Friday, February 28, 2014

How Miliband called McCluskey's bluff

If Len McCluskey were an investment banker, he surely would have been fired a long time ago. Instead, his position as general secretary of the Unite union is secure even though the return on capital invested in Labour leader Ed Miliband is beyond measurement because it’s so low.

Tomorrow, McCluskey and fellow union bureaucrats from affiliated unions will, not unlike turkeys at Christmas, vote for their own slaughter at the hands of Miliband and his party leadership.

Miliband will formally complete a process of “reform” – was ever a word so misused – in party structures that began in the early 1990s, and carried on by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they got the unions to vote to abandon the socialist Clause 4 of the constitution.

This time Miliband has gone when even Blair feared to tread. Out goes the historic links by which members of affiliated unions had a portion of their subs handed over to Labour. Out goes the way Labour leaders are elected, with the unions having a substantial say through a ballot of members.

Out goes the collective and in comes individualism. Margaret Thatcher would be the first to applaud, especially as Miliband gave her a glowing reference recently.

Labour’s national executive confirmed the plans earlier this month with only two votes against. Tomorrow, a special half-day conference will rubber stamp the proposals. After the Nec, one shadow cabinet member is reported as saying:

"At the start, the unions were shocked, but in the end the unions had no option. Ed Miliband was their choice for leader and he wanted these reforms and, 18 months out from an election, they could not defeat him. Unite may be in a different place, but Falkirk [the constituency troubled by a selection row] meant it was impossible for them to lead a rebellion. They feel they have done nothing and are badly bruised.”

McCluskey, in particular, has egg all over his face. Miliband was his choice as leader and in return he has been humiliated. In a belated attempt to recover some poise, McCluskey is now threatening to cut his union’s affiliation fees by £1.5 million because a poll shows that only 40% of Unite’s members vote Labour.

He said: "I know there are some people internally in the Labour party that are beginning to panic because of what we are considering. I am not sure why because it was self-evident from last summer when Ed Miliband made his proposals that there would be consequences. I said that having been challenged by Ed to consider the status quo, I suddenly felt it was untenable. We have one million members paying into the political fund and affiliate the full one million members to the party…. Looking at it, I thought it was difficult to justify even from a moral standpoint".

Last October, the company that owns the Grangemouth petrochemical plant threatened to pull out unless the union agreed to new harsh terms and conditions. McCluskey’s bluff was called and he rushed up to Scotland to overrule local officials and impose a shocking deal on his members.

So perhaps Miliband knows that the Unite union leader is mostly bluster and that when push comes to shove, McCluskey will not rock the boat with just over a year to the general election. In any case, McCluskey has said: “Even if we reduce our affiliations we can still give direct donations to the national Labour Party".

The truth is that investment in Miliband has produced precious little for Unite and its members. One Nation Labour as it prefers to be called as it careers further and further into naked populism, is pledged to uphold austerity and ConDem spending cuts, a public sector wage freeze and to retain markets in the NHS and other services.

Vote for that? You have to be joking!

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Standard Life threat shows where power really lies

Standard Life's statement that in the event of a “Yes" vote in the Scottish referendum they would leave Edinburgh, forcing 5,000 employees to choose unemployment or emigration, shows up the narrowness of the independence debate so far.

The insurance company said it would have no choice because Westminster has ruled out a currency union with an independent Scotland which would be denied the possibility of retaining the pound.

The Edinburgh-headquartered company’s statement serves as a reminder of where power really lies, and the reality that political power, whether located at Westminster or Holyrood, means nothing without economic and financial authority.

Just as Standard Life was putting the boot, the Royal Bank of Scotland posted massive losses for the sixth year running. The essentially bankrupt bank announced that it has decided to pull out of some of their riskier activities and focus on "bread and butter banking".

Is that the right or wrong thing to do? One thing is for sure, we were not asked though we as taxpayers nominally own the bank. RBS CEO Ross McEwan declines to say if the bank will leave Edinburgh if there's a vote for independence in September’s referendum.

But no way can a few million Scottish taxpayers bail out that behemoth when the next crisis strikes. They would just have to crash, taking thousands of jobs and millions in savings with them. The same goes for the Bank of Scotland.

The problem is there is no real transfer of power on offer as a result of the referendum. Alex Salmond's business-loving, oil-addicted party do not present a materially different future as a result of independence. So the SNP has a very narrow platform. In effect all they can offer is "Scotland ruled by Scots" and "no more Tory governments".

Given that the SNP and One Nation Labour are equally willing to kow-tow to ruthless corporations (remember the shocking betrayal at Grangemouth last year), that's pretty uninspiring.

The SNP had no answer to the question, what will happen if Scotland is excluded from a shared currency? They simply called Osborne-Alexander-Balls "bullies" and said they would never carry through the threat.

They didn't point out the obvious, that this shows that the three main parties are entirely in agreement on economic and financial issues, with absolutely no difference between them. That's because the SNP share the same ideology!

It couldn't have been clearer this week, when the ConDem Cabinet met in Aberdeen and the SNP Cabinet met just down the road at Portlethen. They may have been separated by a few miles, but they simultaneously presented the same fawning, acquiescent policies to the giant oil corporations.

This independence referendum is certainly putting questions of democracy and the realities of state and economic power into sharp relief. It is a disruption of the status quo that is causing huge distress, particularly for Labour.

If the SNP cannot give any powerful reason why people should vote for independence, nor can Labour give any meaningful reason why they should not. A strange scene yesterday at Westminster underlines this.

SNP MP Pete Wishart went into the voting lobby to see which Scottish MPs had turned up to vote in a motion on the bedroom tax. Scottish Labour MPs failed to even turn up last time, to their eternal shame.

East Renfrewshire MP Jim Murphy rushed up to Wishart screaming "fuck off, fuck off, fuck off....." over and over again. It was a bizarre scene by all accounts, but I would argue this unbearable tension felt by Scottish Labour is about more than loss of seats and personal incomes.

As Labour cannot advance either a socialist case, a working class solidarity case for the continued union of Scotland and England or principled support for self-determination, then what have they become? Demonstrably, undeniably, another party of big business, a process that began with the Blair governments. Neverthless, Labour’s crisis over Scotland is an  historic moment for the party of Keir Hardie.

Penny Cole

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Vultures circle Ukraine as economy collapses

The formation of an acceptable new government in Ukraine reflecting the multi-dimensional aspirations of the popular uprising that saw off the Yanukovych kleptocracy is proving difficult enough. Dealing with its collapsing economy is an even bigger problem.  

Ukraine’s economy is relatively small – at around $7,000, its annual gross domestic product for each of its 45 million people is around one fifth of the UK’s – but the country’s potential is being sized up by external forces.

All the actors on the global political and economic stage – including the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, Russia, China and not least the global corporations are eying up the prospects for collapse. They are weighing the advantages that can be gained from an intervention and studying the likely impact on themselves.  

In the 20 years or so following the break up of the Soviet Union, most of the former state industries were “privatised”, or rather handed over to oligarchs, including Yanukovych’s family members.  After years of their self-enrichment, and recent economic decline intensified by the effects of the global crash, the country is now dangerously close to bankrupt.

World prices for steel, Ukraine’s biggest export, have fallen by half since the Chinese economy began to slow in 2011. At the same time the country’s cash balance has been declining and its external debt – including overdue payments due to the IMF and Russia’s Gazprom - soaring.

As is well-known, due to its geographical location Ukraine plays host to a network of pipelines that carry gas and oil from Russia, and a number of the other former Soviet states to Western  Europe. But the global oil corporations are eager for action.

Shell and Chevron signed agreements last year to drill unexplored shale formations in Ukraine, offering the chance to upgrade the country’s energy infrastructure and boost domestic production, thus reducing the amount of gas imported from Russia. Before the crisis erupted last year, Exxon, the largest US oil company, was also close to signing a pact to explore the Black Sea.

The country is the fourth largest of the world’s arms exporters, and has become increasingly dependent on sales to China’s rapid build-up of military equipment. Last year, Ukraine agreed to lease 5% of its extremely fertile, but relatively undeveloped land to China to grow crops and raise pigs for sale to Chinese state-owned companies. As part of that deal China promised to build highways and bridges in the country.

A new report from the Institute of International Finance sets the immediate context. It says that budget financing “has become virtually unavailable”. The acting president, it noted, says that Ukraine’s pension fund does not have enough money to meet pension obligations. The report warns:

“On the other hand, tax revenues appear to have collapsed along with economic activity during the weeks of the political standoff. With no access to foreign markets, and domestic banks under intense liquidity pressure, the central bank has become the sole financier of the government.”

Estimates of Ukraine’s’ need for emergency funding vary from $12- $30 billion this year. On the world scale these are relatively small sums – the bailout for Greece amounts to 237 billion euros - and small change in relation to the trillions pumped into the financial system in the wake of the 2007-8 crash.

Some have even suggested that the emerging Ukrainian government should approach former citizen Jan Koum for help. He has just sold his instant mobile messaging application WhatsApp to Facebook for $19bn. More seriously, the IMF will only lend to a stable government, one that is prepared to impose a severe programme of austerity on its restive population.

That is certain to lead to further social upheaval. Ukraine’s struggle for political and economic self-determination has only just begun.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In case you missed it, here's hot news from the TUC

As tumultuous world events like the uprising in Ukraine, the direct democracy movement sweeping Bosnia, the Syrian civil war etc etc grab your attention, you may have missed a momentous announcement by the Trades Union Congress here in Britain. There is to be a mass demonstration in – wait for it – October!

Yes, in eight months’ time we are being invited to march through London to a rally in Hyde Park.  Not on a weekday because that might involve people going on strike (God forbid) to take part. No, as usual, we will all walk calmly through the centre of the city on a Saturday afternoon.

There, if you care to stay for the rally, you will hear speeches from TUC luminaries and probably Labour leader Ed Miliband. They will be standing under the banner of “Britain Needs a Pay Rise”. Not workers, you notice, but “Britain”.

Stirring stuff, eh? 

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was billed as an anti-government action, to condemn the ConDems for slaughtering living standards in the wake of a capitalist crisis workers are not responsible for. But no, “Britain Needs a Pay Rise” is actually demanding that everyone gets a share “in the recovery”.

Far from opposing the wretched Coalition, this is actually buying into their claims that a “recovery” is taking place. In fact, as even George Osborne has had to acknowledge, any “growth” is driven by debt and the housing market. In fact it resembles a new bubble waiting to burst along the lines of the 2008 calamity. As the 1930s song goes:
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.

Back to the TUC on October 18 and its general secretary Frances O’Grady. She says in the call-out for the demo that “hard-pressed families across the UK must be beginning to wonder when the tough times they are experiencing will ever end.” Actually, just as many are wondering whether the TUC will ever get off its bureaucratic backside and lead some real resistance.

The real value of average wages was falling before the recession and they have declined more rapidly since 2010. Pay-day loans have soared and many people have loaded up their credit cards to pay for essentials like shopping and housing costs. And where was the TUC (and Labour) while all this was happening?

O’Grady rewrites the history of the last four years when she claims that “during the dark days of recession, workers accepted that their pay might have to be frozen or even cut to save jobs”. No! The TUC alone accepted that terrible position, even though member unions opposed the government’s policies.

At the TUC Congress in 2012, for example, the leaders of Unison and Unite threatened a general strike against the public sector pay freeze. TUC leaders killed that proposal stone dead. As hundreds of thousands of jobs were culled by local councils and other public bodies, the TUC sat on its hands.

Instead, we have the ritual of the annual demo. This year’s will be the fourth in a row. A chance to let off steam by marching around town and then going home. No wonder the turnout has declined year-on-year.

Meanwhile, Miliband is pledged to continue ConDem austerity should his One Nation Labour win the 2015 election. This includes retaining the present public sector pay freeze. His latest wheeze is a plan to give employers a taxpayer subsidy to pay the “living wage” (which is actually a subsistence wage).

So when O’Grady tell us that “the time has come for Britain to get a pay rise” she reduces a pressing need to a fatuous slogan. For her information, countries don’t get pay increases, workers do. That’s why people formed unions in the first place and in 1868 came together to launch the TUC. For the present leadership at Congress House, all this history is bunk. 

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, February 24, 2014

Penguin capitulates to book banning in India

Penguin India is now in the business of banning books, in an action that has shocked writers and free speech campaigners inside and outside the country. The publisher is recalling all copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History, will pulp them and ensure their withdrawal “from the Bharat” (Indian territory) within a period “not exceeding six (6) months”.

That pledge is revealed in an extract from the minutes of an agreement between Penguin and an 84-year-old school principal, Dinanath Batra. Penguin’s capitulation before Batra’s offensive is shocking. Batra has denounced Wendy Doniger’s book as “malicious”, “dirty” and “perverse”.

He is a cat’s paw for the Save Education Movement (Shiksha Andolan Bachao), a Hindu fundamentalist group. It wants to purge India’s education and bookshops of all texts that it believes threaten Hindu culture. There is a wider political context as India prepares for general elections in three months time. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to score a major victory over the secular Congress Party.

The ban and pulping has aroused a torrent of anger and protest from scores of Indian writers, film makers, journalists, historians, novelist Arundhati Roy and many in the Hindu press. Roy has challenging the Indian state over many issues, including its repression in Kashmir and has courageously denounced BJP leader Narendra Modi.

Business interests have succeeded in suppressing investigative books and art. One of India’s most celebrated painters, the late Maqbool Fida Husain, was forced to flee the country in 2006 after attacks on his paintings.

Mukul Kesavan, a distinguished historian and cricket writer, has documented the retreat before the nationalists not only by Penguin India, but other publishers including Bloomsbury India and Oxford University Press which have recently withdrawn titles.

Kesavan writes: “Penguin’s response to intimidation-by-litigation is even more dismaying. First, the case against the book seems borderline farcical. Doniger’s sins of commission include allegedly erroneous dates, inaccurate maps, her use of psychoanalytic categories and offensive metaphors as well as ‘Christian missionary zeal’. Wendy Doniger is Jewish. If there ever was a test case that a publisher stood to win, it was this one.”

The assault on writers runs far deeper than an attack on freedom of speech in India. It is an expression of a deep and growing political and cultural crisis as globalisation has failed to deliver for the mass of Indians. The long-term inability of the Congress Party to fulfil the aspirations of its supporters as it seeks to cling on to power is self-evident.

As the DNA website notes:  “The best that can be said for the [Indian] state is that it is equal opportunity in its cravenness, willing to back obscurantists of all stripes. If it quailed at the prospect of angering hard line Muslim elements with Rushdie, Nasreen and R V Bhasin, it has accommodated Christian outrage when it comes to the Da Vinci Code and the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism who took outrage at Ramanujan and Doniger.”

India is part of the “Fragile Five”, as the market economies of Brazil, South Africa,  Turkey and Indonesia have become known. Their rampant growth rates have slowed down. The modernisation wrought by India’s entry into the global economy has been accompanied by a shocking crisis amongst its small farmers, once the country’s economic backbone.

In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, for example, more than 290,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. In India, as in the other Fragile Fives and Brics, like Russia, China, Brazil and Turkey – not to mention Ukraine -  the heavy hand of censorship and repression of journalist countries poses the question of who holds power.

In India,  “no one in the country or outside it quite knows how the country is run”, according to one political commentator, Annika Neujahr. This does indeed raise fundamental constitutional and philosophical questions in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary

Friday, February 21, 2014

Ukrainians die for themselves, not East or West

The portrayal of the uprising against Ukraine’s government in Kiev and other cites as simply an East-West tug-of-war is a superficial viewpoint that insults those slaughtered by snipers on the streets of the country’s capital yesterday. Ukrainians are actually dying to remove a corrupt regime that represents only the oligarchs.

Neither should anyone be fooled by the crocodile tears shed by the White House and the EU for the dead of Kiev. Safe to say that if protests against governments in any of these capitals reach the fever pitch shown in Kiev, troops and armed para-militaries would quickly be on the streets and a state of emergency declared.

While it is true that far right forces around Svoboda are prominent in the fighting, there is no clear, unifying agenda in Maidan Square. People of all classes have rallied to an anti-government movement but without a perspective of what happens next. This is characteristic of global uprisings that began with the Arab Spring and that have spread to many countries since, taking different forms each time.

In Ukraine, opposition political parties, who play with populism just as much as Victor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, do not control the crowds that have taken the square. The direct action Common Cause group has seized many buildings and is for the dissolution of the state while the fascists draw their support from disenchanted workers in western cities and the middle-class in Kiev.

But as one observer put it: “Yet they do not go there [Maidan Square] for the West or against the East. They go for themselves and against the regime that victimises them… not in the name of a political system or even a particular politician, but for the rule of law and open borders.” 

The fact that the fighting has spread to the mainly-Russian speaking city of Kharkiv in the east adds substance to this point. "The price of freedom is too high. But Ukrainians are paying it," Viktor Danilyuk, a 30-year-old protester, said in Kiev yesterday. "We have no choice. The government isn't hearing us.”

They may not seem revolutionary enough for some people but these demands, as modest as they appear, are sufficient to produce a violent confrontation with a government and state that cannot rule for Ukrainians as a whole. Where that leads depends on other factors, including the crucial question of leadership and organisations that can transcend nationalism and the rule of the oligarchs.

Ukrainian oligarchs control large parts of the country's economy and are prominent in the ruling Party of the Regions, and control over 80 MPs. Orysia Lutsevych, researcher for the Chatham House think tank, notes: “In Ukraine, the fusion of business and politics is more the rule than the exception. Holding high legislative and executive office provides access to a patronage system, protection for business, access to public finance, and immunity from prosecution."

The businesses of Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, the main financial backer of the regime, obtained 31% of all state tenders in January 2014. The president’s son Oleksandr tops even this, having "won" 50% of state contracts in the same period. Father and son have stashed away vast sums of wealth in Western Europe.

Ukraine’s economy has been badly affected by the global crisis, particularly since the middle of 2012. Borrowing heavily both from Russia and the International Monetary Fund has left the Yanukovych government caught in the middle. Russia wants Ukraine drawn into a customs union of its own while the European Union sees 50 million potential new consumers.

Either way, the prospect for Ukraine’s workers is lower living standards either within an authoritarian, Russian sphere whose capitalist economy is badly affected by falling oil prices and an EU dominated by austerity and mass unemployment. Not so much an East-West tug-of-war as an East-West nightmare. Other, revolutionary solutions that rise above borders, beckon.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Co-op has totally lost its way

Admitting that it has lost touch with “its customers and members and with the communities in which it operates”, the Co-op is at a crossroads. After the near collapse of its bank, the Co-op is asking anyone and everyone to help determine the organisation’s future direction.

Crucial to its history and current identity, the Co-op makes a big contribution, via its own political party, to the Labour Party. The two parties maintain an electoral alliance – candidates who want to stand on the Co-op ticket have to be members of the Labour Party and appear on ballot papers as Labour Co-operative. 

The Co-operative Party is completely dependent on its income from the group’s trading activities. In 2012 the group donated a total of £805,000 to the party and its councillors. This included donations to 32 Labour and Co-operative MPs, as well as a one-off £50,000 grant to the office of the shadow cabinet.

At first sight, consulting widely by opening up a questionnaire to whoever wants to spend 20 minutes answering the questions might seem like a democratic move, but:

Q. where does it leave the more than 6 million members who’ve loyally stood by the organisation, liking and respecting its principles for decades?
A. Left by the wayside.

Euan Sutherland became group chief executive last May, from a career in for-profit companies including Coca-Cola, Curry’s and Superdrug. Peter Hunt, the former general secretary of the Co-operative Party, accuses him of threatening the abolition of the party.

The question that’s worrying the Co-operative and Labour parties is this one:

Q. To what extent do you think it is appropriate or inappropriate for big businesses to donate money to political parties?
A. It won’t stop huge donations to the Tories from the oil and banking industries.  But it does attempt to bury the Co-op’s ethos by equating it with all other businesses. According to the answers to the wide-open questionnaire, it could lead to the end of the Co-operative and Labour parties. 

Over the years, the democratic process has been largely reduced to becoming part of the corporate branding, giving its members a sense of belonging.  You won’t find many members even knowing how they could attempt to influence the big, or even small decisions. Those that have tried, for example, to get the Co-op to source some of its food offering locally have been disappointed, despite its claims to be in favour of a sustainable society and economy. So questions on that issue don’t impress.

Q. Is this questionnaire a return to democracy, or a threat to it?
A. A threat.

The co-operative movement came to prominence as an attempt to defend the livelihoods of workers being wrecked by the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Today, around the world co-operatives are being widely promoted as the antidote to the effects of the global crisis. Millions of people are once again coming to the conclusion that the unsustainable for-profit chase after growth is a dead-end and has to be replaced.

But that isn’t an option offered in the questionnaire. You can agree or disagree with the idea that the Co-op “is not just for profit”, but not whether it should be not for profit at all. You can agree or disagree with statement that “the Co-op supports and drives growth in the local economy”, but not whether this kind of growth is a bad or a good thing.

But there is an open-ended question you can answer:

Q. What, if anything, should The Co-operative do to encourage more people to shop with it?
A. become a not-for-profit enterprise run by its members through a participative democratic process. Campaign to ensure that all enterprises follow a similar model, ending the for-profit exploitation of people and planet.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Housing misery built into the system

Soaring house prices, a frenzied housing market, unaffordable rents and massive overcrowding. Welcome to ConDem Britain 2014, where only the wealthy can get a decent roof over their heads while those in genuine need can only stand and watch.

The average asking price on the Rightmove property website jumped by £8,103 in January and a typical property is now costing £252,000. But that’s a national average. Live in London and you can expect to pay around £500,000 to get on to the bottom of the “housing ladder”.

House prices soared by over 11% in the capital last year and the pace of increase is continuing. Bubble-like conditions are making first-time buyers stretch themselves too far, says the Money Advice Service. It researched 1,000 first-timers who had bought over the past two years, and found that one in five wished they had bought somewhere cheaper.

More than half admitted that the running cost of their first home was also more than expected, prompting the service to warn buyers: "You can afford your mortgage, but can you afford your home?" Affordability is most stretched in London and the south-east. One estate agent said that over the past year, the average property it sold in London went up by 18.4% to £448,800, a rise of £69,784 over the year, double the average salary of a Londoner.

Private renting is the only option as local councils and housing associations have few properties available for households without children. But it’s not a cheap alternative to a mortgage. Official figures show that average weekly rents are more than 50% of average local wages in more than half of London’s boroughs.

In Kensington and Chelsea, average weekly rents were a staggering 73% of local wages, and 71% per cent in Westminster. Even in poorer areas like Hackney and Southwark, the ratio was still over 50%. No wonder reports are growing of  young people actually moving back in with their parents to save on housing costs.

Adding to the pressure in London are cash-rich buyers from the Middle East, Russia and other areas who can plonk down ill-gotten gains at the estate agents. They are completely indifferent to the prices being paid.

Labour leader Ed Miliband’s call to make these homes available to London residents first is no solution. Firstly, they are out of the reach of most people who are not already home owners. Secondly, it would be a nightmare to enforce. Building more new towns is just another way of saying London is a rich man’s playground and that’s how it’s going to stay.

For a long post-war period, local authorities built millions of homes for rent, enabling most new households to find somewhere to live. Rents in the private sector were controlled. Since the early 1980s, a housing market driven primarily by the obsession with owner-occupation has replaced state intervention.  

It coincided with the deregulation of the financial system that provided anyone who wanted it with endless amounts of credit. Not enough money to pay your mortgage? Don’t worry, just borrow five, six or seven times your annual income.

In the ten years to 2007, real average house prices doubled while disposable income only rose by 15% in the same period. In London, prices soared by over 350% over the first decade of the Blair government. It couldn’t last and it didn’t. Come the 2008 meltdown, mortgages dried up while the house price bubble was maintained by a shortage of supply.  

In the 19th century, Frederick Engels wrote about the “so-called housing shortage, which plays such a great role in the press nowadays” and asked rhetorically:

How is the housing question to be solved then? In present-day society just as any other social question is solved: by the gradual economic adjustment of supply and demand, a solution which ever reproduces the question itself anew and therefore is no solution.

Capitalism actually recreates shortages in housing and other areas over and over again because that’s the way it works. A system that feeds on human misery is immoral and unacceptable.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, February 17, 2014

'Death to nationalism' is message of Bosnia uprising

A feature of revolutionary times is when people’s movements decide to take matters into their own hands and throw up new forms of democracy. That’s what we are witnessing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where people of all ages – from teenagers to the very old –  are engaging in an experiment in self-government.

The first people’s uprising of 2014 began in Tuzla, north-east Bosnia, an impoverished industrial city of 200,000 on February 4. The town has an unemployment rate of 55%, the highest in the country, while youth unemployment runs at 63%.

As the city administration handed in its resignation, a revolutionary organisational body called the “plenum” made its appearance. The idea of plenums quickly spread around the country, as one website explained:

“All over Bosnia, protesters are organising ‘plenums’, places where people can gather and try to formulate their demands. The participants are defining their rules, moderating the plenums by themselves, and, after summing up, sending their demands to cantonal assembles.”

In doing so they are shattering the clichéd image of a former Yugoslavia entirely riven by ethnic and religious conflicts. And the plenums revive a hidden but powerful aspect of former Yugoslavia’s  history, hitherto buried under nationalist propaganda and image-making. As Mate Kapović writes:

“The most impressive and symbolic picture of the first few days of the rebellion was the one depicting a burning government building in Tuzla, the city where it all began, with the graffiti ‘death to nationalism’ written on it. Since nationalism has long been a favourite refuge of the country’s political elites, who used it to justify their political and economic oppression, this was indeed a powerful message.”

The legacy of the Dayton Agreement, imposed by Nato and Bosnia’s presidents in December 1995, were, as the campaigning movement Bosanski Kongres says, “enormous labyrinths of government bureaucracy, with parliaments, prime ministers and presidents for each and every entity, canton and district”. Consequently, an impoverished population of under four million people was burdened by taxation to support a bloated bureaucracy.

Following the February 4 street protests, this dysfunctional state has gone into meltdown. Prime ministers in the cantons of Bosnia and Herzegovina handed in their resignations, but not before sending out security forces to brutally beat up demonstrators.   

Given the historic former ties with neighbouring Croatia and Serbia, corrupt political elites throughout former Yugoslavia are terrified that the “Bosnia revolution” could spread.  Solidarity demonstrations were held in Serbia, for example. 

The Balkan spring was heralded three years ago, at the height of the Arab spring and global occupy movements by Facebook protests. What has made Bosnia special– then and now - is that, as Kapović notes, “it was the first time that openly anti-capitalist messages were displayed in any of the post-Yugoslav countries”.

Until now, the image projected by the media about Bosnia-Herzogovina has been dominated by cruel ethnic and religious conflicts which have undoubtedly shaped its history. It was in Srebrenica that some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serb forces in July 1995, despite being under UN protection.  

It was the assassination of Habsburg scion Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked the outbreak of World War I a century ago. Today, the same area of the world can send a different kind of signal. Plenums of the kind being developed in Tuzla and elsewhere look back to the experiences of soviets in pre and post-1917 revolutionary Russia, the post-war Yugoslav and Hungarian workers’ councils, and more recently, the Occupy movements that swept the world in 2011-2012.

Plenums, like people’s assemblies, offer democratic forms of decision-making, ownership and control in place of top-down, capitalist state bureaucracy. Thus the people of this small but crucial state can be a real inspiration everywhere.  

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Response to flooding shows the system isn't working

The current weather crisis has shown up the illegitimacy of politicians in charge of a system that is unable and unwilling to act for the common good. They greatly fear this exposure – it's the reason for the tide of government rhetoric about "money no object" and promises of future help.

In 2010, government chief scientist Sir David King warned of the need to plan for increased floods resulting from climate change. He proposed pulling flood defences inland, sacrificing some areas to the sea, establishing flood plains at the heads of rivers, modernising weirs, widening bridges and replacing sewers to separate sewage and floodwater.

This is the current policy of the Environment Agency and it has a backlog of hundreds of measures based on this approach. It can't complete them because of cuts and a Treasury rule that they can't invest more than £400,000 in any one project. The government's fantasy was that business and the insurance industry would step up as co-funders. As a result, of course, nothing happened.

The Met Office explains that the storms have their source in south-east Asia, where warming seas are evaporating huge quantities of water into the atmosphere. This caused a weather "chain reaction" which disrupted the Pacific jet stream, diverting it over north America and causing the extremely cold conditions there. This in turn affected the Atlantic jet stream, which moved more and more rapidly, bringing storm after storm to Britain and Ireland.

But Lord Lawson, former Tory Chancellor, knows better. He berated the Met Office for suggesting climate change could be involved. Instead, the floods should spur the government to stop spending untold millions littering the countryside with pylons and solar panels. This at a time when 80,000 homes are without power and probably the only  people with electricity are those with their own solar panels or turbines!

But it isn't just the Tory fringe who deny climate change as energy and climate change Secretary Ed Davey suggests in a speech today. Cabinet member and environment secretary Owen Paterson thinks climate change has been happening for centuries and is great because farmers will get longer growing seasons! Transport secretary Philip Hammond yesterday blamed "natural solar rhythms” for the weather. Help, we’ve been transported back to the Middle Ages!

David Cameron only “very much suspects” that the flooding is linked to climate change. He is running scared of the lunatics in his own party and Ukip (remember the Ukip councillor who said the floods were God’s retribution after the passing of the gay marriage law?) His chancellor is not a denier, he's a couldn't-care-lesser, a fossil-fuel profit freak, whose response to soaring energy costs was to let the Big Six drop spending on energy saving or renewables.

The ConDems want the UK fracked to bits and Somerset – which is largely under water - is one of the areas earmarked. You don't have to imagine the effect on water quality of flooded wells and waste water ponds. It happened in Colorado last year – as the headline here says: "Flooding and Fracking - a double disaster".

When King published his report he thought the floods would come in the 2030s at the earliest, and yet here's the wild weather, two decades early, and not only in Britain but across the world. Capitalist states thought they could treat climate change like they do the electorate – blandish, fool and bully people, whilst permitting corporate business as usual. 

The only issue now is whether we are prepared to permit them to go on down this road. There is nothing in it for us to maintain the status quo. Politicians of any political stripe wading about flooded towns won't help us.

We are on our own here, and so we should put all the resources at our disposal under democratic local control and start acting co-operatively to prepare for what is ahead, including halting any plans to increase fossil fuel burning.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

New banking crisis looms as credit crunch returns

Around the world’s biggest economies, gears are being thrown into reverse as credit, liquidity, broad money, leverage – whatever name you give it – turns from the antidote to recession to the source of volatility and a potent systemic threat.

Behind the optimistic PR spin of recovery, signs of growth, falling unemployment, etc., can be heard the unmistakeable beat of very different drums. Joining the credit squeeze by the financial big-shots –  the central banks of the USA and China – comes Danièle Nouy, the eurozone’s new chief banking regulator.

He is  warning that some of the region’s lenders should be allowed to collapse. “We have to accept that some banks have no future,” she said, anticipating imminent “stress tests” of the sector by the European Central Bank. “We have to let some disappear in an orderly fashion, and not necessarily try to merge them with other institutions.”

As the credit noose is tightened, warnings of debt-deflation grow louder. In contrast to inflation, which erodes the real value of loans, making it easier for borrowers to repay, deflation does the opposite. It makes money dearer, raising the burden of repaying existing loans — and it adds to the stress on fragile banks that hold the loans when borrowers cannot repay.

Just imagine what must be under discussion behind closed doors as inflation slows throughout Europe, and prices fall in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, whilst those in Japan look like heading back in the same direction. What can be going through the heads of the ministers of finance in the heavily-indebted countries – like the UK, United States, Japan?  Let alone those in the IMF’s list of 39 heavily- indebted poor countries.

These are among the contradictory pressures that prompted Christine Lagarde’s plea for a new Bretton Woods post-war type meeting. The head of the International Monetary Fund is clearly concerned that unless concerted action is taken, the present stagnation will turn into a full-blown slump.

Her plan is a non-starter. The co-ordinated action that took place to rescue the banks in 2007-8 has given way to every capitalist for themselves. And tensions are growing between economies over scarce resources.

The Spratlys are a group of islands in the South China Sea, in a region hosting estimated oil and gas reserves which place it fourth in the world. The region is also one of the world's most productive areas for commercial fishing, accounting for 35% of the world’s catch in 2010. 

And it is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. More than half of the world's sea-going traffic, by tonnage, passes through the region's waters every year. Tanker traffic is three times greater than through the Suez Canal and five times more than through the Panama Canal. A quarter of the world's crude oil passes through.

No wonder that disputes have simmered since the first oil discoveries were made there in the late 1960s. Until recently, six countries – China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei – were contesting rights over parts of the territory. Now the USA is making threatening noises in response to new claims by China.

US assistant secretary of State for East Asian Danny Russel told Congress that China's vague territorial claims had "created uncertainty, insecurity and instability" among its neighbours. "There are growing concerns that this pattern of behaviour in the South China Sea reflects incremental effort by China to assert control over the area.”  

Relations between China and Japan have deteriorated over a separate territorial row involving islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China. Last year, China announced an air defence zone in the East China Sea, and said that aircraft flying through the zone must follow its rules.
The United States, Japan and South Korea have ignored this declaration and flown military aircraft through the zone. Politics, nationalism, economic resources and territorial claims mixed with military aggression are, as always, a heady brew. Welcome to the global economy 2014.

Gerry Gold
Economics Editor

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Miliband's praise for Thatcher says it all

Following Ed Miliband’s speeches is a thankless task for a number of reasons. They are more often than not vague and full of phrases devoid of any obvious content. But dig a little deeper and you will find an agenda that promises a reactionary continuity in British politics.

The assault on British society that began under the Margaret Thatcher governments was carried further by New Labour from 1997-2010 and has subsequently been deepened by the ConDems. Miliband has signalled he will continue that work should next year’s election send him to Downing Street.

Last night’s lecture at The Guardian positioned the Labour leader in a line stretching all the way back to Thatcher’s governments. He praised the most destructive of prime ministers for her “sense of purpose” in driving through change, although he declined to spell out what that meant for communities all over Britain.

Miliband then outlined a programme of “public service reform” that the Blairites will be cheering. Their “reform” consisted largely of outsourcing vast areas of public spending and decision-making to the private sector in a one-sided “partnership” with the state, where the corporations always win out.

In education, this took the malign form of “academies”. These schools are essentially run by private companies outside of local authority control and are but one step away from being driven by profit making. So Miliband’s promise to give parents power to call poor-performing schools to account is nonsense because the academy system will be left in place under a future Labour government.

So too will the wrecking policies of the ConDems with regard to the National Health Service. Instead of reversing them, a future Miliband government would simply add local people to the commissioning groups of GPs that now hold the purse strings and are busily handing out contracts to the private sector.

And so it goes on. As for the surveillance state developed by New Labour and finessed by the ConDems, Miliband simply wants a “US-style debate” – whatever that is – on the gathering of personal data by the security agencies. Well, they’ve had the debate in the US and the official line is that Edward Snowden is a traitor who has betrayed his country through his whistle blowing while Chelsea Manning is locked up in prison.

Lest anyone thinks that Miliband is a threat to the state with his call to make it “accountable”, his remarks about the role of the British intelligence agencies will clear that up. He said: “My starting point in this is the intelligence services do an important job. As somebody who wants to be the prime minister of this country I know that they do an important job in seeking to keep us safe.”

That’s alright then. A little more “oversight” and we’ll all feel happier while safe in our beds at night. Meanwhile, the surveillance will continue to target legitimate protests and actions against government policies.

Only last week, Miliband won support for changes to the party’s relations with the trade unions that were a deepening of the project launched by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown back in the early 1990s. The collective approach has given way to the individualism first championed in a serious way by Thatcher.

This week he has pledged political and financial continuity, reaffirming last night that a future Labour government would make sharp spending cuts in line with ConDem budget plans. So when it comes to next year’s general election, an application of the “consumer choice” approach will invite us to hang on to our votes rather than wasting them on any of the mainstream parties. The argument that One Nation Labour will be better than the Tories is shallow and totally unconvincing.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, February 10, 2014

Palestinian kids given electric shock torture

You have to hand it to US secretary of state John Kerry. In his dream of entering the history books, he has taken on mission impossible. He is fighting tooth and nail for his version of the two-state peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians.

So much so that his relentless diplomacy has lead to an outburst by the Israeli minister of defence, Moshe Yaalon, who reportedly described Kerry as “obsessive and messianic in his quest for Mideast peace”. Kerry has also suggested that failure by the Israelis to compromise could lead to growing support for a boycott of the country, a campaign which has now established roots in the United States as well as Europe.

This led to some members of the governing coalition to accuse Kerry of anti-Semitism, which then compelled ultra-Zionist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman to defend Obama’s foreign policy chief, describing him as a “true friend of Israel”.

Negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators have now been going on for over six months, including at the Munich Security Conference a couple of weeks ago. There Henry Kissinger quipped that “nobody ever lost money betting against a Middle East peace.”

But Obama’s administration is desperate for a “legacy”. With Kerry leading the charge, it is hoping to pressurise Israel into conceding some territory in exchange for the Palestinians recognising Israel as a Jewish state.

According to prominent US writer, Thomas Friedman, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has suggested that Israeli troops could remain in the West Bank for a transitional five-year-period. And then they should be replaced by NATO forces. This is something Israel is hardly likely to agree to. Indeed, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu wants Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley for up to 40 years.

But however much the Palestinian Authority may compromise, and however much the US may hope that it can get concessions out of the Zionist state, any agreement is likely to be blown out of the water by the sheer brutality of continued Israeli occupation.

The PA has lost considerable authority amongst its constituents. While it engages in meaningless negotiations, Israeli forces have resumed assassinations of key figures in the resistance, known officially as “targeted killings”.

Leading defence correspondent Amos Harel admitted today in Haaretz, that Israel had “quietly revived” its previous policy of murdering resistance leaders. Only yesterday a targeted killing in Gaza was aimed at Abdallah Kharti, a senior member of the Popular Resistance Committees.

Today, Australian television’s ABC Four Corners programme will broadcast the findings of lawyers who say that Palestinian children are being used to gather intelligence, thus destroying their childhood innocence forever.

One 14-year-old boy was taken from his bed “during a night raid on his family home in a Palestinian village”, according to the report. Qsai Zamara said he “was whipped and threatened” into falsely confessing that he threw stones at the army. "There was this big machine with all the electric wires in it, connected to the electricity. He wanted to give me electric shock with it," he said.

Fathi Mahfouz, 15, was given electric shocks and when he didn't confess: “I was sent to a room that has a cross in it, and hung me on it. I was hung and he kept hitting me," he said. Barrister Gerard Horton has documented rape threats against young children after interviewing hundreds of them through his organisation Military Court.

Lawyer Gaby Lasky, who represents Palestinian children before Israel’s military courts, said on the BBC’s World Service this morning, that the army aimed to use children as informants. Horton backed her up account, saying children were offered a combination of money and threats to give information.

While the United Nations children’s organisation UNICEF has deliberately played down Israel’s abuse of children, it is so bad that a group of 850 serving and former Israeli soldiers, speaking through Breaking the Silence, have also been highlighting the issue.

This is a policy of terror by a state that has no intention of giving up any territory or removing any of the 250,000 settlers from the West Bank. For the Zionists, the demonisation of Palestinians is crucial to their own raison d’être and rule. Whatever deal Kerry brokers, it won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary 

Friday, February 07, 2014

It's kick-off time in Brazil

When protesters seize a transport hub in a protest against fare increases, allowing passengers to travel free for a short time, you can understand why Brazil’s authorities are preparing to establish an armed camp for this year’s World Cup.

Brazil is a social tinder pot, a county where endemic corruption and decaying public services constantly drive people on to the streets. Spending billions on a football tournament has proved the last straw for many.

As the comparative stately 48-hour Tube strike drew to a close in London, a march in Rio was heading for the city’s Central Station in protest against fare rises of nearly 10%."We want Fifa-standard hospitals too," marchers shouted, making reference to the high standards demanded by the World Cup organisers for the event's venues.

As they reached their destination, some activists leaped over the barriers and before long a crowd had taken control of the station. The riot police showed up and in the clashes that followed, many were injured. They included a cameraman who was apparently the victim of a police tear gas grenade. He suffered terrible head injuries.

Last year, similar protests that began in Sao Paulo grew into a nationwide movement against corruption and excessive spending ahead of the tournament, which begins in June. Local authorities were forced to withdraw fare rises. Since then, the state has created a mass surveillance programme, no doubt with a little help from the United States.

According to a Reuters news agency report, the security forces are using undercover agents, intercepting e-mails, and monitoring social media to try and keep one step ahead of the protests. President Dilma Rousseff's government is terrified that actions could severely disrupt the tournament. Protests are being planned in all 12 cities that will host matches.

The state is ostensibly targeting the anarchist-inspired Black Bloc members, but the surveillance is taking in all anti-government protesters. Agents are said to have infiltrated the movement and are no doubt acting as provocateurs with the intention of getting activists arrested before the World Cup kicks off.

Ironically, Rousseff herself was the target of the military government that ruled Brazil from 1964-85. A genuine case of poacher turned gamekeeper. She is also mobilising at least 100,000 security personnel across Brazil for the World Cup itself. That’s twice as many as were deployed for the 2013 Confederations Cup which drew mass protests. As well as police and military, members of the elite National Force unit will be “ready to intervene where necessary”, according to Andrei Rodrigues, special secretary for security and safety at major events.
Rafael Alcadipani, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation business school who has researched the group and interviewed its members, says the Black Blocs "believe that the Brazilian political system is broken and that it doesn't represent them".  said. "As long as the government doesn't address the main issues, people are going to keep protesting," said Alcadipani. "Nothing has changed since last June."

Actually what has changed is the Brazilian economy. A slowing growth rate – the economy shrank in the third quarter of last year for the first time since 2009 - has prompted global investors to pull out their cash, causing the real to depreciate by nearly 20% against the dollar in the last year. That makes imports much dearer for ordinary Brazilians. Abnormally dry weather could threaten agricultural produce and exports, deepening the crisis.

Brazil may be one of the favourites for the tournament but, to coin a phrase, it’s kicking off all over the country and football is likely to take second place to a continuing social upheaval in the world’s fifth largest country. The system is not only broken – it can’t be fixed.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Memo to Cameron: Floods are actually in charge of us

There had to be a moment when a changed climate resulting from global warming caused persistent extreme weather. With horrific storms and floods in Britain and France, the worst drought in California since records began and temperatures over 40º in Australia, that moment has arrived.

David Cameron is now "in charge of the floods" – but in reality the floods are in charge of us.  
Thousands of people are without power, roads are impassable, the sea is encroaching into town centres and breaking down sea walls. Some villages have been cut off for weeks, all normal life put on hold. Yesterday police helicopters cruised the Somerset levels, warning people to leave their homes.

Cameron announced the ConDem government will contribute an extra £100m (literally a drop in the ocean) and stated "there is no limit to what this government will do - whether it is dredging the rivers Tone and Parrett (on the Somerset levels), whether it is support for our emergency services, whether it is fresh money for flood defences, whether it is action across the board, this Government will help those families and get this issue sorted".

But it can't be "sorted" in that sense. Quick fixes are of no use here.

In the medium term, Devon and Cornwall are going to be cut out of the rail network for as long as six months and probably longer if it proves unrealistic to rebuild along the coastal route.

In the longer term, there will be a massive speed up of coastal erosion. We have seen the beginnings of that this month. Villages that have existed since medieval times may become uninhabitable.

Dredging the Somerset levels is a disastrous idea. It will force streams and rivers into unnatural gorges, where water will rush towards the sea, spilling over every time it hits a pinch point - say a bridge. Villages and farms on the levels will see a slight diminution of floods but the water will burst river banks in towns like Taunton.

There is another way, which is to accept that during winter storms some farm land will be flooded. Adding huge quantities of organic matter to the fields - that is compost - would ensure they hold the water and drain well when the storms end. This would mean turning away from chemical farming.

We need to create open space in towns and cities. We need to stop building on flood plains and where have already done it, take urgent measures to improve drainage. The environment agency wants to regulate so new housing developments must be built with a soak-away - open land to hold excess water when rainfall is too much for sewer drains. But the construction industry opposes this simple measure, because they would not be able to crush quite so many homes on to every site.

The system of capitalist economy privileges private ownership and profit above all other considerations, and our market state governments have become simply another facet of this whole. The idea the state should pay for infrastructure has been rubbished for decades. The days when they could act in opposition to business interests in the public interest have long gone.

Climate change will increasingly create chaotic social conditions and we know that governments' first response to disorder is generally to crack down on the population. But they can't crack down on the weather - it's bigger than all of us.

It has become clear during the floods that people have had to rely on their own resilience and social solidarity to get through. A hands-off state has proved incompetent and unable to prepare for what was on the cards. This is true on a regional, national and global scale as well.

The lessons are pretty stark. Society’s resources have to be marshalled in a co-operative and democratic way so we can decide how best to respond to extreme weather, which is here to stay. Weather is now first and foremost a political question of power. At the moment, it’s in the hands of incompetent politicians and their developer friends. That's what has to change.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Sick global economy hit by new contagion

The list of countries hit by the wave of withdrawal of speculative investment capital lengthens by the day. Countries amounting to half the global economy are being forced to spend currency reserves, raise interest rates and consider controls over the movement of capital.

A contagion of capital flight is hitting Argentina, India, Indonesia, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hungary and Turkey. A dramatic reversal in the global marketplace, which began in May and is accelerating with every new shock statistic, is forcing the governments of “emerging” economies to savage the living standards for their already low-income populations.

Each country has a different story to tell: worse or better attempts at managing their economies; higher or lower levels of foreign currency reserves; more or less extremes of corruption of government ministers; levels of civil unrest ranging from the benign to insurrectionary. But the source of the crisis invading their borders lies elsewhere, beyond their control. 

Investors on the global financial markets – better known as speculators, or gamblers – were spooked last May by the US Federal Reserve’s announcement of its intentions to begin reducing its $85 billion per month programme of credit creation. The withdrawal of funds – known by the jargon quantitative easing – began soon after and has recently been accelerated.

The Fed will have taken many factors into account in the central bank’s decision to reverse the programme of credit creation which – together with the sharp reduction in take-home pay – has been a key factor in the jobless economic “recovery” following the 2007-8 crash. 

Ballooning levels of “margin debt” figured high among the triggers for the decision.  These are investments made with money borrowed on the expectation that the Fed would continue pumping credit into the economy. Indicators suggested that these investments had reached danger levels, threatening another financial collapse.

China’s central bank is also being obliged to follow a similar path. Having fought the global recession with a huge programme of credit-financed construction of cities, roads and railways it recently made tentative steps in opening its borders to volatile international investors.

Some analysts estimate that foreign financial institutions now have almost $1 trillion tied up in the Chinese economy, either as investment in or loans to corporations. George Magnus, senior independent economist at UBS, says that the Chinese banking system resembles that of Japan during the 1980s in the years leading up to that country’s financial crash.

“If the dollar were to appreciate it could cause problems for those banks that have borrowed in dollars. Anywhere you have a banking system that uses a non-domestic currency, there is a possibility of a mismatch that could cause issues when the value of your liabilities runs away from you,” said Magnus.

In China, which became the manufacturing powerhouse for the global corporations in the last century, growth has slowed for 11 of the last 14 quarters. The Markit/HSBC manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index fell to a six-month low of 49.5 in January, suggesting the overall factory sector contracted again from December.

With 50 being the dividing line between growth and contraction, the omens are very bad indeed for a global economy depending on China sucking in raw materials and components and assembling them for sale back to the richer half of the world.

In the US, manufacturing grew at a substantially slower pace last month as new order growth plunged the most in 33 years. Some blamed the severe weather, as if things will improve along with the seasons. So the world’s two biggest economies are in deepening trouble.

Assessing the long-term prospects for humanity including the impact of environmental degradation and climate change, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, is calling for a new Bretton Woods arrangement.

She said in a BBC lecture that such a meeting was needed to restore economic sustainability and reduce global tensions. She was invoking the spirit of multilateralism and a return to the “brotherhood of man” philosophy promoted by economist John Maynard Keynes at the 1944 meeting in the United States.

To this listener her lecture invoked only the spirit of Humpty Dumpty. She would be better off getting ready for global Meltdown II.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Miliband marches in Blair's footsteps

When Labour’s national executive committee today rubber-stamps plans to “reform” the party’s historic relations with the trade unions, it will put the finishing touches to a long-term project to bring the party’s organisation into line with what it actually stands for.

Many sins have been committed in the name of “modernisation”, not least the creation of New Labour as a party wholeheartedly committed to corporate globalisation and an economy pretty much dominated by market forces. Add a little “light-touch” regulation and you could be looking at any of the mainstream political parties.

For New Labour – now rebranded as One Nation Labour – this has been a project that began with Neil Kinnock in the late 1980s and was carried on by his successor, John Smith. Ed Miliband, the current leader, is proud to march in their footsteps. He said last week:

"The first time I met Tony Blair was in 1993 and at the time he was on a group helping John Smith bring in one member, one vote for the selection of parliamentary candidates. I remember him looking at me and saying how difficult change was proving to be. At the very first party conference I attended, Smith – with the help of a speech by John Prescott – got those reforms through.

"Smith, Blair and Neil Kinnock have all embarked on these kinds of reforms over the past 30 years and I see this as completing that work. They are significantly bigger than anyone expected we would be proposing, and some are the biggest to the party since its formation."

Of course, Blair and Gordon Brown famously persuaded the trade unions to vote in 1995 for the abolition of Clause 4 of the party’s constitution that set out common ownership of the means of production as an aim. Union leaders did so in the hope that an incoming New Labour government would deliver policies to benefit their members. How wrong they were!

Today’s generation of union leaders are just as pathetic. With a few moans and groans here and there, the big three – Unite, Unison and the GMB – will back Miliband’s plans. They will be told, as they were in 1995, that the election of Labour in next year’s general election depends on it.

Miliband has to persuade the middle-class that One Nation Labour has broken free from union influence. So the way the party leader is elected will change to one member, one vote. At union level, individual members of affiliated unions will in future have to “opt in” to become associate members of the Labour Party. The last time that happened was in 1927, when in the wake of the General Strike, the Tories passed opt-in legislation (which Labour repealed after 1945).

The aim then was to weaken the collective in favour of the individual. And so it is with Miliband, whatever he says about “letting people back into our politics”. Miliband used the Falkirk selection farrago – which is par for the course in Labour constituencies – as the pretext for the changes.

In a wider context, Labour is part of the process of the end of the old politics and these changes won’t alter that fact. The mainstream parties are no more than state managers rather than independent actors, there to facilitate for powerful forces rather than respond to electors. This corporatocracy is so unattractive that millions have switched off party politics and the electoral fraud that goes under the name of a general election.

One Nation Labour is for continuing ConDem austerity and giving tax subsidies to companies to pay better wages. Miliband wants to “improve” the way markets work (as if he could!) and show that his party is for nothing less than “responsible capitalism”. I’d have to be dragged to a polling station to vote for that. And if I’d got that far, I’d spoil my ballot.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor 

Monday, February 03, 2014

Ukraine insurrection against brutality and state corruption

As the anti-government movement in Maidan Square hunkers down for its tenth week of occupation in sub-zero temperatures, the battle-lines have changed. Starting as a largely pro-European Union movement last November, the remarkable courage and determination of Kiev’s people has changed the stakes.

The massive reaction of the authorities produced a defiant opposition to the brutality of the notorious security forces and to widespread state corruption. That’s why what is effectively an insurrection has spread to the eastern parts of Ukraine, despite the area’s historic ties to neighbouring Russia.

The centre of Kiev has become a charred and frozen war-zone with some of the thousands of occupiers sheltering in occupied buildings and others behind barricades made of ice. They are sustained by well-organised support from both locals and those further away.

Hundreds of women ferry food, hot drinks, blankets and medication, braving not only freezing temperatures, smoke from burning tyres, but also live bullets from plainclothes snipers, not to mention batons, tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.

At least two of the movement’s leaders have had to flee Ukraine and take refuge in neighbouring countries. There is evidence of death squads and that snipers surrounding Maidan Square are deliberately targeting protesters’ eyes.

Over 40 journalists are reported injured and there is video evidence of police beating and stripping a Cossack protester in a freezing street.

Dmytro Bulatov, the founder of Auto Maidan – which organises car owners in support of the occupation – disappeared on January 22. Two days before, Bulatov had urged opposition leaders to settle on a single protest leadership. He was only found eight days later, having been tortured by the police. Only the vigilance of his supporters prevented further beatings while he was in hospital. He has apparently now left the country.

Oleksandre Danylyuk, leader of the anti-government group Spilna Sprava which organised the occupation of three strategic buildings, fled to London last week after the police issued a warrant for his arrest. He is wanted on suspicion of !organising riots that caused the death of people or serious harm to them," according to the Interior Ministry's database of wanted people. The offense carries up to 15 years behind bars, says the Kyiv Post.

Danylyuk and Bulatov have been luckier than 50-year-old Yuri Verbizky, who was beaten and left to die of the cold in a forest near Kiev. His colleague, Ihor Lutsenko managed to escape with a concussion and missing teeth. He was rescued by a passing motorist.

Meanwhile, the website for Berkut, the state’s special police force, has been flooded with anti-Semitic materials alleging that the Jews are to blame for organising at Maidan. Berkut proudly publishes photos of its brutality to protesters.

As poet Yuri Andrukhovych has written, the state repression and collusion with autocrats like Putin has hardened the resolve of the movement. They are fired up, he says  “by an exceptionally hot mix of despair, hope, self-sacrifice and hatred”. He adds: “”Yes, hatred. Morality does not forbid hating murderers. Especially if the murderers are in power or in direct service of those in power.”

Ukraine became an independent state in 1991 for the first time in its long history, apart from a brief moment around 1918-1919. For most of the 20th century it was part of the Soviet Union. During the Stalinist period, Ukraine experienced famine during which millions died as a result of forced collectivisation.

Political independence following the break-up of the USSR did not mean economic independence from the greedy tentacles of Putin’s state in Russia, nor from their Ukraine’s own oligarchs. The transition to a full-blown capitalist economy meant poverty for the majority of Ukraine’s workers and its women in particular. After the 2008 global crash, Ukraine’s economy staggered deeper and deeper into debt.

Ukraine’s embattled president Viktor Yanukovych, who has just returned from a few days’ “rest” signed an economic pact with Russia in December rather than the EU. But the anti-government protesters are wise to the fact that there are sinister strings attached to any deal with Putin even if they don’t yet appreciate that the EU sees Ukraine as another pool of cheap labour to exploit.

There is a wide spectrum of forces at work in the Ukrainian movement, including the “Right Sector”. This has been seized up by Putin’s propaganda machine to discredit the movement. But there are also others, amongst them Narodniy Nabat (People’s Bell) and  Avtonomniy Opir (Autonomous Resistance) and Volna Zemlya (Free Land). They recognise the state as their enemy even if there is no clear view yet about what to replace it with.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary