Thursday, 18 January 2018

Does Caroline Lucas’ 3 Stage Plan to stop Brexit Stand Up?

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP for Brighton Pavilion and co-leader of the party, revealed her three point plan for the UK to remain in the European Union (EU) writing on this week. Lucas, a long standing campaigner for the country to remain in the EU, laments the paucity of the Remain campaign in the run up to the 2016 referendum on whether or not we should stay in the organisation..

Too much reliance was put on people worrying about their finances, if we left the bloc, and the scare tactics employed by the Remain campaign. This tactic had worked at the Scottish independence referendum two years earlier, but it didn’t in the EU referendum.

Lucas says that the consequences of leaving the EU are only now starting to reveal themselves, with prices rising and shortages of nurses because EU nationals are have more or less stopped applying for these jobs. With the Tory government held hostage to a faction of hard right Brexiteers, hell bent on getting as complete a break as possible with our erstwhile European partners, and even the best possible outcome will be a much worse deal than we have now.

This is all true, but we did vote to leave the EU, although leaving could mean joining the European Economic Area (EEA), Norway style, or being treated as a ‘third country’ like Canada. Lucas favours a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations between our relationship with the EU, or staying in as we are currently. But how is this to be achieved?

Lucas suggests a three stage plan. In stage one, the stay in the EU message would be made by new faces. She is right, I think, that the likes of Tony Blair, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, have no credibility with the voters, as they are seen as symbolising the establishment that many people voted against. She also suggests organising at grass roots level, but this may be easier said than done on a wide-scale basis.

Stage two ‘must be a commitment to seriously tackling the underlying issues which fuelled Brexit,’ Lucas says. This is a key point. Yes, immigration played a part in the motivation of many Leave voters, but it wasn’t the only one. There was also a ‘stick it up the establishment’ attitude, although that should have been directed at the UK government more than the EU. Lucas goes onto make the argument of the EU as a limited, but possibly more powerful buttress against global corporations, who are the real thieves of our democracy. Essentially though, there needs to be repudiation of, and break with nearly forty years of neo-liberal ideology.  

So far so good, but stage three looks to be the most problematic of all, getting the Labour party leadership on board. Lucas suggests that Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader, should sign up to the Another Europe is Possible pan European movement, which seeks to reform the EU, to the benefit of its citizens, as opposed to global corporations.

The ambiguous signals about our future relationship with the EU, coming out of the Labour leadership, must stop insists Lucas, as push comes to shove. Corbyn says we will not stay in the European single market, once we leave the EU, but Kier Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has said we will remain in the single market during a transition phase, ‘for as long as it takes’ to secure a good future arrangement with the EU. Lucas points out that 78% of Labour supporters want to remain in the EU. Fudging this issue has worked out quite well for Labour so far, but I agree with Lucas that they will have to take a side soon.

It is fair point too, that if we are to remain in the EU, it is essential that Labour backs the move, to give such a push credibility, and to tie in with part of stage 1 of this plan, to organise a grass roots movement in support of staying in the EU. Realistically, only the Labour party can do this on the scale that is needed.

Lucas cites the example of the recently formed community campaign unit in the Labour party, and with their membership numbers and general organisational infrastructure, this could be made a success of. It is hard to see a grass roots campaign achieving the critical mass to make it effective without Labour, but will they want to do this?

That is a hard question to answer, different people in the Labour party say different things about Brexit, but as the negative consequences of leaving the EU become clearer, and perhaps if the public shifts sufficiently in the remain direction, this may become a logical pathway for Labour to follow.

My feeling is that there is a long way to go with withdrawal from the EU, and pretty much anything could happen along the way. I am unconvinced that the EU will reform itself into the sort of community that Lucas describes, but maybe we should not discount even that in these volatile times. 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Carillion Collapse – If this was Iceland, those responsible would be in Jail

(PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The collapse into administration of the construction and out sourcing business Carillion, has caused waves across the political and business establishment. Tens of thousands of employees will lose their jobs and pensions, small businesses will go bust through non payment of debts and shareholders and taxpayers will lose money. Carillion employees will hardly have been cheered to hear that the government had set up a Jobcentre plus helpline, to help them find new work.

The company had 450 government contracts ranging from HS2 to providing school lunches, building hospitals, roads and maintaining 50,000 homes on military bases. They also had several private construction contracts in the middle-east.

The political fall out might lead to resignations from the government, who have plenty of questions to answer on why they kept giving contracts to a company that was known to be struggling financially? The government may also reflect on the irony of Carillion’s chairman, Philip Green, advising them on corporate responsibility. There might also be a re-think on whole practise of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals and the out sourcing of public services.

The government has said that there will be an investigation, where the conduct of directors in charge at the time of company's failure and previous directors will be examined. The Business secretary, Greg Clarke said ‘any evidence of misconduct will be taken very seriously.’ We heard similar noises after the 2008 financial crisis, but nothing really materialised. Whether it will be different this time we will have to wait and see, but I am sceptical.

The first thing that springs to mind, is what was going on with the accounting and auditing (by KPMG) of Carillion, that made it justifiable to be paying out big dividends as recently as last year, to shareholders and bonuses to senior managers, who are no doubt shareholders too?

The company issued the first of three warnings on its lack of financial health in July of last year, why was this not acted on, by the management and indeed the government? Why were they allowed to pay £83 million in share dividends last year, when their pension deficit was £580 million?

The 2008 financial crash was taken very seriously in Iceland, where politicians resigned from their posts, including the prime minister, and directors of the banks involved were imprisoned, which was made possible by the Iceland Parliament enacting new legislation to enable this. Will this happen in the UK over the Carillion affair? I somehow doubt it.

The whole area of PFI’s, Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s) and the outsourcing of public services to private contractors needs to be ended. An idea that originally originated in the US and was first introduced to the UK by the Tory government led by John Major in the 1990’s. The first scheme in the UK was the Isle of Skye road bridge, which has since been taken into public ownership by the Scottish government, after the Scottish Parliament was first established in 1999.

The new Labour UK government, elected in 1997, picked the PFI ball up and ran with it, signing hundreds of deals for the construction of new hospitals and schools, which had the advantage of the spending not being counted against public sector borrowing, but in the long run the taxpayer has paid considerably more than would have been the case with conventional government contracting. It has been quite accurately compared to buying a house on your credit card, with extortionate fees payable for usually 25 years, whether or not the facility is needed or used.

Out sourcing of public services goes back even further to the days of the Thatcher Tory government, and almost always leads to worse pay and conditions for workers, and not necessarily good quality services - think of the railways! These companies tend to avoid paying UK taxes too, by off shoring their headquarters in tax havens. And as we have seen with the Carillion case, the nature of these deals is that the profits are privatised but the risks are nationalised. So much for the entrepreneurial private sector, then.

Although there will always be government contracts for building infrastructure, these type of deals are terrible for UK tax payers and service users alike. These PFI/PPP and outsourcing service provisions should to be dispensed with, and provided without excessive profits for these private companies, and the risks to the public purse. We will likely get better, and value for money public services into the bargain, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. The current system is effectively a corporate welfare state.   

Saturday, 13 January 2018

UK Government Desperate for Trump Visit, but London Says No, No, No

On same day that US President, Donald Trump, announced that he will not after all be coming to London next month, to open the country’s new embassy in the UK, he demonstrated exactly why he is not welcome in this diverse city. The Washington Post reported that Trump, in a speech to US senators, called African nations and others such as El Salvador and Haiti ‘shithole countries.’ He questioned why so many immigrants from these countries are allowed into the US, rather from (white) countries like Norway.

Trump’s remarks drew immediate criticism in the US, with widespread condemnation as being racist in nature. The outburst was also condemned by the United Nations and the African Union (AU), with the AU saying it was ‘clearly racist.’

Trump denied he used these exact words but did admit using some ‘strong language’ but democratic senator, Dick Durbin, who attended the meeting confirmed that the reports were entirely accurate. 'He said those hate-filled things and did so repeatedly,’ according to Durbin.

It doesn’t come as exactly a surprise that Trump would say such things, with his track record of support for right-wing, racist organisations. Trump failed to condemn white supremacists in the US who drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters and his tweeting of praise for the neo-Nazi UK organisation Britain First. He tried to ban Muslims entering the US and of course has promised to build a wall on the US/Mexico border, to keep Mexicans out of the US. I could go on, the list of Trump’s racist diatribes is as long as your arm.

No surprise either then that Trump is not the sort of person that Londoners want polluting the city’s fine record on racial and ethnic integration and openness to the world generally. This is best symbolised by Sadiq Khan, the son of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant London bus driver, who is now the mayor of London.

Khan commented that Trump had ‘finally got the message’ that he was not welcome in London, after hearing of the cancellation of the visit. Khan said that if the visit had taken place there would have been a ‘huge’ demonstration in London, and implied that Trump had been scared off by the prospect of the backdrop a mass demonstration against him. Khan is right, there would have been a big protest had this visit gone ahead, Trump is very unpopular with Londoners.

Khan’s comments were immediately attacked by his immediate predecessor as London mayor, Boris Johnson, now the foreign secretary in the present Tory government. Johnson himself is no stranger to making racist controversial remarks, calling black people ‘pickaninnies with watermelon smiles,’ in the past.

True to form Johnson, using unusual words tweeted, ‘we will not allow US-UK relations to be endangered by some puffed up pompous popinjay in City Hall.’ For those unfamiliar with the word popinjay, the dictionary defines it thus:

‘a vain or conceited person, especially one who dresses or behaves extravagantly.’  

This doesn’t sound like Khan in any way, but is a reasonably accurate description of Boris Johnson himself, but he is so vain and arrogant that this probably didn’t occur to him, who is commonly thought to be an upper class twit in the UK, or at least that is the most polite description I can think of.

But the reason that Johnson and the rest of the British government are so desperate for the visit to go ahead, at some point, is that they hope to conclude a favourable trade deal with the US, to replace the likely loss of our access to the European single market, after we leave the European Union. A craven posture for sure, and frankly, embarrassing, but the only thing that seems to matter to this government, is tearing the country away from our closest neighbours. If we have to suck up to racists in the process, then so be it, it appears.

The visit may still take place at some time, and in some way, that avoids widespread protest, especially in London. When George W Bush visited the UK at the height of the Iraq war, the arrangements for the visit were carefully planned. Bush was secretly taken to an ‘old English pub’ in the middle of County Durham in the north east of England, but a demonstration in London did go ahead anyway, but maybe with less impact.

If the visit does happen at some stage, then London will protest, and I will be there. But at least this has saved me having to turn out on a cold February day this year. The message from London to the US President will be ‘Trump, no, no, no.’ Which reminds me of the great, late, London born and Jewish singer, Amy Winehouse’s hit from 2006, ‘Rehab.’ A video of the song is reproduced below. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Tories aim to portray themselves as Inclusive and Green – Are they having a Laugh?

With apparent mystery surrounding the true number of members that the Tory party has now, with new Chair of the party, Brandon Lewis, admitting they did not know. He puts this down to records being kept at local level, and not being nationally held, but did not dispute that the membership total had plunged to a rumoured 70,000.

In September last year, Conservative Home, the website for Tory activists, estimated Tory party membership at around 100,000, after a small spike in new members after the EU referendum, which appears to have been more than cancelled out by remain voting Tories leaving the party.

These are the latest available membership estimates for UK (mainland) political parties:

Labour - About 552,000 as of June 2017

Conservatives - About 149,800 as of December 2013

Scottish National Party - About 118,000 as of August 2017

Liberal Democrats - About 103,000 as of September 2017

Green Party of England and Wales - 55,500 as of March 2017

UK Independence Party - 39,000 as of July 2016 (almost certainly less now)

Plaid Cymru - About 8,300 as of 2017 

Although membership of all of the main political parties has been declining for decades, there was a surge in the membership of the SNP after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, followed by a Green surge in England and Wales in the 2015, prior to the general election, and a huge surge in Labour’s membership during and after the party’s leadership election later that year. A yearning for something different, particularly from younger people, it seems.

By contrast, a report by Tim Bale's Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London suggested at least 44% of Tory party members were over 65 and 71% were male.

All of which explains the spin around the recent government (non) reshuffle, with the Tories wanting to ‘look like the nation they seek to represent.’ The facts do not support the hype though.

According to Left Foot Forward, just five of Theresa May’s 22 Cabinet ministers are women, the same number as before the reshuffle. Men still account for almost 70% of ministers. May’s new Cabinet contains also only one ethnic minority minister, and just one who is openly LGBT.

According to the Sutton Trust, 34% of Theresa May’s new cabinet were privately educated – an increase from her first cabinet in 2016 (30%) – while 24% of the new cabinet attended selective state schools.

Clearly, the Tories are trying to spin themselves as in some way diverse, but the truth is nothing much has changed in the make-up of the government, and this is just a public relations exercise.

Meanwhile, Priti Patel, the former International Development secretary, writing on the Conservative Home website says that there is an ‘essential need for us to become a grassroots movement once again.’ The Tories have not been anything like a grass roots movement since the 1950s, when they had around 3 million members, so this looks to be a tad over ambitious.

James Cleverly, the new deputy chair of the party suggests, somewhat bizarrely, writing on the same website, that the Tories can take a leaf out of the online game Candy Crush’s book, because it is popular, especially with younger people. They are truly getting desperate.

But it’s not just new members that the Tories are trying to woo, they are looking for new voters as well. This is what is behind Theresa May, the prime minister, making a speech about the environment today. Michael Gove, the Environment secretary, has been the warm up man in this attempt to soften and broaden the Tories appeal, with a series of speeches and announcements on green issues over the last couple of weeks. They must have been watching Blue Planet 2.  

This tactic worked to some extent when David Cameron was Tory leader, when he was trying to detoxify the party’s image. Remember the ‘Go Green, Vote Blue’ slogan, which was immediately dropped when the Tories got into government, and derided as ‘green crap?’ At the same time, this government was slaughtering hundreds of thousands of badgers, making it easier for businesses to get planning permission for fracking, and harder to get for wind farms. The Tories continually break EU limits on clean air and beaches. Will anyone fall for this cynical ploy again?

I’ll tell the Tories what they need to do to attract new and younger support. Drop the hard Brexit nonsense, scrap tuition fees, build some truly affordable housing, fund the NHS properly and reduce the voting age to sixteen.

Of course, they won’t do any of these things but the Tories problem runs deeper, they are just not perceived as ‘cool’ and they never will be. There are pretty good comedians though.    

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

UK Government Reshuffle – Rearranging a Few Deck Chairs on the Titanic

After all of the hype in the media, that the prime minister, Theresa May, was going to ‘re-boot’ her Cabinet, the reshuffle of ministers on Monday was a drab affair. Apart from two Cabinet ministers going by choice, one for health reasons and one because he’d largely had enough of it, it was mostly an exercise in the same set of clowns staying put in their ministerial roles.

The reshuffle was also meant to be about the Tory party sharpening up its act on appealing to voters. Thirteen new party posts of vice chair were introduced to champion various policy areas. It remains to be seen if this will make the Tories more appealing. But it was undermined by several social media gaffe’s during the day, most notably Tory central office tweeting out the news that Chris Grayling was to be the new party chair, when he wasn’t. The tweet was quickly taken down. It did at least provide some entertainment on an otherwise uneventful day.

The normally staunchly Tory supporting Telegraph newspaper began referring to a ‘chaotic’ reshuffle, and the dye had been cast.

There was some drama when Health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, declined to be moved to the business department, where May intended swap him with Greg Clarke. Apparently, Clark was kept waiting for an hour and half whilst Hunt pleaded to be able to stay put at health. May was eventually persuaded and Hunt gained an add on to the health brief in social care.

Sajid Javid also got an add on to his title, with housing joining local government and communities, although it was already a part of the department, but overseen by a junior minister. A cosmetic change that is meant to show the government is taking the housing crisis seriously, which it isn’t really.  

The other thing this event was meant to be about was shoring up the prime minister's authority, but this was far from achieved. Not only did Hunt refuse to move from health, but Justine Greening refused to move from education, not unsurprisingly turning down the offer of work and pensions secretary in the process, and leaving the government. At last some drama.

Greening was apparently upset by media briefing against her in the last week, and suspected Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, was behind the move, because of her views on Brexit (she supported remain in the referendum). It had certainly been trailed in the media that May was irritated by Greening blocking May’s grammar schools policy. Most reports forecast Greening was for the chop.

Greening pointedly mentioned carrying on working for ‘social mobility’ as a MP, in a tweet after she resigned.

May trying to look tough though, has a habit of back-firing. When she first became prime minister she fired Nicky Morgan, George Osborne and Michael Gove. Morgan is of course one of the Tory Brexit rebels and does her best to hinder May in general. Osborne, now outside Parliament but as editor of the Evening Standard, has a powerful media weapon which he doesn’t shrink from using to criticise May and her government. Gove is back in the Cabinet weaselling away, behind May’s back. 

Greening is the MP for Putney in south west London, but only has a slender 1500 or so vote majority, it is also a strongly remain (in the EU) voting constituency, like most of London. I would say she is pretty much guaranteed to join the Tory Brexit rebel MPs group in Parliament now. The rebels have already inflicted one defeat on the prime minister, and she has just bolstered their number in Parliament.

Only eight days into the new year, and Theresa May has botched another political initiative. She clearly isn’t cut out for the role of prime minister, but she staggers on from one crisis to the next, the latest being in the health service. I predict a number of public service scandals breaking out over the year, because the government is paralysed, by the lack of a Parliamentary majority and a deep division amongst its MPs and ministers. It can’t do anything other than Brexit, and they are not making a good job of that either, for the same reasons.

More governing incompetence and national humiliation, for the sake of unity in a political party with less than 100,000 members, which continues to drag the country down uncaringly. The new year begins as the last one ended, a complete shambles.  

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Obituary - James O'Connor Pioneering Ecosocialist (1930 to 2017)

James O’Connor in 1978 (photo courtesy of the UC-Santa Cruz Digital Collections)

Sadly, James O’Connor, the American ecosocialist, died in November last year. He was an important figure in ecosocialist tradition. There are threads of the philosophy going back to Murray Bookchin in the 1960s and William Morris in the nineteenth century, and much further back in history. But O’Connor who emerged in the early 1980s as one of the first writers/thinkers to self-consciously consider themselves to be ecosocialist from a philosophical standpoint, and start to build a movement to make the theory a reality.

He developed the thesis of the second contradiction of capitalism, that is, it degrades the thing that it needs to sustain economic growth, the environment.

Written by Salvatore Engel Di Mauro and first published at Entitle Blog as part of a series of reflections.

We mourn the sudden loss of a visionary and highly influential thinker, James Richard O’Connor, co-founder with Barbara Laurence of Capitalism Nature Socialism and the Center for Political Ecology. O’Connor was a rigorous, indefatigable intellectual and a committed Polanyian Marxist activist. His thoughts have reached and shaped the minds of thousands of people, including mine, and I trust thousands more will benefit from his insights.

He wrote on a wide range of subjects of great political consequence and of continuing currency and urgency. This includes explaining, in his early works, the relationship between capitalism and the state, as well as clarifying linkages between imperialism and economic processes. The Fiscal Crisis of the State is but one of the better known of his writings that emerged from this line of research. It remains a classical piece, and one that should be read even more widely and translated into more languages than it is.

O’Connor also contributed to great theoretical strides for all of us in CNS through his latter endeavors on the ecological crisis, especially in the late 1980s. This, to me, is the germinal intellectual turning point that oversaw, with the establishment of this journal, the confluence of left-leaning ecological thought with a diversity of leftist anti-capitalist approaches, including variants of Marxism and feminism.

The creative and illuminating outcomes of this confluence and, to a larger extent, interweaving of disparate currents are among the lasting legacies bequeathed to us through O’Connor’s efforts. The development of his Second Contradiction thesis is but one shining example of what came about through such confluence of approaches, and it continues to be an inspiration (or source of debate) for many.

O’Connor’s formidable intellect was complemented by political commitment. This was reflected in, among other actions, his involvement in local environmental struggles. Part of this kind of activity was consumed by writing pamphlets accessible to a wide readership, including for the Students for Democratic Society’s educational campaigns in the 1970s and for various environmental and social policy activist groups in the 1980s.

His political commitment was also represented by his networking and organizing with intellectuals across continents to bring to the attention of North American audiences news, perspectives, and analyses of social and environmental struggles from different parts of the world. He facilitated such international information flow by creating a network of journals from Catalunya/Spain, Italy, and France, based on reciprocity and free manuscript exchange. This is one major way in which this journal came to have international breadth and reach, as well as benefit from the input of thinkers from many countries.

James O’Connor struggled in an inimical intellectual world to keep Marxist perspectives alive while critically reconstructing them to overcome their historical inadequacies, especially with respect to ecology. In all this, he did not mince words, maintained a clear political line, yet kept this journal from falling under any particular tendency, including his own. Farewell, Comrade O’Connor, intrepid navigator of still very rough political waters, and infinite thanks for your intellectual guidance and inheritance.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

UK Joining TPP – Bad for Trade, Workers and the Environment?

News comes this week that the International Trade secretary, Liam Fox, is exploring the possibility of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), when the UK leaves the European Union (EU). This trade deal is being renegotiated at the moment, since Donald Trump, the US president, pulled his country out of the deal.

The deal is now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), with the eleven nations shown on the map above covering a similar sized population to the EU (around 500 million people), with participating countries all having a close proximity to the Pacific Ocean or South China Sea, as the name suggests.

As Fox has said, we will have to wait and see what the new, without the US, deal looks like, but he has been in preliminary talks with these nations. Would this be as good a deal as we have with the EU? Well many people seem to think not.

Currently, the UK exports only 8% of its total exports to these countries, which to put it into context, is less than the UK exports to Germany (11%) and the whole of the EU (44%). Some of these countries have very small economies, again to put it into context, New Zealand has a smaller economy than Greece. Some of the other countries involved, although with large populations, like Malaysia and Vietnam, are also quite poor. Other nations have shown an interest in joining like South Korea and Sri Lanka, but on the face of it, without the US participating, this doesn’t look too promising for trade.

Of course, if the UK joined, trade would increase as the partnership aims to promote trade between its members and to reduce tariffs to facilitate more trade, but it is hard to see it as in anyway equivalent to the UK’s current status in the EU. There are cultural differences too with the UK, with many of the countries involved, which tends to make trade less successful. There has been no clamour for this from UK businesses, which perhaps tells its own story.

The unions, in the UK and in TPP member countries are also against this trade deal as they fear it will lead to job losses.

The British Trade Union Congress’s (TUC) website has this to say:

Unions in the 11 countries currently still involved TPP are steadfastly opposed to the deal, because it would provide little in the way of protections for workers' rights. While workers in Vietnam might benefit because their rights are already so limited that even the safety net of ILO core labour standards would be an improvement, none of the 11 countries involved have better rights at work than the UK does currently.

TUC general secretary, Frances O'Grady, said such a move would be "scraping the bottom of the Brexit barrel." She points out that "trade unions around the world have opposed this deal because it allows labour abuses, it puts public services at risk and it gives too much control to corporations."

TPP has its own tribunal system where corporations can sue national governments, for things like not allowing public services to be run by private companies.

Then there is the environmental impact of the UK trading with such distant nations, rather than adjacent European countries. I have been unable to find data on the carbon emissions produced by the transportation of goods around the world, but you don’t need to be a genius to figure out that trading mainly within Europe has to lead to much less carbon being emitted than trading with these far away countries, in some cases, as far away as you can get from Britain.

New technology like 3D printers, will reduce the transportation of goods in the future admittedly, but not everything is going to use this technology. Take food and drink for example. If we are to import food produce from places like Australia and New Zealand, or wine, then this will have to be transported thousands of miles, with an obviously big increase in transportation emissions. In the case of fresh food, this will probably need to be transported by air, which causes the most damage to the environment.

I expect many in favour of Brexit don’t believe in man-made climate change, so will dismiss this argument, but anyone who understands these things, even in the most basic fashion, will know that it will make climate change worse, simple as that.

I wonder how those Green supporters of Brexit will square this one? I’ve not come across anyone making this argument from the Green side, in favour of the leaving the EU or not. Maybe a pro-Brexit Green can explain to me how this is good for the environment?