Özlem Onaran* gave this interview to Anastasia Giamali of Avgi (The Dawn), Syriza’s daily paper.
-Erdogan has been promoting a fully neoliberal agenda with privatisations, “development”, etc. Has this reached a ceiling? Is this the reason why people are protesting?
Yes, absolutely. The obvious injustice and police brutality in Gezi Park was the last drop in a long process of accumulation of discontent against an authoritarian government, their social policies pushing for a conservative Islamic life style threatening in particular women and youth, criminalization and imprisoning of oppositional groups ranging from seculars to Kurds, socialists, and trade unionists, and neoliberal policies which increasingly commercialized public services, created areas of rent for large corporations, and eroded the living standards and security of a significant part of the working people. 27 May and the mobilisations that has followed will mark a historic moment for the collective memory of the movements in Turkey. This has been the insurrection of a new generation, who has been brought up by the conservative neoliberal authoritarian AKP regime for a decade.
-The establishment has been presenting Turkey as model not only for the Muslim world but also as an economic model for Europe during the crisis. Is Turkey really a model?
Can authoritarianism be a model? Not a stable one, as the recent events have shown. Can neoliberal speculation and finance-led growth be a model of development, social cohesion and regional convergence? No, as the recent history of Turkey, which is marked by regular boom and bust cycles, and crises in 1994, 2001, 2009, shows. In the recent global crisis, Turkey had one of the severest recessions in 2009 –deeper than other major emerging economies. Indeed Turkey’s growth model dependent on cheap labour and speculative financial capital inflows and a high trade deficit, would have experienced a crisis sooner or later even without the global recession. The recovery since 2009 is as fragile as before. The share of industry in Turkey’s production is decreasing and becoming increasingly more dependent on the imports of intermediate and capital goods. No wonder, this is a jobless growth process with high youth unemployment rates reaching 22%. This is neither socially nor economically stable. AKP has recently took pride in having paid the last instalment of its debt to the IMF. However, in the last decade Turkey has borrowed increasingly more in the international financial markets, and in particular the foreign debt of the private sector has reached unforeseen levels. This is a fragile model. When the private debtors go bankrupt, those private losses are often socialized. The periphery of Europe is just one recent example of this to add to a series of former crises in Latin America and East Asia. The next bust and crisis in Turkey is not a question of “if” but “when”, and the international financial investors will make that decision.
-We have come to conclude that the tone of the protest is not being set by the poor or the working classes but by the demand for democracy and social freedom. Is it possible to combine these two?
They have been already combined. The Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions has rescheduled its strike about a change in the labour law to 4-5 June in order to support the mobilization. What brought discontent to the tipping point of rebellion is also the increasing insecurity and impoverisation of the working people in Turkey. AKP has initiated a redistribution towards the poorest of the society via both crony in kind transfers of food and fuel as well as some institutional pro-poor changes, e.g. in the health services. However, the source of this redistribution was income scrapped from the organized blue collar and white-collar/professional working people, and not taxes on the rich. This redistribution helps to increase the profits of the large capitalists without hurting the poorest further. This also explains part of the mass electoral support for the party. In the last decade insecurity has increased for all segments of the working people bare the poorest. During a decade of AKP rule the amount of workers working for outsourced companies has more than tripled reaching to above 1.5 million. Almost a thousand workers died in workplace accidents. Dr. Ahmet Tellioglu, a workplace doctor at a major factory in Istanbul, who has been sacked recently because of his objection to serious health hazards in the practices of the factory, says that “anyone who is just above the poorest or earning just above the minimum wage, thus any working person, who has something to loose, feels increasingly more insecure in Turkey today”.
-According to the protesters the Turkish government is building shopping centers and malls all over the country and that’s what she is attempting to do in Gezi Park. They also say that these shopping centers will mark the end of the small shops and itinerant trade. Are we moving towards the creation of a new proletariat?
Yes, the losers of these policies are multi-dimensional. Gentrification and commercialization is generating a potential for new urban alliances across different segments of the society ranging from the dislocated Roma people and the Kurdish street vendors to organized workers and small shop owners. Some of the latter may have voted for AKP but the neoliberal policies as well as the sheer arrogance of their brutality and ignorance about any popular discontent may mark the beginning of the erosion of the diverse mass support for them.
-The past two years, we have seen uprisings everywhere, from Wall Street to Tunisia with most recent ones in Sweden and the current uprising in Turkey. Do these movements/uprisings have anything in common apart from police brutality?
They have a lot in common. They are all a rebellion against the lack of democracy, voice, and representation as well as rising inequality, joblessness, insecurity, commercialization of the supply of basic needs and the multiple dimensions of the crisis -the energy crisis, climate change, ecological crisis and food crisis. Young men and women, who are mostly not coming from former organized leftist backgrounds, have been in the forefront of all these mobilizations. Not surprisingly, this is happening at a time of record high youth unemployment and increasing precariousness. This is a new generation, who feels insecure about the future, working, if at all, with fixed/short-term contracts, or part time without a choice, at times in the informal sector, most often for low pay, and usually in jobs not matching their education levels and aspirations. These mobilizations have given a massive expression to the discontent of a silent majority across the world and turned hopelessness into first anger and then hope. Their experiences has been followed and received by solidarity across the world. They have created domino effects, first regionally, but I believe now it is fair to say, also internationally. Turkey has a long tradition of rebellion, but I feel the recent images of rebellion from Greece or Spain or Egypt has been more alive in the memory of the first time demonstrators in Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir than the history of Turkey which has been persistently erased or discredited or demonized in the collective memory of the young Turkish people by the military coup and generations of ruling elite to follow. To occupy and demonstrate is now almost the new fashionable and “hip” thing in a positive sense. To overcome fear and to rebel is something to be proud of. It is a uniting feeling as hearing the song from the concert of your favourite band playing at a remote corner of the world. No matter what next, all these mobilizations have transformed our social genes forever.
*Özlem Onaran is a Turkish economist living in London.
The new issue of Socialist Resistance is now available. It’s cover “Feminism: Now more than ever!” gives pretty good idea of what to expect inside it. You can take out a subscription here.
The New Right has often been defined as an amalgam of a commitment to US driven Anglo-Saxon neoliberal economics with traditional conservative values. We saw this in England where Thatcherism took on the form of neoliberal economics, characterised by de-industrialisation and the pervasive rule of the market and a rhetorical and actual commitment to Victorian conservative values, such as anti-gay legislation . We had the same thing under Reagan in the US and with the two Bushes, the younger one foregrounding a specific form of bigoted Christian politics alongside the well established neoliberal policies.
Turkey seems to providing another manifestation of this kind of alliance under Erdogan’s AKP, the Justice and Development Party, where thousands are taking to the streets to oppose the current regime of old Islamic, anti-secularist values sitting very comfortably with large scale US based Neoliberal capitalism. It is important to note (despite the claims of Socialist Worker, `Uprising is against neoliberalism,- not `Islamism’ 8 June, 2013) that the protests are against both- both neoliberalism and its policies, and Islamicisation policies- such as the restrictions on the morning after pill, the restrictions on alcohol, and very real pressures on secular students and teachers and university workers, with, for example, the AKP government installing Islamicist anti-secular school Principals, and adding (more) religion to the compulsory and optional school curriculum.[i]
Displacing the poor
The violent nature of capitalism itself, and especially neoliberal capitalism, with its history of bloodshed, is very well known in Turkey. The current police offensive against demonstrators, and against trade unionists was preceded by the US driven 1980 military coup and by the 1977 May Day massacre at Taksim Square in Istanbul. The brute force of violent state/ police force against opposition- especially leftist opposition, is again being felt. There has been an escalation of this in Turkey over the last few weeks first with the protests against the purported Government induced explosions next to the Syrian border, and more recently against the neoliberal-Islamic orthodoxy scenario itself triggered by an attempt on the Government’s part to enclose another part of the commons, a public space (Gezi Park) in Istanbul. The government is determined to gentrify and `touristise’ the Ishtiklal Street/ Taksim Square area, displacing the poor and displacing public space, indeed, a historic place for street demonstrations. Even before the current Gezi Park incident, Ishtiklal Street, a main thoroughfare in Istanbul, was characterised by groups of police, machine guns in hand, ready to disperse any demonstrations.
As with manifestations in Tunisia, Egypt, Europe, South America (e.g. the student protests against the Pinochet educational legacy in Chile) and the USA (in the latter case through student protests, riots and the Occupy movement) we have a manifestation of ‘people power.’ This is facilitated by digital technology as a mobilizing force but it has been spreading out to tangible public spaces such as squares and streets [ii]People are urged and motivated to leave the isolated comfort zones of their homes and computer spaces to reclaim the public spaces of the squares and streets. It is there in the most tangible and materially ‘real’ agora that their alternative politics are displayed and realized. As an alternative to what the insidious and, at times, what many Turkish leftists describe as, the ‘new fascism’ , the AKP authoritarian politics being played out through representative bourgeois parliamentary democracy.
The Turkish protests are met with some of the most brutal fascist repressive tactics, involving widespread use of teargas (with teargas canisters fired at demonstrators’ heads, blinding some and consigning other to surgery on their heads), use of pepper spray (widely seen worldwide in the picture of the woman in the red summer dress being sprayed repeatedly at close range by the police), water cannon, plastic bullets, and beatings from the police[iii].
These demonstrations occur in various localities notably the major cities on both sides of the Bosphorus, and are reaching an unprecedented scale. People and organizations from all walks of life are involved, including trade unions, teacher unions, student unions and academics. The more that neoliberal economics divides an ever increasing working class (although not all members in this casualised “precarious” situation see themselves as “working class”, as members of a class “in itself”, let alone as members of a class “for itself”), including people with or without highly valued formal education qualifications, the more likely it is to incur the anger and provoke well worked out oppositional strategies by people who not only ‘feel’ but also ’know’, to refer to Gramsci’s phrase.
How spontaneous is it?
The question that arises is: Is this just a case of spontaneity or is there also some conscious direction being provided? Is there an emerging political force or alliance of forces capable of providing this direction and unifying the various movements engaged in this determined attempt to bring down the government of Recep Tayyip Erdo?an? Gramsci spoke of spontaneity and conscious direction, as he considered n the situation in Italy and elsewhere in his times, against the backdrop of various uprisings in Europe. This key question applies to most of the uprisings which have occurred and are still present in various parts of the world. There is no guarantee regarding the political trajectory which these `manifestations of indignation’ will take. Many seem inchoate, disorganised, horizontally rather than vertically organised, with only a low unifying common denominator. But the impression is that this indignation is taking a decidedly left wing trajectory in Turkey. Some of the unions involved, such as the very visible teachers union, E?itim-Sen, with its whole array of publications, focusing on critical education, and organizational activities and facilities, are decidedly left wing. They embrace the secularist legacy of Mustapha Kemal ‘Ataturk’ though absolutely without engaging in any (anti-Kurdish or anti-Alevi) exclusive notion of ‘Turkification. ’ E?itim-Sen, and other groups and parties on the socialist and Marxist Left emphasise the value of solidarity with the downtrodden in all their class and ethnic dimensions.
The neoliberal nature of Turkey is there for all to see. It is there in the skylines of its major cities such as Ankara and many parts of Istanbul where mosques co-exist with US downtown style skyscrapers and the lurid lights of a fully-fledged capitalist market economy. Manifestations of the global market, in the form of the hundreds of competing English language schools, a booming private university industry and various corporate brands, characterise Turkey’s image as a country having ‘become modern.’
Then there is the contradictory role of the army, currently being weakened by the Erdogan government through arrests of various figures on a variety of grounds. On the one hand the army serves as the bastion of secularism, Ataturk’s great legacy in a country where his image looms large in each and every corner, including public offices, TV stations and university halls and auditoriums. On the other hand, the army has been at the centre of Turkey serving as an important player in NATO and a satellite for the USA’s geopolitics in that part of the world, a role which assumed sinister proportions when this very same army, at the behest of the CIA, carried out a number of coups d’état including that of September 12 1980. The coup of 1980 echoed the equally infamous one carried out in Chile, carried out for similar purposes, seven years earlier (its fortieth anniversary this year) and around the same time of the year – with just a difference of one day (11 September , 1993). The other similarity is the brutality of the Turkish military dictatorship, with its killings, its mass imprisonment and its torture of Leftists.
The tensions in Turkey have not abated since then with the May Day shootings of 1977 having led to this event being banned and then allowed to be reintroduced later with important provisos – the government had a say on who is allowed to participate in the demonstrations, and who is not. 2011 was the first time when anyone was allowed to participate in the May Day demonstrations, probably because elections were around the corner.
A new chapter
There were tensions and skirmishes this year when, on the pretext of construction work carried out around Taksim Square in Istanbul, the government sought to prevent the holding of this May Day event, only for protesters to take to the square. Despite different forms of repression, the Turkish people still own the squares and streets when giving vent to their anger and delivering their protests, turning them into global squares and streets because of the global media interest they generate. Each Saturday, for a number of years now, women converge on Galatasary square, just as the Madres of Cinco de Mayo do, to protest and lament the loss of their loved ones during the years of the 1980 coup which cemented the ushering in of Neoliberal policies.
People power makes its presence felt in Turkey and has been doing so for quite some time in a variety of sites. This time, though, in 2013, this manifestation of people power has been marked by an exponential growth in the number of people involved. It adds a new chapter to the volume of uprisings that have characterised an almost universal dissatisfaction with neoliberalism and the huge disparities in living conditions it has spawned. The task is for the emergence of national and international ‘modern prince’ (a unifying element, party or alliance of movements). (Gramsci had in mind a party which echoing Machiavelli’s Il Principe, will unify the country, according to the Sardinian’s view, in the form of a ‘national-popular’ alliance which might take the form of a deeply entrenched new ‘historical bloc’. See Sotiris’ recent 2013 post once again on this).
This must be capable of providing a unifying political direction to this groundswell- the `holy grail’ of Marxist left unity (to the left of social democracy) projects, a terrain littered with failed projects- but also, currently, illuminated by urgent necessity across the globe, in this era of immiseration neoliberal/ neoconservative capitalism. We must have the hope and the analysis and the activism to stem the process of Capitalist encroachment on and commodification of all aspects of our lives, and set the stage for the required deep rooted changes in the world capitalist economic system to ensure a decent life and greater social stability for Turkey’s- and the world’s – 99%.
[i] See edited by Kemal Inal and Güliz Akkaymak, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, and the forthcoming book edited by Dave Hill, Immiseration Capitalism and Education: Austerity, Resistance and Revolt. Brighton: Institute for Education Policy Studies, 2013 with chapters on Turkey by Fevziye Say?lan and Nuray Türkmen and by Kemal ?nal and H. Tu?ba Öztürk).
[ii] See Panagiotis Sotiris (2013), ‘Guest post: The new ‘age of insurrections’ is far from over!’ in Radiobubble.gr. http://international.radiobubble.gr/2013/06/guest-post-new-age-of-insurrections-is.html.
In the autumn of 2011 Philosophy Football met Honey Thalijeh, then captain of the Palestine Women’s Football team. Inspired by what she told us about what football meant to her country we promised that when Euro 2013 opened in Israel we would be in Palestine.
From 5-18 June Israel hosts the second biggest international team tournament in European football, the Euro 2013 Under 21′s Championship. Its the biggest international sporting event ever held in Israel.
But on the other side of the wall Israel built football is played and watched in Palestine under the most abnormal of conditions. Massive restrictions of movement, 24 hour surveillance and illegal settlements and land grabs, yet on the football pitch, as recognised by FIFA, Palestine plays football as a nation.
Throughout the tournament Israel will do everything it can to keep attention away from football on the Palestinian side of the wall. Our film, shot over the past few days will help to break this silence. On Tuesday it was premiered in Ramallah at the HQ of the Palestine Olympic Association and simultaneously released on YouTube.
Today Philosophy Football also launches our Palestine Football Supporters Club T-shirt for a game with no borders, no walls. JUST £17.99 – £5 OFF – For the opening week of the Tournament, usual price £22.99. Sizes S-XXL and womens fitted. Available here.
The shirt has been produced to popularise the cause of Palestinian football. This shirt will fund this first film and future initiative of this sort.
The spontaneous movement that started in Istanbul is unprecedented in Turkey’s history. It’s now spread to sixty-seven of the eighty-five major cities writes Masis Kürkçügil of New Course for Socialist Democracy, the Fourth International section in Turkey.
It all started when a group of citizens decided to express their opposition to the redevelopment, including uprooting the trees, of Gezi Park in Taksim Square in the centre of Istanbul. Gezi Park, according to statements by the Prime Minister Erdogan, would be the site of a development project including rebuilding, as a luxury shopping centre, an Ottoman artillery barracks that had been demolished following a rising against the Young Turks Revolution of 1908. The site was subsequently cleared in 1940. This plan has also been criticised by town planners, architects and ecologists.
On Friday May 31st, the very same day that an Istanbul court decided to suspend the rebuilding of the barracks, the police attacked the peaceful occupiers of Gezi and forced them out. The police aggression provoked a massive reaction by the inhabitants in solidarity with the occupiers, and after violent confrontations the police finally moved back from the park on June 1st and 2nd and lost control of Taksim. The street fighting continued day and night in several districts of the centre of Istanbul.
The Party of Justice and Development (AKP), which has been in power for ten years, has become increasingly authoritarian. It has tried to exclude everyone who is not in its camp. Its neoliberal policies has provoked a hostile reaction among much of the youth. All these things contributed to the explosion which was detonated by the police intervention in entering the park to brutally evacuate people with their children and set fire to their tents
The AKP, which has a strong electoral base of fifty percent of voters, has suffered a first defeat, and from a popular mobilisation. This party, which is seen as having brought about important changes for half the population, had just sat down at the negotiating table with the Kurds to find a peaceful solution to the national question. Its policies were up to now contested only by militant but not very influential sections of the left, but suddenly a heterogeneous and not easily definable set of people conquered the centre of the city after courageously facing the police.
It’s a young movement
The majority of the demonstrators are, alongside the left groups, people of 20-30 years old participating for the first time in a political struggle although there is a sizeable participation in the demonstrations of secular Kemalist[i] currents opposed to the AKP government. It should also be underlined that young women occupied the front ranks in the confrontations with the police. The proximity of poor districts to the centre made it easy for young people from these districts to participate. People from all over the city went to the centre. At dawn a massive crowd crossed the bridge over the Bosphorus on foot and joined the other demonstrators. Although it remained limited, certain members of the far right Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi party took part in the demonstrations, but the party leadership immediately ordered them to leave.
There is a mixture of young headscarf-wearing girls, “anticapitalist Muslims”, fans of football clubs, LGBT groups, Kurdish, Kemalists. But most of those who were there said simply “we’re standing up against Tayyip Erdo?an, “we are here too, we exist”. The important slogans were “Tayyip resign”, “shoulder to shoulder against Fascism”, “It is only a beginning, the fight continues”, however there was no clear mass demand. Even if the Taksim Initiative has demanded the resignation of the minister of the interior, this demand is not yet very widespread among most people.
The most important fact is that, for the first time, hundreds of thousands of people are independently going to public places without being directed by a left organisation, trade union or the state in order to oppose to the policies of a government which is taking a more and more authoritarian turn. Even if social demands have not yet emerged, it is quite obvious that the implementation of neo-liberal policies is making people angry.
The revenge of May 1st or wars of memory
On May 1st this year the government had, on the pretext of work in progress, closed the symbolically important Taksim Square to demonstrations, paralysed maritime and road transport and deployed police officers everywhere in order to prevent May Day demonstrations. The government adopted the Putin method to choke off the social opposition and the city was paralysed.
There is a war of memory between the left and the government over Taksim Square which is known as May Day Square. Faced with the left which wants to perpetuate both the memory of 42 people who fell here on May 1st 1977, as well as working class ideals, the government would like, by rebuilding the artillery barracks, to both “revive history” and, by transforming it into a shopping centre, create its own historical legitimacy.
By humiliating the demonstrators whom it stigmatises as “marauders” and agitators, Erdogan revealed how “consistent” he was when he opposed to Israeli repression in Gaza or when he criticised Assad in Syria. Municipal and parliamentary elections will take place during the next two years, as well as the presidential election. According to many analysts, it is almost certain that Erdogan will be elected president. Erdogan would like a constitutional amendment that would enable him to constitute a Putin-style presidential regime.
However these recent events have been an unexpected defeat for him.
What we need now is new mass movements.
[i] The political ideology of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Its main elements are republicanism, nationalism , populism, secularism and statism.
Mass demonstrations and harsh governmental crackdowns are not new in Turkish political history writes Yunus Sözen , Antikapitalist Eylem (Anticapitalist Action). However, although the current demonstrations in Istanbul and throughout Turkey were initiated by socialists, there is no doubt that we are experiencing something strikingly different this time. This is displayed by not only the visible lack of political experience of a significant number of the demonstrators but also the sheer number and incredible resilience of the demonstrators in the face of massive and tear gas assaults by the police. What is the cause of this massive social explosion in a country where there is no sign of economic crisis, and where the government was elected in 2011 with 50% of the votes?
To better understand what is happening, let’s start with a discussion of the relationship between elections and democracy. Athenian democrats devised their democratic system without elections because they believed that elections are the oligarchic method of selecting the leaders. They believed that mechanisms that prevent the formation a political class (like the lottery and rotation systems) are the only democratic ways to select the rulers. Because, Athenian democrats believed that elections not only have an intrinsic class bias, but elections also provide the rulers autonomy from the ruled; that is, they make it possible for rulers to be able to do whatever they please. Indeed, the only reason why modern liberal representative government centred around elections is not simply an oligarchic system. It is because it is also a system that provides tools for the ruled, including methods of participation other than elections, freedoms for the opposition, and checks on the rulers. Although these tools are still severely inadequate, they do make it more challenging for the rulers to do whatever they wish and they do force rulers to respond to citizens to an extent. However, if elections start to become the only institution of a modern representative government, then elections merely become a tool for authoritarian rule by bolstering the executive branch with popular approval.
The demonstrations centred around the resistance in Istanbul’s Gezi park are exactly about the grievances caused by the dictatorship of an executive branch that is reinforced by electoral approval. Specifically, the Gezi park resistance is one those instances where both the class character of the state and the oligarchic nature of electoral legitimisation became blatantly obvious. First, it signifies the class character of the state in a way that will not escape even the most crude Marxist analysis. Gezi is a public park at the political and social epicentre of the city, Taksim, and the government decided to replace the park with a shopping mall. When activists started to resist the plans turn the park into a shopping centre the government sent in its police. To put it even more bluntly, the state blindly used its instruments of violence to serve the interests of capital, and to convert a collective good into private property.
Unprecedented accumulation of power
Gezi also demonstrates the oligarchic character of a political regime based solely on electoral authorization. In the 2011 elections, nobody voted for to convert the public park in Taksim into a mall or any of the other government infringements of citizens’ rights. Yet the government had the legal right to rule as it pleases. However, despite their electoral mandate, this type of unilateral action may not have happened in a better functioning representative system which provides its citizens with instruments of participation and opposition other than elections. Even though its democratic content is limited, in a liberal representative government citizens would have some access to policy making, there would be a level of transparency and free public debate, and there would be legal scrutiny over the issue. In Turkey on the other hand, no such limits are in place given the Justice and Development Party (referred to as the AKP or Ampül Parti) unprecedented accumulation of power since 2007.
The AKP has now not only eliminated the historical challenge from the army, but it has also taken control of the high courts, and then slowly but surely, using its popularity, eradicated all oppositional freedoms. Concretely speaking, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s policy could not be confronted by the non-existing oppositional media, and it could not be challenged by the judiciary that is now under the control of the executive, i.e. the ruling party. Therefore, when Erdogan wanted to turn a public space into a right-wing conservative space, where customers buy goods. There were no other way to stop him except by the force of numbers.
However, the hundreds of thousands of people out protesting are not resisting the police and subjecting themselves to the massive use of tear gas and brute force just because of the injustice at Gezi park, or just because of the fact that Erdogan is an authoritarian leader. These protests happened because in addition to Erdogan’s on-going attacks on oppositional groups (secularists, Alewites, Kurds, socialists and others), including purging them from positions of power, and criminalising and imprisoning them en masse for various reasons, he deepened to an unprecedented extent his neoliberal and extremely conservative exclusionary social policies. To name a few of the most recent ones, last year, without much debate, the whole education system was reconfigured to better serve not only the needs of capital but also in Erdogan’s words, ‘to raise a more religious generation’. Last month, in a country where per capita alcohol consumption is by far the lowest among OECD countries, strict alcohol consumption restrictions passed, which were defended by Erdogan as follows: ‘why is it defensible for you to accept a law passed by two drunkards [according to many signifying Ataturk and Inonu], but the law that is the imperative of religion becomes something that you need to deny…if you want to drink, buy your drink and go drink it in your own home’. Last week, the AKP enlarged its assault on women rights by making the morning after pill a prescription drug, and a couple of days ago Erdogan later approved of an announcement made in Ankara metro warning against kissing in public. Many of these regulations would be very difficult to implement if previously existing checks were still place. For example, the constitutional court might strike a few of the legal changes, or the council of the state would limit or remove some of the others. Considering the lack of avenues for voice and the lack of obstacles against Erdogan’s power, these and many other similar policies, combined with his symbolically exclusionary and suffocating speeches, have apparently made a great many non-supporters feel not only completely powerless and frustrated, but also very angry.
Taking control of the city
This anger has now become embodied in massive demonstrations, where hundreds of thousands of people are taking back the autonomy that the government enjoys. In short, if the reason for the rebellion is the sense of powerlessness, lack of control over their own lives, the immediate result is perhaps the sense of power large sectors of the population are enjoying for the first time. For now, they have taken control of their city and of their lives. As a result, we are now part of a truly democratic moment. This is an experience that goes way beyond the ‘democratic rights’ enjoyed within liberal representative democracies, which at its best is a democracy tamed for the requirements of capitalism and the modern state. Therefore, in a counter-intuitive way, we probably owe this democratic explosion to the lack of democratic checks on the power of the electorally authorized executive. For Erdogan, on the other hand, before our very eyes we are witnessing the transformation of his image from a leader who is powerful, popular, and if a little impulsive, still reflective of the values of the ‘Turkish nation’, into a tyrant who is so greedy and drunk with power that although he has the votes, he cannot manage the country effectively anymore. He is indeed trapped in a dictatorial dilemma: if he caves into the current demands, he will lose the perception that he is all that powerful; if he does not cave in at all, he will have to rely on coercive power to the degree that he will turn into a cruel tyrant. So far he has taken the second route, still belittling and criminalizing the demonstrators, hoping that the next elections in less than a year will result in a way to dissipate the democratic euphoria. However, although this is one of those instances where the statement that ‘politics is open-ended’ is indeed the reality, it appears that sustained mobilization is the only course of action that will help satisfy both democratic and socialist goals.
The killing of a soldier in Woolwich on May 22nd was horrific. The indiscriminate murders of thousands of unnamed civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan by armed drones have been replicating this horror on a much larger scale for years. However no progressive political purpose is served by killings of this sort. We have seen how the event has been used to reanimate the discussion around the further erosion of civil liberties. The neo-fascist right has taken to the streets. British imperialism’s armed organisations have benefitted from a wave of sympathy and popular support which makes it harder for those of us who oppose their actions to have our voices heard.
Although this appears to be a random and macabre act, the response by Cameron was immediately to treat it as an organised terrorist attack.
The government’s reaction fails to deal with the political causes underlying such attacks. There were no such cases before the “war on terror” was launched in the wake of 9/11, which led to the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The description of this war by US President Bush as a “clash of civilisation” and a “crusade” has provided the context in which the killing in Woolwich occurred. This is understood not just by the left, but also by others such as former head of MI5, Stella Rimington, who said in 2008 that the war on terror in Iraq had influenced young British men to turn to terrorism.
The war on terror has been a failure in its own terms. It has not prevented terrorism but has caused it to spread. Civil war appears to be spreading in parts of Iraq, while in Afghanistan the Taliban is undefeated. In both countries, democracy and civil rights are wanting.
The failure of those supporting the “war on terror”, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has had damaging consequences: the spread of racism and islamophobia. There were 38 islamophobic incidents, including three attacks on mosques, reported on the night following the killing. In Woolwich, over 100 English Defence League thugs went on the rampage. British Muslim leaders are expected to condemn the killing in a manner which is not expected of leaders of others faiths when atrocities are committed by white gun men, in Norway and the USA for example, often politically motivated. These killers are rarely described as terrorists, but as “fanatics” or “madmen”. The “war on terror” has also been used to restrict civil rights and instigate extensive and intrusive surveillance, in particular those with a Muslim faith.
In the wake of the events in Woolwich, the immediate issue for the left is to resist the racist backlash, to continue fighting against the “war on terror”, and to defend civil rights.
May 24 2013
Bob Dylan remarks somewhere that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. He forgot to add: you might need one to tell you about the tragedy of extreme weather events. Not, perhaps, those committed by the erstwhile US urban guerrilla movement, inspired by Dylan’s aphorism, but definitely those due to rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.
As a person who in his prime was given to vivid symbolism, perhaps Dylan should now write a song about the crossing on May 9th 2013 of the 400ppm threshold in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. He might also revisit his anti-capitalist past and provide a critique of current efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But let’s not wait for that….
Studies have now confirmed what has been predicted all along: that climate change is leading to more – and more intense – extreme weather events. One of these studies states that the land area of the world now affected by extreme hot summer anomalies in any one year, has increased from 1% to 10% in the space of 30 years. It states confidently that the heat waves in France, Texas and Moscow in 2003, 2010 and 2011 respectively, all of which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, “almost certainly would not have occurred in the absence of global warming”.
New Scientist in mid-January summarised what this has meant for people, animals and plants recently in different parts of the world. In Australia, temperature records are being “annihilated”:` wild fires in January devastated large areas of New South Wales and highly ecologically-sensitive Tasmania. In 2009, 173 people were killed in bush fires around Melbourne, Victoria. Current housing development doesn’t take fire risk into account. As one scientist put it “[planners] are setting us up for the catastrophes of the future”.
In NE Brazil, the year-long drought – the worst in 50 years – has killed cattle, damaged corn and cotton crops and wiped out 30% of the region’s sugar cane (in part, used for biofuel). Hydropower dams are at 32% of capacity, threatening electricity shortages. Thousands of subsistence farmers have lost their livelihood, while agrarian reform under the PT government of Dilma Rousseff has “been abandoned”, according to the co-ordinator of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).
Meanwhile, in the United States, 60% of the land area has been affected by drought and last year 25% of the maize (corn) crop was lost (12% of the world’s total) in the hottest year for the sub-continent on record. This will impact on food prices for everyone. In January, the Department of Agriculture declared 20% of agricultural land a “natural” disaster area, although it really is a “capitalist” disaster. During and after Hurricane Sandy, some US politicians finally suggested that climate change might be a problem.
They now face a major choice for the future of New York: either abandon large sections of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and even sections of lower Manhattan, or build huge, ecologically-damaging barriers across the New York-New Jersey Harbor Gateway and the East River. It is quite likely that neither option will have even been decided by the time the next “Sandy” hits. Of course, the problems the people of New York face are as nothing compared to those in cities in emerging economies, such as Dhaka, Bangkok, Shanghai or Rio, which have fewer resources for defences.
Finally, four years of intense waves of cold weather have covered large parts of Asia, extending even to snowstorms and floods in the Middle East. 200 people have been killed by the cold in northern India. This weather pattern is thought to be caused by the rapid warming of the Arctic, including a feedback mechanism, driven by the melting of the sea ice. This has weakened wind currents over Asia and allowed Arctic air to spill over onto the continental mass.
Weather vs. Climate
A climate change denier might argue “that’s just weather: the climate trends are different, and even the Met Office said on 24th December (2012) that the world has cooled since 1997-8 and will remain at current temperatures, about 0.43oC above the long-term average, until 2017”. This is precisely what the Mail Online reports: “Global Warming stopped 16 years ago …. So who are the deniers now?”
More recently, some climate scientists themselves have started to question whether their estimates of climate forcing by carbon dioxide are correct. Climate forcing is the average world temperature rise that would result from a doubling of CO2 concentrations and is in the range 2-4.5oC. That carbon dioxide concentration (but not the commensurate temperature rise – see below) is expected to be reached by about mid-century, on current trends.
The argument is that, in the last 15 years or so, the rate of global warming has increased more slowly than previously (not, as the deniers contend, that the world has cooled). A report on the BBC’s Today Programme on 17th May gave a flavour of the debate, but failed properly to confront the scientific issues – namely the difference between heat and temperature, a question that should be familiar to anyone who has done a GCSE science course. (Basically, a swimming pool at 30oC contains an awful lot more heat energy than a spark at 3000oC).
A small oscillation in the rate of global warming does not contradict the basic findings from the paleoclimate record. Indeed, in the very week that this debate started up again, a study was published showing, based on records from the sediment in a Siberian lake, that the last time carbon dioxide levels were as high as at present, 3 million years ago, the average temperatures in Siberia were 8oC higher than today.
Previous warming episodes have come about over periods of thousands of years, while the current one is much faster. It would be even more rapid, if the sea did not act as a sink: it is unable to reach the temperature that corresponds to current carbon dioxide levels before those levels rise again. This lag means current temperatures are cooler than they would be if the sea was not there, but that we are already locked in to higher levels of temperature rises, like those of 3 million years ago, unless carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are actually brought down. This is the rationale for the 350.org campaign.
Deniers show their cynicism
After the Daily Mail’s outburst in January, comments of a similar calibre flooded the deniers’ media outlets and blogs, actions of deeply cynical dishonesty, designed purely for defence of the fossil fuel industry. In fact, as Fred Pearce has pointed out , along with others, the Met Office’s findings are qualified by numerous caveats:
- 1998 was the hottest year on record and surface air temperatures can be expected to reach similar levels twice in the next five years
- The Met Office work is an exercise, designed to test the robustness of several new models that now take account of ocean currents, amongst other things
- In the medium term, climate is affected by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, which affect the amount of heat absorbed by the oceans, with the effects described above
- The factor that is fundamentally affected by atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is the balance between the energy absorbed by the planet and that re-radiated out into space. If that energy is used to heat a previously unexposed colder ocean surface, or to melt ice, rather than to further heat up the atmosphere, it hasn’t “disappeared”: there is still a major issue, including sea level rises and extreme weather. The rise in temperature will hit us later.
- If the Met Office forecasts prove to be correct, as medium term effects, they are just superimposed on the long-term atmospheric warming trend.
Pearce suggests that when these oscillations enter a new phase, warming could accelerate even further, as oceans give up to the atmosphere heat accumulated in the current phase. “Scary”, is his summary of the situation.
This also is the conclusion that can be drawn from a recent study in Nature Climate Change, which modelled what would happen even if it was possible to cut world carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050. This is a cut of 5% a year from 2016 (the authors give the international capitalist class and their political lackeys 3 years to read their paper and start to implement cuts). There is currently a rise in emissions of 2.6% a year.
The 80% cut, the authors argue, would limit the average world atmospheric temperature rise to 2oC by 2100, still viewed as disastrous by some scientists, but way below the likely rise of 4-6oC. They conclude that 20-65% of the adverse effects (heat waves, floods, crop failures etc.) predicted under “business as usual” could be avoided if the cuts are implemented. Or, to put it another way, 35-80% of these effects would not be avoided. Furthermore, no mitigation of climate change and its consequences is predicted prior to 2050, even if these large cuts in GHG emissions take place.
What are the Capitalists Doing?
How well is the capitalist system faring in its attempt to implement such cuts? A cut of 80% in emissions by 2050 is, after all, the figure on the European Commission’s “road map”, whatever that means. The current rate of emissions rise has already been mentioned. We can look at some fossil fuel projects being implemented or planned. In the Athabasca tar sands, oil production is to nearly triple by 2020. Obama is about to decide whether to give the go-ahead to the Keystone XL pipeline, connecting these tar sands to Texas refineries. There already is one going to Illinois and Oklahoma.
US coal exports (mainly to China) have more than doubled in 3 years and there are plans to increase them further – by building ports in Oregon, Washington State and British Columbia linked to railways from the western fields. China’s annual coal consumption, already nearly half world consumption, is forecast to grow from the current 3.52bn to 5.2bn tonnes by 2020: another 2bn is consumed in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.
At the same time, there is the dash to use the opportunity of the melting of Arctic sea ice to open up the region for oil and gas exploitation, while Japan has recently developed the technology to recover methane clathrates from the sea bed. These clathrates, or hydrates, are a crystalline compound of methane and water, unstable except at high pressure, or well below 0oc. The Japanese extraction method involves reducing the pressure to release the gas from the compound. This must involve the risk of inadvertent release to the atmosphere of large quantities of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Fracking, for gas and oil, is having a major impact. Shale gas, trapped in the cracks and pores in rocks, rather than in large reservoirs, is extracted by drilling deep wells that turn horizontal, then opening up the fissures using high-pressure water. The technology has many damaging environmental consequences: possible pollution of aquifers; air and noise pollution at ground level; very high well-head density (roads and pipelines). Large amounts of water required (which returns to the well-head polluted by the chemical additives and often by the underground minerals and volatile organic compounds. The technology is highly dependent on road transport, the new roads destroying ecosystems and leading to even greater carbon emissions.
Largely using this technology, the US is set overtake Russia as the main gas producer in 2015, and to exceed Saudi Arabia’s oil production by 2017. Gas prices in the USA have plummeted, while the “fracking rush” has only just got underway. These developments could have significant world-wide political consequences.
There are slated to be up to 170,000 (see 1.06:48) fracking wells in Pennsylvania alone, drilled over a long period of time: one every 80 acres over 70% of the accessible land. These will add to the well over 300,000 existing and exhausted oil and conventional natural gas wells in the state. Already, there are signs that these old workings are being damaged by fracking, causing methane leaks and even explosions. Of course, this is partly because the old wells were never properly sealed.
Fracking all over the place
Other countries, such as Britain, Poland and South Africa are trying to introduce gas fracking, in the face of considerable popular opposition. The Transnational Institute has surveyed moves towards fracking and counts four countries that have started and 18 that are interested, including the major imperialist powers, except France, and all the BRIC countries. In France, fracking was banned in July 2011, following a large national mass movement, based on opposition in areas where sites had been earmarked for exploration. A movement against fracking is developing in Algeria, where fossil fuel companies Shell, Eni and Talisman have interests – particularly because of the tax breaks the government is offering.
China is meant to have the largest on-shore shale gas reserves and is aiming to use the resource for 6% of its energy needs by 2020. Again, according to TNI, Chinese companies have linked up with the likes of Shell, BP, Exxon, Chevron and Total to extract the gas. There is no effective environmental protection and the water demands, often in areas of shortage, will add to all the other harmful effects on local ecosystems and people.
The TNI links the interest in fracking to land-grabbing by multinationals, particularly important, given the large land area “per unit gas yield” the technology requires.
In Britain, after a 1 ½ year delay due to some minor earthquakes near Blackpool, resulting from exploratory drilling, the government in November 2012 gave the go-ahead for fracking test wells. Shale (but not necessarily recoverable gas) is present over 60% of the land mass of England and drilling licences have already been granted (or old conventional gas and oil ones revived) in Lancashire, the South-East and South Wales.
One other technology for which permits have been given in the UK is underground coal gasification (UGC). Interestingly, Lenin wrote approvingly about this technology, describing the benefits that could be gained from it under a socialist system, and its earliest large-scale application was in the USSR in the 1930’s.
Another technology, more closely related to fracking, is Coal Bed Methane (CBM). Planning applications have been sought for this process in the Falkirk/Stirling area and it is likely that this site will be the first to use one of these technologies on a large scale.
The drawbacks described below for fracking largely apply to UGC and CBM as well.
Some environmentalists are starting to claim that fracking will have the benefit of reducing the dependence on coal for generating electricity and thereby carbon dioxide emissions. There are three reasons why fracking is not the answer to this problem. One is the issue of methane leaks. The fragility of old workings has already been mentioned, and there are videos on the internet of people showing flames in their methane-contaminated tap water. Probably more serious are long-term leaks from the new wells, resulting from careless work or poor quality materials. The wells are lined with concrete: the Deepwater Horizon disaster was due to the failure of non-compliant concrete.
A study from Cornell University in 2011, with a follow-up in 2012, found that fracking caused up to twice as much methane leakage as conventional drilling and that, as a result, “the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”. Another report, from January 2013, has shown that some wells leak an “eye-popping” 9% of their production. Presumably, this leakage could be reduced by better practice, but who will inspect the hundreds of thousands of installations to ensure that is implemented?
The second objection is that all these new technologies are locking the system into fossil fuel dependence for (more) decades to come. This is the effect of building of ever more fossil fuel infrastructure. Capitalists who invest in expensive plant will want to use it for as long as possible, in order to maximise their revenue and profits. Every new investment reduces the prospects of a viable system of energy saving and renewable energy generation being implemented. It also diverts financial and human resources (research and skilled labour) away from these goals.
Finally, the fracking boom is likely to reduce the prices of all fossil fuels. Again, this makes it more difficult to implement fuel-saving or renewable energy strategies, especially as fossil fuels attract subsidies, open or hidden, which are not given to non-fossil fuel technologies.
A CEO of a US energy corporation summed up the capitalist attitude to fossil fuel exploitation at a recent business meeting on fracking, dismissing the concerns of an MIT professor (who also happened to be a former head of the CIA!):
“There is no question that climate change and global warming are issues, but you cannot ruin the economy to address them….We’re in these businesses and we are driven by economics. I can tell you that in my opinion all of these alternatives are not economic against natural gas.”
Conclusion – not a holiday
In 2005, one of the predecessors of Socialist Resistance pointed out that capitalism had already had fifty years’ warning that greenhouse gas emissions were subjecting the world’s people and ecosystems to a “large scale geophysical experiment”. We surveyed some of the effects of climate change that were already visible and pointed out the threats, especially to agriculture, and of the spread of tropical diseases and mentioned that a major extinction event was already under way.
Since then, carbon dioxide concentrations have risen from 380ppm to 400ppm and the rate of increase of emissions has also increased by about 20%. There is no indication that capitalism is structurally capable of turning this around.
Along with the continuing frantic extraction of fuels outlined above, the problem is perhaps best illustrated by a recent report, which warned of the possible collapse of the fossil fuel giants, if serious emissions curbs were implemented. The top 200 giants are worth $4tn (based, in large part, on a valuation of their claimed reserves), but have debts of $1.5tn, so a policy that stated “no, you can’t use your reserves” is untenable for the capitalist economy.
Bursting the fossil fuel bubble would have severe consequences for the capitalist system as a whole. The fossil fuel system giants cannot be allowed to collapse and nor can the pension funds that own so many of their shares. Capitalism has no way out when it comes to climate change, except possibly when it is faced with global ecological catastrophe. By then, the “cure” capitalism proposes will most likely make the current austerity programme look like a summer holiday.
What are the alternatives that socialists propose? These will be the subject of subsequent articles in the series. We will examine especially agriculture, energy resources and biodiversity, hopefully showing how, through a socialist strategy, correctly addressing these issues can secure the future of humanity and the ecosystems on which we depend.
Terry Conway explains how the ideas of American socialist Sharon Smith have developed in relation to feminism.
Sharon Smith’s article “Domestic Labour and Women’s oppression” in International Socialist Review 88 is a breath of fresh air, particularly when compared with Sheila McGregor’s article “Marxism and women’s oppression today” in International Socialism 130.
The most significant difference, evident in the opening lines of both articles, is one of approach, of method. While McGregor starts her piece by bringing together a rather well-rehearsed of facts about the reality of working class women’s lives in Britain today, Smith tries to situate her piece in relation to others’ theories of domestic labour.
Smith seems unafraid in her forthright delineation of the contradictions of Marx and Engels approach to the ‘women’s question’ while situating herself clearly within a Marxist approach. Her summing up of those contradictions is worthy of the way she herself describes what historical materialism offers: “As a living and breathing theory, Marxism can and must continue to develop in relation to a changing world”.
Smith goes on to talk about the way that the rise of second wave of feminism from the 1960s onwards challenged a whole raft of ways in which the ‘founding fathers’ of the communist movement failed to . The Women’s Liberation movement not only developed new practice but wove new theoretical insights.
I found Smith’s discussion of the differences between Marx and Engels on a number of questions particularly interesting. Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State is a book I have read time and time again over the years of my activity as a Marxist feminist – and each time it sticks in my craw the way his vision of relationships under socialism is confined to ‘individual sex-love’ between men and women – idealising monogamy and ignoring the possibility of non-heterosexual relationships and just as problematically implying that monogamy is a protection for women – presumably because we are ‘naturally’ less sexual than men!
It’s always been to Alexandra Kollontai that I have looked for more inspiration on the question of personal relationships not Engels. But now Sharon Smith has suggested that I should also explore the writings of Marx, who unlike his colleague does not assume that the monogamous family is the pinnacle to which human relationships can aspire or that it will inevitably survive a transition to socialism.
Much of the rest of what Smith has to say here is fairly familiar territory to one like myself who read and discussed much of the ‘social reproduction’ writings of socialist feminists in the 1970s and 1980s – well summarised and explained – but not particularly groundbreaking.
Why are her views important?
So why write about this? Haven’t there always been critical Marxist feminists saying these sort of things? It’s certainly true, and Smith herself acknowledges that much of what she argues in this piece is part of a line of argument developed since the 1960s by many different socialist feminists. What makes her contribution particularly worthy of note is not its content – though I think that is insightful and well formulated – but who she is and the context in which she is arguing.
Sharon Smith is a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), a revolutionary organisation in the United States which until 2001 was a member of the International Socialist Tendency – the international current with the British Socialist Worker’s Party at its centre. In 2001 they were expelled from that current – supposedly for not being enthusiastic enough about the antiglobalisation movement in the run up to Seattle – but in fact, I would argue for being a little too interested in thinking about and acting to transform the concrete political reality in which they found themselves. In another article, Marxism, feminism and women’s liberation (published at the end of January 2013 but based on a talk given in 2012.) Smith is direct and explicit about where she now disagrees with some important arguments on the women’s question put by her previous co-thinkers.
As in the previous piece I have discussed Smith pays tribute to the gains of the women’s liberation movement – but also here to the Black Power and Gay Liberation movement. She makes a sustained explanation of why all women, regardless of class (or race) suffer as a result of sexism, although obviously working class women are at the bottom of the pile.
She is fiercely critical of some arguments put forward by some feminists – and I think it’s unfortunate that she conflates a polemic against bourgeois feminism – which I would describe as the idea that women’s liberation can be achieved under capitalism – with the term middle-class feminism. I don’t have the scope in this piece to explore the question of what mean by middle class in depth – but in the context where millions of women sell their labour power in insecure and badly paid jobs in sectors such as teaching, health and social care which were certainly considered middle class when I was growing up I’m not sure this is helpful. It’s not that I would give any more credence to the arguments of women like Naomi Wolf than Smith does – just that I don’t think that is a helpful characterisation.
There are other things in Smith’s arguments I don’t completely buy into – I think for example she dismisses the arguments of ‘dual systems’ feminists too quickly in a way that undermines what she has previously argued about feminism being a movement not based on class but nevertheless with a huge amount to contribute – and I would argue to teach the left as a whole.
She does go on to talk about the way that socialist/Marxist feminism has been sidelined and ignored both by those hostile to the left within the women’s liberation movement and those hostile to feminism within the left. She pays a welcome tribute to some of those whose work has impacted on her – notably Lise Vogel and Martha Giminez – both of whom should be on any recommended reading list of socialist feminism
The most important part of this article comes when she sets out what she has now re-examined about her former co-thinkers:
“Unfortunately, not all Marxists have, at all times, understood the need to defend feminism, and to appreciate the enormous accomplishments of the women’s movement, even after the 1960s era gave way to the backlash. This includes some in our own tradition, the International Socialist tradition, who, I would argue, fell into a reductionist approach to women’s liberation a few decades ago.”
“What is reductionism? In its purest form, reductionism is the notion that the class struggle will resolve the problem of sexism on its own, by revealing true class interests, as opposed to false consciousness. So this approach “reduces” issues of oppression to an issue of class. It’s also usually accompanied by a reiteration of the objective class interests of men in doing away with women’s oppression–without taking on the harder question: How do we confront sexism inside the working class?”
This description of reductionism I think well sums up an approach common in many writings from the Socialist Worker’s Party which are partly responsible for a situation where some people in that organisation were prepared to see the description ‘creeping feminist’ as an insult!
The Labour Party sensationally lost a council by-election to the UK Independence Party in one of its heartlands of Rotherham this week. Harry Blackwell examines the background and its consequences.
Labour lost 24% of their vote in the previously ‘safe’ Rawmarsh ward of Rotherham Borough Council in South Yorkshire. Labour came 104 votes behind the victorious UKIP candidate, with a swing of +35% from Labour to UKIP (full result below). The ward is in the parliamentary constituency of Wentworth and Dearne, held by Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary John Healey.
There were important local reasons behind such a dramatic swing in one of Labour’s ‘rotten boroughs’, where tradition has it that even a donkey with a red rosette gets elected (an all too familiar occurrence).
The by-election was caused by the resignation of Labour’s Shaun Wright following his election to an £85,000 salary as Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for South Yorkshire back in November of last year. He hung on to his £12,000pa allowance as a councillor for Rawmarsh ward as long as possible, but eventually stood down after being challenged about how much time he was putting in to his role as PCC – it was revealed he had only made 6 decisions since November, one of the lowest by a PCC in the country, and all PCCs were summoned to Whitehall for a dressing down about their expenses and hospitality which must now be declared publicly.
A number of candidates were put forward within the Rotherham Labour Party but the Party agreed an all-women shortlist and the outcome was that Lisa Wright, Shaun Wright’s wife, was selected as candidate for the by-election. As well as aiming to succeed her husband as councillor, Lisa Wright’s mother is also a member of the Council and other members of her family have previously served as councillors, in what came to be seen locally as a ‘dynastic’ issue. This provided fertile territory for UKIP to get a significant protest vote, as they did in the neighbouring Rotherham parliamentary constituency last November, when they came second in the by-election following the disgrace and resignation of Labour’s Dennis Macshane over an expenses’ scandal.
Rotherham Council has also been immersed in a scandal over child protection following the imprisonment of five men of Asian origin in 2010, convicted of sexual grooming of young girls. The Rotherham Council and the Labour Party that has controlled it since it was created in 1974 have been widely accused of failing to protect children. The scandal associated with this had provided both UKIP and the BNP with fertile territory for an anti-Asian anti-Labour campaign. But this accelerated in the Rotherham parliamentary by-election last year when it came to light that the Labour Council had ham-fistedly removed foster children from a couple who were members of UKIP.
Labour stokes anti-immigrant racism
However, Labour only has itself to blame for stoking the flames of racism. During its period of government, it set up the now disbanded UK Borders Agency and the Points Based System to bring in draconian controls on non-EU immigration. Their Immigration Minister in the final days was Phil Woolas, who ran a disgraceful racist campaign in his Oldham constituency and was subsequently convicted of electoral offences and removed as MP. Labour’s response to the campaign by UKIP and the Tories against immigrants is to say that it failed to control it sufficiently when in office and should have done more to keep migrants from the new EU states of Bulgaria and Romania out of the UK. In replying to the Tories call for tighter immigration controls, Labour has enthusiastically backed them and in a scandalous development last week promised support to the Tory’s new Immigration Bill in Parliament. Even Liberal Democrat MP, Vince Cable, had to complain in parliament last week:
“a couple of days ago I was on the radio on the “Jeremy Vine” programme. I was following a female voice that was ranting on about millions of illegal immigrants and the negligence of the Government in letting them all in and not deporting enough people. I thought at the time that it was some fringe party that regarded Mr Nigel Farage as a sort of soggy, left-wing liberal, but I then realised it was the Labour shadow Home Secretary (Yvette Cooper), and I tried to understand where she was coming from. It says quite a lot about the Labour party’s current values that it feels it necessary to apologise for letting in foreigners, but is still reluctant to apologise for wrecking the economy.”
(Hansard, 10th May 2013)
Cable’s complaints are undoubtedly hypocritical, as he sits in the Coalition Cabinet where his own Liberal Democrat party backs the Tories fully on immigration and austerity (and they were rewarded with just 28 votes in the Rawmarsh by-election, one fortieth of the votes of UKIP).
But it is an indication of the depths that Labour has sunk that its message on immigration is virtually indistinguishable from the most right wing Tories. All that the current language of all three main parties will achieve is to create cynicism and stoke the fires of UKIP, pushing up their vote.
Labour’s general reaction to the UKIP results in the local elections two weeks ago was to delight in the apparent Tory discomfort, but UKIP’s results in the South Shields by-election and in Rotherham indicates that it can take votes from Labour as well as the Tories, especially given the ‘anti-establishment’ rhetoric coming from UKIP and Labour’s 13 years of ineffective government.
The Labour leadership seem to believe that they will coast to victory in the 2015 general election on the back of disillusion with the Coalition parties. This is a dangerous strategy as can be seen by the result earlier this week in the general election in the Canadian Province of British Columbia. The social democratic New Democracy Party (NDP – Labour’s sister party, though a little more to the left) went into the election with a 20% lead in opinion polls and confident of victory. Their leader tacked to the right in order to try to win over the ‘middle ground’, despite strong polling evidence of support for more radical policies from young people in particular. The result was that the ‘Liberal Party’ (in reality a conservative party) gained seats at the expense of the NDP and won the election. Undoubtedly the NDP were hamstrung by both their rightward moving campaign, their previous record of government in the province (1991-2001), and their close identification with the more right wing federal NDP. As the Canadian ‘Socialist Worker’ has pointed out (www.socialist.ca), turnout dropped dramatically and there is no mandate for the Liberals’ austerity and anti-environment agenda.
The shock result in British Columbia stands as a stark reminder to Labour that embracing the same message as the pro-austerity parties will not guarantee electoral success. Elsewhere, in Europe we can see that the social democratic PASOK party in Greece continues to collapse, while the French Socialist Party’s presidency of Hollande in France is on the rocks within a year of taking office, and the German Social Democratic looks to be struggling to win the General Election in September.
A recent YouGov opinion poll for the London Evening Standard (http://bit.ly/156CIxQ) indicated that 49% of people saying they would vote Labour at the next General Election would support a General Strike against the Coalition Government’s policies. This is a million miles away from the current trajectory of the Labour leadership. While Labour’s leadership are moving even further to the right, a huge space has opened up for a left wing alternative including from many erstwhile Labour voters.
The working class needs an effective alternative to the message and actions coming from all four of the pro-austerity parties. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition to its credit stood in this by-election but only scored 61 votes (2.5%). It had previously won a parish council by-election in another part of Rotherham Borough, Maltby, in March, and also stood in the Rotherham parliamentary by-election winning 1.3% (though George Galloway’s Respect party ran a more effective campaign and won over 8%). TUSC’s election results in the shire county elections last week were generally very poor, with many in the ‘family and friends’ category of a few dozen votes. There were a few notable encouraging exceptions, but nowhere did TUSC achieve even 10% of the vote. To a certain extent this is inevitable for an organisation that confines itself to appearing only at election times and does not participate as a party in the day-to-day struggles against the government. We need a better alternative, and one that can work in a non-sectarian way with those in Labour (and the Greens) who support left wing aims and in initiatives like the People’s Assembly. The development of Left Unity currently offers the best hope of building that alternative.
Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council – Rawmarsh Ward by-election 16th May 2013
|Caven VINES (UK Independence Party) 1,143 (46.5%, +46.5%)|
|Lisa WRIGHT (Labour) 1,039 (42.3%, -24.0%)|
|Martyn PARKER (Conservative) 107 ( 4.4%, -8.5%)|
|George BALDWIN (British National Party) 80 (3.3%, -17.6%)|
|Andrew GRAY (Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts) 61 (2.5%, +2.5%)|
|Mohammed MEHARBAN (Liberal Democrats) 28 (1.1%, +1.1%)|
(Change in vote compared to previous result in May 2012)