Friday, March 30, 2012

Galloway victory confirms political meltdown

The Bradford West by-election triumphantly won by George Galloway confirms that Labour’s support in working class communities is extremely fragile and that a major political crisis is coming to a head in Britain.

A veritable collapse in Labour’s vote – a majority of over 5,700 was turned into a defeat by more than 10,000 – should not disguise the fact that support for the Tory Party, which targeted the constituency as a winnable seat in the 2010 election, fell away almost as dramatically by over 22%.

Horsegate, grannygate, donorgate, pastygate, workfaregate, a budget based on tax breaks for the rich, legislation that wrecks the national health service – it could all be summed up by the expression attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette, “let them eat cake”.

And we know what happened to her in the wake of the French Revolution. Substitute cold pasties for cake and we’re living in the present.

Ed Miliband’s party should have walked home in Bradford West in the wake of the disarray at the highest levels of government, exemplified by the officially-induced panic at the petrol pumps despite the fact that tanker drivers haven’t even set a strike date over pay and condition.

Instead, Labour viewed the predominantly Asian community as voting fodder. Galloway seized on this and by all accounts succeeded in mobilising young people to back him as candidate. Asian voters seemed to have decamped en masse to Galloway.

Labour was dubbed “austerity lite” by Galloway, who is now a Respect MP for the second time. But that’s not the half of it, not even the beginning of the story. In Bradford, Labour implemented the spending cuts ordered by Whitehall and added to the dole queue.

At Westminster, Labour has supported the attacks on welfare, was compromised on health by its own attacks on the NHS, damned workers who staged strikes in defence of pensions, supported the ConDems military adventures while making a “prosperous capitalism” the target of a Miliband government.

In truth, Miliband, Cameron and Clegg are seen as variations on a political establishment whose differences with each other are at the margins. Their lives and outlooks are far removed from the concerns of ordinary working people having their standard of living slashed, their pensions wrecked, their services cut and paying through the nose to get work whether by public transport or car.

Not that Galloway and Respect are out to provide a clear alternative to Labour. On the contrary, Galloway – ever the political opportunist – used his victory speech to tell his supporters: “I do care about the Labour Party in which I served for 37 years, for 18 as Labour MP, and appeal to Labour Party to turn away and break decisively from the path of treason set for them by Tony Blair 20 years ago.”

He added: “So I appeal to the Labour Party to be a Labour Party once again, to unite the coalition they once had, and of which I was once part. That’s the way to really defeat the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.”

So voting for Galloway was a way of sending a message to Miliband! What a misuse of people’s support.

Taking demagogy a little too far, Galloway claimed the result represented a "Bradford spring" delivered "by the Grace of God”. Turning out at a by-election can hardly be compared with the sacrifices made in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria over the past year or so.

Nevertheless, the sensational Bradford West result indicates a vacuum at the heart of the British political system as the economic crisis worsens, with all the major parties discredited in the eyes of the electorate. There is an unparalleled opportunity to argue and campaign for a new democratic constitution. This would deliver power to the people and remove it from the bankers and corporations who, with their political proxies, are responsible for the emerging social catastrophe.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, March 29, 2012

How the 'Great Acceleration' put profits before the eco-system

As a measure of wealth, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not only inadequate but leads governments to prioritise policies and activities that wreck the planet's eco-system.

An alternative, sustainable way of understanding and measuring wealth is urgently needed. One positive approach is the Inclusive Wealth Indicator (IWI), being launched by economists, climate and development experts.

Authored by 17 specialists from the UK, USA, Chile, Malaysia, India, Germany and Australia, it measures not profit-generating activities, but a country's progress towards a long-term sustainable future.

Take two of the so-called Bric countries. Between 1990 and 2008, the wealth of Brazil and India, as measured by GDP per capita rose 34% and 120% respectively. But natural capital, that is the sum of a country’s assets, from forests to fossil fuels and minerals, declined 46% in Brazil and 31% in India, according to the IWI.

When measures of natural, human and manufactured capital are considered together, Brazil’s “inclusive wealth” rose just 3% and India’s rose 9%. Professor Anantha Duraiappah, executive director of the United Nations University’s International Human Dimensions Programme (UNU-IHDP), says:

The work on Brazil and India illustrates why Gross Domestic Product is inadequate and misleading as an index of economic progress from a long-term perspective. A country could completely exhaust all its natural resources while posting positive GDP growth. We need an indicator that estimates the wealth of nations – natural, human and manufactured and ideally even the social and ecological constituents of human well-being.

A stark warning about the state of the eco-system as a whole has been issued by experts meeting at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London. Their concerns are aimed at the politicians who will meet at the UN's "Rio +20" summit in June.

The last 50 years of profit-driven expansion of commodity production, what they are calling "The Great Acceleration" has brought the natural world to the brink. Key indicators of the planet's state highlighted at the conference are:

• higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
• large dead zones in coastal areas due to phosphorous extraction and fertiliser run off
• rising air and ocean temperatures
• melting sea ice, polar ice sheets, permafrost and glaciers, rising sea levels
• ocean acidification
• thousands of species extinct
• growing consumption of fresh water and energy in a world where billions still lack the most basic elements of well-being.

A new time lapse animation offers vivid evidence that Earth has entered a new geological epoch, dubbed the “Anthropocene”. It illustrates the dramatic growth of carbon dioxide emissions since the dawn of capitalism.

All that investment, all that development, all that government support, all that human labour at such an enormous cost to the planet as a whole, and its people, particularly the poorest.

As former UN Climate chief Yvo de Boer told the conference: “If companies had to pay for the full environmental costs of their activities, they would have lost 41 cents out of every (US) $1 earned in 2010. The external environmental costs of 11 key industry sectors rose by almost 50 percent between 2002 and 2010, from $566 billion to $854 billion.”

De Boer continued: “It is clearly no longer the question if we must transcend to a more sustainable economy. The question is the pace at which we are able, and especially willing, to achieve it.”

So it turns out that equality, sustainability, social justice and putting people before profit are not only the demands of the millions across the planet from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement - they are what the whole eco-system is crying out for.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ConDems tool up for confrontation

Yesterday community shops throughout the UK received a message asking “how community shops have collaborated with each other and other local business to ensure the continuity of supply of products and services when normal routes to market are broken”.

There is surely no coincidence in the timing of this research being carried out by the Plunkett Foundation on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

David Cameron’s Coalition government is gearing up for an all-out confrontation with fuel tanker drivers who are threatening to strike over the Easter weekend. Cameron today chaired a meeting of Cobra, the civil contingency committee, to discuss plans to limit the effects of a strike over terms and conditions and safety standards. Plans include training military personnel to take the place of striking drivers behind the wheel of commercial tankers.

Horace Plunkett, the man behind the Foundation, was himself a contradictory figure in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The offspring of the Barons of Dunsany and Sherborne, educated at Eton and Oxford, he was a founder of the co-operative movement in rural Ireland, improving conditions for farmers and the quality of food, against fierce opposition from the dairy industry.

His political career made him an Irish Unionist Alliance MP for South County Dublin. He was a proponent of Home Rule and sought clemency for the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising.

In the period leading to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, his rural cooperative movement suffered injury at the hands of British government forces, the creameries alleged to be centres of sedition. Factories were wrecked or burned, stocks destroyed, trade interrupted.

Now they British government is looking to his Foundation for help.

The Cobra meeting may be a knee-jerk reaction to the threatened strike, but in the background, the government is surely preparing for major confrontations as the impact of its unprecedented assault on living standards takes hold.

In the UK real household disposable incomes in 2011 as a whole fell 1.2%, the biggest drop since 1977, said the Office for National Statistics, as it announced that the economy contracted by a greater than expected 0.3% between October and December last year.

From the UK and throughout Europe, across the Atlantic in the Americas, and throughout the world confrontations are building as millions of workers, peasants, small farmers, young and old employed, pensioners struggle with the consequences of the contraction of the global capitalist economy.

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has promised to present a budget on Friday that will be "very, very austere". Luis Garicano economist at the London School of Economics and head of Spanish think tank Fedea admitted: "We've signed a suicide pact in Europe by agreeing that we all need to make cuts. "Europe has to recognise that this is a downward spiral that's not helping anyone."

Unemployment in Spain is already more than double the European Union average, almost half of young people cannot find a job and poverty levels are rising faster than anywhere else in Europe.

According to El País, the EU is demanding cuts larger than those of Greece, Ireland or Portugal: "There is no comparable adjustment in [our] economic history," says the paper.

Tomorrow, a general strike, which 30% of employed adults say they will join, will see hundreds of planes grounded, public transport reduced to a skeleton service, manufacturing at a virtual standstill, and even fresh bread from the bakeries in scant supply.

According to Katharine Ainger, co-editor of We Are Everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism, the general strike will be “a kind of creative laboratory for the indignados who will be exploring new ways to exert social pressure”.

But pressure, however strong, won’t be able to prevent the catastrophic slide of the capitalist system into depression following the bursting of the credit-driven period of growth. Today's strikes in London by teachers and lecturers in defence of pensions show that workers will fight back, even if other unions have left them to fight alone.

Out of strikes, protests, demonstrations, and occupations must come new forms of democracy, a global network of revolutionary people’s assemblies making their own contingency plans, not to rescue capitalism, but to replace it, making Plunkett’s co-operative ideal the foundation for a needs-based sustainable economy.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Zambian miners resist new colonialists

In the 21st century version of the scramble for Africa, the copper miners of Zambia are leading the resistance to a modern form of colonialism that is being driven from Beijing.

Copper exports are the lifeblood of Zambia, representing 75% of the total. Last year, Zambia’s exports into China hit a record high of $2.8 billion. Most of the government’s revenues are derived from the trade in the metal.

A Chinese state company owns and runs four copper mines in Zambia, supplying production enterprises back home dependent on the metal. And the mines are run in a ruthless fashion.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch accused Chinese-run copper mines of breaking the law with poor health and safety conditions, hostility to trade unions and regular labour shifts of 12 and even 18 hours

Not only that, the companies have imposed Chinese-level wages on the workers at the mines, leaving many to complain that they are the worst employers in the country (there are Swiss and Canadian-owned mines too).

But they are fighting back following a change of government towards the end of 2011. Michael Sata was swept to power as president with working class support after promises to spread the benefits of Zambia’s mineral wealth, although he toned down previous anti-China rhetoric during the election campaign.

Sata’s election, however, led to renewed demands for wage increases and the management at the Chibuluma copper mine – one of the four Chinese plants – has just acceded to a 17% wage rise for 500 workers. While higher than the rate of inflation, it still leaves most workers having to work extraordinary hours to try and make ends meet.

Zambia’s dependence on inward foreign investment from China was reinforced yesterday when the two countries signed a new economic and technical agreement in Lusaka. To sweeten the path to exploiting the country’s resources, China is building a hospital and a football stadium in the capital for nothing.

None of this can disguise the reality of working conditions in the mines, however. A miner at one of the plants told HRW: "Sometimes when you find yourself in a dangerous position, they tell you to go ahead with the work. They just consider production, not safety. If someone dies, he can be replaced tomorrow. And if you report the problem, you'll lose your job."

Another worker said: “It’s difficult to handles these hours. We work 12 hours a day, five days, and 18 hours on the day of the change shift. It’s very tiring.… And we never get a break; they say it’s a continuous operation, so no break. It’s very tough. If we eat, we have to while we work, or have a friend cover for a few minutes. There are times where you’re just so tired. And after transport to and from work, it’s 14 hours at least. My life is only my work here.”

Between October 5 and October 12, 2011, miners at three of the four Chinese-run copper mining operations began strike action, hopeful that the new government’s election would create an environment for improved conditions. Production ground to a halt.

The response was draconian. On October 19, Non-Ferrous China Africa, the longest-operating Chinese-owned copper mine, fired at least 1,000 striking workers. After government pressure, NFCA agreed to reinstate them. Reuters reported that NFCA’s chief executive officer said that the reinstated workers would be screened and the “troublemakers” disciplined.

“Many of the poor health and safety practices we found in Zambia’s Chinese-run mines look strikingly similar to abuses we see in China,” HRW Africa director Daniel Bekele said. “Respecting labour laws and ensuring workers’ safety should be standard operating practice both in China and abroad, not treated as an irritating barrier to greater profits.”

Some Zambian workers are surprised to hear that many Chinese miners in China aren’t treated much better. But resistance is growing in China too, bringing miners in different continents together against the same bosses.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, March 26, 2012

Politics a commodity for sale

Politics, like most things in our globalised capitalist society, has become a commodity for sale at market prices. The cash-for-access scandal is only the latest case in point.

Bragging by now ex-Tory party treasurer Peter Cruddas that a £250,000 donation would get you a place at David Cameron’s dinner table and a direct line into policy making at No.10 is par for the course.

But the question is, why would anyone want to waste their money when business access to government is guaranteed, whoever is in office?

We’re not talking a lunch or a dinner with a member of the cabinet but an overall stranglehold on what goes in government.

Every government for the last 30 years or so has been “business friendly”, to put it mildly.

Whether it’s shackling the trade unions, driving down wages, privatising or “outsourcing” public services, bailing out bankers, introducing markets in education and health, New Labour, Tories and Lib Dems have been at it.

The corruption of the political system, to the point where it serves the interests of corporations, property companies, financiers and the rich is the real scandal, the real obscenity.

With all the major parties increasingly cut off from their base, they feel they ought to benefit themselves.

Cash-for-access follows cash-for-honours, cash-for-questions, cash-for-amendments, MPs expenses-for-duckponds and other unsavoury episodes that reveal that the parliamentary process is more like a financial clearing house more anything else.

They are all in it together. Labour recently received a £100,000 donation from businessman Assem Allam, who wants the party’s backing for a multi-million-pound property development. Ed Miliband was recently guest of honour at Hull City Football Club, owned by Allam.

With Cameron seen by many traditional Tories as too wet and too friendly with the Lib Dems, the cash-for-access PR disaster could even unravel the government. Former friends like Rupert Murdoch have weighed in, calling – no doubt with tongue in cheek – for an independent inquiry. Murdoch’s Sunday Times broke the story and now the newspaper mogul is backing the Scottish National Party. The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, both right-wing papers who detest the Coalition, have joined the assault on the government.

With the economy in deep trouble, and in the wake of a Budget that went down like a lead balloon after favouring the rich as against thrifty pensioners, political instability is growing.

So too is the clamour to change the basis of political funding. Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, says: "It would be wrong to regard [the Cruddas allegations] as an isolated event. Events like it are inevitable as long as the main political parties are dependent for their existence on large donations from rich individuals or, in the case of the Labour party, a small number of trade unions."

Of course, there is no comparison. The trade unions actually founded the Labour Party at the turn of the 20th century and their funding is based on members contributing a small amount to a political fund. Paradoxically, while business types might get access and influence policy, the same cannot be said of the trade unions.

They poured large sums of money into the campaign to get Ed Miliband elected as Labour leader. It has turned out to be money down the drain as Labour spoke out against strikes in defence of pensions, supported a public sector wage freeze, implemented spending cuts at local council level and generally fell in line behind government policy.

The lesson of all these experiences is that the political system is an adjunct of the corporate world. This relationship is symbiotic rather than accidental. A democracy that works for the majority of the people has yet to exist. We must redouble our efforts to create it.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, March 23, 2012

Profit before nutrition makes you sick

The world’s food systems are “deeply dysfunctional” and society is paying an exorbitant price for a diet of processed food that ignores human beings’ real nutritional needs.

This is the damning conclusion in a new report from Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food.

For the past half century, food production has soared in quantity, whilst the quality of our diet has got worse. The twin curses of malnutrition and obesity have been actively promoted by subsidising grain, soya and meat production at the expense of fruit and vegetables.

Between 1961 and 2009, while fruit and vegetable production increased 332%, world oilseed production increased by 610% and meat production increased 372%. Over roughly the same period (1963–2003), developing countries increased the amount of calories they consume from meat (119%), sugar (127%) and vegetable oils (199%), and industrialised countries also increased vegetable oil consumption (105%).

Whilst emergency aid concentrates on getting calories and protein to people, in the long term what communities need is access to fresh fruit and vegetables that provide “micro-nutrition” essential for health. These can only be provided by good local food and farming infrastructure.

This is being actively undermined by governments that focus on big agriculture, cash crops for export, or even sell off land to foreign investors who will use it to grow more of the foods that are already making us sick.

About 34% of children in developing countries, 186 million children in total, have a low height for age, the most common symptom of chronic under nutrition.

Although food costs declined from the early 1960s until 2002, “the poorest are still too poor to feed themselves in dignity because agriculture has not been designed to support the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups”, the report states.

The export of the US diet to the rest of the world is causing a growing public health crisis. More than a billion people worldwide are overweight and at least 300 million are obese. Overweight and obesity cause 2.8 million premature deaths per year, and 65% of the world’s people live in a country where obesity kills more people than hunger.

Globally, diets have become increasingly energy-dense and rich in sugar, salt and saturated fats, as many higher fibre foods are replaced by heavily processed foods. This means that today‘s children could have shorter life expectancies than their parents.

This globalisation of the unhealthy “supermarketised” diet, which we have experienced very powerfully in free market Britain, is having a negative impact everywhere now. The report is very clear that we must urgently switch to a “sustainable diet”, defined as one which is

• low in environmental impact
• contributing to food and nutrition security
• protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems
• culturally acceptable,
• economically fair and affordable;
• nutritionally adequate,
• safe and healthy
• optimising natural and human resources.

The report concludes that the food system must turn away from an exclusive focus on boosting production and instead look towards “integrating the requirements of the adequacy of diets, social equity and environmental sustainability. All these components are essential to achieving durable success in combating hunger and malnutrition”.

De Schutter’s deeply researched report says that nutrition initiatives can be strengthened by “by being integrated into broader national strategies for the realisation of the right to food”.

But this is the exact opposite of the current system which profits the corporations and is supported by their client governments, even with subsidies from taxpayers. Subsidies applied in the wrong place mean that a healthy diet is more expensive than a poor diet in many countries. Putting profit before nutrition is making us sick, leaving healthcare system to deal with the consequences of corporate greed.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A panic Budget as economy worsens

Figures published by the Office for Budget Responsibility on the morning of the Budget statement, and the Office for National Statistics today tell us more about the state of the economy than George Osborne did.

The austerity programme introduced to reduce government debt and attract investment has so far failed. Savage cuts in public sector services and jobs were supposed to lead to a resurgence of the private sector, and pave the way for the growth that capitalism feeds off. It hasn’t worked.

According to the OBR's pre-Budget forecast in June 2010 growth in the UK was supposed to be driven by business investment, which was predicted to grow by 8% in 2011, 9.8% in 2012 and in double digits after that. It turns out that in 2011 it grew by 0.2% and in the new, equally over-optimistic forecast the OBR expects investment to in 2012 to grow by only 0.7%.

Government borrowing hit a record for the month of February, rising to £15.18 billion, double what many expected.

UK retail sales volumes fell by 0.8% in February compared with the previous month, according to the ONS, and January's unexpectedly strong growth in sales volumes of 0.9% was also revised down to show an expansion of only 0.3% compared with December.

The lack of growth has meant that tax receipts are down 2.7% on a year ago, principally from declining income tax receipts. Government spending is up by 8.3% on a year ago, because of higher social benefits due to rising unemployment.

So the immediate 1% additional reduction in corporation tax, whilst the increase in personal allowances for those fortunate to be still in work is deferred for a year, shows something of the panic behind the confident bluster of the Coalition’s Budget.

The wrecking of the planning system (reducing more than 1000 pages of controls to 50), combined with measures to further drive down wages is designed to encourage investment from international capital markets into low wage areas of the UK.

Reducing the 50 pence top rate of tax will have no impact on the rich, but the reduction in age-related allowances will further reduce living standards for millions of older people who already receive amongst the lowest pensions in Europe.

The 2012 programme of Budget measures are a precursor for a far more brutal assault on living standards as global economic conditions continue to deteriorate. As astute Tory commentator Peter Oborne puts it today, “the risks ahead are immense – eurozone collapse, war with Iran, economic stagnation. It must be said that Mr Osborne does not have the air of a man who is fully in control.”

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NHS vote marks end of parliamentary road

While last night’s vote to approve the health bill marks the end of the parliamentary road – in more ways than one – the future of the NHS is far from being a done deal.

Only royal assent is needed to complete the legislation that brings competition right into the heart of the National Health Service and threatens its future.

And the gushing warmth of the parliamentary congratulations to the Queen on her diamond jubilee – with Ed Miliband suggesting to David Cameron that they should stand to applaud - ensures that happens very soon.

Living in the forlorn hope that Labour will repeal the bill is a waste of time. The ConDems actually built on what New Labour had done, especially in relation to virtually independent foundation trusts.

In any case, we can’t afford to wait until the general election of 2015. For the vast majority whose lives, literally, are bound up with the not-for-profit institution set up in 1948, defence of the principles of universal health care must be along a new path.

The same is true for pensions. Unions yesterday lost a legal battle to stop the government slashing up to 20% off public sector pensions by switching to the consumer price index instead of the normally faster-rising retail price index to calculate cost-of-living rises.

Siding with the Coalition, Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, put it like this: “The government clearly believed the state of the economy was grave, and that any savings which could properly be made should be made – as soon as possible.” Unions are considering an appeal, but they’ll be wasting their time, and their members’ money.

The state of the capitalist economy is worse than grave, and the UK government, like most throughout the world, is willingly submitting to the relentless logic of contraction expressed through the simple measure of the credit rating calculated by agencies representing investors on the global capital markets.

Two of the three - Fitch and Standard & Poor – have already threatened to downgrade Britain’s AAA rating if the Coalition’s intensifying drive to cuts and privatisation continues to fail to deliver. The growth promised in last year’s budget hasn’t materialised, so the austerity assault will be ramped up in today’s budget – despite it deepening the recession.

Everything that can be handed over to the for-profit sector will be, and the latest victim is the handling of emergency calls to ambulance, fire and police, soon to be joined by the roads.

Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, warned that the momentum towards outsourcing was gathering pace. “This is the drip, drip, drip of privatisation,” he said. “They move in on something that might look like a good idea, and before we know it they are working in vast areas of British policing.”

Just as in the revolts of the Arab Spring, the police will soon be faced with a three way choice: to side with the repressive state forces seeking to preserve the status quo; to stand aside as new democratic forces arise; or to join with them in people's assemblies formed from workers in factories and offices, the professions, school and college students the unemployed, pensioners, community groups.

With the state’s forces ranged against the interests of the majority, and the parliamentary process a cul de sac, these new assemblies will become the focus for the democratic process that makes and carries out decisions in the interests of the people and small businesses.

They will work to identify and satisfy the unmet needs of the local population with respect to nutrition, housing, clothing, health, energy, safety, communications, transport, education and self-development, culture, sport, recreation, arts, entertainment, social support including security in older age.

And, as the democratic expression of the majority, they will give themselves the power to acquire the resources, including land, from their present owners in order to satisfy needs. That’s the best way to respond to what happened in Parliament yesterday.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Market state wrecks public services

The ConDems’ health bill is part of a major shift in the role of the state that dates back to the Thatcher period and the onset of corporate-driven globalisation in the early 1980s. Rather than a roll-back of history, we need real alternatives to what is effectively a market state.

As local councils struggling with reduced budgets prepare to “outsource” huge swathes of their services, and GPs line up to commission health services from all and sundry, the so-called “public services industry” (PSI) is licking its lips.

The PSI is made up mostly of commercial companies, many of them global operators like Serco, as well as some “third sector” voluntary, non-profit organisations. Together they take taxpayers’ money in return for providing services formerly delivered by the state

By 2007, driven by the Blair governments, the PSI had grown to mammoth proportions (link) with revenues of £80 billion year, representing 6% of the economy and employing 1.2 million people. These figures are undoubtedly far higher now.

Lobbying organisations such as the CBI Public Services Strategy Board, the PPP
Forum, the Business Services Association and the NHS Partners Network (which is actually part of the NHS Confederation) have developed close relations with government and the media.

Contractors have recruited many former government ministers and senior civil
servants as directors and advisors. Former health secretary Alan Milburn took several jobs with private health companies after leaving office.

The NHS concluded a contract with Bridgepoint Capital’s daughter company, Alliance Medical, six months after Milburn joined the parent company. Under the contract, Alliance Medical agreed to supply 130,000 MRI scans, of which fewer than half were eventually used. The government was nevertheless compelled to pay the full £16m contract price. The full scale of the revolving door between Whitehall and big business was revealed by Transparency International in its report, “Cabs for hire”.

Failure by contractors in areas like health service data management, the upgrade of the London Underground and care homes has left the state to pick up the financial pieces. Twenty-two hospitals face bankruptcy because they cannot meet exorbitant “private-finance initiative” contracts. Even the ConDems have had to come to the rescue with £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money.

The ConDems’ bill to restructure the NHS in England is the latest chapter in a 20-year journey from a planned system to a competitive market for the supply of health care services. This began with the development of the internal market in the 1990s and the New Labour government extended it with the introduction of “patient choice”, foundation trusts, payment by results and independent sector treatment centres (ISTC).

There are nearly 35 ISTCs now operating alongside the NHS, carrying out surgical and other medical treatment on the basis of local contracts. Information about ISTCs is hard to come by on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality”, but a British Medical Association report says:

“The BMA is concerned because what evidence does exist suggests that where patients’ care is bought and sold, and where hospitals, doctors, nurses and carers have to compete with one another like businesses, we find poorer health outcomes for patients, lower quality care, rising bureaucracy and the erosion of relationships where co-operation is replaced with competition.”

As the state’s role is to enhance the development of capitalism, none of this should come as a surprise. As opportunities for making profit out of producing things declined in Britain, markets in public goods emerged to compensate. The private sector in turn drove down wages and conditions when they took over. Now the ConDems plan to drive down wages in the public sector to create a “level playing field” with big business.

Outsourcing state services is a project that all the major parties have championed. So returning to some mythical golden age of state ownership and provision is impossible. Instead, we need strategies aimed at ending the rule of the market state altogether, with policies and plans that shape a democratic future beyond profit and capitalism.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, March 19, 2012

Tory master plan for a new social order

“Our school is being absolutely bullied, and we are sick to death of it”, said one parent outside Downhills Primary School in Tottenham, North London, after the sacking by the government of the entire board of governors. “Absolutely appalling. Almost like a dawn raid. We live in a democracy, I thought,” said another.

Teachers, parents, councillors, the local MP and the (former) governors at the school are resisting a decree by Michael Gove, the education secretary, for the school to be transformed into an business-sponsored Academy. A plan for improving Downhills was in place and working, say campaigners, and an Ofsted inspection in September bore this out.

The Academy programme, together with the encouragement of so-called Free Schools, is the principal way in which the government is fragmenting — perhaps “fracturing” would be a more accurate word – the state education system. Academies, which are better resourced, will inevitably lead to even greater social divisions as parents try to get their children into the best schools.

The old arrangement of co-operation between schools within a local authority is rapidly being replaced by competition between them. Running parallel to this assault on the state schools is the opening up of the National Health Service to the market place and to the private sector. Their plans require that services and courses of treatment be put out to tender. This will inevitably lead to the dismantling of the old NHS as a universal provider of healthcare at the point of need, as different suppliers compete for business for profit.

In its haste to transform both basic education and health provision, the ConDem coalition has been forced to face down almost universal condemnation of its plans by the professionals who work in the services. Only last weekend, in a poll conducted by the Royal College of Physicians, seven out of 10 hospital doctors wanted the health and social care bill to be withdrawn. In fact the entire medical community is almost unanimous in its opposition.

So why is the coalition government ignoring health and education professionals? We were given a clue over the weekend when it announced that national pay rates for teachers, nurses and civil servants (among others) were to be scrapped. Workers in poorer parts of the country will have their pay frozen until they come into line with local private sector rates.

In the name of “more flexibility”, “genuine decision-making at the local level” and a “modern and responsive work-force”, the government is in fact driving fast towards a society where trade unions are sidelined, an atomised society divided in countless ways, but especially in the quality of health care and education on offer to different income groups.

Driven by the rolling economic crisis and by private sector outfits expressing their “dismay” at the quality of education and demanding a slice of the NHS and education budgets, the government is feeling its way towards a new social order with tax cuts for the rich, unemployment and poverty for the working-class youth. As a statement from the Anti-Academies Alliance puts it: “There will be winners and losers, mergers and acquisitions and fear and uncertainty as the grip of corporate raiders tightens on our schools”. And on our NHS it could be added.

Looking to the Labour Party for leadership, as most of the trade union leaders still do, is the road to ruin. The last Labour governments, after all, developed the Academy programme and accelerated the privatisation process in schools and the NHS. Labour's priority, like that of the Tories and the Lib Dems, is to save the capitalist system whatever the human cost.

So how else can the gathering opposition to this government be manifested except through local people’s assemblies where all community groups — including parents, teachers, health workers and users of NHS services — can work out new policies based on the needs of the people in general? A mass challenge aimed at replacing Tory rule for good is the only option left.

Peter Arkell

Thursday, March 15, 2012

'Poverty Games' comes to Glasgow

Visitors from Vancouver will join local people to carry the Poverty Olympics Torch in Glasgow's East End today, protesting at scandalous profiteering and evictions, as the city council implements its corporate vision for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

The Poverty Olympics were launched in Canada's seventh largest city when the Winter Olympics of 2010, staged with the usual promises of regeneration and positive legacy, went down the same path. There is particular local anger that promises to build housing for the homeless never materialised.

As London braces itself for the Olympic onslaught, the same scenario is playing out there. The benefits will be entirely for the corporations while the £24bn cost will be paid by the public and in particular Londoners. As to the much-vaunted “legacy” cliaims, a report from global real estate firm CBRE states: "The ... greatest legacy will be the land that was assembled to host the Games thereby changing the landscape of East London.”

The report cites 4 million square feet of commercial space at Stratford, in addition to the massive Westfield Centre, private housing for sale by Inter IKEA on a site next the Olympic Park and the sale of the Olympic Athletes Village to a Qatari developer.

Meanwhile, tenants in London are being priced out of their homes. Landlords are using six-month shorthold tenancies to get tenants out in time for the Olympics, or even telling them they can stay, but vacate for the Olympic period. Monthly rent on a two-bedroom flat in Tower Hamlets or Hackney would normally be about £1,400; now they are being advertised as high as £7,500 a week to attract wealthy tourists coming to London for the Olympics.

In Glasgow, families, small businesses and the Accord Centre for people with learning disabilities, have been displaced to make way for the Commonwealth Games. The treatment of the poor and the rich by the council could not be more different.

Wealthy Mayfair property developer Charles Price bought a parcel of land in Dalmarnock that was already earmarked for the Games for £8 million sometime between 2002 and 2005. The council could have put a compulsory purchase order on it. Instead they paid £17 million; with £3m VAT that's £20 million pounds of public money.

Readers of this blog will know about Margaret Jaconelli and her family, who held out for months refusing to leave her flat because the council offered her a paltry £30,000, not enough to buy a flat anywhere in the city. In the end she was carried out by force, and she has still not received any compensation.

Plans for the area after the Games include a 160-bedroom hotel, a supermarket, various food outlets (you can guess which ones) and executive apartments priced will be well beyond the pockets of hard-pressed East Enders.

Modern Olympics and Games are in reality state-financed and public-subsidised land grabs, and regeneration is a myth. Any developments that are of benefit to the public –schools, hospitals - remain locked into the public/private partnership model, where the profit is privatised and the risk socialised.

The local authority - whether in Vancouver, London or Glasgow, buys land at inflated prices from developers, and uses compulsory purchase powers to evict householders, allotment holders or small business people who can't afford lawyers.

The money is all up front from the people's purse, but the benefits are nebulous and mainly unrealised. They pay to recapitalise derelict land and build new infrastructure, then the corporations move in.

The Olympic and Commonwealth Games have moved far away from sporting territory. It's time to boycott them entirely and focus instead on taking back control of our communities, and our sports facilities, making sure the majority benefit and not the wealthy few.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How the 'plutonomists' bought governments

Citigroup is something special. With the largest financial services network in the world, it is a banking and finance behemoth, effectively the defining organisation of the global economy.

In 2008, a government aid package was needed to prevent the collapse of its global transactions services division, which transports more than $3 trillion around the world each day for most of the 500 biggest US-based corporations and over 80 national governments and 60 central banks around the world.

Now there is concern that Citigroup isn’t strong enough to survive a renewed recession, according to stress tests carried out by the US Federal Reserve. If Citigroup were allowed to unravel into bankruptcy, "100 governments around the world would be trying to figure out how to pay their employees", according to the Wall Street Journal.

In 2005 and 2006, Citigroup analysts studying income inequalities wrote three internal papers known as the Plutonomy Memos addressed to their wealthiest of customers. Citigroup has gone to great lengths to suppress publication of the memos, and a new analysis by author Edward Fullbrook shows that Citigroup had another, deeper motive for keeping them secret.

At the time, as Fullbrook concludes, the super-rich “plutonomists” recognised “the subversion of democratic process as the ultimate key to their success”. They spend vast amounts to influence the political process, ensuring that the masses continued to vote against their own interests.

Fullbrook’s table, “the revolving door between Goldman Sachs and the Obama administration”, lists 32 people in the US government who have been employed by the world’s most influential investment bank. Even before the crash, Citigroup could see the writing on the wall, as Fullbrook quotes:

Perhaps the most immediate challenge to Plutonomy comes from the political process. Ultimately, the rise in income and wealth inequality to some extent is an economic disenfranchisement of the masses to the benefit of the few. However in democracies this is rarely tolerated forever. One of the key forces helping plutonomists over the last 20 years has been the rise in the profit share – the flip side of the fall in the wage share in GDP. As plutonomists or capitalists tend to be long [on] the profit share, they have benefited from trends like globalization and the productivity revolution, disproportionately. However, labour has, relatively speaking, lost out. We see the biggest threat to plutonomy as coming from a rise in political demands to reduce income inequality, spread the wealth more evenly, and challenge forces such as globalization which have benefited profit and wealth growth.

As we complete this column, the crisis undermining the super-rich and their representatives in government claimed another victim. Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has just resigned.

"I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it,” he said on the way out. Apparently the company’s eyes-wide-open pursuit of profit has turned it against its customers. “To put the problem in the simplest terms,” Smith says, “the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money".

Smith says it’s a problem of leadership. “The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an axe murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.”

On March 24, we’ll be discussing how different kinds of democratic leadership can help get us beyond capitalism. You’re invited to attend.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How the system is undemocratic

As the Occupy movement in London (and elsewhere), discusses next steps, it is as well to restate some basics about the extremely limited democracy we live under and what the alternatives might be.

Much of the debate in Occupy is bogged down around whether the consensus model of decision making is appropriate. Some suggest that the consensus approach is time-consuming and actually prevents or delays steps towards concrete action.

Some who defend consensus do so on the grounds that it is more inclusive than majority voting and that this is the way the movement demonstrates that it is different and more democratic than the prevailing political system.

Others extend the argument to imply that the general assembly/consensus model could if replicated somehow transform the way society as a whole goes forward and governs itself.

There is a danger, however, of missing the wood for the trees. The essence of why the contemporary social economic and political system – aka capitalism – is a shadow of democracy is not primarily the result of the way decisions are made.

Process is, of course, an issue. Most decisions are made behind closed doors and the voting system in Britain ensures that minority voices and interests are firmly excluded. But even if there were some improvements in these areas, the system would remain undemocratic.

Why? Because the system of state power is exercised primarily on behalf of dominant economic and financial interests in society. We have seen from bank bail-outs to cuts in corporation tax what these interests are.

A system compelled by law to pursue year-on-year increases in shareholder value above all else is inherently undemocratic because these interests do not (and can never) coincide with those of society as a whole. Moreover, the globalisation process has intensified this contradiction. Getting on for half of all shares on the London stock exchange are held by overseas investors, putting them further out of reach.

Social interests like decent, affordable housing, well-paid jobs, proper health care and a broad education are wider than those of shareholders. Yet the majority are excluded from economic decision-making activity. The first most people learn about job losses or cuts to services, for example, is when they are already a fait accompli.

In any case, a market-driven economy cannot possibly be democratic because interaction between the most powerful forces – hedge funds, bond dealers, handful of corporations in each sector, major investment banks etc – always decide the outcomes. Ordinary people are once again excluded. Their fates are decided on their behalf.

The political system is equally undemocratic because it accepts and encourages this status quo of minority rule. Political institutions are as much tied into the shareholder syndrome as the corporations and financial institutions. They depend on each other. Deregulation was carried through by the political system at the behest of the corporations, for example.

A politics that privileges narrow interests while claiming to rule on behalf of everyone is dishonest, undemocratic, essentially unaccountable. The system as a whole is beyond reform because of the symbiotic relationship between corporate and political power. It’s not a matter of choice but of historical necessity. Capitalism actually rules through state politics; corporate clout would be of little import if it had no political expression.

Creating a real democracy that reflects social interests can only come through a transition to a new economic and political framework. General Assemblies and the assembly process are at the heart of the movement towards this goal.

A fresh constitutional settlement that embraces democratic institutions, new forms of co-ownership, decentralised community power and a range of social rights would for the first time give power to ordinary people. How to achieve this change ought to figure high on Occupy’s agenda.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, March 12, 2012

Young men as killing machines

We’ve been here before. The killing of at least 16 Afghan civilians - nine of them children - in Kandahar province on Saturday night evokes memories of another atrocity committed by US troops some 44 years ago.

On 16 March 1968, 150 US soldiers in a unit called Charlie Company, led by 24 year-old Lieutenant William Calley, marched into a hamlet called My Lai in Vietnam and massacred 500 unarmed civilians.

Charlie Company’s murder binge was witnessed by US helicopter crew circling above who tried to stop the killings and rescue survivors. Calley was eventually brought to justice and found guilty of murder. But his life sentence was reduced to three years and he was paroled in 1974. He was pardoned by President Nixon.

Therefore the US authorities’ promise of “a rapid and thorough investigation” into the Kandahar killings must be taken with a huge pinch of salt – let alone the notion that serious punishment will follow.

US officials claim that only one soldier was involved, but several survivors have given conflicting accounts. Residents heard aircraft and helicopters were overhead after midnight on Sunday morning. And 20-year-old Jan Agha, who survived the murder spree by pretending to be dead, said that more than one soldier entered his home.

In February US troops burned copies of the Koran and in January videos of Marines urinating on the bodies of Taliban were circulated. Similar incidents are well-known from Iraq. So is this really the case of a demented rogue? The truth is that holding civilians in contempt and losing all sense of humanity is what happens to the young men trained to be killing machines in countries whose culture, religion and traditions are totally alien to them.

The mother of one of the 404 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan said she only realised this when visiting the country after her son’s death.

The US-British-NATO operations are being conducted by governments who have increasingly lost legitimacy in the eyes of their electorates. Everyone knows they have no solution to the economic and financial crises except to impose intolerable burdens on ordinary people.

It’s not by chance that the six young British soldiers killed in last week’s attack were from unemployment black spots in Yorkshire.

The claims in parliament by David Cameron and Ed Miliband that the British are in Afghanistan to keep the streets of London safe are risible. Al Qaeda is no longer a force in Afghanistan and the Taliban have no intention of coming to Britain any time soon. British troops are no more than cannon fodder for other interests which include protecting the oil pipelines that criss-cross the region.

Journalist and author Simon Jenkins is on the button when he denounces military and political leaders as having lost all contact with reality. Jenkins is hardly a revolutionary, but could be accused of giving solace to the enemy when he writes: “The war the Taliban fighters are waging with vigour and success is to regain the integrity of Afghanistan, no more or less”.

Eventually, seven years after the My Lai massacre, the United States had to pull out of Vietnam, having spent around $770 billion and killed and maimed countless Vietnamese as well as losing nearly 60,000 US troops. The decade-long conflict left a trail of long-term devastation in its wake.

It’s the same in Afghanistan. Service widow Wendy Rayner has noted that after the war in Afghanistan is over, "the poor people who are left will go back to the same crappy lifestyle that they had before our lot went in".

With the US and Britain now turning their attentions towards Iran, the challenge of ending Nato-led wars is an urgent one. That means facing up to the historical fact that war, profits and capitalism are tied in to each other. Ending atrocities like those visited on the people of Afghanistan at the weekend surely means terminating a social system for which war is an extension of its rotten politics.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, March 09, 2012

A default by any other name

When is a default not a default? When the Greek government and the European Central Bank pretend otherwise. In the real world, the truth is quite different.

According to the Financial Times, the swap deal closed out between Athens and private investors overnight is, in fact, the “world’s largest ever sovereign default”.

Lenders that include banks, equity and pension funds have, in effect, had what’s owing to them reduced by 75%. They agreed on the basis that the alternative was a 100% loss.

The deal may have reduced Greece’s sovereign debt by over €100 billion but it still leaves twice that amount outstanding – and an economy that has collapsed under the weight of austerity measures.

Yesterday, unemployment figures showed that one in five Greeks is out of work, with more than 50% of young people without a job. Homelessness, suicides, emigration and absolute poverty have soared.

This is the price Greek people are paying for a bail-out deal imposed by the ECB, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. They are being sacrificed on the altar of a monetarist gamble to save the euro as a single currency.

BBC Europe editor Gavin Hewitt rightly says Greece has become a “laboratory for austerity”, adding:

“Never, in recent times, has an economy of a Western country shrunk so fast - 16% in just four years. Its politicians are held in low regard. There is humiliation and shame that the running of the economy has largely been handed over to outsiders. Many see Greece as little more than a protectorate of the EU. It is widely believed that the purpose of the bailout was less about helping Greece and more about saving the euro and protecting international banks from a default.”

But the measures taken or proposed can’t and won’t work because the eurozone – as well as countries like Britain and the United State – is truly overwhelmed by mountains of government, corporate and private debt.

They are the result not of bankers behaving badly but more fundamental causes at the heart of the capitalist system of production itself. These revolve around the system’s inbuilt drive to expand, regardless. Unlimited credit financed this expansion – until saturation point was reached. Financial collapse and recession followed. The unravelling is far from complete. It may have only just begun.

Greece’s effective default intensified the financial crisis before it was a done deal. Banks had already written off most of what was due – and cut lending to compensate. The ECB has had to pump no less than €1 trillion into the banking system to keep it afloat in recent weeks.

Portugal is considered next in line for a default. The country’s combined public and private debt is 360% of annual output, well above Greece’s level. Portugal faces borrowing rates of 13.2% but no one is buying the country’s debt. Italy and Spain are not far behind in the bail-out queue.

In Greece, a general election is due probably next month and the outcome could yet scupper the best laid plans of EU and bankers alike. Support for the pro-bailout parties Pasok and New Democracy has collapsed and parties that reject the Brussels takeover could win a majority.

Ultimately, however, the crisis won’t be solved by rearranging the political deckchairs in Athens or any other capital. The European Union itself is a failed project, based as it is on a global capitalist economy that is without doubt unstable, unsustainable and undemocratic.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Egyptians pays heavy price for IMF loan

The Egyptian government has accepted a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for a ruthless austerity programme, cuts in food subsidies, the introduction of a sales tax and more privatisation.

These are the same terms that the military turned down last year, saying it would saddle the country with unacceptable repayments for years to come and amounted to a threat to Egypt's national sovereignty.

But the IMF insists that Egypt must cut its budget deficit, and use the same methods as Greece and Britain to do so. Just as elsewhere, their only vision of the future is of the mass of people ground down to keep the capitalist show on the road.

Egypt has a funding gap of around $11bn over the next 18 months and has asked the World Bank for $1 billion, the European Union for $660 million and $500 million each from the African Development Bank and the Arab Monetary Fund, on top of the IMF money.

Without these loans, the economy will collapse and a massive devaluation of the Egyptian pound will let inflation rip. Egypt’s foreign reserves have fallen to around $10 billion as the government spent $26 billion in one year to prop up the currency.

Egypt's loan potential has been assessed by the European Bank for Development and Reconstruction (EBDR), on and the whole tone of their report shows the underlying causes of the revolution mean nothing to them and they want to go on promoting the same policies. The EBDR praises the pre-revolutionary period of "comprehensive reform", and talks of the "major success story" of external liberalisation.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has analysed the EBDR’S technical assessment and says it "reveals the Bank’s lack of commitment to democracy and development in post-revolutionary Egypt"

Amr Adly, head of the EIPR's Economic and Social Justice Unit says: "The assessment simply ignores the cronyism and corrupt nature of the privatisation process during that period where public assets (state-owned enterprises, public land and even natural resources including fresh water and natural gas) were mainly transferred into the hands of a few cronies who where closely tied to the regime." (Thanks to Platform London for highlighting the EIPR report).

The EBDR's so-called "success story" ignores the mounting poverty, unemployment and economic injustice that set the scene for January 2011 revolution. But the banks' recipe for post-revolutionary Egypt is to go even further down the same road.

Clearly European capitalism believes that recent parliamentary elections in Egypt have produced a government that will toe the austerity line - and they are right.
The Muslim Brotherhood has joined with the army and the elite to steal the revolution from the people.

With income from tourism and exports in collapse it seems unlikely that the government will be able to stave off a massive economic crisis and devaluation, allowing inflation to rip.

As the presidential election looms, the Egyptian 99% need to consider whether this is the way to achieve what they sacrificed so much for. The issue of what kind of economy they want will take centre stage alongside what kind of democracy they want.

It is crucial that the advanced forces of the Arab Spring – the youth in particular – prepare plans for an economic transformation that can offer an alternative to putting the country's future into the hands of the banks and the IMF. A future where democratic People's Assemblies take control of the economy and place enterprises, including tourism enterprises, into the ownership of those that work in them is surely the way to go.

It is a co-operative future that takes economic power out of the hands of the corrupt elite, and runs the economy for the benefit of the many not the profit of the few. This is the only way to deliver the economic and social justice the revolution set out to achieve.

Penny Cole

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

'Big Bang' moment will shatter NHS

Even as the bill dismantling the health service completes its journey into law, older people in care homes have already been abandoned in a foretaste of what’s to come.

There are 376,250 older people living in 10,331 care homes in England and many are frail and vulnerable, with more health needs than most of the population. Around 40% have dementia, many are on cocktails of medication, and the average lifespan in a care home is one to two years.

The residents needed a whole range of medical services, including mental health teams, dietetics, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, podiatry, continence, falls and tissue viability (dealing with wounds, pressure sores and ulcers). Yet only four out of ten soon-to-be abolished primary care trusts (PCTs) make these available to care home residents.

In place of the ineffective PCTs is, however, a new system of commissioning that will put price competition with the corporate sector at the heart of deciding what patients will get. This will tear the heart out of an NHS already ravaged by budget cuts, dodgy “private-finance initiative” deals and the conversion of hospitals into business trusts by New Labour.

Opposition to the ConDems bill even forced its way into the discussion at the Bath Festival of Literature, when leading health academics Colin Leys and Allyson Pollock issued a rallying call to everyone who wants to save the NHS.

"This Bill will destroy the NHS," said Pollock, London University professor of Health Policy and Health Services Research. "If you care for the future, you need to focus now on stopping the Bill. This is a terrifying, Big-Bang moment, because Lansley and his team are moving us to a mixed-financing system similar to that in the US."

Leys forecast that "it will be the end of free care for all". The future he foresaw would be one in which "community care will contract and decline, everyone who can afford to will go private and all we'll be left with is a much-reduced service for the poor".

Today sees two separate rallies in Central Hall Westminster organised by the union Unite and the TUC. But you’d hardly know it. The TUC clearly doesn’t want and isn’t expecting many to turn up. It’s webpage for the event says “Places at the London event will be limited due to seating capacity”. The TUC and Unite and clearly of one mind. Unite’s transport details list consists of one coach each from Southampton, Oxford and Bristol. And that’s it.

Why is the organised opposition so muted? Answer? They simply don’t have an alternative. The not-so-stirring right-to-know demand to publish the Department of Health’s risk register into the impact of the health Bill on services, from Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary is about as far as it goes.

Just as on the pensions fight, the continuing wage freeze, public sector job and services cuts and every other reactionary ConDems policy, the union leaders have led one retreat after another. McCluskey’s call for civil disobedience and strikes during the London Olympics is just bluff and bluster to disguise the rout.

There is absolutely overwhelming opposition to the NHS bill, even among Tory supporters. A mass campaign of strikes, sit-ins, marches and rallies should have been organised with the aim of bringing down the government. But compromised by years of watching Labour governments undermine the NHS, and warned off confrontation by Ed Miliband, the TUC has organised a rally just as the bill is about to become law.

The fight to defend the NHS will take something quite different from the approach of the hardly-organised ranks of the opposition. Taking profit-hungry corporations into social ownership will be high on the list of tasks for a new democratic network of Peoples’ Assemblies.

Gerry Gold

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

China's kleptocracy cashes in as resistance grows

China’s National People’s Congress, which is now in session in Beijing, is in effect a gathering of the country’s most powerful shareholders and capitalists. It puts in the shade the close connection between business and politics in other countries.

The NPC, whose 3,000 members meet for a week each year to rubber-stamp new laws, boasts some of the richest people in China as key members.

In fact, the richest 70 NPC deputies are worth nearly $90 billion, according to the Shanghai-based magazine the Hurun Report, that publishes a Chinese rich-list every year (The number of billionaires in the country doubled between 2009 and 2011, according to Hurun).

“It is extraordinary to see this degree of a marriage of wealth and politics,” says China expert Kenneth Lieberthal from Washington’s Brookings Institution. “It certainly lends vivid texture to the widespread complaints in China about an extreme inequality of wealth in the country now.”

China’s per capita annual income in 2010 was $2,425, less than in Belarus and much lower than the $37,527 in the US. A widening gap between the rich and the poor has, in recent months, been the source of social unrest and rebellion by farmers and factory workers alike.

The takeover of politics began when the “capitalist roaders” seized control the Communist Party in the late 1970s after Mao’s death. Minqi Li, a former political prisoner and author on China, now living in the US, explains:

In a few years, Deng Xiaoping consolidated his political power and China was on the path of capitalist transition. The so-called economic reform started in the countryside. The people’s communes were dismantled, and agriculture was privatised. Over the following years, hundreds of millions of rural workers became “surplus” workers, made available for exploitation by domestic and foreign capitalist enterprises.

Massive privatisation was undertaken in the 1990s. Virtually all of the small and medium-sized state-owned enterprises and some big state-owned enterprises were privatised. Almost all of these were sold at artificially low prices or simply given away. The beneficiaries included government officials, former state-owned enterprise managers, private capitalists with connections in the government, and transnational corporations. In effect, a massive “primitive accumulation” was completed and a new capitalist class was formed, based on the massive theft of state and collective assets. Meanwhile, tens of millions of state- and collective-sector workers were laid off and left impoverished.

Among the NPC delegates is Zong Qinghou, China’s second richest person and chairman of the beverage company Hangzhou Wahaha Group. And delegate Wu Yajun, whose family wealth soars upwards of 40 billion yuan ($6.5 billion), is a property baroness.

The third-richest person in the NPC, autoparts magnate Lu Guanqiu, travelled with Vice President Xi Jinping— the presumed successor to President Hu Jintao — to the United States during his official visit in February.

The advance continues. It has been reported that China’s richest man, Liang Wengen, may soon become the first private businessman to join the party’s ruling Central Committee.

Millions of Chinese now identify the Communist Party with corruption and theft on a grand scale. Huge protests are taking place in the countryside against the seizure of valuable farm land for property speculation.

Struggles at some factories have led to wage increases of 20% or more, enough to force some capitalists to consider moving production to Vietnam where workers are cheaper. Waves of strikes and riots among migrant workers on production lines in southern China shook the authorities.

A massive social explosion is in the making, which could easily sweep away the kleptocracy now running – or ruining – the country. It can’t come too soon.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, March 05, 2012

Putin's 'victory' tainted from the start

The anti-Putin rally planned for Moscow today will have to defy a state of siege organised by an undemocratic, authoritarian regime that weighs rather than counts the votes cast in presidential elections.

Vladimir Putin may have been “elected” as president of Russia for the third time, giving him six more years in the Kremlin, but his victory is tainted because no one believes he got nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Since replacing the transitional figure of Boris Yeltsin, the ex-KGB man has built a regime that is the political mouthpiece of the oligarchs who carved up the former Soviet Union after it was brought down in 1991.

Human rights and democratic niceties have been cast aside in favour of top-down Kremlin rule that sees journalists killed, free assembly discouraged and public sector workers bussed into pro-Putin rallies.

Today Moscow is surrounded by 12,000 police and troops with Omon riot squads patrolling pavements and underpasses, sometimes three deep. Sub-machine gun carrying troops have encircled the state Duma, Russia’s toothless parliament.
The heavy policing is needed because Putin’s election victory is rejected by large sections of the Russian population.

After the election fraud revealed in December’s parliamentary elections led to widespread demonstrations, the regime put on a big show of electoral transparency by installing webcams in polling stations. But vote rigging, dirty tricks and violations were taking place at other, more decisive, levels.

Lawyers who challenged the December election results discovered that votes were often cast in an orderly fashion and then counted by the local precinct committees. But then, at polling station 1181 for example, when the results were entered into the national database they were some 23% higher than those originally counted. A similar pattern had emerged throughout the country according to mathematicians studying the results.

Radio stations like Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo), who have refused to toe the Putin line, are now being threatened with a crackdown. Other news and media outlets are experiencing pressure from the authorities.

And while opponents of the regime, like anti-fraud campaigner Alexei Navalny, are making use of Twitter, the regime is not missing any dirty tricks. A fake Twitter account was created for the US Ambassador Michael McFaul. Russia Today television tried use this to discredit those who challenged the election results.

And what of the other candidates?

The only parties allowed to stand constituted no real alternative to Putin. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who came in a distant second with around 18% of the votes, is an unreconstructed Stalinist and nationalist. Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky believes in white supremacy and has advocated hitting villages in Chechnya with tactical nuclear bombs. Sergei Mironov, of the A Fair Russia party, has endorsed Putin’s presidency and has no independence from the regime. The only other contender was playboy billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. No threat to Putin then.

With “alternatives” like that, it’s questionable whether election fraud was even that necessary!

Independent candidates who threatened to be a real alternative were stopped from standing. In one town, Lermontov in the Caucasus, 13 people went on hunger strike late in February to back up their demand to be put on the ballot paper.

There are those who espouse the Kremlin line, denouncing the opposition as largely western influenced and/or the city-dwelling middle-class Twitterati. But the hunger strikers in Lermontov, as well as protesters in other far away places like Kovrov, 264 kilometres from Moscow, show this is not the case.

The movement against the regime is widespread as shown by the 10-mile long ring of people who defied sub-zero temperatures to join hands around Moscow on February 26 in a pre-election show of solidarity against the regime.

The outcome of Sunday’s election was a foregone conclusion. But everyone knows that Putin’s 64% “victory” is contrived from start to finish. His is a tarnished and shaky power. The election will go down in history as illegitimate. How the opposition will now find strength, new leaders, policies and organisations to move forward to a Russian spring is the real challenge.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Murdoch and the Met uncut

The Leveson media ethics inquiry, now in its fourth month, is unravelling an increasingly sinister web of corruption between the Murdoch media and the Met. It stretches from criminal elements in south east London right up to hacking the phones of politicians and the Royal Family.

Successive governments and the Metropolitan police not only failed to properly investigate phone hacking and corrupt relationships between the News of the World and Met police officers. They also failed to investigate connections to a brutal murder in London in 1987.

Daniel Morgan was joint owner with Jonathan Rees of detective agency Southern Investigations. Amongst its activities, it was a go-between for Murdoch journalists and London coppers.

Morgan was axed to death in a pub car park in Sydenham, south-east London. His family believes he was planning to expose corruption and possibly other crimes. He and Rees were together in a pub just before the murder, and notes Morgan was seen writing were missing from his torn trouser pocket.

Detective Sergeant Sid Fillery, stationed at Catford police station, was assigned to the case. It transpired he was one of the coppers on Southern Investigations' payroll. Eventually Fillery, Rees and four others were arrested on suspicion of Morgan's murder but none were ever charged. More investigations turned up more evidence, but the Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute.

A total of five Met police investigations failed to nail Morgan's killer, the most recent led by Detective Superintendent David Cook. Cook has said the murder was "one of the worst-kept secrets in south-east London" and that "a whole cabal of people" knew the identities of those involved

Cook's enquiry was established with unprecedented secrecy; everyone working on it made to swear they were not freemasons. But a matter of weeks after it opened, the News of the World paid for close surveillance of DCS Cook and his wife Jacqui Hames. She told Leveson she believes "suspects in the Daniel Morgan murder inquiry were using their association with a powerful and well-resourced newspaper to intimidate us and try to attempt to subvert the investigation". The Morgan case proves corruption is not some new phenomenon.

DAC Sue Akers, now leading the Met's phone hacking enquiry, told Leveson of "multiple payments amounting to thousands of pounds" to police and other public servants. One public official received in excess of £80,000 and one journalist spent over £150,000 in cash on sources in a couple of years. But, she added, the disclosures led mostly to "salacious gossip" nothing in the public interest.

She said the Met knew in 2006 that not only members of the royal family, politicians, actors, and sportspersons were under surveillance, but apparently also "state securities" - whatever that means! If this is true, then successive Home Secretaries would have known as well.

The reality is that police officers and politicians were terrified of the Murdoch press – and often greedy for its hand-outs. And it was not because they were scared of their sex lives being exposed. Sex scandals are the half-chewed 'bones' thrown to the press pack in return for not exposing real crimes.

Imagine if Murdoch journalists had used all this bribe money and all these contacts to expose the inner workings of the British State? They could have written about the lies behind the decision to invade Iraq, the background to the 'dirty dossier', the pressure put on MPs to vote for war, the death of weapons expert David Kelly. But of course, Murdoch supported Blair and the war on Iraq, so that was never going to happen.

This unravelling is exposing waves of corruption involving key elements that make up the British state - the Met Police, the tabloid press and politicians. It's not just that they all have their hands in the till - it is also that they are terrified that we, the people, might learn the truth about the worm at the very heart of our so-called democracy.

Penny Cole
A World to Win editorial collective