Friday, July 30, 2010

When GOD spoke to Cameron and Clegg

What we learned from last night’s BBC documentary on the formation of the first peacetime coalition government for almost 80 years is that in times of crisis, the state will always step into the breach and bang heads together.

We’re not talking about any old state here but one that promoted the development of capitalism in the 19th century along with a colonial empire that made Britain the pre-eminent imperial power. A key role of the capitalist state is ensure a continuity of political power. Parliamentary government is essentially the public façade of the state, the mechanism by which it expresses itself, and seeks democratic legitimacy and authority.

Well before the May 6 general election, there was a real probability that Britain was heading for a hung parliament, with no single party able to command a majority. Public disdain for all the major parties was self-evident, especially as they were tip-toeing around the big issue of public spending cuts. The election itself was a fraud because no party was prepared to own up to what it would do if elected.

Senior civil servants under cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell (aka GOD) began planning for a hung parliament well before the election. In Five days that changed Britain, a documentary about the formation of the coalition by BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson, O’Donnell is frank about his intentions.

He wanted a coalition government with a comprehensive agreement on policy to take office as soon as possible. During the week of the inconclusive election, there were riots on the streets of Athens as Greece’s debt crisis went from bad to worse. Eurozone leaders met at the weekend to work on a bail-out for Greece and to defend the euro. The financial markets were on edge.

O’Donnell told Robinson: “What might have been a minority government wouldn’t have had the strength in parliament to pass the tough measures that were needed to get us through this problem [Britain’s public debt crisis]. So the key issue then was that the markets would really make us pay a price on a Monday morning by selling our debt [government bonds]. And that would have been a real problem for the country.”

O’Donnell thus acknowledges two related issues: global financial markets make and break governments; the role of the state is to help create the conditions through which the markets that finance state borrowing can be appeased by spending cuts. The net result is to sustain the capitalist economic and financial system at all costs. Here the state is true to itself.

Of course, O’Donnell wasn’t the only factor in the emergence of the Lib Dem-Tory coalition. David Cameron seized the opportunity to put “national interest” above party politics with decisive leadership and engineered a coup against his own right wing at the same time. Nick Clegg did the same against his left wing to get into bed with the Tories rather than New Labour. Both men deceived their parties during the negotiations facilitated by O’Donnell’s team, as the documentary shows.

All this makes the coalition government fragile and somewhat unstable at a moment when it tries to impose the largest cuts in public spending ever seen in Britain. Behind the scenes, other areas of the state are preparing for all sorts of eventualities and scenarios in the event that the coalition fails to deliver. That is why fighting the cuts also means taking on the state in a struggle for power itself which would enable us in turn to deal with financial markets. Taking part in the campaign to create People’s Assemblies thus become more important than ever.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The struggle for clean water

Photo: Survival International

Voting on a proposal put forward by Bolivian ambassador Pablo Solon, the United Nations General Assembly voted yesterday to declare that “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.”

So it was fitting that on the same day in London, police were out in force to prevent protesters gate crashing the AGM of the British-based mining transnational Vedanta. The corporation is accused of fatally polluting the local water supply around its aluminium refinery in Lanjigarch, Orissa state in India.

A petition signed by 30,000 people was handed in to the meeting calling on shareholders to stop Vedanta’s local subsidiary, the Orissa Mining Corporation, opening a bauxite mine to feed the refinery, in the nearby Niyamgiri hills.

The development threatens the very survival of the Dongria Kondh indigenous community who live there. A report from Amnesty quotes a member of the community saying: “The hill is our god and the earth our goddess. Between the two we have the rains and the water. Those wanting to mine here will slowly take over this. Where will we go then?”

An estimated 884 million people don’t have safe drinking water and about 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year from diarrhoea and other water-related causes. Dirty water kills more children than AIDS, malaria and measles together. Three and a half million people die each year as a result of contaminated water.

One of the United Nations-sponsored Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2001, was to halve the number of people who cannot reach or afford safe drinking water and halve the number who do not have basic sanitation. But in reality, the opposite is happening.

As the effect of global warming increases, water is becoming more than ever a scarce and expensive commodity. Some 10 million people in West Africa are facing starvation right now as a result of a long and worsening drought.

New figures show that global temperatures are soaring to their highest-ever level this year. The Met Office Hadley Centre, drawing on the work of more than 100 scientists from more than 20 institutions, has compiled ten indicators of temperature. “They provide, in a one place, a snapshot of our world and spell out a single conclusion that the climate is unequivocally warming,” the Met Office reports.

Clean water must be a right, but like all others it will need to be fought for in the teeth of opposition from the corporations and the rich. Rights can’t be left as words on paper, as all the Development Goals for Africa have been.

It is absolutely right to use any legal recourse to defend rights, including working through the United Nations. Ultimately, however, power rests in the hands of corporations and even governments have to kowtow to them. This week, for example, the government of Uruguay has been forced by Phillip Morris to revisit their strict no-smoking laws because the death-dealing corporation has made a complaint to the World Trade Organisation.

In our Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions, we tried to put the concept of rights into a revolutionary context. We propose that human rights must expand beyond the concept of the individual to societal rights – the right to decent housing, health care and so on. This connects with the idea of “Mother Earth Rights”, proposed in the World People’s Declaration on Climate Change: for what is nature but the body of human beings, whose health is our health.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Coalition broadens its attacks

The fragile Cameron-Clegg Coalition is drawing in more forces with mad but bad schemes to help with the assault on public sector services. And they are using little known, fast-track parliamentary procedures to get their way.

Today, the Cabinet Office launches its early intervention review. It’s a genius idea led by an equally stunning partnership of labour and capital - Graham Allen, Labour MP for North Nottingham and the chief economist of Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neill.

Like many of the Coalition’s liberal-influenced ideas, the objectives are undeniably attractive. Experiments have shown that it is possible to prevent people falling into drink and drug abuse, vandalism, criminality and joblessness with targeted programmes of education and other forms of early social intervention.

Right-thinking Labourite Allen has been promoting the idea for years, and it fits in beautifully with the Coalition’s approach. The trouble is, cuts in government spending needed to reduce the deficit means there’s no money to pay for it. But don’t despair! Goldman Sachs is at hand, with proposals to draw in private sector investment. It’s really worth trying to get your head round it.

Early intervention saves money that would otherwise have to be spent on keeping repeat offenders and poorer people in prison. So if you can get richer folk to buy specialised investment bonds from the government, and use that money for early intervention schemes, you can pay the investors dividends in the future from the money you didn’t have to spend later on.

No really, they’re serious. Never mind that it was Goldman Sachs that talked the Greek government into the rather similar debt-based schemes that got it into so much trouble, bringing it to the brink of state bankruptcy. Goldman Sachs is after all a very successful, highly profitable company. Able to pay vast bonuses to its senior staff. An example to us all.

At the same time, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, a real Tory, and former managing director of investment bank Morgan Stanley, is advancing his campaign against public sector unions. He aims to reduce the cost of outsourcing swaths of government business from cleaning and catering to information technology, health and waste management.

Maude’s plan is to scrap the protection of conditions for workers whose jobs are transferred from the public to the private sector. It will be discussed in the Public Services Forum, a cosy consultation group involving unions and employers who take on outsourcing contracts.

Maude’s latest proposal follows in the wake of his emergency legislation to slash the redundancy terms of 500,000 civil servants. “Thousands of civil servants are sitting around doing nothing because it is too expensive to make them redundant,” he says.

“It is not a good way to treat people, to leave them in limbo with no actual job,” Maude believes. So he’s going to get rid of the current scheme, which can pay up to six and a half years salary, and cap it at 12 months’ salary for compulsory redundancies, but a “generous” 15 months for voluntary ones.

Just to speed things up, Maude has labelled the emergency legislation a “money bill” which limits the Lords’ ability to amend it, and allows the government to put it into effect as soon as it becomes law – which could be in October – without the usual two month delay.

The public sector union Unison says the plan to scrap terms of transfer will be “divisive” while on redundancy terms, Hugh Lanning, deputy general secretary of the civil servants PCS union, which successfully challenged an earlier proposal in court, says: “We think what they are doing is still unlawful.” This kind of weak, muted response from union leaders will only encourage the Coalition to press on with its attacks. Rank-and-file members facing the onslaught deserve and need better leadership than this.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wanted: a democracy for the people

The Tory wing of the Coalition’s plans for the “Big Society”, which now include a massive shake-up of the police force, are not simply a cover for public spending cuts. They are far more sinister than that.

The Tories, especially, because they are genuine representatives of the ruling classes rather than the aspirant New Labourites, understand and are concerned about a deepening social and political alienation in Britain.

The parliamentary state does not rule through naked force but through a changing mix of ideology and practice. Because the state holds power for a minority – the capitalist classes – it actually needs, even craves, a legitimacy from society at large.

This is achieved through various mechanisms such as elections at national and local level as well as a reiteration of the importance of the state in maintaining order in society and providing essential services.

Without a consent that is also fairly active, the state tends to lose its authority. People stop voting, or express little trust or faith in mainstream political parties. This extends to a loss of “respect” for other parts of the state like the police force or the legal system. These are all a feature of Britain today.

New Labour’s response was to create more and more layers of bureaucracy while retaining power over decision-making at the centre. Thus schools and hospitals, for example, were overwhelmed with new instructions and targets almost on a monthly basis. None of this worked. Teachers and health workers – and the police – faced mountains of bureaucracy, which led to fiddling of figures on a grand scale.

The Tories’ approach to the challenge of securing support for the state is openly populist, by contrast. Plans for schools, the health service and now the police involve co-opting vast numbers of workers as well as members of the public. Teachers will be invited to have a direct say in the running of schools, for example, while “free schools” will go further and bring in parents.

Yesterday’s announcement about the police force involve directly-elected local commissioners, joint patrols with the community and the recruitment of tens of thousands of special constables. They will be unpaid volunteers but have powers of arrest like ordinary police.

The sinister side becomes more apparent with the prospect of vigilante policing and right-wing, racist commissioners being elected. Special constables will always be useful in times of social unrest and strikes, which is the period we are entering as a result of the economic crisis. And, of course, getting workers delivering front-line services involved in making the spending cuts that are coming up the line is a great way to divide and rule.

Our response cannot be, however, to let things remain as they are. That would put us in a position of defending the capitalist state and the way it does things. The Tories are desperately trying to modernise a state whose political structures are 19th century while coping with the demands of a genuine 21st century global financial and economic crisis.

This is a set of improbable contradictions. The capitalist state cannot possibly reform itself by handing over power simply because it does not and can never represent the mass of the people. A leopard cannot change its spots and the present state will always rule on behalf of corporate and financial power.

Our demand is not for “involvement” but a genuine transfer of real power. That means democratic control and ownership of resources as well as a political voice that is direct and locally based. The “Big Society” is not that, of course. But it does create a challenge which we should start to answer in a creative, revolutionary way to claim democracy for the people.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, July 26, 2010

Making the Web work for us

Web 2.0 with its social networks and huge broadband speeds and capacities, combined with mobile telephony reveals the deep contradictions in what some still believe is an impregnable system.

Globalised corporate capitalism needs to supersede itself technologically at break-neck speed in order for companies to make a profit. The logic of the new technologies means that they need more and more customers.

But the profit-making aspect is lost in the realms of speculation. Like the financial bubble that broke in 2008, the social network extravaganza is full of “known unknowns” in terms of financial viability.

Facebook claims that one in 12 people on the planet actively use its site, just five-and-a-half years after its founders Mark Zuckerberg and fellow students at Harvard University set it up. Flickr, the photo uploading and sharing website, also launched in 2004, now hosts 35 million members and stores over 4 billion images.

Although Facebook is banned in China and Pakistan with their joint population of 1.5 billion, along with other the micro-blog sites, Twitter, search engine Google and email systems have been taking even poorer countries in Africa and Asia by storm. Twitter, which gets 300,000 daily new sign-ups each day, is currently expanding into a custom data centre to provide its members and with a better service.

But it seems that in terms of popularity even in this area, the market has its limits. While in Africa and Asia the numbers are rising more rapidly than elsewhere and Twitter is also growing at a staggering pace, the actual rate of increase, for Facebook at least, is going down.

Facebook increased from 300 million users to 400 million in just one month. But reaching 500 million took five months. The number of people with access to computers and mobile phone required to be active on social networks is not infinite.

And there is a techno-disconnect between social networks and mobile networks, according to technology experts. They suggest a new generation of sites on Web 2.0 is now necessary to avoid a repeat of the “post-dotcom exhaustion of 2002”, but so far no-one really knows what this means in practice.

The other question being asked is are these giant network sites able to make money for their owners? Are they valid business model? Most people think not. Even with half a billion users, Facebook is unlikely to earn its forecast revenues, the Financial Times suggests.

Naturally, there are those who highlight the dark sides of social networking and how it can be used for surveillance and criminal activities. The geo-app Foursquare, for example, is said to be a “stalker’s dream”.

Like all technologies, social and image networking can be used for bad ends. But, by breaking down barriers of time and space, it has expanded human connectivity. Facilitating virtually free communication between people from close neighbours to others in far flung corners of the globe, its revolutionary potential remains vast.

Even the church is attempting to revive itself by using Twitter to take Holy Communion and even get married. Trinity Church in New York’s Wall Street used Twitter to update its faithful with the Easter passion play, tweeting messages like “passionplay via @-Jesus Christ: Father forgive them, they know not what they do”.

The growing movement against the impact of the global economic and political crisis also needs to see the light. While social networking has been used to organise and even challenge the status quo, as in Iran, its political possibilities remain largely under-used. Turning the communication technologies developed by capitalism against the system of profit itself is key to our very own emanicipation.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary

Friday, July 23, 2010

A law unto themselves

The decision not to bring charges in relation to the death of Ian Tomlinson following his beating by the police at the G20 demonstration on April 1, 2009 is truly shocking. But it should not be surprising.

There will be many who agree with the family's suspicion that there was a co-ordinated effort to conceal events surrounding Tomlinson's death. Others are asking whether there’s been a state conspiracy to protect the Met’s notorious Territorial Support Group (TSG).

According to The Guardian, the Independent Police Complaints Commission concluded there was sufficient evidence to charge the officer involved with manslaughter, and told Tomlinson's family so.

PC Simon Harwood, who is shown on video footage assaulting Tomlinson, is a member of the TSG. He was investigated twice over his alleged aggressive behaviour before joining the TSG, which is the Met’s mobile riot squad. Just after the G20, it was revealed that a third of the unit’s officers had been investigated for misconduct in the previous 12 months.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announcement of the main reason given for the long-delayed decision not to prosecute was the “irreconcilable conflict between Dr Patel on the one hand and the other experts on the other as to the cause of death”.

