions is struggling through Congress. The forces of corporate darkness are recovering from the shock of the election result and are forming a determined opposition to attempts to limit emissions by law.

In any case, as the US government’s approach is to adopt the failed European/Kyoto “cap and trade” model, it is unlikely that any emissions reductions would be achieved. However, there would be lots of potential new profits.

A recent report from Friends of the Earth warns that carbon trading is fast becoming the new sub-prime and that “sub-prime carbon credits ... are already being securitized and resold in secondary markets”.

This is confirmed by Bart Chilton, head of the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission, who told the Financial Times that the market in greenhouse gas emissions could become the biggest traded commodity: "The potential size and scope of a structured carbon emissions market in the US is unequivocally vast. It is certainly possible that the emissions markets could overtake all other commodity markets."

Tipping points will soon be reached where runaway global warming cannot be halted; already some reports suggest that the coral reefs are damaged beyond recovery as a result of increased ocean acidity. This could start a cascade of extinctions that would not only sweep through the marine environment, but also human communities reliant on fishing for survival.

What is patently clear is that capitalism will always have the ability to create new markets and sources of profit. But it does not have the capacity to halt global warming. It is not too late to prevent the capitalist system – the corporations and their compliant governments and states – from wrecking the planet’s eco-system; but it soon will be.

What does it take for us to wake up to this reality and move towards mass action to deprive the capitalist system of its power to determine the future of the earth? It is, more than anything, a belief in the existence of a credible alternative.

The challenge for A World to Win and all those who want to show that “another world is possible”, is to convince people that working together, they can create a different system of governance, ownership and economy.

It’s a tall order, but the Fast Forward 2009 film festival held by A World to Win in London last Saturday was a significant step forward. It brought together a group of dedicated, creative people from across the generations. Working with them, we can find new ways to show how this concept of life beyond global capitalism can – and must – become our current reality.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A crisis beyond the power of prayer

When the leader of an organisation claiming a billion members decides to write a letter about the “complexity and gravity of the present economic situation” to the G8, the leaders of the world’s richest capitalist countries meeting in Italy, it’s worth considering what he has to say.

In his third encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI delivers a profound, historically-grounded analysis of the causes and consequences of the current crisis, taking in neo-liberalism, corporations, globalisation, the collapse of the Soviet-bloc countries, growing inequality, poverty and mass migration, terrorism associated with religious fanaticism – and points his critical ringed finger at the narrow pursuit of short-term profit. Here’s a sample of his analysis:

The global market has stimulated first and foremost, on the part of rich countries, a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods, increasing purchasing power and thus accelerating the rate of development in terms of greater availability of consumer goods for the domestic market. Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between states as they seek to attract foreign businesses to set up production centres, by means of a variety of instruments, including favourable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labour market. These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems ...Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organisations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers…

When it comes to prescriptions, he’s equally grounded and looking for change:
The human consequences of current tendencies towards a short-term economy — sometimes very short-term — need to be carefully evaluated. This requires further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals, as well as a profound and far-sighted revision of the current model of development, so as to correct its dysfunctions and deviations. This is demanded, in any case, by the earth's state of ecological health.

Warning of the new risks of enslavement and manipulation arising from the “cultural eclecticism” resulting from the "increased commercialisation of cultural exchange”, the Pope gets right to the heart of the matter – calling for a re-evaluation and remodelling of the state, leading to new forms of democracy, “an increase in the new forms of political participation, nationally and internationally, that have come about through the activity of organisations operating in civil society”.

And on the economy, to a degree he even puts himself alongside those calling for forms of common ownership, rejecting the “binary market-plus-state” and suggesting economic initiatives which “aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself”. The encyclical declares that “there must be room for commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends to take root and express themselves”.

Before you get too excited, just like the many versions of Keynesian new dealers, so-called lefts, reformists and greens, the Pope is, naturally enough for the leader of one of the richest organisations on the planet, in favour of capitalism, albeit in a more civilised form.

When he says that “economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value”, he’s talking about the employment contract. People must have jobs so that when they sell their labour power to employers, profit, rent and interest can be extracted from the value they generate. That’s the essence of capitalism, and until those social relations have been replaced in their entirety there is no way out of the present global meltdown, not even through the power of prayer.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How 'queue-jumping' myth is reinforced

The report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that confirms that social housing allocation does not favour new arrivals to the country nails a myth, although it won’t stop it being repeated. Our question is, however, is who perpetrated this legend and why?

All the evidence points to the New Labour government and the right-wing press like the Daily Mail, which have been courted for their prejudiced middle-class, middle-England voters.

So when you ask how the neo-fascist British National Party is able to use lies about queue-jumping immigrants to stir up opinion, you need look no further than the governments led by Blair and Brown, as well as statements by former ministers like Margaret Hodge.

The figures and facts produced in the EHRC report have always been available. Many of them are held by the Office for National Statistics, others by local authorities.

Yet for more than a decade, the government decided to reinforce prejudice and myth rather than counter it. As the report itself points out, one of the early acts of the New Labour government was to change the rules on the housing entitlements of asylum-seekers.

In 2000, after the implementation of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, all existing rights to housing and all types of benefits were removed, and a new housing and subsistence scheme for asylum-seekers based on dispersal and the use of private landlords, was created. The EHRC report says these policies “fuelled misconceptions” about “queue jumping”.

A notorious voucher scheme was introduced before being abandoned, while the courts eventually had to step in to declare that a refusal to give destitute refugees any help breached human rights law. This made sure that the story repeatedly made its way into the tabloid press.

The report also points the finger at urban renewal policy since 2001, where “community cohesion” has taken on new meanings that place “greater focus on migrants and minorities themselves, and less on all residents of a neighbourhood”. In other words, migrants are made the problem and not part of the solution. It is scapegoating in the name of “integration” and the acceptance of so-called British values, an approach that has marginalised sections of Muslim youth and driven some of them into the arms of sectarian Islamists.

These perceptions were highlighted in May 2007, when Margaret Hodge, MP for
Barking and then a member of the government, suggested in The Observer that new migrants should have less right to social housing than “established British families”. Hodge had said the year before that eight out of ten of her Barking constituents might vote for the BNP because “no one is listening to them”. The BNP made huge gains in the following month’s council elections and sent Hodge a bunch of roses as thanks.

And so it goes on. Government proposals, published as a Green Paper in 2008, proposed amending migrants’ restricted entitlement to social housing even further. Settled status may in future be abolished and instead replaced with a status termed “probationary citizenship”, with no entitlement to social housing and most benefits.

Then last week, in a desperate bid to outdo the BNP, prime minister Brown announced that the government would "reform social housing allocation - enabling local authorities to give more priority to local people whose names have been on waiting lists for far too long". Or British homes for British people. No wonder gullible voters are led to believe that these are major problems in society, when the cause lies somewhere quite different.

Since it came to power in 1997, the number of new homes built for social rent has fallen dramatically, as the report points out, while council homes continue to be sold off. Public investment has been directed towards encouraging “shared ownership” schemes instead. There is an absolute shortage of social housing and this is entirely the responsibility of a government, as is the myth of queue-jumping.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, July 06, 2009

A system bent on self-destruction

So Steve Bundred, chairman of the Audit Commission, wants a public sector pay freeze, describing it is a “painless” way to make some of the spending cuts that, according to accepted wisdom, are required to balance the government’s books. His remarks not only demonstrate a breathtaking arrogance but a bankruptcy of thinking as the economic crisis deepens.

Bundred is a civil servant, appointed to run an unelected body whose job it is to drive “efficiency” (translate this as jobs cuts) and “value for money” (more of the same) mainly in local government. It is not within his remit to make or advocate public policy like he did in an interview with The Observer over the weekend. Any half decent government would have slapped him down/fired him by now.

Not New Labour, however. Bundred was flying a kite for the government, which chancellor Alistair Darling has picked up and is running with. Darling followed Bundred by declaring: “Public sector pay obviously has got to reflect prevailing conditions and, in particular, inflation has come way down.” He said the government would decide its pay policy “over the next few weeks”, hinting that a freeze was in the offing.

The Tories are beginning to fall in line, with today’s Daily Telegraph declaring: “Mr Bundred should be congratulated for kick-starting a discussion stalled by the cowardice of politicians. The public wants an urgent debate about how and where the inevitable spending axe will fall, and where taxes will hit. Now it has begun.”

What has actually started is a war on working people through unemployment, pay cuts and attacks on public services. A pay freeze is, in reality, a reduction in take home pay as prices for everyday commodities like food and fuel continue to rise. BT staff are being asked to take a massive 75% pay cut just to keep their jobs for a year, while British Airways workers are being urged to work for nothing for a month!

There is no question, however, of the sacrifices being shared out. Bundred, who has made a long journey from the early 1980s when he was a leading left-wing member of Ken Livingstone’s pioneering Greater London Council administration, will go on collecting his £230,000 a year salary. There is an allowance of up to 10% for “performance-related pay” top-ups, so he wouldn’t even notice a pay freeze.

The fact is that, even within the framework of capitalist economics, none of this will help restore the battered economy to some sort of normality. In fact, quite the reverse is true. The less purchasing power workers have, the fewer goods that are bought, the more jobs that are lost as a consequence, the deeper the overall crisis gets. This is ABC economics.

But capitalism knows no other way. If profits are to be sustained, and public spending balanced, then the main targets are pay, jobs and services. In that sense, it is a suicidal system, driven towards self-destruction at our expense.

There is another way, however. At present, the British state is the political extension of corporate and financial power. That is why the banks are bailed out while the state itself is bankrupted, and why corporation tax at 28% is the lowest of any of the developed capitalist economies. While economic and financial power remains in private and/or state hands, clearly we do not have the means to make the ruling classes pay for the crisis instead of ordinary people. Altering that state of affairs is what have to turn our attention to.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, July 03, 2009

Warning: 'geological disposal' spells danger

At the Local Government Conference in Harrogate this week, amongst the stalls promoting management consultants, security companies and quangos, was a stand run by Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS).

They were there hoping to find cash-strapped local authorities so desperate that they will open talks about hosting a “geological disposal facility”, and there were various factsheets to encourage them.

Factsheet 1 explains that a “geological disposal facility” extends over an area of several square kilometres, but admits no country has successfully built one, though some are making “good progress”. It claims that Royal Society, Britain’s academy of science, supports the idea.

But what the Royal Society actually told the government in a report published as far back as 2002, is that “the problem of disposing of existing waste is serious and urgent” and they warned the government not to wait to tackle it until after a decision has been made about whether to build new nuclear plants.

The report accuses successive governments and industry of failing to recognise the need for public consent about “policies relating to toxic and long-lived wastes” and for public confidence in the institutions that manage them. Not exactly a ringing vote of confidence!

There is also the major issue, usually ignored, about the economics of nuclear power. A Greenpeace report highlights the massive cost overruns that are likely to arise as the new generation of nuclear power stations is built, and that these costs are likely to be passed on to the taxpayer.

Factsheet 3 is the sugar-coating. “Construction and operation of a geological storage facility will be a multi-billion pound project that will provide skilled employment for hundreds of people for over a century ….spin-off industry benefits, benefits to local education or academic resources, positive impacts on local service industries… better local healthcare to meet the increased needs of the community,” it declares.

Factsheet 4 sets out an “approach based on voluntarism and partnership”. An “Expression of Interest” has to come from the local authority – though the initial suggestion can come from a landowner, company or even a parish council. There will be extensive “community engagement” and “the community” can pull out right up until the point when construction is due to begin.

But it is not at all clear what mechanism the community could use to enforce that. What is certain is that it will not be through a legal challenge using the planning laws, because the facilities will be subject to the Planning Act 2008 which rules traditional inquiries out for major infrastructure projects.

The stall was not exactly swarming with enthusiastic councillors. But as the recession bites, and landowners and corporations look for new ways to make money, who knows what might happen?

All of this underlines the urgency of taking energy generation out of the capitalist market, and creating instead, local energy companies. These democratic bodies can plan to meet their community’s energy needs, with an appropriate mix of power sources, more cheaply and more safely than profit-driven nuclear and fossil-fuel giants.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Thursday, July 02, 2009

New Labour hits the buffers

It was yet another New Labour panacea. Bringing in private finance would make public spending go further and transfer the risk from the taxpayer to companies. Who cared whether it was public or private sector that financed and/or delivered services and projects – what mattered, we were assured, was “what worked”.

Well, it has turned out to be yet another New Labour con-trick. The collapse of the National Express rail franchise and the failure to find to a buyer for part of Royal Mail, are sure indications that the entire policy is in ruins – and that taxpayers and workers will be made to pay the price if the government gets half a chance.

The whole approach was, in any case, founded on the serious illusion that global capitalism had an infinite appetite for “public-private partnership” (PPP), and that the world had entered a new period of endless, stable economic growth. There was enough spare capital to replace what the state used to do.

So the state’s role was simply to facilitate the corporate-driven globalisation process. A key departure, started under the previous Tory regime, was to privatise state assets, including rail. New Labour took this further and before long the state was a “commissioner”, inviting the corporate sector to get involved on a grand scale.

And it did. Under Brown as chancellor and Blair as prime minister, the value of contracts for public services held by the private sector grew to over £80 billion. A third of all services are, in one form or another, contracted out to companies and charities, a higher proportion than any other major economy.

We are talking about school building, school services, schools themselves in the form of Academies, hospital projects, health services, air traffic control, employment services, welfare provision, London Underground, sections of the legal and justice system, prison building, large parts of council housing, defence technology – in fact, you name it and it is almost certainly been given the PPP treatment.

Now both outright privatisation and PPP is floundering as the economic meltdown gathers pace. Metronet pulled out of the London Underground project and left passengers to pick up the tab in higher fares. Many college and school building projects are in difficulties.

National Express – or should that be National Excess because their fares are eye-wateringly high – have reacted to falling passenger numbers on the East Coast route by simply walking away from the contract struck with the government in 2007. The company is simply not going to pay the £1.4bn due to the government by 2015.

The transport secretary, one unelected Lord Adonis (whatever happened to the Commons?), plans to take the franchise into state ownership later this year – and then retender it in 2010. But no one expects bidders (if there are any out there) to offer what National Express paid. One of the factors behind the franchise’s demise is that the government itself got greedy and encouraged bids that were in practice dependent on impossible increases in passenger numbers.

So we are left with the situation where neither the capitalist state nor capitalist corporations are in a position to deliver on contracts or services that are essential in a modern society.

The state, as we know, is essentially broke after giving the banks vast sums in a futile bid to prop up the financial system, while the corporate sector is slashing jobs and shutting down operations in every sector. What will happen to the pensions of Royal Mail workers, for example, now that capitalist firms have failed to come to the government’s aid?

This is an unacceptable position. Britain is not a poor country. Its workforce creates vast amounts of added value when it has the opportunity. The economy has just been hijacked and then wrecked by the political class and its corporate friends. There can be no stronger case for removing their power to do any further damage.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

'Honey - I shrank the economy', a nightmare by Brown & Darling

The graph from the Office of National Statistics, showing Britain’s incredible shrinking economy, surely has a much bigger immediate impact on our ability to grasp what is happening than the many thousands of words pouring from journalists’ keyboards and spewing from politicians’ mouths.

What it reveals is that the recession is rapidly turning into another Great Depression. ONS figures show that the British economy shrank by a massive 4.9% in the year to the end of March 2009. According to economic historian Angus Maddison, this contraction is the biggest since 1931, the year when the Ramsay MacDonald Labour government collapsed and the prime minister formed a national coalition with the Tories.

"Clearly this is now the worst peacetime recession since the 1930s," said Michael Saunders, chief UK economist at Citigroup. "The worst contraction then was a year of around -5pc; this year will not be hugely different." The Great Depression only ended when preparations began for World War Two.

The ONS also announced that GDP (gross domestic product) in real terms in the first quarter of 2009 fell by 2.4% compared with the previous quarter. Yet only a month ago, the ONS still estimated a decline of 1.9% for the same period.

It is important to understand the reason for the revision: the rate and scale of the collapse are both so great that they overwhelm the predictive statistical techniques which the ONS use. Largely based on inferring trends from historical data, the ONS is no longer able to accurately approximate the immediate past, let alone say much about the present or the future. When more of the real concrete evidence came in, the shock of the new took most of those supposedly in the know by surprise.

Put simply, things are getting much worse and faster. Output of the production industries fell 5.1%, but construction output fell 6.9% compared with a fall of 5.0% in the previous quarter, and it is set to deteriorate further, as investment in machinery and new buildings has slumped.

And what of the future? With tax income declining and having tested the limits of its ability to issue new debt, the New Labour government is caught between denial and a charade of lies about the cuts it will have to make if it remains in power after the next election. So much so that, according to the unelected autocrat-in-waiting Lord Mandelson, it has either postponed or cancelled its comprehensive review of public spending.

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), in its annual report is forced to acknowledge that the crisis shows that the “presumed benefits of diversification derived from the creation of financial conglomerates” were – wait for it – “an illusion”. Well, who would have thought it!

The shattering of the financial illusion resulted in a financial collapse, which in turn precipitated the economic collapse now taking place, ending another delusion – a boom based on debt-driven consumer spending. As to the notion of a swift recovery, the BIS report is sobering. It warns: “The very speed of the recent downturn could create larger than average second-round effects. In particular, if the propensity to save were to rise further in the industrial economies – as could easily happen, given the high overhang of household debt and dramatic reduction in household wealth – contractionary impulses in the global economy could be prolonged.”

Don’t say we haven’t been warned. The echoes of 1931 are resounding across the globe, reinforcing the urgency of our developing practical alternatives to capitalist slump which tackle the roots of the crisis by replacing a profit-driven economy that relies on illusions with one designed to meet the needs of people and the planet.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor