Friday, November 30, 2012

The press is neither free nor fair

The dispute over statutory (backed by Leveson, Miliband, Clegg) or non-statutory regulation of the press (Cameron) is really no dispute at all. Because regulated or not, the press will as a whole always remain hostile to the interests of ordinary people.

Phone hacking and paying off police officers for inside information was exposed at Leveson. But there was no way the report was going to stray into deeper issues. The report went soft on successive governments’ close ties to Murdoch’s empire. And the police were laughably more or less given a clean bill of health.

Some of Leveson’s proposals could even make it more difficult for investigative journalists to operate. In his proposals, the Leveson suggests major alterations to both the 1998 Data Protection Act and the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace).
Between them, journalists could become liable to prison sentences and their sources
be required to sign written agreements.

Ultimately, the press is neither free nor fair. The reasons are self-evident. Newspapers are owned by an assortment of Murdoch’s global corporation News International, Russian oligarchs (The Independent and the London Standard) or right-wing aristocrats like Viscount Rothermere.

He is chairman and controlling shareholder of the Daily Mail and General Trust PLCs, one of the largest media conglomerates with interests in newspapers, TV and radio in Europe, the United States and Australia.

Any regulatory system of the press will not make a jot of difference when it comes to the Daily Mail witch-hunting trade unionists, denying climate change is actually taking place (even though many of its readers are regularly flooded out by extreme weather) or scapegoating asylum seekers and migrant workers.

If we had had a regulatory system in place in 2003, would it have compelled the media to expose government lies in the run-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Of course not. Newspapers lapped up the Blair government’s falsehoods and helped create the spurious grounds for an invasion.

Not even the liberal Guardian could bring itself to oppose the war, which by any standards was illegal under international law and did not have the backing of the United Nations.

During major strikes, the media is at one in siding with the employers and the government. Which paper supported the strikes in 2011 by public sector workers defending their pension rights?

Rail union RMT general Secretary Bob Crow, who gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, said it had uncovered “the level of collusion between press, politicians and the state to do over anyone seen as a threat to their interests and that includes the trade union movement.

"From the miners to the firefighters and right up to date with our struggles today on transport and public services, no stone has been left unturned in vilifying and slandering those with the guts to stand up and fight back."

Crow’s reference to the miners’ strike of 1984-5 is compelling. Urged on by the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, papers like the Daily Mirror attacked miners’ leader Arthur Scargill throughout the dispute.

When it was over, the Mirror joined in a scurrilous denigration of Scargill over false allegations of misappropriation of funds. There was more than a little suspicion about the involvement of the dirty hand of the state in this infamous character assassination.

So when Miliband and Clegg urge on the very same state to get involved in “regulation” of the media, they are not proposing to remedy these kinds of wrongs.

In any case, what’s the use of an apology or a fine long after the event. The damage has already been done. In the hands of capitalist owners, the media can never be “free nor fair”. Always remember that.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Monsanto targets Mexican maize in bioethanol push

On a visit to one of Glasgow’s B&Q stores, alongside the electric and gas fires, I noticed modern looking glass and metal bioethanol burners, quite cheap and offering a “living flame”. Clearly, bioethanol has entered the mainstream.

It is made from a variety of food crops, depending where you are. In the US it is maize (sweet corn) and in Europe it’s wheat or barley. In Brazil, the world’s largest user and producer of bioethanol, it is sugar cane.

This is produced using an industrial agriculture system. Since the start of the 1980s, bioethanol production has cleared huge areas of virgin forest and savannah, creating vast machine-managed fields.

It has contributed to dangerous greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity is almost unbearable to contemplate. Vast quantities of fertiliser and water are used.

Small farmers and hunter-gatherers lost their livelihoods. With machines doing the work, they were pushed into the slums round Brazil’s cities. The only sustainable thing about this business is the profits of the global corporations and local energy businesses like Petrobras.  

The US is also expanding bioethanol but this year, the maize crop was hard hit by a heat wave. Still, 40% of it will go for biofuel - 5 billion bushels of edible corn turned into 13.5 billion gallons of fuel.

Genetically engineered (GE) corn is the norm in the US. As the north American market demands more imports from Latin America, corporations like Monsanto and Cargill are going all out to force countries there to accept GE.

A new report from GRAIN, which supports the rights of small farmers, says the GE corporations are “bearing down on Latin America with a force recalling their initial assault under the banner of the ‘green revolution’ in the 1960s”. Grain says:

Nearly every country in the region is in the sights of the agribusiness transnationals, the most recent example being Paraguay, where a parliamentary coup d’état took as one of its goals that of gaining approval for GE maize – and the de facto government is now preparing to grant that approval. In Argentina, Monsanto wants to build the largest GE maize processing plant in Latin America; the government is set to amend the Seeds Act to adapt it to that company’s needs. In the Andean region, there are worrisome attempts to overturn the bans on GMOs in Bolivia and Ecuador using bogus arguments. In Costa Rica, too, the Biosafety Commission intends to approve a GE maize variety.

Mexico is their biggest priority and in September, Monsanto applied for permits to plant 700,000 hectares of GE maize in Sinaloa province. The larger Mexican farmers and farm companies have already been softened up to accept this.

They were cut out of the supply chain for the last two years because their prices were “too high”. They already buy seed from the multinationals. All the corporations have to do is to cut off the supply of traditional seed and make only GE available.

Small farmers planting traditional varieties on family subsistence farms fear their maize will become contaminated with GE. This is of international importance because Mexico is the genetic cradle of maize, with many varieties grown. It would only take one pest or disease to arise in the GE variety and maize could cease to exist as a food crop.

So there you go – it seems a long journey from a B&Q in Darnley to Mexican farmers defending maize diversity on behalf of us all. In today’s globalised economy, these are the interconnections you encounter every day.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Welfare to profits as contractors cash in

That the results of the government’s welfare-to-work scheme have turned out to be worse than if it hadn’t existed at all is certain to be a disappointment for the ConDems, but for the rest of us it shouldn’t be a surprise.  

As most people are only too well aware, the economy is contracting, jobs are disappearing, real incomes declining. But the targets for the scheme were set in the run up to last year’s launch in the absurdly optimistic expectation that the economy would improve.

The target set for the 18 contractors  of getting 5.5% of the 2.4 million long-term unemployed and people on sickness benefits a job for at least six months was hardly going to make a dent in the jobless figures, but not one of them has achieved anything like it.

Only 3.5% - that’s one in every 28 - of the people referred to the Work Programme have found long-term jobs. In spite of this the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith defended the scheme, claiming that over 50% of those who have been referred to the scheme have been taken off benefits. 

Either somebody is not doing their sums, or there’s now an awful lot of people out there without jobs or benefits – just like in America.

And although the scheme is supposed to work on a payment-by-results basis, making the contractors’ profits dependent on forcing people off benefits, hundreds of millions of pounds have already passed into their hands.

They include A4e – the subject of systemic fraud accusations from its own internal auditor earlier this year, G4S - the company that failed to supply the promised Olympic security force – and Ingeus, part of a global corporation founded by the wife of Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister.  

There’s a group of voluntary sector groups also signed up to the scheme which includes Mencap, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Prince's Trust and Action for Blind People. Well meaning? Maybe, but they’ve become willing accomplices to this £5 billion torment of the sick and unemployed. Even Charles Dickens would be appalled.

So what has gone wrong? The Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), the lobbying group for the array of predatory companies feeding off the unemployed and sick, claims that things are now getting into gear and are set to improve.

The latest World Economic Outlook from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development promises something very different. Already in July they predicted that unemployment in advanced economies would remain high until at least the end of 2013, with young people and the low-skilled bearing the brunt of what they euphemistically termed “the weakest economic recovery in the past four decades”.

But four months later, things have got a whole lot worse. The OECD has slashed its forecast for next year’s growth in the world’s advanced economies from 2.2% to 1.4% and warned that the risk of a serious global recession cannot be ruled out.

The OECD expects the seriously troubled eurozone economy to contract further in 2013.  Growth in the US is forecast at 2% next year down from a May estimate of 2.6 per cent – but only if Obama can pull off a deal with the Republicans and prevent the country falling over the “fiscal cliff”. Japan’s economy is expected to expand 0.8%, little more than half the growth expected in May.

Greece is expected to be the worst performer among the membership, with the OECD expecting its economy to shrink 4.5% next year. The Spanish, Italian, Slovenian and Portuguese economies are also predicted to contract over the course of 2013.

And the UK? The OECD predicts an expansion of 0.9%. But as far as the budget deficit is concerned - the subject of all the austerity, and the welfare-to work programme in particular – the UK will be performing worse than every other member except Japan.

So, in effect, the contractors – private sector and charities alike – have really been contracted to manage the contraction. They get state funding and the unemployed get state harassment and benefit cuts. More like welfare to profits than welfare to work.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ukip leads the race to the bottom of politics

The apparent rise in support for the right-wing, populist Ukip in the polls is further evidence of the break-up of traditional party alignments which we saw at the 2010 general election and the break-down of Westminster parliamentary politics.

Once written off by David Cameron as a party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, Ukip is a clear and present danger not just to the Tories but to Labour as well, as Ed Miliband’s party might discover in the Rotherham by-election later this week.

The couple at the centre of the fostering row in Rotherham, where children were removed from their home because they are members of Ukip, were previously Labour voters.

The background to the by-election might help to explain their defection. In this former heavy industry town, unemployment at 10% is far higher than the national average. While the total has been falling, in Rotherham it has actually increased in the last year. During this period, youth unemployment has tripled.

Then there is the town’s council, which Labour has controlled since the metropolitan borough was first created in 1973. A record of bureaucratic incompetence, combined with the implementation of Tory cuts, has eaten away at Labour’s image in Rotherham, leaving it something of a rotten borough.

It wasn’t helped by the sense that Labour – and the notorious South Yorkshire police force of Hillsborough and Orgreave infamy – did little to tackle rampant sexual exploitation of young girls in Rotherham.

Add to this the woeful story of Denis MacShane, whose resignation triggered the by-election, and you can see why Ukip is making hay in the town. The Labour MP was forced to quit parliament after falsifying a number of expenses claims.  

Into this political morass steps Ukip, hard on the heels of extreme right-wing and neo-fascist thugs who have descended on the town twice in recent months. They feed on the contempt many people have for parliament, which MacShane’s activities only helped to reinforce.

In an economic and political crisis like we have today, the search for scapegoats is always a priority. For Ukip it is the European Union (although Ukip is content to rake in the salaries and expenses from its 12 MEPs), immigrant workers from Eastern Europe who allegedly take the jobs destined for British workers at lower wages and the “political elite” who champion such mad ideas as “climate targets”, leading to higher energy prices. So says Ukip leader Nigel Farage, given space in the Daily Telegraph to launch his very British brand of simplistic, reactionary populism.

And he has Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband trying to play catch up, especially on Europe. Both parties are edging towards a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, although they know it would make not one jot of difference to economic prospects.

Miliband is toughening up Labour’s policy on immigration, welfare benefits, crime and just about everything else in a bid to prevent Ukip from winning over disillusioned supporters like the couple in Rotherham.

It’s a race to the bottom of politics, with Ukip leading the field. It could also conceivably result in the ousting of Cameron in favour of a more right-wing Tory. Certainly, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail would support that if it helped Tory prospects at the next election which are looking bleak.

Scapegoating minorities, immigrant workers or “Europe” itself expresses the bankruptcy of the major parties who have opened the door to Ukip. More than that, the rise of Ukip is a backlash against a political system that ostensibly favours the rich and the powerful.

These are indeed dangerous, unstable, turbulent times. The right-wing historically has played on prejudice to shut down enfeebled democracies. Our response should be to develop strategies and proposals to extend democracy in new ways that transfers economic and political power to the people, away from the bureaucracies, the corporations and the banks.

In other words, our fight for democracy also has to be the struggle against capitalism as a defective, unsustainable social system. Anything less will serve to reinforce parties like Ukip.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, November 26, 2012

Revolt grows against Moore sculpture sell off

Tower Hamlets is one of the worst areas for child poverty in the UK and one of the country’s poorest boroughs. So when Mayor Lutfur Rahman decreed that a publicly-owned iconic sculpture by Henry Moore should be sold off, he probably did not anticipate the furore that would result.

This Wednesday, a resolution is to be put to an open council meeting demanding that the sale should be put on hold. The motion is proposed by Labour councillor Denis Jones and seconded by Anwar Khan.

The motion says that the sculptor donated “Old Flo”, as the monumental seated woman is affectionately known, “to the people of Tower hamlets... because he believed that art is beneficial, and should be accessible to all, including the East End’s working class, not just those rich enough to be able to afford to own it.”

Moore, a miner’s son from Yorkshire, was inspired by the wartime experiences of the people of London’s East End, thousands of whom were killed in the blitz, including 172 in the horrific Bethnal Green tube disaster.

The proposed sale of the artwork, presently on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, is a blatant breach of Moore’s wishes that it should inspire Eastenders recovering from the war. So much so that his daughter Mary, has joined Olympics ceremony director Danny Boyle, Tate director Nicholas Serota, artists Jeremy Deller and Rachel Whiteread, in signing a letter asking the council to reconsider.

But Rahman - who began political life in the Labour Party and was elected mayor as an independent in 2010 after his expulsion - and his cabinet member for culture Rania Khan, remain adamant that the sculpture must be sold off.

Their grossly philistine attitude is being shot down in flames. There is a groundswell of opposition, not only from local councillors, but also experts like Art Fund director, Stephen Deuchar. The Museum of London, Queen Mary University, the Friends of Christ Church at Spitalfields and a local school have all offered safe public sites to house the three metres tall, 1.5 tonne bronze.

Rahman’s ace card is that the possible £5-20 million receipt would plug the hole in council finances that result from government-imposed cuts.  But, in fact he was already pushing for the sale before the last round of cuts were announced.

And, even the maximum sales figure would hardly dent the council’s requirement to make £100m cuts by 2015 (Rahman’s own figure) and its predicted £44m deficit for 2016/17.

But the mayor appears to have public funds available for other purposes. Last week he offered £2m funding exclusively to faith groups to refurbish their premises, whilst ignoring an alternative option to make funds available to all community buildings.

Over 22,000 people are currently on the council waiting list and major overcrowding issues, but community and advice services are being cut to the bone.

Will Rahman listen to the opposition? Probably not. Opposing the sale, as some of the councillors are doing, may be too little and too late. In other parts of Britain, Labour councils, including Bolton and Bury, are also selling off their family silver with the same rationale as Tower Hamlets. In Brent, Labour is flogging off libraries

Historically, London’s East End has defied government cuts with outright resistance. In 1921, George Lansbury led the Poplar Rates Rebellion, in which 30 councillors (including six women) were jailed for giving funds to needy local people rather than sending it on to the London County Council.

A mass rebellion along these lines, against the sale of “Old Flo” as well as cuts to services and jobs throughout the country, should be item one on everybody’s agenda.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, November 23, 2012

The biggest loophole is capitalism itself

As austerity deepens, with spending cuts stretching into the far horizon, there is a renewed focus on the tax that corporations pay, or rather don’t pay. Some argue that if they paid their “fair share”, cuts in services like health and care would not be so severe.

Others like Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK, go further, claiming that "if only more had been done to tackle rampant tax evasion, Europe would not be facing a crisis today."
It’s an attractive – but ultimately misleading – theory that would seem to solve the problem of public finances and the economic crisis at a stroke.

Tax avoidance by the major corporations is an obvious target, so much so that MPs last week called names like Starbucks and Amazon to explain themselves before the Commons public accounts committee.

Chancellor George Osborne has even dedicated some funding to allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to chase the worst abusers and close loopholes. He even described tax evasion as “morally repugnant”. But it’s making no impact.

While individuals and small firms are hounded by HMRC with some success, the major transnational corporations continue to run rings around the government, as the PAC found out.

Research based on data from 145 countries, shows that tax evasion schemes amount to $3.1 trillion annually. The Tax Justice Network says that the UK misses out on about £70 billion annually, which represents over half of the health budget. 

There are many devices in play. Corporations locate holding companies and assets in tax havens, where profits are declared even though the activities are located elsewhere. They also use “transfer pricing” – internal, cross-borders trading schemes that help to reduce the tax burden.  

Sol Picciotto and Nicholas Shaxson, respective authors of Regulating Global Corporate Capitalism and Treasure Islands, were given space in the Financial Times this week to make their case for change. Before suggesting a remedy, they rightly stated:

The international tax system in effect provides vast subsidies for multinationals, helping them outcompete local rivals on a factor – tax – that has nothing to do with economic productivity. They free-ride on tax-funded benefits – roads, educated workforces, reliable courts – provided by the countries where they do business, while others pay for those benefits.

Their appeal for change is based on the claim that the present system “corrupts the very fabric of markets”, which is a bit of a giveaway. Neither Picciotto nor Shaxson are against capitalism itself – just the ruthless way it operates. So they have come up with a counter-ruse which is known as the unitary tax. Put simply, corporations would be taxed according to the “genuine economic substance of what they do and where they do it”.  

Unfortunately for them, there is little support among policy-makers for such a change. They acknowledge that the OECD, which oversees the international tax system, has not even put the idea of a unitary tax on its agenda.

Picciotto and Shaxson argue that the tax system hasn’t kept pace with changes in the global economy. Quite the opposite. What they miss is that the corporations have become more powerful than governments and that international agencies are there to facilitate their operations.

Nation states have had to compete for inward investment through low tax rates while allowing the repatriation of profits and turning a blind eye to tax avoidance. For example, the world average corporation tax rate has fallen in each of the past 11 years, from 29.03% percent in 2000 to 22.96% in 2011, according to a KPMG survey.

As a result, the burden falling on wage earners rose while governments (and households) ran up budget deficits on the basis that the global economy would continue to grow ad infinitum. Well, it couldn’t and didn’t. With due respect to Murphy, the deepening recession is hardly the result of tax avoidance schemes which themselves reflect the power of globalised capital.

In that sense, the biggest loophole is capitalism itself.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Coal leads the way as fossil fuels burn up the planet

The rapid expansion of fossil fuel burning which is frying the planet’s atmosphere faster than ever is entirely unnecessary and economically unjustifiable. And that’s official.

According to the International Energy Authority’s 2012 annual assessment, simple, economically-useful, energy efficiency measures could cut the growth in global energy demand by half and as a result, the demand for oil would peak before 2020.

The reduction in demand would be equivalent to the current combined production of Russian and Norway.

There would be greater energy security for countries worried about having to import their fuel and there would be huge economic growth as buildings and infrastructure were made more energy efficient. Hundreds of thousands could be employed and fuel bills cut by 20% on average.

But the direction of travel of global capitalism is the exact opposite. Subsidies are instead being poured into fossil fuel production – six times more than those available to renewables, amounting to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30% on 2010.

As a result emissions of greenhouse gases reached their highest-ever level in 2011. Current energy plans of governments across the world will lock in a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 °C, not the 2.0°C governments claim they are committed to.

Renewables are the fastest growing form of energy, but that is starting from a very low level. Coal, which is responsible for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from fuel, is going through a massive global expansion. Production is up 6% on 2010.

The rejection of nuclear by some governments in the wake of the Fukushima disaster did not lead to an expansion of renewables but to an expansion in coal burning. For example, Germany announced it would get out of nuclear within a decade, but this year it increased the amount of electricity generated from coal by 12% over 2011.

China is investing hugely in renewables, but coal-fired output grew as much there in the last decade as nuclear, wind and hydro combined.

In the US rapid expansion of “fracking”, plus new offshore finds have fuelled a dash for gas. But coal production is on the increase, licensed by the Obama administration and so the US is now exporting cheap coal all over the world.

The IEA says  that “the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path” and despite an increase in low-carbon sources of energy “fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix”.

The big question is why? Why are we pouring tax subsidies into fossil fuels, instead of renewables or energy efficiency? Why is a country like South Africa, an ideal test bed for solar power, pouring government funding into coal? In its post-crash-printing-money phase, the Obama administration funded excellent solar projects, which have brought major advances. Why is that not the US’s new export, instead of dirty old coal?

The “whys” are endless and exhausting but the answer is quite straightforward – it’s the bottom line that counts. Corporations use their power over governments to keep their priorities sweet. Six of the richest 100 mining billionaires are Chinese, five are Indian. The richest of them all is Brazilian Eike Batista whose personal net worth is $32 billion.

And at number 42 is Patrice Motsepe, South Africa’s first black billionaire, who bought up failing mineral businesses and made them profitable by cutting costs and increasing exploitation. You can be sure he is not pressing his friends in the ANC government to shift funding into renewables.

There’s a lot of money to be made from destroying the planet’s climate and eco-system. Only a transfer of political power to popular democracies acting in the interests of the majority and not the oligarchs and corporations, can halt the process.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

'Zombie capitalism' more dead than alive

You don’t have to listen too closely to hear the sound of factory gates slamming for the last time, and shutters rolling down over retail outlets. Consumer electrical chain Comet is just one amongst the many household names facing up to the consequences of the accelerating global contraction.

Closing down sales are in progress across the country and thousands upon thousands of jobs are disappearing. Close to 2,000 of its former employees will be on the streets by the end of November.  

Workers for iconic brands in every sector are under attack. Alongside Comet comes Hovis. Premier foods, owner of Hovis which it acquired in 2007 with the purchase of Rank Hovis McDougall is struggling with £1 billion of debt. The debt burden was much bigger until it was forced to sell Branston Pickle to the Japanese Mizkan group and Hartley’s jam to the marvellously-named US-based Hain Celestial.

This summer’s extreme weather around the world devastated crops, driving wheat prices towards the stars, and pushing the cost of Premier’s bread beyond the reach of the Co-op which then cancelled its contract.   

These two are just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg.

One third of all UK companies are running at a loss. There’s a lot of talk about the estimated 150,000 “zombie” companies, operating in the twilight zone, making just enough revenue to pay the interest on their debts but unable to make any inroads into the amount they owe.

Collectively they employ more than one million people. There are tens of thousands of “zombie households”, where people are repaying just the interest on their mortgages with no hope of ever owning their home outright. Many are using pay-day loans to buy food.

That companies and households can continue to do this for the moment is dependent on a mixture of historically low interest rates and various forms of “forbearance” by lenders: the postponement of decisions to write them off as bad debtors.

The delay is understandable, not as the generosity of human kindness, but because the lenders’ own existence is dependent on maintaining the fiction that the economy will turn up, growth and profits will return and everything in the garden will be rosy.

It won’t. Just look at Greece. Two tranches of the agreed bailout funds for which the Greek people are paying so dearly – youth unemployment has now risen to 58% - have yet to be handed over. As the global slump deepens Greece’s debt keeps mounting and European governments which have agreed to provide loans to fund the bailout can’t agree on writing off their contributions. 

Why? Because if they do, they in turn have to admit that they have become zombie countries.

As the global economy deteriorates the capitalist hawks are coming out into the open, calling for “creative destruction” to be allowed free rein, putting the so-called zombies out of business.

Some are echoing the words of US treasury secretary Andrew Mellon in the 1930s’ depression: “Liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people.”

In a sign of what is to come, credit rating agency Moody’s cut France’s top triple A status on Monday because of the country’s “gradual, sustained loss of competitiveness and the longstanding rigidities of its labour, goods and service markets”.

The brutal truth is that the entire global system of transnational corporations and financial institutions is more dead than alive. And with governments across the world in their service, their main aim is to ensure that their crisis is being visited upon the 99%.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cameroon’s constipated constitution

Israel’s assault on Gaza continues to shock. But, sadly there are other regimes which continue to earn their shameful ranking in the roll-call of dishonour and brutality.

Take Cameroon. Strategically wedged between oil-rich Nigeria, Chad and the Congo, and with access to the Atlantic ocean, it is probably best known for its outstanding footballer Théophile Abega of the Cameroon Indomitable Lions, who died last week.

It is not only the country’s footballers who capture the imagination. Cameroon shares in the outstanding musical talents of West Africa.  Its makossa and bikutsi musicians, such as Lapiro de Mbanga and Anne-Marie Nzié, have reached global fame.

But along with the people of Cameroon, they continue to suffer from one of the longest-ruling dictatorships in the world – that of 78-year old Paul Biya, who has been in power for over three decades.

Earlier this month, elite government troops and police savagely repressed a peaceful march organised by the Musicians Trade Union of Cameroon (SYCAMU). Their crime was to protest against a violation of the government’s own ruling that artists should be able to receive royalties before they are transferred to official collection organisations.

The 85-year-old Nzié was amongst the 500 artists who were thrown to the ground and beaten by order of the national security chief. Some 63 were detained without charge for over seven hours.

Union representatives, including SYCAMU president, and International Federation of Musicians vice-president Roméo Dika, remain under threat. Pro-regime media accuse him of an attempted insurrection, which is punishable by death or life imprisonment.

Biya and his cronies were infuriated when Lapiro de Mbanga penned a song Constitution Constipée, which lampooned the regime’s efforts to extend presidential rule in 2008. He was arrested and sentenced to 3-years in prison.  He only survived due to the efforts of his wife and Freemuse organisation, which advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide.

When students from the university of Buea and others gathered in the streets of Kumba city last year, inspired by the uprisings of the Arab spring, Kingsley Ndip Ashu was arrested, thrown into jail and beaten. The Cameroon Centre for Democracy and Human Rights is campaigning for his release and against the barbaric treatment of demonstrators.

The United Republic of Cameroon, formed in 1972 from British and French-controlled territories, has only had one president since the Cameroon’s gained independent from France after a long anti-colonial struggle.

Cameroon is ruled by a gang of geriatric aristocrats with astonishing access to the country’s treasury, incredible looting of the country’s resources, unimaginable cruelty towards ordinary Cameroonians, and with dynastical power ambitions for their families,” says the Cameroon Centre.

Behind the corrupt and repressive regime is the connivance of oil corporations Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and Elf Aquitaine, backed by western governments and the World Bank. They are heavily involved in the controversial Chad–Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project. Most of the 1070 kilometre pipeline stretches through Cameroon on its way to the coastal town of Kribi. Construction has damaged local ecosystems and affected locals who depend on fishing.

Vast areas of natural forest are being cleared by the US Herakles Farms company in the southwest of the country to establish palm oil plantations, ten times the size of Manhattan. Greenpeace and other groups are currently protesting the arrest on November 14 of Nasako Besingi, the director of the Struggle to Economize Future Environment (SEFE), a local NGO, and his three colleagues. They have not been charged with any crime.

It is not only western companies who are exploiting Cameroon. China’s notorious Three Gorges Corporation signed a contract last year to work on a hydropower project on Cameroon’s Sanaga river. It also signed a memorandum to set up a huge car manufacturing plant in Kribi.

The presidential election, originally scheduled for July last year, is due to take place this February.  It’s clear the regime wants any opposition to its corrupt rule to be suppressed in advance. But as the country’s musicians, democracy and ecological campaigners demonstrate, a groundswell of opposition is rising.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Monday, November 19, 2012

Marching in the footsteps of the Levellers

Creating a real democracy to replace our deficient, defective system is obviously no simple task. However, the positive outcome of an assembly called around producing an Agreement of the People for the 21st century shows that the project is gathering momentum.

A diverse range of groups and individuals have formed a steering group to complete work on revising the draft Agreement presented to the assembly that was held in London at the weekend (You can watch a live stream here, here and here).   

When finalised, the Agreement will be presented as the framework for a new democratic constitution for Britain. The idea is that the Agreement should embrace political, economic, social, legal, environmental and other rights.

The assembly heard proposals to complete the work within six months and to then launch a campaign to win mass support for the Agreement, to create a movement that will fight for it.

Working groups came up with many proposals to improve and amend the present draft text. These will be incorporated into the process of producing a final Agreement.

Among the many action points was a commitment at an early stage to try to create global links with other progressive organisations and groups. How this can happen was established in the assembly itself, when a representative of Revolucion Democratica from Chile was able to take part in a working group via the internet.

The need to extend participation in the process through online forums (with links to each other) and make use of video presentations was a key proposal which the steering group will work on when it meets for the first time. 

Also crucial will be the search for allies amongst networks of community groups, trade unions, activist organisations and those struggling against the state over cuts, attacks on human rights and for climate change action. This is clearly going to require resources – human and financial – so fund raising will be crucial.
Support from creative artists is already forthcoming. “The Revolution Will Be Networked” assembly drew inspiration from performances by poets Chip Grim, Cristina Viti and Adnan al-Sayegh. 

The Agreement of the People project takes its inspiration from the struggles of the Levellers and Diggers during the English Revolution in 1647. A new constitutional settlement was needed to complete the switch from the absolute power of the monarchy to parliamentary power.

When the Levellers put forward their Agreement at the famous Putney Debates at meetings of the Army Council of the New Model Army, it emphasised democratic control of power, the rule of law, regular elections, a wider franchise.

Theirs was the first attempt in history to create a constitution, to say how the country should be governed. Although there were two more drafts, the Levellers’ agreement was defeated. Parliament became sovereign but there was no democracy to go with it.

Leveller ideas surfaced again in the American and French revolutions. The famous words in the US constitution about holding “these truths to be self-evident” and “certain unalienable rights” sound like Leveller language.

Fast forward to the 21st century and, although the right to representation has long been won, the state has undermined this through a direct alliance with corporate and financial power. A market state has established a stranglehold over society.

The plan to produce an Agreement of the People for the 21st century builds on work done by democracy activists in the previous decade and the Real Democracy working group of Occupy London.

Created at the end of 2011, the group took as its starting point the initial statement of Occupy London, that the “current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust”. The group has championed analysis, debates and discussion about our flawed political/state system as well as the English Revolution.

Seven groups have initially declared their support for the development of a new Agreement. This is significant because it cannot be the property of one organisation. It has to win broad support.

The time is right historically to consider what a real democracy would and could look like. We are in good company historically speaking. We are a line that goes back to the Levellers, the Diggers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes. We are with Tom Paine and John Lilburne and many other fighters for democracy and against state oppression.

We know that the tide of history is with us and not the status quo. 

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, November 16, 2012

Our sham democracy needs replacing - and soon

If you are looking around for arguments that boost the case for creating a real political and economic democracy in place of the sham one we live under, then this week has seen them piled one on top of the other.

How about the inability of MPs on the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) to get to grips with the failure of global corporations operating in Britain to pay tax on their profits? Senior executives from Amazon, Starbucks and Google were accused of secretly hiding their profits in tax havens when they appeared before MPs.

MPs admitted that a director from Amazon was “deliberately evasive” about the company’s operations. And when a Starbucks executive told MPs that the coffee chain made no profits in Britain, MPs found the story too incredible for words.

Ultimately, however, PAC members were up against the law. Google operates in Ireland and Bermuda because they offer attractive tax rates. "Like any company you play by the rules [and] manage costs efficiently to offer fair value to shareholders," said executive Matt Brittin.

In response to that, all Margaret Hodge, the PAC chair, could do was to accuse the corporations of “immoral behaviour”. But there’s no morality and certainly no democracy involved here. The bottom line is all that counts. The state created the rules to benefit global corporations and these are what they play by.

Here are two more examples from today that add to the case for change. The same PAC was back in action this morning, reporting that taxpayers were unlikely to get back any of the £66 billion spent on shares in the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds when they were bailed out four years ago.

That’s the equivalent of about a year’s spending on education by local authorities who have been ordered to cut their budgets by 25%. So the taxpayer is left with a load of worthless shares while the bankers continue to pay out record bonuses to themselves. Nice.

Finally, there’s the record low turn-out for the elections for police commissioners which were held yesterday. Clearly, the vast majority of voters find participation in such elections a waste of time. And they are right. There are already local police authorities that are made up of assorted councillors and others. Why add another tier of bureaucracy?

When you add to this the imposition of the burden of the economic crisis – a crisis they did not create – on the backs of ordinary working people, you have to conclude that the current system is “undemocratic and unjust”.

This truth, contained in the initial statement adopted by the Occupy London general assembly at St Paul’s a year ago, embraces all the institutions of rule that make up the British state/political system.

The evidence is that that this system of rule favours the 1% in a variety of ways and actions and, therefore, cannot be considered democratic in the true sense and meaning of the term. Virtually every element of the establishment is now seen as exposed and corrupt. People are searching for alternatives and answers.

We should not accept that this state/political system is the end of history in so far as the story of democracy is concerned. The time is right historically to consider what a real democracy would and could look like.

To this end, we appeal to all those who support democratic change to work together to develop an Agreement of the People for the 21st century in the spirit of the Levellers who fought for democracy during the English Revolution of the 1640s.

A new Agreement should form the basis of a new constitutional settlement that favours the presently powerless majority. It should propose new forms of democratic decision-making that go beyond representation.

Seven organisations are supporting the project to create and fight for a new Agreement of the People which gets under way in London tomorrow. Be there if you can.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hands off Gaza - one state the only solution

The latest Israeli assault on Gaza is the act of a state with nothing to offer but the politics and economics of war and terror. With an election coming up in January, Netanyahu’s Likud government is killing Palestinians with the aim of creating fear at home to help them hold on to power.

Netanyahu’s regime has turned once more to state terrorism to find a distraction for an Israeli population burdened by debt and devastated by spending cuts. In July, mass protests once more erupted on the streets of Tel Aviv and two men died after setting themselves on fire in protest at social conditions.

Inequality in Israel is amongst the highest in the world, according to the OECD. One in five Israelis live in poverty, one in three children. But between 2008 and 2009, the number of millionaires increased by 43%, largely from hi-tech start-ups in the weapons, security and communications sector.  

As usual, the world’s media slavishly follows the Israeli line that increased rocket attacks from Gaza led to the current assault, but an open letter from ten leading academics, including Noam Chomsky, is eye witness to a different chronology.

On November 5, a 20-year old Gazan man with a learning disability was shot when he wandered too close to the border. It was six hours before Israeli troops would let medics reach him, so he died. On November 8, a 13-year old boy playing football in front of his house was killed when the Israeli Defence Force made an incursion into Gaza.

By November 11, five Palestinian civilians including three children had been killed in 72 hours. Four deaths occurred when shells were fired at a football match. Some 52 civilians had been wounded, including six women and 12 children.

A Canadian doctor working in Gaza reports wounded arriving at Shefa hospital with shrapnel wounds – brain, neck, throat, intestinal and bone injuries leading to “traumatic amputations”, carried out with “very little morphine for analgesia.”

These were deliberate provocations against a relatively defenceless people armed with a few home-made rockets who live in what has been dubbed the world’s biggest prison camp. Cut off from their fellow Palestinians on the West Bank, most Gazans are registered refugees dependent on help from United Nations agencies and conditions are deteriorating.

Not one Israeli civilian died before the IDF attack began – today three are dead as Hamas stepped up rocket attacks. Netanyahu has to answer for them, too.

Increasingly desperate violence is the Zionist state’s only response to the massive changes in the region. Iran has announced new advanced drones, more sophisticated than those they gave Hezbollah in Lebanon which were sending satellite pictures of Israel’s military and nuclear bases.

The Egyptian government, formerly a supine supporter of US policy in Israel, has recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Its border with Gaza is open and Egyptian hospitals are preparing to accept casualties. Israel has been exchanging fire with Syrian artillery batteries on the Golan Heights, where anti-Assad rebels are located.

Later this month the United Nations will discuss a request from the Palestine National Authority for observer country status, a de facto recognition of statehood. The Israeli government has warned that if this happens, they will invade the Palestinian area and topple the government of Mahmoud Abbas.

The Zionist state is in a profound, existential crisis. It has nothing to offer the Israeli people, but the same could be said of the Hamas and Fatah leaderships – and the Iranian government with its military adventurism.

The only people offering a way forward are those from both sides of the Arab/Israeli divide who propose a one-state solution in place of the doomed two-state approach which becomes more impractical each day that Israeli settlement building continues.

Surely the aim has to be remove all the walls and checkpoints and to create a single democratic, secular state with equal rights for all its citizens, whatever their religious or ethnic background. That is the only way to rally Israelis and Palestinians against their common enemy.

Penny Cole

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Historic strike against austerity must become turning point

The historic, co-ordinated pan-Europe strikes and marches taking place today are the clearest indication yet that the struggles against the governments that have imposed austerity policies are coming to a head.

With more than 25 million out of work, all major unions will be marching to oppose further devastating cuts in salaries, pensions, benefits and social services, tax increases and new limits on trade union organisation.

The strike is expected to cause near or total shutdowns of the four most debt-battered countries — Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece.

There will be solidarity marches elsewhere organised by new movements like Spain’s M15 as well as trades unions. Demonstrations are planned throughout France. Rail workers in Belgium are striking, as are unions in Malta and Cyprus.    

And from Germany and Switzerland to Turkey, eastern Europe and Scandinavia, workers and many organisations have promised to rally around the single message: No to austerity.

In Britain, the Trades Union Congress has organised precisely nothing, however. A statement declared that its main action had taken place on October 20, when an estimated 150,000 people marched through London on a Saturday afternoon. New general secretary-designate Frances O’Grady will, however, address an evening rally outside the European Commission’s offices in London. That’ll frighten them!

Mounting anger forced the European Trades Union Confederation, representing 85 trades union organisations from 36 countries, with 60 million members to support the action. But the ETUC’s hope that the protest will encourage the European Commission, the European Central bank and the International Monetary Fund to get the economy “growing” instead of cutting deficits, were dashed even before the sun began to rise.

Yesterday, the Bank of Portugal slashed its growth forecast for 2013 from minus 1% to minus 1.6%, following an expected 3% contraction this year; and a new report from respected US forecaster the Conference Board foreshadowed a continued slowing of the world economy through to 2025.

Many eyes are watching events unfold in Europe and elsewhere with more than a little trepidation. Reuters news agency tried its hardest to play down the threat contained in the mounting anger, fulfilling its role in attempting to calm the volatility on the financial markets and encourage the global corporations.

In a piece hopefully headlined “European austerity protests far from revolution”, it claimed that things are looking good for investors: “While US carmaker Ford has announced plans to scrap 6,200 jobs in Europe to reflect tough auto sector and wider economic conditions, its decision to shift some output to low-cost Spain underlined that social tensions there were not a concern.”

This is a report from cloud-cuckoo land. In Spain, people are laying siege to banks that have repossessed over 300,000 homes in the last couple of years. The police union says it will back any members who refuse to help with evictions. Seizing the banks has become a practical notion in the eyes of many Spanish households.

Reuters noted that though “the sense of alarm has reached better-off youths in northern Europe, it is often tempered by a mood of resignation and inability to define a political alternative”. There is some truth in this observation.

Across the world, strikes, demonstrations and protests of all kinds – a massive action is planned in the United States next week against the anti-union corporation Walmart - are powerless to stop the accelerating contraction of the global capitalist economy. This – and not some misguided policies - is what is driving governments to cut spending and drive down conditions.

The struggles against austerity must not be allowed to founder in a futile effort to get governments to "change course". It is high time to begin the construction of a not-for-profit replacement, and we’ll be working with others on the blueprint – a new Agreement of the People - this Saturday.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Will the big three parties 'step aside' now please

As there now appears to be a new convention in public life in the shape of “stepping aside” while inquiries take place into incompetence and/or misleading broadcasts by the BBC, surely there are grounds for extending this practice into political circles as well.

So in the interests of probity, here is a short, sample list of malpractice and/or lying at Westminster that should, if we lived in a real democracy, lead to all the big three political parties “stepping aside” for the foreseeable future.

     New Labour years
  1. Claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and using this lie as the basis of an illegal invasion and occupation of that country. The hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed are the direct consequence of this action and prosecutions for war crimes are in order.
  2. The introduction for the first time in 1998 of university tuition fees on the spurious ground that this was the only possible way to continue to the sector. It signalled the end of free higher education.
  3. Creation of the light-touch regulation of the City and finance through the hopeless Financial Services Authority, thus misleading the public into believing their money was safe in the hands of the banks. The financial collapse of 2007 showed this to be a lie.
  4. Expansion of “public finance initiative” projects to build hospitals and schools on the basis that they would save taxpayers’ money in the long term. The recent collapse of several NHS Trusts shows this to have been deception on a grand scale.
  5. Claiming that the expansion of the global market economy would benefit everyone. In fact, inequality grew faster, executive salaries soared and the ownership of wealth became more concentrated in fewer hands.
  6. Using the spurious “war on terror” as the cover for a war on civil liberties and human rights through detention without trial, integrated national databases, interception of emails and the merging of criminal and civil laws through the notorious ASBO system.
2010 election and the ConDems
  1. In the run-up to the 2010 general election, the three major parties consistently refused to divulge their plans to cut public spending if elected. As a result, the election was a massive fraud perpetrated on the electorate as a whole. The Coalition came to power without a mandate in a constitutional coup.
  2. The claim that “we are all in it together” made by the ConDems has proved to be one of the greatest lies of British history. Spending and welfare cuts, inflation, the rise in VAT and other measures have fallen disproportionately on average earners, those in need and people with disabilities. The rich, as per usual, have got richer.
  3. Lib Dems propping up the Tories by breaking their election pledge not to support a rise in tuition fees. Vince Cable, the business secretary, proposed the increase in fees to at least £6,000 a year. This alone disqualifies the Lib Dems from ever being in government again!
  4.  David Cameron’s pledge that the health service was “safe in his hands” has become one of the all-time political lies. The NHS Act opens the door to privatisation by making hospital trusts ever-reliant on fee-paying patients and allowing GPs to commission services from the private sector.
We could go on and on, but no doubt you have your own examples of how the political system has become a conduit for misleading, misinforming and lying. There’s only solution – and that’s for the perpetrators to step aside.

Unfortunately, they intend to cling on to office for as long as possible. So it’s going to take one big shove to get them out of our hair to make room for a real democracy to take shape.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, November 12, 2012

Warnings from history in Greek crisis

What happened in Germany during the 1930s does have crucial parallels in today’s economic and political crisis. So the start of a new television series about the rise of Adolf Hitler being broadcast by the beleaguered BBC tonight is timely.

Historian Laurence Rees writes in BBC’s online magazine, that Hitler’s story holds a “stark warning for the modern day”. Particularly at a time when the openly pro-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece looks set to become the third largest party in any future election.

Journalist and author Paul Mason, and even the right-wing Daily Mail (which in its day actually supported Hitler for a period) have drawn attention to the shocking parallels between the blackshirts of Golden Dawn and Nazi party thugs of the 1930s.

With open support from the Greek police, Golden Dawn members march under the Nazi swastika, terrorising and beating up immigrants. They have attacked anti-right protesters. Homophobic Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros and supporters closed down a theatre in Athens performing Terrence McNally’s play, Corpus Christi, beating up and terrorising actors.

This fascist party is tapping in to the existential insecurity suffered by Greeks as new 13.5bn a year cuts and tax rises demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are imposed on an suffering population. The young and the elderly are victims of a regime that represents the interests of global capital.

So it is definitely worth looking at the parallels between events in Greece and those in Germany some 80 years ago.  

The Germany of the 1920s saw a massive economic crisis in which the German mark lost virtually all its value. The Wall Street crash of 1929 resulted in a depression and massive unemployment, not only in the US but also in Germany.

Electoral support for the Nazi party soared from 12 seats in 1928 to 230 seats by 1932 making it the largest party in the Reichstag. Big money from German industrialists poured in to swell Nazi party coffers allowing them to print millions of election pamphlets.

Crucially, those who sought to stop Nazism were held back by their own leaders.  Before 1933, anti-Nazi deputies in the Reichstag still held over 50% of the votes. But, due to the disastrous ultra-left policies of the German Communist Party – which characterised the Social Democrats as “social fascists” – the anti-Nazi forces were split down the middle.

Naturally, Mason is right to warn of too direct comparisons between Weimar Germany and today’s Greece. He points, for example, to the melting away of support for what he terms Greece’s “centrist parties”. In poll ratings, the Pasok’s share has plummeted from 40% down to 5.5%, in comparison to Golden Dawn’s 12% with the left-coalition Syriza at 30%.

He says the real problem is political disaffection and a sense of “hopeless inertia”. He writes: “You can feel what it is like when the political system - and even the rule of law - becomes paralysed and atrophies.”   

So is the future of Greece really down to people’s psychology – the “fight or flight” instinct, as Mason suggests? Well, no. Just as German support for Nazism cannot be ascribed to a spurious “German national character”.  

One of the greatest lessons from Hitler’s rise to power was that parliamentary democracy failed to stop the Nazi’s seizing power in March 1933. In fact, the Nazis came to power legally within the terms of the constitution. This does not mean that anti-fascists should disregard parliament, or refuse to defend it against the far right.

But democratic rights in such a period as ours cannot be defended solely by relying on the very institutions that have failed, or creating alliances with bourgeois parties as disastrously happened in Spain in 1936 with the formation of the Popular Front.

Everywhere, not just in Greece, confidence in establishment institutions is in decline. Parliamentary politics fails to convince or capture people’s imagination. The solution is not to revive a political system that is tied inextricably to corporate power but to work for a new constitutional settlement that extends democracy in new ways, beyond representation. That’s what the November 17 assembly The Revolution Will Be Networked, will focus on.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Friday, November 09, 2012

Universities fight back against corporate body snatchers

The onward march of commercial considerations into every area of public life and services has led to an unlikely resistance movement in the shape of the Council for the Defence of British Universities.

Enough is enough, says the CDBU which has an impressive list of supporters. Its 66 founding members include top academics like Colin Blakemore, Richard Dawkins and Ronald Dworkin, literary figures like Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Claire Tomalin and the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf.

The CDBU declares: “In the protracted recession of a knowledge economy, where knowledge is money and growth is elusive, powerful forces are bending the university to serve short-term, primarily pragmatic, and narrowly commercial ends. And no equal and opposite forces are organised to resist them.”

While the attempt to turn universities into money-spinning ventures is not new, it was given fresh impetus by the Browne report into higher education published in October 2010. Browne was former head of oil corporation BP.  

Commissioned by the previous government, the report led directly to the imposition of student tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year. By now, responsibility for higher education had appropriately passed to a ministry dedicated to “business innovation and skills”, under Vince Cable.

The aim was threefold: to cut public spending on higher education (especially in the arts); make universities compete with each other for students; force universities to seek higher levels of private sector financial support. In other words, universities were to become “business centres” rather than places of learning and research.

The CDBU believes that “misguided policies” are undermining British universities in the way described. But for all the learning embodied in the organisation, this really does miss the point. A business invasion of the corridors of learning has been under way for almost two decades.

In his book, the Corporate Takeover of Britain, writer and campaigner George Monbiot says that there is scarcely a university that has not been compromised by its funding arrangements. He explains:
Business now inhabits the cloisters of even the biggest and richest institutions. Cambridge University, for example, possesses a Shell chair in chemical engineering, BP professorships in organic chemistry and petroleum science, an ICI chair in applied thermodynamics, a Glaxo chair of molecular parasitology, a Unilever chair of molecular science, a Price Waterhouse chair of financial accounting and a Marks & Spencer chair of farm animal health and food science. Rolls-Royce, AT&T, Microsoft and the biotechnology company Zeneca have all set up laboratories in the university.
In June 1999, BP gave the university £25m to fund work across five departments. In November 1999, Cambridge set up an £84m joint venture, funded largely by the British government, partly by industry, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its purpose is to “change the face of business and wealth creation in the UK” by stimulating “research spin-offs” and “training the business leaders of the future.  

Stefan Collini, professor of English Literature and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge, has documented the corporate invasion of universities over a long period. He rightly regards it as an attempt to bring universities “into line”, to make them serve the economy above all other considerations.

Collini also indicts Labour for an approach that is indistinguishable from that of the ConDems. In fact, large chunks of the 2011 White Paper on higher education repeat the phrases used in a White Paper produced by Peter Mandelson in 2009 under the previous government.

Setting up the CDBU indicates that resistance is growing to commercialisation of learning. But its members are mistaken if they believe that the invasion of the corporate body snatchers is merely a policy issue. For over 30 years, the British state has driven down this road in areas of health, public services and transport, to name a few.

We have moved from a welfare state to a market state in the process. This is no longer a democracy but a corporatocracy. To rescue education from its clutches, we need a democratic transformation, an Agreement of the People that removes profit from the equation in favour of social interests and needs. That's something for the November 17 Assembly to get its teeth into!

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Sellafield nuclear waste still a clear and present danger

The situation at Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria is dire and poses significant risks to people and the environment. Historic neglect, poor planning and a failure to minimize hazards – that’s the history of decommissioning the site of Britain’s first nuclear accident in 1957 when the plant was known as Windscale.

For 50 years, whoever has been in charge (and that has changed frequently), has failed to develop any plan for safe decommissioning and long-term waste storage. The whole sorry (and dangerous) saga is detailed in a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

The timetable is slipping further and further, and the reality is that it is a job that simply can’t be done within the current framework of government negligence and lying.

The NAO says the operators still have no plan for storing waste and have no idea how much it will cost to maintain it safely for hundreds of years until it ceases to be a danger.

The current budget for decommissioning is put at £67bn. But over the last ten years, projected costs have increased almost £1bn every year, so the figure is meaningless.

There is enough waste to fill 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools on the site and some of it is being stored in buildings and containers in a poor state of repair.

There are 240 nuclear buildings, and so far only 55 have been decommissioned. Out of 13 contracts, 12 have been of poor quality and not value for money, the NAO found. Dr Ruth Balogh, of West Cumbria and North Lakes Friends of the Earth, commented:

"The UK's failure to deal with highly hazardous nuclear waste at Sellafield is a national scandal that poses a significant risk to local people and the environment. The government has completely ignored the urgent need for interim measures to deal with this radioactive waste. We shouldn't build any new nuclear reactors if we can't deal with the radioactive mess that's already been created."

But the government is not listening. They have just signed a deal with Hitachi to build nuclear reactors at Wylfa in Anglesey and Oldbury in Gloucestershire. Hitachi bought out the German-owned Horizon consortium, which withdrew from the project earlier this year.

In the longer term, Hitachi says it wants to build six reactors on existing nuclear sites where power stations are coming to the end of their life.

Their “boiling water” system is new to the UK and risk assessments would normally take years. However, the government may find ways to cut the assessment period, and with the new planning regulations, people living round the sites will not be able to delay projects with legal challenges.

Talking up the deal, claiming billions in investment and thousands of jobs, David Cameron was entirely silent on where the waste will go when these new reactors run down after 60 years. They don’t even know where they are going to put the waste from those currently reaching the end of their lives and almost ready for decommissioning.

Efforts to bribe local authorities to agree to become waste storage locations, initiated by New Labour, have failed. Only Copeland, in west Cumbria has agreed. It is the district round Sellafield and is one the UK’s poorest areas, partly as a result of the devastation caused by playing host to the UK’s biggest nuclear hazard. Some 70% of the current waste is already in temporary storage at Sellafield.

Energy and climate change secretary Edward Davey claims that Hitachi bring with them “decades of expertise, and are responsible for building some of the most advanced nuclear reactors on time and on budget”. Yes, that includes their participation in building the reactors at Fukushima!

The government boasts that none of the new nuclear power stations will get any public subsidy – but fails to mention the cost of storing the waste. It is the ultimate in short-termism, in profit-driven madness and abject failure of governments to put people and the environment ahead of the big energy corporations when they plan our energy future.

Penny Cole
Environment editor