Patel is under investigation by the General Medical Council (GMC). As a Home Office registered forensic pathologist he performed autopsies in a number of contentious cases including some involving deaths in police custody, before he was suspended.

Dr Freddy Patel was the first of three pathologists who carried out post mortems, and he concluded that Tomlinson died of a heart attack. But he failed to keep even a sample of the key evidence – 3 litres of fluid found in Tomlinson’s abdomen.

Can it be a coincidence that the CPS decision was made public on the very day that the second pathologist, Dr Nat Cary, was giving evidence to the GMC, before any conclusion could be drawn about Patel’s competence? Or are their other forces at work in the background?

Cary said his report contained clear evidence that Tomlinson suffered injuries sufficient to support an actual bodily harm charge. The CPS dismissed the injuries as "relatively minor" and thus not enough to support a charge.

Speaking for the first time about the case, Cary said yesterday: "I'm quite happy to challenge that. The injuries were not relatively minor. He sustained quite a large area of bruising. Such injuries are consistent with a baton strike, which could amount to ABH. It's extraordinary. If that's not ABH I would like to know what is."

That the announcement coincided with the anniversary of the police killing – rather execution – of Jean Paul de Menezes in 2005 could be considered cruelly provocative. Apparently the CPS lawyer who made the decision was the same one who decided no officer should face charges over Menezes.

Deborah Coles of the Inquest charity said: "The eyes of the world will be looking on with incredulity as yet again a police officer is not facing any criminal charges after what is one of the most clear-cut and graphic examples of police violence that has led to death. This decision is a shameful indictment of the way police criminality is investigated."

Following Tomlinson’s death at the G20 summit it emerged that the police were under orders to deal harshly with the protestors, and there was a flurry of concern and promises to soften their tactics. Don’t count on it. The state is gearing up to deal with the mounting opposition to the gung-ho slash and burn tactics being pursued by the Cameron-Clegg regime.

The Coalition can’t tolerate anything that might stand in its way as it attempts to rebuild the profit system through the destruction of jobs, pensions, services and living standards. “Tough decisions” will require brutal action, and neither they nor the police will be held accountable. Both are a law unto themselves.

Gerry Gold

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Carping critics reject Bolivia's struggle

By hosting the People’s World Conference on Climate Change, the Bolivian government offered much-needed leadership in opposition to the majority of the world’s corporate-sponsored governments.

The agreement on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth which emerged from the conference is a significant step forward in thinking and planning for the future of human society and nailing the real problems we face. It states:

“The corporations and governments of the so-called ‘developed’ countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system.....

“The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and life itself.”

It was only a matter of days before critics of the document emerged, complaining that it doesn’t specifically attack the oil and gas corporations and that Bolivia itself has oil and gas. Some go further to criticise the Bolivian government for BEING a government, on the basis that all government is bad!

The government of Evo Morales did not come about by accident, but through a range of powerful social movements - against water privatisation, against the ban on coca production and against the oil and gas corporations. These had to find a political expression and the form that took was Morales' MAS party.

But for the critics, this is not enough. Bolivian oil must stay in the ground, whilst Exxon and BP carry on dirty business as usual. The renationalisation of Bolivian oil and gas is not enough. Rather the Bolivian state must abolish itself and hand over power to social movements for “bottom up government”.

The introduction of a Constituent Assembly is all well and good - but it is the wrong kind of constituent assembly because it allows political parties, critics claim. A pluri-national state is not going far enough, even though this significant decentralisation has been carried through in the teeth of opposition from the right wing.

South American leaders always have in mind the 1973 bloody CIA-backed coup in Chile, which killed leftist president Salvador Allende and thousands of his supporters, driving hundreds of thousands into exile.

The harsh lesson of Chile (it was the same lesson Marx and Engels learned from the Paris Commune) is that a socialist government cannot rely on the structures of the capitalist state. It has developed with the purpose of enforcing the rights of private property and can’t be made to support an entirely different set of economic and social relations. It must be dismantled and remade.

But in so far as the Morales government is at least taking bold measures to alter the state in Bolivia, with significant decentralisation of power and an independent line in respect of the corporations, it should be supported.

A social movement is not a government – it cannot deliver rights, laws and a constitution. It certainly cannot defend Bolivia from civil war or a bloody coup that the CIA and others are no doubt discussing. People in general want to live in a law-governed society – just not one where the laws are there not to protect them but to protect private property and the corporations alone.

This is the big challenge facing all socialists and communists. How do we make the transition from capitalism to socialism, when developments and struggles take place in myriad ways and locations? How do we move from a capitalist state to a transitional, democratic state?

Of course it would be wrong to idealise the Bolivian government. But there is something truly reactionary and petty about these criticisms, coming as they do from people who have given up on the idea of revolutionary politics and submerged themselves into protest and social movements.

In practice, the only way to truly support the Movement Towards Socialism, as Morales’ party is called, is by bringing about revolutionary political change in countries like Britain and the United States. That is our responsibility and that is why A World to Win has produced a Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions, to suggest the basis of a way forward.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Banks star in the 'Great Escape'

When President Obama informed the White House press corps yesterday that he would shortly sign into law a package of measures that would ensure that the financial collapse of 2008 could not happen again, he was promising something he could not possibly deliver.

Congress has created a compromise bill that is so cumbersome that many critics see it as unworkable; it has nothing to say on “leverage” or borrowing to fund speculation; plans to break up big banks are on the back burner; and the United States has no international agreement on its approach.

In the meantime, the conditions that gave rise to the global financial crash of 2008 remain very much in place, with warnings that a new bubble is ready to burst. The system remains weighed down by debt at every level – financial, state and household.

Congress has created more than 2,300 pages of new regulations, which will be supplemented by more than 250 rule-making interpretations. Words and no teeth, according to investment adviser Terry Savage, who says: “Yet when it came to the basics, like requiring brokers to act as ‘fiduciaries’ – putting their client's interests ahead of their own and fully disclosing any conflicts – this simple act was consigned to a ‘study group”. And when it came to prohibiting the banks' risky activities … the law will take as long as 10 years to fully go into effect.”

Even the Financial Times views the new legislation as relatively harmless. Senior writer John Authers, whose new book is a gripping tale called The fearful rise of markets, writes: “After the financial crisis, it was beyond argument that existing regulations had failed, and would need to be rethought. Only a few months ago, it looked as though the Great Re-regulation might turn into a Great Revenge, as politicians planned to squeeze the banks. Now, for the banks it begins to look like a Great Escape.”

First Goldman Sachs was fined just $550 million for betting against itself with no admission of guilt. This is just three days’ revenue for the investment bank and reflects the power of Goldman Sachs, whose former employees include the treasury secretary Timothy Geithner.

Authers, whose book warns that the rise in markets in the last year has no connection with reality, admits that the bill Obama is about to sign does not tackle the “central issue of leverage”, through which banks and others borrowed to multiply many times over the effect of their investments – and their eventual losses.

His concern at the political failure is barely disguised: “Having toyed with going too far, politicians and regulators have not gone far enough in the needed re-regulation. That is worrying for the long-term health of the financial system, but good for shareholders in financial stocks.”

Meanwhile, at a global level the story is more or less the same. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is drafting new rules about the levels of capital that banks should have. But all the indications are that attempts to raise thresholds to curb excessive and speculative lending will be omitted when the BIS publishes its proposals later this year.

The moral of the story is this: politicians can huff and puff all they want and play to the public gallery over the banks. But when it comes to the crunch, the capitalist state is under the thumb of financial markets that have a compelling logic, life and power of their own as Greece, Ireland and Spain have already found out. Despite bailing out the banks, he who pays the piper does not, in this case, call the tune.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

US secret state out of control

If you think that the American state is all-knowing, all-powerful and always in control, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, some of the most sensitive areas of state activity are not actually under the control of federal employees at all but are in the hands of contractors answerable to shareholders.

A significant change in America’s state has placed private sector corporations at the very heart of military and intelligence operations, in a clear breach of the country’s federal rules. These state that contractors may not perform what are called "inherently government functions."

An effective merger between the secret state and corporations began after the 9.11 attacks. It has flourished to such an extent that no one in Washington can actually put a figure on the numbers involved. Senior members of the Obama administration have expressed their concerns, as well they might.

The scope of the changes is fleshed out by a two-year investigation by the Washington Post called Top Secret America. It estimates the number of contractors who work on top secret programmes at an astonishing 265,000 – almost a third of the total workforce.

There are about 2,000 companies working with 45 government organisations in hundreds of secret locations across America. More than a quarter of the firms came into existence after 2001.

The report warns: “What started as a temporary fix in response to the terrorist attacks has turned into a dependency that calls into question whether the federal workforce includes too many people obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest – and whether the government is still in control of its most sensitive activities.” The investigation shows that:

  • Contractors can offer more money – often twice as much – to experienced federal employees than the government is allowed to pay them.
  • Contractors cost an estimated 25% more to hire than federal workers.
  • At the CIA, employees from 114 firms account for roughly a third of the workforce, or about 10,000 posts.
  • Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan, helped snatch a person in Italy and interrogated detainees held at secret prisons abroad.
  • Contractors kill enemy fighters. They spy on foreign governments and eavesdrop on terrorist networks.
  • The defence secretary cannot find how out how many contractors work in the civilian side of his department.
  • Most contractors do work that is fundamental to an agency's mission. As a result, the government has become dependent on them.
  • The National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic surveillance, hires private firms to come up with most of its technological innovations.
  • The National Reconnaissance Office cannot produce, launch or maintain its large satellite surveillance systems, which photograph countries such as China, North Korea and Iran, without the four major contractors it works with.
  • Each of the 16 intelligence agencies depends on corporations to set up its computer networks, communicate with other agencies' networks, and analyse information. More than 400 companies work exclusively in this area.

The merger between state and corporate interests is a process that has its origins in the period of intense globalisation that took off in the early 1980s. As capital gained its global wings, the capitalist state more and more became the facilitator of their interests. As the financial crash of 2008 demonstrated, the state is duty bound to save the system at any cost.

With the United States in the grip of a worsening economic crisis, and a presidency which is mounting difficulties as a result, the loyalty of the state to federal authorities under a weakened Obama administration is always going to be tested. With the secret state essentially out of control and increasingly driven by shareholder values, any attempt to cut costs or curb power is sure to provoke an unpredictable reaction.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, July 19, 2010

Brutality against young people in the criminal injustice system

It’s taken five years and a determined struggle by the parents and children’s rights campaigners to get the misnamed Ministry of Justice to release a secret manual used by the prison service to control young people.

This is despite the recommendation of a parliamentary joint committee on breaches of human rights affecting children held in custody as far back as 2008 that it should be made publicly available.

Under the heading of Physical Control in Care (PCC), guidance for staff at Secure Training Centres (STC), the manual details shocking ways of inflicting pain. Staff are allowed to:

  • “Use an inverted knuckle into the trainee’s sternum and drive inward and upward”
  • “Drive straight fingers into the young person’s face and then quickly drive the straightened fingers of the same hand into the young person’s groin area”.

Facing a wall of resistance, the parents of two boys who died in custody after being held down by staff in centres in Warwickshire and Durham have had to wait since 2004 for the truth to come out. The Ministry of Justice only backed down last week after threatening to go to a tribunal to prevent disclosure. This was despite a Court of Appeal finding that painful “nose distraction” techniques were widely used in one centre and possibly others.

The PCC methods detailed were intended for use on children as young as 12 years old and up to 17 years of age in the privately-run “training” centres. The parliamentary committee was shocked by headings in the manual that even its members were not allowed to read in full at that time.

They reported: “We were alarmed by the headings of some of the redacted sections, namely 'hair grab', 'strangle against the wall', 'strangle on the ground', 'kicks standing' and 'kicks on the floor'. It was not possible to ascertain the content of these sections.”

The committee found that the “degree of physical restraint” of children in detention centres contravened the UN Convention. But the more details that leaked out, the more the officials running the Youth Justice Board sought ways of withholding them from the public.

In addition, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England warned about a potential conflict of interest between the private companies managing the STCs “given that the private firms managing STCs must meet targets for children's participation in education in order to secure financial rewards”. Interviews with children during the inquiry found that restraint was being used to ensure children attended education sessions.

It costs £167,750 per year to incarcerate a child in a STC – more than a place at Eton. Around £415 million is spent on the whole “secure estate” for children each year. We can only guess how much of this amount goes to companies like Rebound, who have contracts to run STCs.

The cruel methods used against children are part of a punitive culture which accelerated under New Labour, under whom the under-age prison population soared. The Prison Reform Trust reported in 2008 that up to 94,000 children entered the youth justice system in England and Wales for the first time.

The number of children in prison more than doubled in a decade and Britain locks up far more children at a far younger age than any other country in Western Europe.

A mountain of evidence exists which shows that the punitive approach to young people and crime, despite the vast sums devoted to it, has utterly failed. This latest evidence of brutality against young people should be a powerful impetus to pursuing a strategy of restructuring the state and its oppressive system of criminal injustice.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, July 16, 2010

Special pleading on cuts not the way to go

The magnitude and harshness of the age of austerity which the Coalition seeks to impose is becoming clearer by the hour. Not only are the basics of life - pensions, jobs, benefits and the health service - threatened, but so is the chance for the many to enjoy culture.

Leading figures in the arts world led by Tate director Nicholas Serota have joined together to plead with the government not to make 25 to 40% cuts in arts spending as part of the slashing of the budget deficit. Serota warned that a “cultural recession” would result if the cuts went ahead.

“Theatres will go dark, orchestras will disband, museums will shut and sport will suffer too. A whole generation of young people will be denied access to the fruits of everything that has been built up in the last 10 years,” he wrote in the London Evening Standard.

Others, including Jude Kelly who runs the South Bank complex, Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton Jones, Vicky Heywood of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Alistair Spalding of Sadlers Wells, gave stark warnings of the effects the cuts would have.

The vast amounts of capital sloshing around money markets until the credit crunch made business sponsorship relatively easy, as companies sought to improve their image. Serota’s stellar career as Tate director since 1988 saw him exploit to the hilt the possibilities for the arts. But as he now indicates, the present cuts will destroy that way of doing things.

Gifts from private donors can be taken away as freely as they are given, Peyton Jones said. Without some reliable public funding, arts bodies will be paralysed and many forced to close down. They were backed up by a group of leading benefactors who signed a letter to David Cameron saying that philanthropy could not be a substitute for state funding.

Serota quoted Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, who claimed before the election (of course): “It is actually in a recession that people need art the most”. Compared to the rest of the budget cuts, arts spending forms a relatively small part. Perhaps Serota and others hope that by using the Tories’ own arguments against them and the need to present a fine façade for the 2012 Olympics, the government will make some concessions.

Serota and others are right to point to the success of free museum and gallery entry and other achievements by arts professionals over the past 20 years. And of course, professionals in the arts need to defend their particular sector against the Lib-Con cuts juggernaut. It’s great that they are joining together to speak out.

Arguing a special case for one or other section of public spending, however, is a blinkered and dangerous way to go. Even if some sections of the arts succeed in winning special dispensation, hundreds of thousands of other people are scheduled to lose their jobs, key services, pension rights and see their standard of living reduced.

It’s time to stop scrambling for the crumbs from the tables of the super-rich and the government and look at the bigger picture. Developing a strategy for bringing together all those fighting the cuts, not reducing ourselves to defending one patch as against another, is surely the way to go. If we don’t, the Coalition will pick sections of society and communities off one by one.

That strategy must involve creative political and economic alternatives to answer the capitalist crisis to enable all those opposed to the Coalition’s policies to mount a serious challenge to its rule.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Population scare a 'convenient lie'

With effective international governmental action to tackle climate change well and truly off the agenda, perhaps it is no accident that attempts are under way to make global population levels a central issue once again.

The thinking, as always, is that there are too many people on the planet for “sustainable development” as well as concerns about the “impacts” of growing populations on resources. At least that is how the Royal Society, Britain’s self-appointed national academy of science, wants us to see the issue.

It has announced an inquiry into population levels that has a real ring of the late 18th century about it. The cleric-turned-economist Thomas Malthus then predicted that humanity would grow faster than the food supply. This “principle”, claimed Malthus, was "one of the causes that have hitherto impeded the progress of mankind towards happiness".

Modern supporters of variations of Malthus’s notions are on the panel. They include Jonathan Porritt, former government chief environmental adviser and head of the Sustainable Development Commission, and naturalist and film-maker David Attenborough, who is a leading light in the disturbing Optimum Population Trust (OPT).

The OPT’s Roger Martin believes that people have to live “within the limits of the place we inhabit” while its website claims that population growth is “rapidly destabilising our climate and destroying the natural world on which we depend for future life”. Britain’s “optimum” population is put at 30 million – under half its present size.

The whole argument is muddle-headed and is based on accepting how capitalist society functions (or, in many instances, does not) as an eternal, natural law. Even a glance at the figures since Malthus disproves his assertion. In 1800, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, there were about a 1 billion people, which rose to 1.7 billion by 1900.

By 2000, it had quadrupled to 6 billion during a century of advances in public health, technology, food production and cheaper energy sources. In other words, the world’s population grew because there was a potential and capacity for it to survive. Absolute numbers continue to grow and projections are for a total of 8.3 billion by 2030. But the percentage rate of increase is falling. In many countries, a declining birth-rate points to an eventual fall in absolute numbers.

The biologist and writer Colin Tudge fiercely disputes the Malthusian argument, insisting that the failure to feed the present population is a result of feeding half of all staple crops to livestock, and then wasting about a third of what we do produce. “We already produce enough for nine billion, if only we used it properly. And we don't need to be vegetarian. Cattle and sheep do best on grass and browse, and there is plenty of those,” he insists.

As Tudge suggests, the real issues are about how food is produced, distributed and sold as well as how natural resources are used. The Royal Society, as an establishment institution, won’t question the framework of capitalist society. Instead, it wants us to accept that we cannot reach beyond the present, or conceive of another way of organising society. A truly anti-scientific approach if there ever was one.

Global society has indeed reached a “limit” - one that actually prevents us from establishing a conscious, sustainable self-relationship with nature. The limit is to be found in a capitalist society’s social relations that commodify everything and alienates producers from the fruits of their labour and the world around them.

For the last word, I can do no better than cite Tudge again: “For governments and corporations, Malthusian gloom is not an inconvenient truth but an all-too convenient lie. We are still told from on high that even to keep pace with human numbers we need to double food supply in the next few decades – so we need more big-time industrial farming with hi-tech inputs. There is no reason for this – except that it's profitable, and would maintain the political status quo. The future is indeed promising; but if we want to gather its fruits, then we need to find a very different way of running our affairs.”

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Healthcare and markets will make you sick

Even the right-wing Coalition government is well aware that the National Health Service is embedded in the social being of Britain. So while savaging the rest of the public sector, they have committed to real terms increases in health spending. There’s a big sting in the tail, however.

The government’s White Paper on the NHS proposes major changes. At the heart of them is the plan to involve private sector corporations and impose competition and market forces in the running of the NHS. This dramatic change is part of the attempt to restore the bankrupt for-profit capitalist system to health. It cannot be allowed to succeed.

Many of the changes in the White Paper look good on paper. The intention to move from quantitative output targets that distort clinical decision-making to qualitative health outcomes has seemed like an unattainable dream for decades. “The government’s objectives are to reduce mortality and morbidity, increase safety, and improve patient experience and outcomes for all.” Who would argue with that?

There’s a whole new public health initiative, handing responsibility to local authorities. There’s even talk of "health and wellbeing boards" and employee-led organisations. Good stuff all round.

We’ll get more choice over where we go and who we get to treat us. We as patients will share the decisions on the care we get with clinicians. We’ll be able to share our records with who we like. Fantastic. And good riddance to the suffocating layers of target-driven management built up during 11 years of New Labour and the overpaid hordes of management consultants.

So where is the downside? The market is back with a wholehearted bang. Whilst the majority of NHS funds will be in the hands of consortia of GPs, they will be buying services from Foundation Trusts and any other “willing providers” including those in the private and voluntary sectors.

Companies like Assura Medical, Tribal, Bupa and even the commercial wing of Imperial College can already be heard rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the spoils. Foundation trusts have had their private income capped to date, but this is to be lifted. They have already said they will compete with private firms for patients and launch joint ventures with companies. University College Hospital in London has already gone down this route with a private US health firm which has located a private unit on its site for cancer treatment.

Monitor, the regulator for NHS Foundation Trusts will promote and enforce competition in the market. Its powers, so far only outlined, are nevertheless awesome. The White Paper says that Monitor will have powers to “help open the NHS social market up to competition”,

Competition, then, is the termite infestation that will eat away at the heart of the NHS. Experiments with introducing private provision of services into the NHS have been underway for many years, so far with little success.

The National Health Service is the strongest possible concrete evidence of the altruistic, collective, needs-satisfying potential of the human race once freed from the absurdities of social relationships based around property ownership, and activities motivated by profit.

It has established, in practice, the universal right of access to healthcare free at the point of delivery based on clinical need, not the ability to pay. It is provided by a network of public sector organisations employing close to 1.5 million people.

Aside from the need to earn a living, the majority of the nurses, doctors, paramedics, scientists and technicians, estate maintenance and administrative staff, cooks and cleaners, and, yes, even managers are motivated by the health needs of people they care for, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

By any measure it is a stunning achievement. Despite its many faults it has become a model for the rest of the world. That it exists is a source of astonishment and envy. The response to the White Paper surely has to be to fight for the extension of the principles and practises of socialised, not-for-profit health care to the rest of the economy.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We could all benefit from real housing solutions

The Coalition government’s plan to cap housing benefits for private sector tenants will undoubtedly lead to more homelessness, especially in London. But a lasting solution to Britain’s housing crisis involves more than just opposing Lib Dem-Tory cuts.

Some 4.7 million households get housing benefit (HB) to help pay their rents. The average HB in February 2010 was £83.51 a week. The annual bill for HB is around £16 billion and that is why it is a prime target for spending cuts.

The Coalition is imposing limits on what private sector tenants can claim against - £400 a week for a four-bedroom property and £250 a week for a two-bedroom house. But thousands of properties in London have much higher rents than these.

Shelter estimates that some families could face a shortfall each month of over £1,500. Campbell Roth, Shelter’s chief executive, says: “If this support is ripped out suddenly from under their feet, it will push many households over the edge, triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness.”

This spiral has, however, been in evidence for some time. And it gathered momentum during the Blair/Brown governments. So we should take New Labour squealing about Tory “savagery” with a dose of salts.

In 2010, there are 800,000 more recipients of HB than there were in 2001. That’s a rise of about 20% in under a decade. The causes are not difficult to establish. About 70% of people claiming HB actually live in council or housing association properties. And the rents for these soared during the New Labour governments.

Blair/Brown set out to bring social housing rents into line with market rents by withdrawing subsidies and dictating to nominally independent housing associations that are dependent on government grants. As a result, more and more tenants had no choice but to claim HB.

With the supply of new social housing for rent reaching rock bottom – and the cost of buying in the capital way beyond most people’s reach – increasing numbers had no alternative but to rent in the private sector. But average rents in this sector in London have increased by 65% since 2000 – far more than the rise in the cost of living.

Of course, the background is New Labour’s obsession with the market and the way it encouraged the bubble in house prices that not only put ownership beyond reach of many people but also led to a rapid rise in repossessions when the crash came.

The real issues about HB is about who ultimately receives the benefit because it is an expression of high rents and shortages rather than a solution. In the private sector it is the landlord/private property owner who get the HB. This group can only be described as social parasites who gain from the misery of others by raising rents to extortionate levels.

In the housing association sector, HB is the income stream that perversely allows associations to borrow from banks to help them fund new schemes. The HB comes from central government, is collected by associations from residents and is then effectively recycled to the banks who have lent against the stock of housing. Amazing but true.

Housing policy clearly requires a revolutionary approach because capitalism has a way of recreating shortages over and over again. In opposing the Coalition’s HB cuts we should fight for:

  • the common ownership of land, without which decent housing is impossible
  • an end to private landlordism, more in keeping with feudalism than a modern society
  • an enforced reduction in existing rents in council and housing association properties
  • a massive expansion of high quality social housing at affordable rents
  • social ownership of builders/developers and the financial sector
  • new ways of transferring homes that ends property speculation.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, July 12, 2010

A very 'public execution'

The eleventh-hour arrival of former England footballer Paul Gascoigne at the scene of the manhunt in Rothbury over the weekend certainly was bizarre. But unfortunately Gazza’s efforts at mediating a non-fatal outcome were unsuccessful. Like Raoul Moat’s brother and uncle, the footballer was turned away by the police.

Many who have followed the lurid coverage no doubt believe that a brutal man who killed his ex-girlfriend’s partner got his just deserts when he died on Sunday morning in what his brother likened to a “public execution”. But there are those who feel otherwise.

As Moat managed to outwit police for a week, Facebook sites supported by thousands of people sprang up in his support. Flowers have been left and a shrine set up outside his home by those who feel they were on his side against a police force which has a tense relationship with many Northumbrians.

One person wrote: “How many people cussing him on here would be able to keep thousands of armed police at bay for 8 days???? I think all of them would meekly and passively surrender. That's why he's an inspiration ... The French resistance would have loved him in 1940, they might not have surrendered so quick if they had more of him ..."

The £4 million operation, the biggest and most expensive in recent British history, included snipers armed with a variety of assault rifles, pistols, carbines and sniper rifles plus 50,000-volt electric Taser stun guns and an RAF Tornado aircraft with heat imaging. But despite vast resources, advanced technologies and huge firepower, the entire handling of the situation leaves many questions unanswered.

Northumbria police did not act on warnings from Durham prison that he intended to harm his former partner. Neither were at least eight sightings and incidents acted upon swiftly. But the most shocking aspects of the case were raised by Moat’s close relatives.

His brother Angus said he felt the round-the-clock media coverage seemed like “they’re working up to what could be a public execution in modern Britain of my little brother … I think I’m probably the only person who’s ever watched his brother die on national television in the UK, which is obviously horrific.”

Angus Moat had told police he was “willing to walk into the cordon with no flak jacket and try to talk to Raoul to calm him down”, but that his offer, like that of his uncle Charles Alexander, was rejected out of hand. He said: “If the police are so keen to get this defused and they want to talk him down and negotiate and his family are figuring so prominently in what he is saying, then why didn't they go for that option?” Good question.

They and others have raised the possibility that the two Taser shots fired by the police (who initially only admitted to one shot), could well have caused Moat to pull the trigger on the shotgun he had pointed at himself. Northumbrian police certainly love their Tasers. In the five years to April 2009 they used them more times against a population of 1.7 million than the Metropolitan Police did in area covering 7.4 million people.

Behind the ugly scenes in Rothbury are deep social tensions and massive deprivation. Northumbria has never recovered from the job losses and devastation of communities caused by the pit closures during the late 1980s and 1990s. Shocking as it may seem, elevating a man who has gone out of control to the status of a hero can be read as an attempt by those who feel abandoned by society to give themselves an identity and a status.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, July 09, 2010

Coalition walking a tightrope

That the first serious opposition to the government’s cuts programme has come from within the Tory Party rather than from the usual quarters, reveals the not only the depth of the financial crisis but mounting problems within the Coalition itself.

In office for just two months, the Lib Dem-Tory government is facing all sorts of stresses and strains and you would not put your money on it lasting the scheduled five years. The axing of the school building programme by education secretary Michael Gove has prompted a furious response from within the Coalition.

Last night, Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore criticised Gove over the fact that the announcement on the cuts was replete with errors, leading some schools to think mistakenly they had been reprieved. Three Tory MPs have denounced Gove and one threatened to lead a march on Downing Street of parents, students and teachers!

Ian Liddell-Grainger, Tory MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, attacked plans to halt three schools in his constituency and put three others under review. “If I have to stand outside Downing Street and say, 'Can we please have a chat?', then I am more than happy to do so," he said. Teaching unions have organised a lobby of parliament, to take place on Monday 19 July – a date which coincides with the second reading of the government's Academies bill.

The Coalition’s attack is broad-ranging and will hit every section of the community, whether they voted for the Coalition parties or not. For example, pensions minister Steve Webb is proposing that private sector pensions schemes drop inflation-proofing based on the retail prices index (RPI) and replace it with the much lower consumer prices index (CPI). A pensioner currently receiving £10,000 a year will be more than £800 a year worse off by 2016, according to one estimate.

Apparently the government is concerned that the remaining final salary scheme pensions could go belly up over the next few years and land the government with the cost of picking up the pieces. Cutting the value of pensions by adjusting them for a lower measure of inflation is the Coalition’s answer.

The Coalition is walking a financial tightrope and could fall off at any time. Debt payments alone on the national debt amount to £40 billion in 2010-11 – and are expected to rise to an astonishing £70 billion, which is about 15% of the annual state budget. The government’s own calculations about reducing the budget deficit are themselves based on wildly optimistic forecasts about economic growth.

On many measures, Britain is the most indebted country among the advanced capitalist countries. As the government admits in its latest budget report: “Between 2002 and 2007 there was a near tripling of UK bank balance sheets and the UK financial system had become one of the most highly leveraged [i.e. financed by borrowing] in the world, more so than the US.” British banks are, by the way, still desperately short of capital

The scale of the task facing the Coalition – which wants to “rebalance” the economy in favour of the private sector – is immense and, in my view, beyond its capacity. What they are proposing could only be carried through by force. The groundswell of opposition and discontent that is already building up throughout society will undoubtedly provide us with an opportunity to defeat the Coalition. Building a network of People’s Assemblies to unite communities and plan for a socially-driven alternative to the nightmare of the capitalist financial and economic crisis is key to winning this historic battle.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Climate change deniers exposed by the truth

Scientific truth has won three convincing victories over corporate-funded climate change deniers. Independent reports published in the UK and US entirely exonerate two leading climate scientists and their teams – Phil Jones from the University of East Anglia and Michael Mann at Penn State University.

And a comprehensive  review of the 2001 report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that the evidence is not flawed, and the fact of socially-driven climate change is incontrovertible.

The two groups of scientists were subjected to a fake scandal manufactured out of leaked emails, timed to coincide with the UN climate summit at Copenhagen at the end of last year.

Emails were misrepresented to suggest that they knew that Earth is actually getting colder, and could not explain why. One of the emails was in fact a comment by Professor Jones on how designers should present a graph being simplified for use on the cover of a report published in 2000 – before the IPCC report.

The UK enquiry, chaired by former civil servant Sir Muir Russell, reported: "The honesty and rigour of CRU (Climatic Research Unit) as scientists are not in doubt ... We have not found any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments."

Far from hiding the raw data on which their findings were based, the enquiry found that it “is freely available to any competent researcher”. And to underline the point, the enquiry itself accessed the data and used it to recreate exactly the same findings.

In the US, the science faculty at Penn State University unanimously exonerated Michael Mann and his team. With the UEA researchers, they created the so-called “hockey stick” graph of global warming.

This famous image, used in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, draws on evidence from a range of studies and shows the dramatic rise in global warming coincides exactly with the last three decades of corporate globalisation. It induces apoplexy in the climate change deniers and their corporate backers and rubbishing it is a key focus of their activities.

The investigators found no substance to charges made against Mann and his team and added that his emails had been "misrepresented ... (and) completely twisted to imply the opposite of what was actually being said."

So have the deniers shut up? Of course not. Have they disproved the science? Discussing science scientifically is something they assiduously avoid!Instead Myron Ebell of the so-called Competitive Enterprise Institute simply denounces the report as a whitewash, without giving any reasons. And Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit – the main attack dog against the “hockey stick graph” – focuses on the one and only criticism the UK enquiry made.

Muir suggested that deleting emails does not show a great commitment to openness on the part of the UEA team. But who can blame them, since the requests for emails were entirely vexatious.

Of course there is a long history of lying and distortion of scientific research. The corporations have covered up the facts about tobacco and cancer; about GM crops migrating into non-GM; about the side effects and dangers of anti-depressants; about thalidomide. And now they sponsor people to lie about climate change.

As Michael Mann told the BBC last night: “If our work wasn’t important in adding to the weight of evidence we wouldn’t be getting this attention from the professional climate change deniers...I look at all these specious attacks and lies as a testament to the importance of our work.”

Now all the anti-science pundits who claimed the cold winter of 2009/10 means global warming is a lie have gone strangely silent as vast areas of the world suffer terrible heat waves. Temperatures this week rose to 40.3 Celsius in Beijing and 39.4 in New York.
Abraham Lincoln had it right: You can fool some of the people all of the time. You can fool all of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Plans to bail-out BP

Contingency plans for a possible collapse of BP are reportedly being drawn up in Whitehall as the oil corporation’s crisis continues in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe. If the Coalition had to take the company over, it would blow the governments budget-reduction plans apart.
BP accounts for £1 in every £7 paid out to British pension schemes in dividends. The value of the company is uncertain following the largest offshore oil spill in history, which has wrecked ecosystems and affected jobs in US five states. And the thinking is that the Coalition could not allow BP to be broken up or fall into entirely foreign ownership if it meant that pension schemes would suffer.
BP’s management is apparently touring the Middle East looking for governments willing to put up some defensive cash to protect the company against takeover bids from its bigger competitors Royal Dutch Shell, and Exxon Mobil. You can be sure that more than one of Cameron and Clegg’s people are in there batting for BP.
On Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s largest corporations BP ranks fourth, behind WalMart. The company reported profits of US$21.2 billion on its revenue of US$367 billion last year. So the US$20 billion it has so far been obliged to set aside for the costs of the oil spill wipes out last year’s profit.
What happens to BP affects the entire global economy, and not just in terms of its revenue and profits. BP’s product is as important to capitalist production as its profits. The entire system is fuelled and lubricated by oil. This is why proposals to cap the leak altogether fall on deaf ears. Stopping the flow of oil isn’t on the agenda.
Despite the rampant destruction, all of the oil producers are intent on drilling deeper, overcoming all obstacles. It didn’t take long for the corporations to get the US Federal court to overrule Barack Obama’s six-month moratorium on all pending, current or approved drilling plans for new deepwater wells.
BP’s shares have been on the rise again after the price dropped by more than a half since the oil began leaking into the ocean, for three reasons. Firstly, the company declared it wouldn’t be issuing shares to raise capital, which would have diluted the share value even further; secondly, the relief well drilling which, it is hoped, will at least help to stop the leak in August is ahead of schedule; and thirdly, they have just begun deploying a new “super-skimmer”, a third vessel at the leak site that is hoped to nearly double BP's capacity to 53,000 barrels of the leaked oil a day from around 25,000. But rough seas are hampering efforts to finish the job, and more hurricanes are threatening as the effect of climate change induced by the burning of that same oil bites.
Rather than cap the leak BP must scoop up as much as it can. Oil corporations are the most powerful organisations in the world. So last month’s call from General Electric and Microsoft for the US government to more than triple its spending on clean energy research and development has little impact.
If the rest of BP, already 60% per cent owned by non-UK investors were to fall into foreign hands, the British government’s emergency budget will become irrelevant. There’s every chance that Cameron and Clegg will be forced to follow New Labour’s solution to the bankruptcy of the banks and take BP into state ownership.
At this rate, the state will soon control the commanding heights of the capitalist economy! So much for the virtues of private ownership. It’s not at all indispensable. What remains is the issue of the state itself. A corporate state that functions on behalf of a bankrupt capitalist system serves only narrow interests and we should work to replace it with a network of democratic People’s Assemblies. Then we would see some progress.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Banning the burqa is scapegoating

The issue of women wearing the full-body burqa, which is up for the debate in the French parliament this week, has stirred up a hornet’s nest of opinions. It’s not too surprising, given that the question of covering up or not raises religious, cultural and sexual issues.

French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party has proposed a ban on the burqa. Significantly, white men in suits, headed up by UMP faction leader Jean-François Copé and Communist Party MP André Gerin, are leading the charge.

Gerin calls women wearing burqas “French-style Talibans”. Deputies are calling for a total ban and suggest not only a £750 fine, but also that women who wear burqas should not receive child support payments and be refused citizenship.

Wearing the veil is said to offend French traditions of freedom and democracy, restricts women’s rights and sexual equality, offers a disguise for would-be terrorists, does not fit in with European culture, is a sign that immigrants are unwilling to integrate into their host countries, etc, etc.

So under the guise of progressive, feminist, liberal and security arguments, a tiny number of women are being singled out and persecuted. According to Muslim Women’s Network UK the number of women wearing the full veil in France stands at around 367 out of a population of over 62 million. Other sources put the figure at around 9,000, but it still amounts to victimising a religious minority simply because a few women choose to cover their bodies.

Even if they are pressurised by their husbands or religious leaders, this is not a matter in which the state, the police or legal bodies has the right to interfere. There is also evidence that many young girls in countries like the Britain and France wear veils through their own choice rather than parental pressure.

The enthusiasm for telling women what is good for them and what they should wear is not confined to the right-wingers and Stalinists in France. In Belgium a legal ban is awaiting Senate approval. The issue of veiling is just as hotly contested in neighbouring Spain and Italy. Nine municipalities in Catalonia, including the capital Barcelona, have banned the wearing of the burqa in public places. Catalonia’s parliament, however, rejected a regional ban last week.  

The gung-ho attitude of Catalonian councils – including socialist-led ones – seems very peculiar, given the fact that there are no Muslims or burqa wearers at all in many of the villages concerned! It cannot be a coincidence that burqa bashing is taking place during election year in Catalonia, Spain, a country experiencing the worst recession in Europe, with unemployment standing near 20%.

Of course we have our own would-be off-with the veilers here in Britain. UKIP leader Lord Pearson has said that wearing the burqa is “incompatible with Britain’s values of freedom and democracy”. Tory Phillip Hollobone, MP for Kettering, (where only two women actually wear burqas!) has introduced a private member’s bill to ban the burqa and the niqab in the Britain, on the grounds that it goes against “the British way of life”.

Some Muslim feminists like Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claim such practices “violate the fundamentals of good societies everywhere”. As to who sets out these “fundamentals” is, of course, another question. 

As always, discriminating against a small minority on grounds of dress or religion is simply a smokescreen for really major issues for which the political class have no answers. Targeting minorities for what they wear is an inflammatory way of whipping up racist sentiments under the cover of self-righteous “Western” values.  As unemployment rises and the austerity budget bites, the old tactic of finding scapegoats is rearing its ugly head.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Monday, July 05, 2010

Coalition prepares for showdown with unions

A massive provocation against the trade unions in the public sector is openly being prepared by the Coalition government as it prepares to force through spending cuts that will destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs and wreck vital services.

The question is: how will union leaders respond to the Coalition’s relentless assault on jobs, wages, pensions and redundancy terms that is building on a daily basis? 
In the last 24 hours alone, there are reports of:
  • government departments being asked to prepare cuts in budgets amounting to 40% of current spending, which would terminate much of what they do
  • new laws to toughen the already-draconian anti-union legislation introduced by the Thatcher government and sustained by New Labour
  • legislation to impose reduced redundancy terms on civil servants after the courts ruled that New Labour’s attempt at the same was unlawful.

Staging an effective strike in Britain is well nigh impossible – if unions stay within the law. Solidarity action in support of other workers is illegal, as is mass picketing. Even sticking to the rules on balloting is no longer sufficient. Employers are challenging virtually every ballot, enjoying favourable judgements in most cases.

Now the Coalition is reportedly planning to toughen the ballot regulations even further. At present, a simple majority of those voting is required. The government is discussing plans to impose a higher threshold and is also being lobbied by business to allow striking workers to be replaced with agency employees.

All this follows hard on the heels of a two-year pay freeze, which even Cameron admitted amounted to a salary cut as inflation moves ahead; immediate cuts to local authority budgets with job losses; and plans for higher public sector pension contributions. In October, the Coalition will announce details of unprecedented spending cuts which will take effect from 1 April 2011.

Cameron and Clegg are calling the bluff of the trade union leaders, who – with a handful of honourable exceptions representing firefighters, rail workers and civil servants – cosied up to New Labour for 13 years to no avail. The biggest public sector union, Unison, sat back as Blair/Brown carved up the health service and public services. Loads of cash was sent New Labour’s way, however, even though muted pressure to drop the anti-union laws was treated with contempt.

Union membership has declined to 6.9 million from over 12 million and is barely present in the private sector. But unions represent almost 60% of public sector employees and so are in a position to organise against the cuts. So far the signs are not inspiring. At its annual conference last month, Unison adopted a 1,300-word motion on the “austerity agenda” that in the same sentence referred to “working with employers who share our aspirations “(!), and being ready to take industrial action “where necessary”.

This will simply not cut the mustard. The Coalition is preparing for war while the main trade union leaders are looking for a deal. There is no compromise on offer, however. The crisis of global capitalism deepens day by day and this is what is driving the Coalition’s attempt to transfer wealth to big business at the expense of working people and the millions who depend on public services.

In September, the Trades Union Congress will meet in Manchester from 13 September. Those who are up for the fight like the rail union RMT have a responsibility to take the fight into Congress. Nothing less than the preparation of a co-ordinated, indefinite General Strike against the Coalition, alongside anti-capitalist policies that answer the crisis, will measure up to the task in front. The time for cheap talk is over.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, July 02, 2010

Deprivation and inequality - New Labour's record

You didn’t have to wait for the Lib-Tory coalition for the assault to begin on living standards, health and education. All you had to do was endure years of New Labour and watch inequality rise sharply.

Take life expectancy. The gap between average life expectancy and that of the poorest in England has actually widened over the last decade. A National Audit Office (NAO) report finds that life expectancy is now 77.9 years for men and 82 years for women but in many working class areas it falls to 75.8 and 80.4 years.

From 1995-97 to 2006-08 the life expectancy gap grew by 7% for men and 14% for women. The NAO is not known for its social concern, being more worried about “value for money” and “efficiency” in the public sector. However, this time it rises to the occasion and reports that the system "does not provide enough of an incentive" to encourage GPs to focus on the neediest groups in their practices.

The reason, which the NAO doesn’t go into, is of course that surgeries are driven by an internal market imposed on the National Health Service by the Blair/Brown governments. The main thrust of Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) is actually to keep costs under control, which clouds the work of doctors in local surgeries.

There are, of course, other factors too. The NAO points out those poorer areas in England often have fewer surgeries in the first place, which makes seeing a doctor difficult to start with. Above all, there is the fact of low wages, high unemployment and poor housing – all of which New Labour did nothing about.

With cash in short supply, diet in poorer households often suffers as a consequence, with money going on cheaper junk food. As Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University says: “Food poverty is worse diet, worse access, worse health, higher percentage of income on food and less choice from a restricted range of foods. Above all food poverty is about less or almost no consumption of fruit and vegetables.”

Who would have thought that it would be left to the British Medical Association to call for policies “to narrow the income gap between the poorest and the richest in society” as the action necessary to tackle health inequalities.

Then there is educational inequality. After abandoning active support for equal opportunities in well-resourced comprehensive schools, New Labour condemned many school students to life in an “Academy”. Largely freed from local authority control and often sponsored by big business, academies would, it was claimed, raise standards and give students a better chance of finding a job.

How hollow that claim has proved is revealed in another report, this time from the think-tank Civitas. Its research shows that GCSE exam results are inflated and distorted because the Academies load up non-academic subjects. When like-for-like comparisons are made, Academies perform far worse than other schools.

Anastasia de Waal, Civitas’s head of education, said: “Academies are replacing academic subjects with so-called equivalents of extremely questionable value. The ultimate concern is that the already deprived are being deprived of academic learning and that un-checked this is set to continue much further.”

Piling deprivation upon deprivation. What an indictment of New Labour! Of course, the Coalition’s policies will make matters even worse. But let’s not forget that they will continue where the previous government left off. I’m so glad that I hung on to my vote in May.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor