Friday, 22 October 2010

VIVA PALESTINA CONVOY BREAKS SIEGE AND ENTERS GAZA!

The Viva Palestina convoy of almost 150 vehicles, 370 people from 30 different countries and $5 million of aid has entered Gaza.

Amidst scenes of jubilation from thousands of Palestinians there to greet the convoy, Kevin Ovenden, the convoy director, expressed his joy at being in Gaza once again. "We have driven more than 3,000 miles to bring this essential aid and to break this illegal siege of Gaza. We have been joined by supporters from Morocco and Algeria and from the Gulf States and Jordan, to make this the biggest convoy ever to break the siege of Gaza. We are absolutely overjoyed to be here and to bring with us the soil from the graves of those who were massacred on the Mavi Marmara which will be used to plant trees as a memorial to their sacrifice."

The convoy set out four weeks and five days ago from London. It travelled through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Syria. Everywhere the reception was fantastic and the generosity of well-wishers unsurpassed. Towards the end there was a frustrating delay in Syria whilst negotiations at the highest levels were conducted with the Egyptian authorities. In the end it was all worth it as the Egyptian authorities decided to allow passage of the whole convoy, sadly excluding just 17 members of the convoy including George Galloway.

The convoy will be handed over in its entirety to the relevant bodies tomorrow and the members of the convoy then expect to leave Gaza and return home in the next 48 hours after celebrations and formal thanks are given.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Jobs under threat - and the Tories cheer

When Tory Chancellor George Osborne stood up in parliament and announced his attack on jobs, public services and the welfare state, his MPs cheered every cut. That is how much they understand what the real impact of this is going to be for individuals, families and entire communities.

The price for the financial crisis is going to be paid by people who had nothing to do with causing it. The bankers will keep their bonuses. The shareholders will keep their profits. And the 23 millionaires in the Tory-Lib Dem cabinet will not have to worry about their jobs, how to pay the bills, or where their pension is going to come from.

On top of that there is no evidence that this bonfire of public service jobs will actually work. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winner in economics, says it is no more than a gamble:

“Britain is embarking on a highly risky experiment.... If Britain were wealthier, or if the prospects of success were greater, it might be a risk worth taking. But it is a gamble with almost no potential upside. Austerity is a gamble which Britain can ill afford.”

His conclusion is simple: “Austerity converts downturns into recessions, recessions into depressions.”

An alternative exists – based on investment not cuts – and the more this is understood, the better we will be able to resist the Coalition government’s plan to destroy our welfare state.

Military spending protected in Tory cuts

The BBC has reported that the Defence budget will only be cut by 8% in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, compared to cuts of not less than 25% for other departments. Read more here.

Kicking away the ladder of opportunity

Last week, Lord Browne published his review of student funding. True to form, the Liberal Democrats promptly dumped their promise to oppose increases in tuition fees.

As Fiona Edwards, secretary of the Free Education Campaign, explains in an article published in Saturday’s Morning Star:

"Politicians who benefited from a free university education are now planning to kick away the ladder of opportunity for generations to come... The plans represent a double assault on students - tuition fees are set to more than double to £7,000 per year and commercial interest rates will be introduced on student loans."

These plans are not only unfair to students from less well-off backgrounds; they are also damaging to the future of our economy; and Fiona’s article sets out how investment in education is the “key to economic revival”.

Opposition to this attack on higher education is growing. And I am glad to see that support for the Liberal Democrats is falling the more they betray their promises. The latest poll from YouGov puts them on 11% - down from the 23% who voted for them in the general election. They are the weak point of this rotten coalition, and Liberal Democrat MPs need to be held accountable for the promises they made.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Tuition Fees and The Fib Dems

Remember Lib Dem promises at the election to abolish tuition fees? Well, they lied. Instead, tuition fees could rise to as much as £12,000 per year!! One consequence will be to burden the vast majority of students with levels of debt they will carry well into their working lives.

There is speculation about a Lib Dem revolt. I really hope so. But I am not holding my breath. Both nationally and locally the Lib Dems have shown themselves to be a pretty slavish bunch when it comes to their Tory masters. For some, even hanging on to the coat tails of power corrupts.

Save the NHS

Until now, no party could realistically hope to be the government unless it declared that the “NHS is safe in our hands”. In his attempt to re-brand the Tories, David Cameron went so far as claiming that they were the “party of the NHS”.

But now the Tories are in power, the mask has slipped. Their plans for NHS reform – which weren’t mentioned in their manifesto – threaten the very existence of the NHS as a free public service. As an investigation in the magazine Red Pepper shows: “In place of a public service we will have a profit-driven healthcare market.”

Red Pepper sets out how powerful business interests have lobbied for years to get access to the huge NHS budget. New Labour tried to bring the market into the health system, and only partly succeeded. But now there is a government that is determined to change the face of the NHS once and for all.

Already, cuts of up to £20 billion are being made in the NHS. And these cuts are going to have a devastating effect. Hospitals around the country are cutting back on essential operations – cataracts and hip replacements for example.

This is just the beginning. If the NHS becomes a marketplace for private companies to trade, then many more people will be told it just isn’t ‘cost-effective’ to treat them.

As the Red Pepper article concludes: “..the injustice that will flow from the loss of the NHS will be massive. It will change the face of English society more profoundly than the poll tax. And it will be for all practicable purposes irreversible – unless we stop it now, all of us resisting in whatever way we can.”

Monday, 11 October 2010

Housing crisis and asylum seekers

Earlier this year, the Red Cross described the way our immigration system treated those whose claims for asylum have been denied as 'shameful'

“Asylum seekers last in the housing queue” said the Daily Mail as John Lines, the Cabinet Member for Housing, secured the headlines he wanted. But asylum seekers were never in the front of any queue, and are among the most desperate and destitute people in our society.

As the recession bites, we can expect a lot more of this kind of unscrupulous 'blame the victim' politics from the Tories and Lib Dems. We got a taster at the Tory conference with its creeping Victorian values of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor.

Thousands of people are having their homes repossessed as jobs are lost. What would make a difference to the homeless figures is if banks, bailed out by public money, were unable to turf families onto the streets if they couldn’t keep up mortgage payments. But politicians would rather play ‘blame the foreigner’ than ‘blame the banker’.

What would make a difference to the housing crisis would be a government programme of house building, putting people back to work and boosting the economy. But with unemployment set to rise dramatically, and people losing their homes as a result, we can expect politicians to point the figure at anybody but themselves.

There are different ways we can respond to this recession. One response, with a long and ugly pedigree, is to scapegoat the vulnerable, the weak, and those unable to defend themselves. The other is to challenge the economic madness of slashing public spending in the middle of a recession, and to challenge the political logic which says that ordinary people losing their jobs and homes is a price worth paying for the criminal recklessness of a rich elite in the financial sector.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Are we in it together?

David Cameron says it is time to pull together to help reduce the national debt. But he has only given us his plan about cuts in public services and reducing the benefits for the poor. He has failed to put the burden of reducing national debt on the bankers and the mega rich of the country. 

OK then here is a suggestion. How about this idea? A one-off tax of just 20% on the richest 10% would practically clear the national debt at a stroke. And without having to slash public services and throw people on the dole.

Seems fair to me. The total wealth of the top 1,000 increased by a third in the last year. The top 200 people alone on the rich list were worth a collective £228.8 billion and the richest 10% are worth over £4,000 billion!

Think the Tories will go for it? Not in a million years. When Cameron talks about spreading the pain, it is not the rich he has in mind who will be doing the suffering.


(Watch Respect Party's Ken Loach make the same case for taxing the rich on Newsnight from earlier in the week).

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

World Day for Decent Work

Across the world this Thursday, 7 October, will be marked by Trade Unions as 'World Day for Decent Work'.

The campaign's core message for an economics that puts people first couldn't be more timely with the Con-Dem government onslaught on jobs and working conditions.

In any global race to the bottom in labour standards, then Bangladesh is where the finishing line is.

Thankfully, a national campaign for the country’s three million garment workers has been able to lift the minimum wage from a medieval £15 per month, up to £27 per month.

This  is still short of the modest £46 that unions were asking for and the police repression against workers and unions has been terrible. At least 21 garment factory employees and labour rights activists have been arrested. Many more have gone into hiding or faced threats of imprisonment, and worse.

I'm pleased to say that the British TUC has been at the forefront of international solidarity with our brothers and sisters campaigning in Bangladesh for decent work and the leader of the country's textile workers trade union, ZM Kamrul Anam, will be speaking this Thursday at the TUC's Stand Up for Decent Work event

Child benefit cut, bankers bonuses rise

Two weeks ago, the Liberal Democrat conference voted to “Safeguard universal child benefit in conjunction with progressive taxation in order to provide a reliable source of income protection throughout childhood.”

But, as we all know by now, the Lib Dems are only useful for keeping Tories in power, and this week the Tory conference was told that child benefit would be withdrawn for any family where a parent was paying higher rate tax.

The Tory plans are full of holes. A single parent earning £44,000 will lose child benefit, but a couple earning £43,000 each, that is total household income of £86,000 will keep it. More than a million families will lose out.

But there is a bigger principle at stake. By focussing on the issue of child benefit being paid to better-off families, the Tories are looking for an easy target. It seems illogical to pay benefits to some people who clearly don’t need it. The evidence shows, however, that universal benefits are extremely successful, and child benefit is one of the most successful of all.

As Kate Green, Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said last year: “Simple, straightforward and easy to claim, child benefit reaches more children living in low-income families than any of the complex means-tested benefits or tax credits intended for them. With a take-up rate of 98%, it provides financial security in households that are struggling to keep afloat.”

The Tories say they can “no longer defend paying out £1bn a year to better-off families”. But at the same time, as the Independent reports, cash bonuses to bankers will reach £7bn in this year alone. If the Tories were genuinely interested in 'sharing the burden', they could start with the bankers. This attack on child benefit is just another part of the ideological drive to roll back support for the welfare state.

(For another look at whether the cuts are a necessity or ideologically-inspired, see this video by Guardian journalist, John Harris at Sunday’s demonstration outside the Tory conference.)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Getting some perspective

A defensive David Cameron is busy trying to downplay the impact of the cuts by saying we need to put them into 'perspective'. Yes we should. As this excellent article by John Lancaster points out, 'the £82b worth of cuts that George Osbourne is going to announce in 2 weeks time are unprecedented. No government has ever achieved anything like that reduction in public spending. To put it in perspective, since 1950 there have been only two periods during which public spending was cut for two years in a row. The coalition is proposing to cut it for six consecutive years. Their cuts will exceed anything Margaret Thatcher did.'


Indeed she oversaw the return of mass unemployment, greater inequality, increased social tension, and riots on our streets. The new Thatcherites want to achieve what the old ones could not quite manage; a permanent reduction in the size of the state and an end to extensive public services. If they get away with it Britain will be a more divided, a more unequal, and a more unfair society for generations to come.