Campaign against Climate Change Public Meeting
Report-backs from campaigners, NGO’s and the ITUC delegation at the Warsaw talks, with a speaker from the Philippines
Graham Petersen – UCU member of the ITUC delegation
Carla Montemayor – Philippine relief and reconstruction campaigner
7.30pm Monday 2nd December
The Friendship Centre, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
One minute from Tottenham Court Road tube
Come and join the discussion on how we move forward after the COP
One thing is clear from the recent dispute at the Grangemouth, on the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, writes Alan Thornett: a major defeat has been inflicted on one of the best-organised workplaces in Scotland, and on Britain’s biggest union Unite, by the Swiss based oil company Ineos and its union bashing chief executive Jim Ratcliffe.
It is a victory that the employers and the government are exploiting to the full as far as their union bashing agenda is concerned. Unite is being painted (even more than usual) as a rogue union committed to ‘unacceptable and bullying tactics’ such as protesting outside the houses of managers who have just victimised trade union activists or are threatening to sack thousands of workers and destroy their lives. Vince Cable is to set up a review into ‘industrial intimidation’ that Cameron says could lead to a major review of industrial law and to new legislation if necessary.
Such allegations are scaremongering rubbish by a Tory-led Coalition with an anti-trade union agenda, and Unite has been right to denounce them as such. With the report date of the review close to the general election, it is clearly also a part of the Tory election campaign—with Vince Cable and the Lib Dems in full support.
To its great credit the Grangemouth workforce does, indeed, have a militant history—one which has produced some of the best pay and working conditions in Scotland. Nearly a 1,000 of the 1,300 directly employed workers on the site are unionised with a shop stewards committee of 60. There are 1,200 contract workers on the site, some of which are also unionised. In April 2008 the workforce struck for two days, after a 97% vote in favour of action, and successfully defended their pension scheme. The strike had resulted in petrol shortages across Scotland.
There are two distinct halves to the Grangemouth site: the petrochemical plant, which produces raw materials for the plastics industry, and the oil refinery which processes oil from the North Sea fields. The refinery supplies 70% of Scotland’s fuel, plus large quantities to Northern Ireland and Northern England. Both are now owned by Ineos and previously by BP. The site represents a quarter of Scotland’s manufacturing output.
The recent dispute was triggered by a drive by Ineos to break down the wages and working conditions which had been established by the unions over a long period of time. They claimed that the site had lost £150m in the last four years and that this could not continue. There was, however, another agenda behind it, which was to create the conditions (from management’s point of view) to build and raise the money for a new facility to process shale gas from the USA.
The so-called ‘survival plan’ which Ineos forced through includes a three-year wage freeze, reduced shift allowances, the end of the final salary pension scheme, and a three-year no-strike agreement. Stephen Deans, the Unite official at the center of the dispute, who was also chair of the Falkirk constituency Labour Party, resigned his job at the site after intimidation by management and the threat of dismissal.
The response of most of the left to this defeat has been to denounce McCluskey as responsible. He is condemned (by the SWP and the SP for example) either for refusing to call for continued resistance or for a UCS style occupation of the site against the imposition of the plan.
The problem with this is that it is far from clear whether it was McCluskey who initiated the acceptance of the package or wshether the workforce would have voted for continued resistance in the unlikely event of him calling for it. There was not, for example, a core of militants, or a minority of stewards, calling for continued action. In fact it is not clear if at the point the ultimatum was accepted whether there was anyone calling for action.
This is not to say that the leaders of the major unions are not responsible for the situation of unions today. They clearly are. They are responsible for it historically and they are responsible for its continuation when they fail to support fight-back opportunities when they open up. Denouncing McCluskey, however, irrespective of the circumstances or the facts, does not advance the struggle to regenerate the unions very much.
In fact Mark Lyon, the Unite convenor for the whole the site, insists that he personally recommended acceptance of the ultimatum to a meeting of the stewards. The stewards were unanimous in supporting his recommendation and when it was put to a mass meeting of Unite members that meeting also accepted it unanimously. In fact there was applause and cheering as the vote was taken. Whilst this, no doubt, reflected relief that the plant would stay open, it must also have said something as far as the possibility of continued resistance was concerned.
Mark Lyon insists that McCluskey only supported the decision after it had been taken, and he continues to defend the decision he took. No one on the left, as far as I am aware, has taken Mark Lyon, or the stewards committee, to task for recommending acceptance the ultimatum, yet they must be at least as responsible as McCluskey, by any account available, for the final outcome.
Not that Lyons’s actions, or those of the stewards, were very surprising given the shock tactics employed by Ineos management and the ruthless way in which they were carried through—all of which were designed to give the maximum impression that they meant what they said.
Ratcliffe didn’t just threaten closure of the site in the event that his ultimatum was rejected. He closed both plants down a week in advance of his deadline (a costly procedure in such an industry) and sent the workforce home—imposing what was effectively a lockout. He then announced that the petrochemical plant would not reopen unless his terms were accepted and that the future of the refinery was also in jeopardy.
He told The Sunday Times: “This is not a bluff. The clock is ticking. Grangemouth could have a future, but that is absolutely in the hands of the workers. If we go down the wrong road, then I’m afraid this story will not have a happy ending.”
What also strongly played in Radcliffe’s favour was the wider fuel supply situation. He knew that there was enough refined fuel and other products at Grangemouth and available from other sources to avoid a crisis when Grangemouth closed. In fact he had been stockpiling for months to that end. That was why he was able to threaten to close the whole site, if necessary permanently, without causing a run on the pumps across Scotland and beyond.
There had been two Cobra meetings chaired by Cameron to discuss the supply situation in view of the closure of the refinery. As a result of these meeting Cameron was able to say, in answer to a parliamentary question from Tom Watson, that there would not be a petrol shortage with Grangemouth closed down. Cobra had also discussed contingency plans to deal with any chemical supply shortages arising from the closure of the petrochemical site.
The political situation in Scotland—with the Scottish and Westminster Governments competing for referendum votes—also played to Radcliffe’s advantage. It meant that he was able to get money from both of them for his shale gas development which he presented as the future of the site. He ended up with a £9m grant from Holyrood and a £125m loan guarantee from Westminster, which met the £130m he claimed to need.
The other factor which had opened the door for Radcliffe’s offensive against the unions were the actions of Ed Miliband in Falkirk West constituency Labour Party, which had led directly to the victimisation of Stephen Deans by Ineos management.
In July the Daily Mail launched a campaign (as the Daily Mail usually does) around allegations of corrupt practices used by Unite in the selection of the Labour candidate in the Falkirk West by election—which had been called following the resignation of Labour MP Eric Joyce who had been accused of violent behaviour. The allegation was that Unite had been attempting to rig the selection in favour of a candidate of its choice—Karie Murphy.
Miliband quickly intervened and suspended the constituency party. He also suspended Stephen Deans as constituency chair, and Karie Murphy as the prospective candidate. He went on to announce not only that there would be a LP inquiry into the allegations but that he was referring the whole matter to the police—who then opened their own investigation.
In September both the Labour Party and the police announced that they had found no wrongdoing either by Unite, Deans or Murphy. Miliband, however, was not going to settle for that. He went on to announce (with the full endorsement of Tony Blair) that the episode demonstrated that there was a problem with the link between Labour and the unions and that he intended to change it. There would, therefore, be a special conference early next year where changes would be proposed.
Miliband had managed to turn McCluskey’s commitment to the Labour Party and his attempt to promote LP membership through Unite to his own advantage and towards a Blairite initiative to loosen the link with the unions.
All this was, of course, was music to the ears of Ineos management, since it left Stephen Deans seriously exposed. They lost no time in suspending Deans from his job and launching their own inquiry into him claiming that they had grounds to believe that he may have used an Ineos email address to carry out Labour Party business. It was an act of blatant political victimisation directly facilitated by Ed Miliband.
Unite reacted strongly against this attack on Deans and balloted the membership for action in his defence. The result was an 81.4% voted for strike action and 90% for other forms of industrial action, on an 86% turnout. On October 11th Unite duly served seven days notice of industrial action on Ineos in line with the ballot. There would be an overtime ban and a work to rule and a three-day walkout starting on Sunday 20 October.
The response of Ineos to this (as described above) was to close the whole site down, lock out the entire workforce and issue threats of closure. Talks were held at ACAS over the victimisation of Deans but were aborted on October 15th when management walked out—according to Unite just as a settlement was about to have been reached.
It was quickly clear, however, why Ineos had walked out. Ratcliffe was dramatically upping the stakes. With the site at a standstill he was pushing the issue of Deans to one side and putting centre stage the issue of the survival of the site and a ‘survival plan’ of new terms and conditions. If these conditions were not accepted, he said, the petrochemical plant would not reopen, and probably the refinery as well.
Ineos, moreover, intended to go over the head of the union and directly to the workforce with the plan and with a financial inducement to accept. On October 16th they sent a letter to all 1,350 workers at the site asking them to indicate their acceptance of the plan by Monday 21 October. If they voted to accept the new conditions they would receive a sweetener payment of up to £15,000.
Unite’s reaction to this letter was to call a mass meeting of members the next day which voted to reject the ultimatum in the letter and to call on all workers to refuse to sign it. Unite also withdrew the strike notice over Stephen Deans. Instead they held a demonstration and rally in his support, on the day the strike over him would have started, with speakers from the Scottish Parliament and STUC. It was an acceptance that this had been overtaken by the new development.
On Tuesday October 22nd Ineos announced that the survival package had been rejected by the workforce, which was remarkable in the circumstances. A total of 665 workers had rejected the ultimatum by the deadline the previous evening. This represented 70% of the union members and 50% of the total workforce.
Next day Ratcliffe announced that as a result of the vote its shareholders (i.e. him) Ineos had decided that the petrochemical plant would now close permanently and that receivers would be called in forthwith. The oil refinery would also remain shut, whilst Ineos contemplated its future.
This was the point at which everything changed as far as Unite was concerned. By 3pm that afternoon Unite, through its Scottish secretary, announced, in effect, that it was prepared to accept the new terms unconditionally if Ineos reversed it decision and kept the site open. A mass meeting of Unite members (as described above) endorsed this and Ineos, unsurprisingly, soon agreed.
Could more have been done by Unite to hold the line against Ratcliffe? It probably could. But such closure ultimatums, particularly in strategic industries, have always been difficult to oppose even in more militant times. McCluskey had clearly lost touch with reality when he said (on the Politics Show) that the outcome of the dispute had not been a defeat for his union. That does not mean, however, that he could have changed the outcome of the dispute once the ultimatum was delivered.
Is the Grangemouth site now safe in today’s market/political conditions? Of course not. And certainly not by shale gas from the USA.
The only thing which would have secured its future would have been its nationalisation by the Scottish Government in the way it recently nationalised Prestwick Airport. Yet the only thing which Alex Salmond was interested in when he came rushing from the SNP conference in Perth into the Grangemouth situation—along with David Cameron and Ed Davey—was finding a private buyer for the site (in particular PetroChina which already had shares in Ineos) and stuffing them with money until they bought it.
It also shows the centrality of the demand for the nationalision of the energy industry. McCluskey did call upon the Scottish Government to nationalise Grangemouth but only as a last resort and after Ratcliffe had done his worst. The demand for nationalisation needs to be much more central to the work and perspectives of the unions particularly in industries such as energy. This means not only the regeneration of the unions but the development of a more politically based trade unionism and a stronger political alternative to the left of Labour.
There is another very good reason for the nationalisation of energy industry. That is the wider issue of climate change and the need for a dramatic cut back in the use of fossil fuel. Ultimately if the planet is to have a future the fossil fuel industry can’t. This raises the need for a long term energy policy for Scotland which could develop its vast renewable energy capacity and administer a change over to renewables from fossil fuels in a away that can safeguard the jobs and working conditions of the existing workforce. Only a nationalised framework under popular control can achieve such an end.
The devastation facing the people of Syria is appalling. After two and half years of war, there are over 100,000 dead, 2 million refugees that have fled the country and are registered with the UNHCR while another 5 million are ‘displaced’, all this out of a population of just 21 million. There appears to be no quick end in sight to the war.
It all started in the town of Daraa on the 6 March 2011 when young boys were arrested, tortured and killed for writing ‘the people want to overthrow the regime’ on walls across the city. The people of Daraa turned out into the streets to protest at this outrage, and demonstrations spread to cities across Syria, all demanding the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law, more freedoms, and an end to pervasive government corruption. These were immediately and severely repressed by the Syrian army who shot at and killed the unarmed protesters.
Like other countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the revolt did not come out of nowhere. If it was the killing of the youth in Daraa which sparked off the revolt, it had been brewing for years. The Assad regime, like those of Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia, has been implementing neo-liberal policies of the IMF and the World Bank. There is a massive level of poverty and unemployment, endemic corruption, and a despotic ruling elite that is enriching itself. Just as for the other countries of the region, the Left had to give its support and solidarity to those fighting repression and poverty.
The long-term underlying causes of the revolt in Syria are the same as in the rest of the region. If the first event that started the ‘Arab uprisings’ took place in Tunisia on 18 December 2010, the revolt spread rapidly to other countries, in particular Egypt with the occupation of Tahir Square. December 2010 was the beginning of a political revolution across the region that sought to oust old corrupt elites.
The unfolding of the revolutionary process took different forms in the various countries of the region. In Syria, Bashar al Assad refused to make any concessions and stepped up the repression. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia there was no significant break in the ranks of the regime, which would have allowed an alternative to emerge from within the system that would have diffused the revolt while maintaining the country within a neo-liberal framework.
After the Daraa protests, the regime escalated the repression across the country with the army and air force striking at towns that were in revolt and which had ousted the local representatives of the Assad regime. The local population had no choice but to organise to run their communities through the establishment of Local Co-ordinating Committees or Revolutionary Committees and to defend themselves against the military onslaught. The organisation of the military defence of the opposition to Assad developed into the loose network of Free Syrian Army. It is in this context that the Left should support the right of the people of Syria to defend themselves against the military assault of the Assad regime.
The responsibility for the militarisation of the political uprising lies entirely with Bashar al Assad. Towards the end of 2012, there was over 50,000 dead and more than 500,000 refugees. But in 2013, these figures had escalated dramatically. The long drawn-out character of the military conflict is due to the fact that the opposition has only been able to get just about enough arms to hold off the Syrian army. These have been obtained by raiding depots, from defectors, purchasing a few through adjacent countries, all supplemented by a trickle of small-arms from supporters in the Gulf States who directed them mainly to radical islamists. Neither imperialism nor its allies in the Gulf have supplied the anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns necessary to effectively stop the assault by the pro-Assad forces. This is partly because they do not trust the opposition, and also because of the fear that the toppling of the Assad regime may re-ignite the revolution for political democracy which started in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. The superior military resources from supporters in the Gulf States to the radical islamist organisations, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaida affiliates, is attracting volunteers and has given them an advantage over the Free Syrian Army.
Obama’s Yemeni solution
There should be no surprise that US imperialism and its allies such as Britain and France will want to subvert the uprising against the Assad dictatorship to suit their own strategic political objectives. There has been vigorous intervention by imperialism into every popular movement for democratic change since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and well before that. But the Left should be vigorously relating to these movements for democracy, extending its solidarity and warning them of neo-liberal solutions and imperialist intervention. In the Middle East and North Africa, imperialism wants to back regimes that can ensure a supply of oil and to protect Israel as its most loyal regional ally. At the end of the day, the US, Britain and France would rather see a brutal dictator loyal to their interests in power rather than an independent, democratic and popular government. That is why they supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq for so long, made their peace with Gaddafi, and provided financial and military aid to Egypt.
Since their military intervention in Iraq, the US and its allies have changed their tactics. The intervention was a military victory but the US and Britain were unable to achieve their political objectives. There are no US military bases in the country and the entire destruction of the Baathist regime has now left them with a government which is friendlier to Iran than to the US. Today, instead of seeking a total cleansing of the state in Syria, Obama wpuld prefer the ‘Yemeni’ solution: remove the main figurehead but leave the rest of the regime intact. In that way, things appear to have changed but actually remain the same. There would still be a strong repressive state able to prevent a movement for democracy overflowing in an uncontrollable manner and the country stays within the political and economic framework of neo-liberalism. Furthermore it maintains a ‘peaceful co-existence’ with Israel, as Assad senior and junior have done since 1967 when the Golan Heights were occupied. The deal to destroy chemical weapons, was negotiated after the regime used chemical weapons in the conflict, has been a disaster for the rebellion and a political coup for Assad. It has taken imperialist military intervention off the agenda and has legitimised the regime in a way that Assad could only have dreamt of a few weeks ago. He can now present his regime as complying with the wishes of the UN whilst conducting an all-out war against the rebellion and receiving all the arms he needs from Russia and its allies.
The deal was also a lucky break Obama, who seized it with both hands to rescue his presidency as the intervention was just as unpopular in the US as it was in Britain. Of course, a military intervention is still a possibility, but not at the moment.
The US, Britain and France are not alone in wanting as little change as possible in Syria. Russia is just as keen that the Assad regime is not ousted as it has its last naval base outside the former Soviet Union in Tartus. It also does not want the area to fall further under US political and economic hegemony. That is why it has been generously arming the Assad regime, allowing it to pound relentlessly the opposition held areas and to put the civilian populations under siege like the Russian army had done in Grozny. But condemning the Russian support for Assad cannot just be left to Russian socialists as John Rees, a leading member of the Stop the War Coalition and Counterfire, argues when he writes that ‘the best chance that the Syrian democratic movement has of success is if we successfully challenge our imperialists and Russian socialists and anti-war activists successfully challenge Putin’.
As well as Russia, Iran is also backing Assad, and Hezbollah in Lebanon are sending over fighters to back the regime. Of course the Left and the anti-war movement in Britain and elsewhere must in the first instance call upon their own government not to intervene in Syria. The failure of Cameron to get backing in Parliament for intervention alongside the USA is a tremendous victory and vindication of the anti-war movement established 13 years ago in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. But the Left and the anti-war movement cannot stay silent on the other foreign interventions backing the murderous Assad regime. Instead, it has to support the right of the people of Syria to determine their own future free from all foreign intervention.
Unfortunately, too many on the Left while despairing at the horror of the unfolding conflict in Syria are failing to cast a critical eye on the situation or even to accept facts. The conflict is dismissed by some as just a proxy war between the US and Russia, and others that it is simply a civil war. In every ‘civil war’ there is a conflict between political and economic interests that is a class conflict just like there was in the Spanish ‘civil war’. As Clausewitz – who was no Marxist – put it, ‘War is the continuation of Politics by other means’.
There is in Syria not just a political struggle for democracy which is part of the ‘Arab uprisings’, and a proxy conflict between US imperialism and a capitalist Russia, but there is also within the opposition to the Assad regime a struggle between the more progressive and secular elements – even if they have illusions in imperialism – and the radical islamist forces backed by some Gulf States. The latter conflict has at times taken a military form as they struggle for control of cities freed from the Syrian government. And there are of course small leftist and Marxist currents still in Syria fighting against Assad. There are too many credible reports about the more democratic functioning of some of the areas liberated from the Assad regime for these to be simply ignored. Instead, this should give us hope that a political revolution is still possible in Syria.
Zizek’s “Heart of Darkness”
One of the worst readings of Syria is by Slavoj Zizek who, in an article in the Guardian, describes it as an ‘obscure conflict’ where there are ‘no emancipatory forces’. This reading of the situation is far too reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, suggesting that Syria or other countries of the Middle East are a place of moral bankruptcy, wildernesses with ‘no emancipatory forces’. Zizek goes even further, but he is not the only one, when he writes that ‘Syria at least pretended to be a secular state’ implying that Assad is the lesser evil in the current conflict. This argument, which is demolished by Syria Freedom Forever,  is ‘campist’, that is supporting, or at least not being too critical of, regimes which are in conflict with imperialism. It is clearly argued by Rob Griffiths, General Secretary of the Communist Party, who ‘warned that tipping the military balance against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would not only remove a critic of US foreign policy and the illegal Israeli occupation of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese land. It would also strengthen sectarian fundamentalists who – like their Saudi and Qatari sponsors – oppose democratic rights for women and religious minorities’.
Another argument in justifying opposition only to US and British imperialism comes from Guardian journalist Seumas Milne. He argues that since the fall of the Soviet Union, a multi-polar world is a better place than one entirely dominated by US imperialism. Writing in the Guardian about the war in Georgia in 2008, Milne argued for ‘the necessity of a counterbalance in international relations that can restrict the freedom of any one power to impose its will on other countries unilaterally’. This line of argument also influences the Stop the War Coalition which put out a statement recently that ‘continued war threatens to change the face of the Middle East, by weakening the influence of Iran through attacking its allies such as the Syrian government and Hezbollah in Lebanon’. No-one has yet demonstrated that a multi-polar capitalist world is a safer or better place than a uni-polar one dominated by US imperialism.
The problem with this approach, described by some on the Left as ‘campism’, is that it looks at the conflict in Syria through a dynamic of conflicts between states rather than that of a social and economic conflict, in other words of class interests. None of the regimes or governments in the Middle East plays a ‘progressive’ role. All of them, to some extent or another, are repressive and are pushing the neo-liberal agenda, rolling out privatisation, failing to back the Palestinians, and each playing a part in the ‘war against terror’.
Tariq Ali also fails to look at the dynamic of the process and ignores the facts. In a recent article, he correctly argues that ‘mass uprisings on their own (do not) constitute a revolution’ and that the ‘mass uprising was genuine and reflected a desire for political change’, but he ignores the current internal struggles in the opposition and the reports from areas freed from the Assad regime. He denies that there is even a revolutionary process when he writes about Egypt that ‘the ancient régime (the army) is back in charge with mass support. If the original was not a revolution, the latter is hardly a counter-revolution’ and he argues against positions that no-one on the Left holds such as that ‘the idea that the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey backed by NATO are going to create a revolutionary democracy or even a democratic set-up is challenged by what is happening elsewhere in the Arab world’.
John Rees at least argues that ‘although there was an internal dynamic to the Syrian revolution it was increasingly prey to imperialist intervention which was both corroding the revolutionary process and increasingly shaping the direction of events in the region’. It is indeed true that the conflict has been militarised, but this is not just the responsibility of imperialism. The Assad regime, backed by Russia, has been relentless in its attempt to crush the opposition. But that in itself is not a reason to believe that the original character of the Syrian revolution has been totally eradicated. As Gilbert Achcar puts it in his interview, ‘there is an ongoing revolutionary process throughout the region, which, like any revolutionary process in history, has ups and downs, periods of advances and periods of setbacks – and sometimes ambiguous periods’. There has obviously been a massive set-back in Egypt with the recent military coup ousting the Morsi government. The retreat in the revolutionary process is also evident in Syria with the enduring military conflict between Assad and the opposition, in which Assad seems to be gaining ground and which if nothing changes, he will probably win with his army and air force amply supplied by Russia.
We denounce Assad
So how should the Left and the anti-war movement in Britain and elsewhere respond. Simply opposing Western intervention and stating as, the Stop the War Coalition does, that ‘the solution in Syria cannot lie in further militarising the conflict, but in attempts to achieve peace through negotiation’ is not sufficient as it ignores the future of Assad who has been described by the Coalition as having an ‘appalling record on human rights’. One of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, has agreed to join a peace conference in Geneva if certain pre-conditions are met, in particular that Assad should have no role in the future of the country, but also that there should be an end to the fighting, the withdrawal of Syrian armed forces from major cities and the urgent introduction of humanitarian aid. But participation in peace talks is contested by many others in the opposition who reject the dialogue in Geneva while Assad continues to commit war crimes in Syria.
The Stop the War Coalition was established 13 years ago not just to oppose Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to defend democratic rights in Britain and oppose racism and islamophobia. The anti-war movement in Britain should not take a view on who to back in Syria but it should support the right of the people of Syria to fight for their democratic rights, and to be allowed to determine their own future free from all foreign intervention, that of Britain first of all but also that of the US and Russia. The movement should also continue to denounce Assad for his ‘appalling record on human rights’.
The Left in Britain should also go further than what a broad-based anti-war movement can do. It should extend its solidarity to all those fighting for democracy in Syria, support their right to take up arms to defend themselves against Assad and to obtain the arms from wherever they can without conditions. The Left should clearly call for the ousting of the Assad regime and for a free and democratic Syria. The Left’s support for the opposition should not be done uncritically. They should be warned of the dangers of imperialist intervention and of backing neo-liberal economic and political solutions. Our warmest solidarity should be extended to those small forces on the Left in Syria such as the Revolutionary Left Current. But in the face of the desperate humanitarian crisis, the Left should also support material aid going to the refugees through appropriate organisations. This should not be dismissed as charity, but as an act of solidarity just like material aid for miners during their year-long strike in Britain or like the Viva Palestina aid convoys.
Fred Leplat, 14 November 2013
 Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, ‘U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out With Russia’s Aid’, New York Times, 26 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/world/middleeast/us-seeks-russias-help-in-removing-assad-in-syria.html?_r=0
 John Rees, ‘Introduction to the Russian translation his of article Empire and revolution’, Counterfire , 23 September 2013, http://www.counterfire.org/theory/37-theory/16679-syria-empire-and-revolution-russian-introduction
 Martin Chulov, ‘American threats widen fault lines among Syria’s rebels’, The Guardian, 8 September 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/08/american-syria-rebels
 Slavoj Zizek, ‘Syria is a pseudo-struggle’, The Guardian, 6 September 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/06/syria-pseudo-struggle-egypt
 ‘A response to Slavoj Zizek’, Syria Freedom Forever, 18 October 2013, http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/a-response-to-slavoj-zizek-syria-a-pseudo-struggle
 ‘Britain’s Communists oppose ‘disastrous attack on Syria’, Communist Party of Britain, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1829:britains-communists-oppose-disastrous-attack-on-syria&catid=132:press-statements&Itemid=167
 Seumas Milne, ‘Georgia is the graveyard of America’s unipolar world’, The Guardian,28 August 2008, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/28/russia.usforeignpolicy
 Stop the War Coalition, http://www.stopwar.org.uk/campaigns/syria
 Tariq Ali, ‘What is a Revolution?’, Guernica – a magazine of arts and politics, 4 September 2013, http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/tariq-ali-what-is-a-revolution
 Reports in areas under opposition control, read Yasser Munif, ‘Syria’s revolution behind the lines – The story of the poor and rural town of Manbij’, Socialist Review, 1 November 2013, http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12410; Ewa Jasiewicz, Red Pepper, August 2013, http://www.redpepper.org.uk/you-are-now-entering-the-liberated-area-of-marrat-al-numan; and reports in Syria Freedom Forever at http://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com
 John Rees, Counterfire, 23 September 2013,
 Interview with Gilbert Achcar, ‘Syria between Revolution and Counter-Revolutions’, Socialist Resistance, 2 October 2013, http://socialistresistance.org/5531/syria-between-revolution-and-counter-revolutions
 Stop the War Coalition, ‘Syria – Ten reasons why we oppose intervention’, http://stopwar.org.uk/leaflets/syria
 BBC News, 11 November 2013, ‘Syrian National Coalition agrees Geneva talks position’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24894536, and Al Jazeera, 12 November 2013, ‘Syria opposition sets preconditions for talks’, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/11/syria-opposition-agrees-geneva-peace-talks-2013111111259120364.html
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the John Lennon and Yoko Ono began to move towards revolutionary socialist positions. Like many of their generation they felt the impact of the mass radicalisation of the movement against the war in Vietnam and the fallout from the events of May 1968 in France. They had a close relationship for a while with the the International Marxist Group (IMG), a predecessor organisation of Socialist Resistance.
The famous picture of John Lennon marching with a copy of Red Mole, newspaper of the IMG, dates from this time, as does a long interview, running over four pages, he and Yoko gave to Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn for the paper in 1970.
Until now, the audio of this interview has not been publicly available. The cassette on which it was recorded, at the IMG’s Pentonville Road office, was believed lost but a copy has recently come to light. So now, for the first time, you can hear John Lennon and Yoko Ono make the case for revolution, feminism and the racism they faced when they fell in love. He also reveals that Sir Paul McCartney is a conservative and that contributed to the Beatles’ split.
Click here to hear it.
“Under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits”. Landlord checks on prospective tenants to make sure they aren’t illegal immigrants are “sensible in principle”.
Who is coming out with this reactionary drivel? Nigel Farage, Ian Duncan-Smith or Theresa May? No. Rachel Reeve, Duncan-Smith’s shadow in the Labour Party is stealing his claimant bashing rhetoric, adding for good measure that “nobody should be under any illusion that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government”. Theresa May’s policy ideas, though considered an attack on civil liberties by the UKIP leader are embraced by her Labour shadow Yvette Cooper.
The general election may be well over a year away but the campaigning has already started. Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour conference was his party’s opening salvo and, as we explore in this issue, it signified a modest but perceptible leftward shift and was welcomed as such across the labour movement. Len McCluskey, the Unite leader was quick to endorse Miliband saying in a TV interview “the Labour Party is still our party remember, it’s the party of organised labour and we want to make certain that it’s well funded in order to fight the next elections.“
Neither McCluskey nor Miliband want to draw the real conclusion from the reaction to the conference speech which was that a radical challenge to the deepening impoverishment of millions of people is a vote winner. Instead Miliband instructs his lieutenants to get out the message that the party is as committed to key aspects of neo-liberalism and austerity as it was under Blair and Brown. Moreover, as Cooper demonstrates, ideas which were once found only in the most obscure and unpleasant right wing think tanks are now “sensible in principle”.
It’s looking increasingly likely that Labour will win the next general election, or more accurately, the Tories will lose it as the majority of voters will be in the region of 15% poorer in real terms than they were when the coalition was elected. Millions of working class people may not share McCluskey’s illusion that Miliband, Cooper and Reeves see themselves as representing organised labour but they will vote for the party if they see it as offering a marginal protection against the all out class warfare John Lister describes in his article.
Socialist Resistance is encouraging its supporters and readers to become active in Left Unity. In particular we are endorsing the vision for the organisation set out in the Left Party Platform which we reprint in this issue. We may not like the concept of a “UKIP of the left”, but it’s clear that Farage’s outfit has had an ideological impact on the Tories. From our point of view it’s an entirely negative one. No such pressure is being exerted on Labour from the left. The handful of MPs who are willing to take a clear stand in defence of working people are lost in a morass of time servers and gutless wonders. Left Unity has shown in the short time it has existed that it resonates with the political consciousness of significant numbers of newly radicalising people and individuals with experience of the labour movement.
Elections are only one terrain of class struggle but they are sometimes a significant one. Many of us will have no choice but to vote Labour next year and the year after. In some areas there will be credible left or Green candidates. We have to take the opportunity opened up by Miliband’s rhetorical shift by arguing that the only political solution to austerity is one that is willing to absolutely reject it. Labour won’t. We can build Left Unity into the party that will.
Prior to the 2010 election, David Cameron worked hard to “detoxify” the Tory Party in public eyes, breaking from the Thatcherite image: there were occasional gestures towards a more enlightened approach on social issues – the notorious homophobic Section 28 was replaced by the promise to legalise gay marriage; there were promises to tackle sleaze in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal; and Cameron and Lansley even toured the country denouncing hospital closures and NHS cuts, promising a moratorium on all closures and real terms annual increases in health spending.
The effort worked enough to get the Tories ahead of Labour in the election, and of course the deal with the Lib Dems then put Cameron in office, at which point the Mr Nice Guy image has been discarded by one minister after another.
A government stuffed with toffs and including a record number of millionaires has cut taxes for those on top incomes and for business, but been especially savage in its onslaught on the poorest and weakest – intensifying brutal assessments of people claiming disability benefits, capping housing benefits, imposing the vicious bedroom tax and trying to cut back on legal aid, to make justice unaffordable to the poor.
The Tories have led a disgusting race to the xenophobic bottom in immigration and asylum seekers, dragging a spineless Labour leadership in their wake as they slam the door on thousands with valid reasons to come to Britain, while welcoming in hordes of tax-dodging billionaires, bankers, wealthy parasites and mafiosi who have driven London’s elite property prices into a crazy upward spiral.
They have worked tirelessly to fragment the education system with “free schools”, and create space for private firms and religious extremists to steer academies. They have massively increased tuition fees for students and commercialised universities. A massive, complex 400-page Health & Social Care Bill has been forced through that breaks up the NHS and opens its budget up for the private sector – while freezing health spending and demanding unprecedented cost savings.
In all of these attacks Cameron’s government has gone further, faster, and with less public support than Thatcher, whose 1979-1990 government had previously set the bar, breaking from the much more consensual patrician Tory leaderships of the post war period.
It’s clear that unlike Thatcher, who won a solid electoral mandate from prosperous layers of “middle England”, and who was determined to go “on and on” until she reached too far with the disastrous Poll Tax, Cameron’s team know they are likely to have only one term in office. They achieved power only with LibDem support, and the LibDems are paying the political price, and face big losses at the next election
They have opted for a straightforward “seek and destroy” mission – aiming to create a new, neoliberal fait accompli that timid Labour – even if they did decide to unpick some changes – would take more than one parliamentary term to do so.
The NHS “reform” can already seen to mesh with competition laws in the UK, EU and World Trade Organisation, making it a complex and costly job to reverse privatisation, renationalise and reintegrate services.
So Cameron’s is the nastiest Tory leadership ever because they have now come out with their clear neoliberal agenda, but know they may have only five years to line the pockets of their friends, and reorganise society to work even more consistently in the interests of the wealthiest – and because they feel they can get away with it. The MPs’ expenses scandal accelerated the trend of disillusion increasing public disengagement from politics – leaving the wealthy activists more scope to do what they like, and making it harder to mobilise opposition.
Cameron can also count on a feeble and directionless Labour leadership, which time and again has conceded support for reactionary Tory policies – creating frustration, dismay and a sense of helplessness among working people wanting a clear opposition and a genuine fight.
He and his cabinet of class conscious toffs are determined, and know exactly what they want. They can only be answered by the development of an equally determined, class conscious and coherent broad party of the left. That’s the challenge we face.
Ed Miliband’s speech at the Labour Party conference has opened up the political situation and has started a debate on the left on the direction Miliband leadership writes Alan Thornett.
The Socialist Unity web site, the day after the speech, carried an image of the Daily Mail front page that proclaimed ‘Back to The Bad Old Days’ and then its own headline: ‘Proof that Ed Miliband and Labour are on the right track’.
While this response reflects the site’s long time capitulation to Labourism there is an element of truth in what it says.
Although the speech was deeply contradictory it contained a number of popular proposals that socialists should welcome and support. These included a 20 month freeze on energy prices, the repeal of the bedroom tax, a pledge to build 200,000 new homes by 2020 with the threat to take land banks from the speculators if they won’t build on them and an undertaking to free up local councils to start house building again.
It also included pledges to extend childcare, give 16 and 17 year olds the vote, and ‘strengthen’ the minimum wage (though this, apparently, does not involve a rise in the basic rate) and the repeal of the Health and Social Care Act (though exactly what that means is not so clear). Before the conference, Ed Balls had questioned (rather vaguely it has to be said) whether Labour should go ahead with HS2 if the costs continue to rise.
All this is a distinct tack to the left from the old Blairite agenda. He has been forced to make if he is to make headway against the coalition and it stands in contradiction to the collapse Labour has made into the Tory cuts agenda and its pledge to stick to it in the first years of office if a Labour Government is elected. Labour is far from on the right track but is an improvement on the paralysis which has predominated for the past two years.
The speech was met with howls of protest from the right wing media, and Peter Mandelson and Digby Jones were trotted out to denounce it. The power companies ranted that they would leave the country and cause power cuts if the policy was implemented. Essentially they were threatening to go on strike against the policies of a democratically elected government.
Whilst such pledges are only a start from a socialist point of view—there was no commitment to renationalise Royal Mail for example despite 70% of the population favouring it—these are issues which will undoubtedly improve Labour’s electoral chances. In fact Labour had gone up three points in the polls within 48 hours of the speech.
The energy price freeze in particular, with the cost of living spinning out of control, hit a particularly popular chord with 64 % of people supporting it. The proposal also wrong footed the Tories in advance of their conference with Cameron opposing it and Gove supporting it.
We can also welcome Miliband’s rejection of the damaging race to the bottom which coalition policy is generating. He was right to say that the Tory cuts agenda would make the crisis worse. He was right to say that ‘the cost of living crisis isn’t an accident of David Cameron’s economic policy, but it is his economic policy’. He was right to say that that Tories are leading a global race to the bottom based on low wages, declining working conditions, and fewer rights at work.
As Caroline Lucas argued at the Peoples Assembly, the Tories—as loyal groupies of Milton Friedman and his shock therapy mantra—have never seen this recession as crisis but an opportunity. A unique opportunity to change British society in a radically fee market direction—building on the defeats they inflicted on the trade unions in the 1980s. A chance to create the kind of society they have always craved
All they had to do was convince the majority of the population that draconian austerity measures were necessary to pay off a debt they had played no part in creating.
And the ‘lickspittle Lib Dems’, as Denis Skinner witheringly called them, have been accomplices in the whole thing. The claim that they have protected the poor from the ravages the Tories would have inflicted without them is laughable.
They have been the enablers of Tory onslaught from the outset providing voting fodder in Parliament and stridently defending the most destructive Tory policies. Their conference, this year, loyally fell into line by backing not only the whole austerity agenda but nuclear power and fracking as well.
They have had audacity to claim that the rise in the tax threshold took millions out of income tax and gave them increased real income. The problem with this is that when it is set against falling wages it does not mean very much. In fact employers take it as a signal to cut real wages even more. It is give with one hand and taken even more away with the other.
Miliband was also right when he argued that ‘Britain can’t win a race for the fewest rights at work against the sweatshops of the world and the more we try the worse things will get’.
In Cameron’s Britain nearly 5 million people (according to Unite’s figures), in both the public and the private sector, rely on zero hour contracts for a living. Millions more, particularly in the private sector, are subjected to wage cuts (either agreed or imposed) and/or the intensification of their work. Public sector wages are frozen. Many in the private sector can effectively be sacked at the whim of the employer.
But the trouble is Miliband still supports the Tory cuts agenda and their wages policy, which are what the race to the bottom is all about. He has not lifted a finger to defend or improve conditions in the workplace or strengthen the trade unions or to challenge the anti union laws. In fact his main preoccupation recently has been to weaken the link between the Labour Party and the unions by the abolition of affiliated membership.
Austerity will continue under Labour
All this, moreover, was in his speech. Don’t think life will be easy with Labour in office he told the conference! Austerity will continue! A Labour Government will be a fiscally responsible and committed to reducing the debt. What is that if it is not a race to the bottom? Len McCluskey, speaking straight after the speech, stressed that Labour would never be able to tackle the economic situation it it continued to support the freezing of wages.
Miliband has tacked to the left for electoral purposes but he has not renounced his support for the neoliberal agenda. Nor has he reversed the slide into new labour and marketisation that took place in the 1990s. Far from it. It is a tactical shift within a right wing orientation.
It does not resolve the crisis of working class leadership that we have lived with the several decades or the need for a new working class party. In fact it raises all the warning signs as far as what Labour world do in Office. You only have to look at the collapse to the right of the Hollande Socialist Party Government in France since it took office to see what might well be ahead.
It has, however, opened up the political situation and has created an opportunity for the left that it must and can build on. Now is the time to pile on the pressure for Labour to go further along this road and break with the whole Tory agenda.
Left Unity, which is building its membership every day as it moves towards its launch conference on November 30, will need to discuss how to engage with Labour supporters in a non-sectarian way in campaigns to defend services on the ground while putting forward a more radical set of demands which break from the austerity agenda—showing in practice that this is the only way to defend and democratise the public sector.
Osborne and the so-called recovery
The claim by Osborne and Cameron that the British economy has turned a corner and is on the way out of recession is a sick joke.
True some sectors of the economy performed marginally better between April and June this year than was predicted – mainly in the South East. Manufacturing grew by 2 percent (according to the Office of National Statistics) and services grew at their highest rate for six years. Car sales increased in Britain by 13 per cent in June (though they have fallen across Europe as a whole) and house sales and prices are rising.
Manufacturing output remains 14 per cent below its pre-recession peak and construction is still over 17 per cent lower. Far from government borrowing being reduced it has increased.
Nor does this signal an end to the crisis that broke out in 2008 – which was a global crisis based on debt and remains so. The crisis in Europe and the Eurozone remains unresolved. Greece is still in deep crisis, Spain depressed, and Italy paralysed. The Chinese economy is faltering, and all this is linked to an environmental crisis which is reaching new depths.
In any case the notion that a growth rate in Britain of 0.6% for a few months after three years of austerity and plunging living standards is a vindication of coalition strategy beggars belief.
Even this rate of growth, however, is not based on rising incomes, but on people digging into their savings as wages have sharply declined. Public debt is being transformed into private debt. The TUC points out that in the past year household savings have dropped by 43 per cent as people try to cope with rising prices or replace essentials of life that are wearing out.
The average household in Britain has lost around £1,500 a year in real terms since the coalition came to office and is now saddled with nearly £8000 in unsecured debt. Loan sharks such as Wonga step in as people are forced to borrow at exorbitant rates to pay for basic necessities. Since 2009 the value of the payday lending industry has gone from £900m to over £2bn today.
Osborne’s picture of the corner being turned is a million miles from the reality of life for millions of people who have lived through the biggest fall in living standards for over 100 years. Real wages are falling at a near-record rate. Recent figures show that they were 6% lower in April than they were in April 2008. This is the biggest five-year drop since 1921-26, and the second-largest fall since records began in 1855. There is a severe cost of living crisis, people with several (usually part-time) jobs are unable to make ends meet and food banks become a last resort.
What we have, therefore, is a so-called recovery based on, poverty pay, depleted welfare, precarious employment, under underemployment (which is rising in both full time and part time work), and personal debt. Women and disabled people in particular are being targeted.
The already grossly inadequate minimum wage, which supports the poorest in society, has been declining since the crisis broke because it is pegged to wage rates that have been falling in real terms. The growing numbers of the working poor are trapped between rising rents and mortgages and falling wages and benefits whilst the cost of essentials such as food gas and electricity increase relentlessly.
Unemployment (according to the mostly fictitious official figures) is slightly down, in some parts of the country, as people are driven to take ever-lower paid and more precarious jobs or equally precarious self-employment. Both long-term and youth unemployment, however, remain at very high levels. One in five young people are out of work and underemployment is at a record high.
The last hope that Cameron and Osborne see for Tory victory in 2015 is the housing market. To this end they have launched the mortgage guarantee scheme that underpins private mortgages from taxation. It is an attempt to compensate for the fact that as a result of their own policies most young people no longer have the stable jobs or pay rates to raise a deposit or get a mortgage under normal market conditions.
The fact that they are prepared to indulge in such controversial and high-risk state intervention into the housing market is a measure of the desperation they face.
Such intervention has indeed stimulated the housing market—and as a result house prices are now rising 5 times faster than wages. In August mortgage lending increased by 29% as the speculators moved in. This prompted the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (no less) to call on the Bank of England to impose a cap on house price inflation in order to avoid what it called a ‘dangerous debt bubble’.
There is a fat chance of this happening since in the end house prices are being kept high by a deliberately created shortage. Fewer than half the new homes needed are being built every year so the pressure mounts. Money thrown at mortgages through the Mortgage Guarantee Scheme is finding its way to developers and landlords rather than to people who need housing. As a result the scheme is rapidly generating the same kind of housing bubble that triggered the banking crash in 2008.
The reality of the next election is that Labour could hardly be better placed. The Lib Dems are stuck on 10% in the polls and with Clegg as the most despised of the three leaders will be hard hit in the election. They look set to lose the one third of their seats where they are facing Labour opponents and in order to defend the rest they need labour voters to continue to vote tactically against the Tories. Whether they will do this after the experience of the Lib Dems in office supporting the ‘blame Labour’ line for the crisis is not clear.
In any case under the Clegg, Alexander and Laws leadership the Lib Dems are crypto-Tories anyway. They are desperately hoping for another hung parliament and another coalition with either the Tories or Labour in order to cling onto their ministerial positions but it is statistically very unlikely.
The hatchet job the Tories did on the Lib Dems over the voting system has also meant that the Tories were unable to get the boundary changes they wanted through Parliament—which means that they still have a disadvantage in the way the constituencies divide up.
Then there is UKIP—assuming they survive the debacle at their conference, which they no doubt will given that few of their supporters will have any objection to women being insulted in the way they were. This being the case will take some votes from Labour but the bulk will come from the Tories. Recent figures have shown that Labour would win if UKIP hold on to the 5 or 6 per cent of Tory voters they have recently won over.
The UKIP effect could be even worse, however. A survey by Lord Ashcroft has shown that because most disaffected Lib Dems will vote Labour and most disaffected Tories will vote UKIP Labour is polling much stronger in the marginal seats than their national average. In the 32 seats with the smallest Tory majorities Labour has treble their average lead.
All this makes a majority Labour government at the next general election by far the most likely out come. The task now, therefore, is to build the fight back against the cuts and to continue the struggle whoever wins the election.
The People’s Assembly set the scene in June with militant speeches from Frances O’Grady, Len McCluskey and others. The PA called for the demonstration at the Tory party conference on September 29th in defense of the NHS and also for a day of civil disobedience on November 5th.
The FBU has just taken action over pensions and the CWU is about to ballot for strike action which is likely to be successful. The teaching unions—the NUT and NASUWT—have confirmed the dates of regional strike action. On Tuesday October 1st there will be strike action in the Eastern Region, the East Midlands, the West Midlands plus Yorkshire and Humberside regions and then on October17th there will be strike action in the North East, London, South East and South West regions. A one-day national strike is scheduled before the end of the autumn term, likely to be towards the end of November.
The myth perpetrated by the coalitions and its many mouthpieces in the media is that there is no alternative to austerity. This is rubbish. Of course there is an alternative. It is massive investment in green jobs and green technology. It is massive investment in sustainable housing which would bring down house prices and rents. If the money can be found for fighting wars it can be found for such investment.
Miliband’s speech has opened a new situation that is favourable to the left and to the fight back. The task now is to build militant resistance on the one and a political alternative on the other. These are the elements needed to make a real change in the situation and take the workers movement forward.
Trade-unions, the anti-cuts campaigns, the peace movement and the left are all getting ready to march on Sunday 29 September at the Tory party conference in Manchester. The message is simple: no to austerity, defend the NHS, we should not pay for their crisis.
The Tory chancellor claims that there are signs that the economy is moving out of recession. But what Osborne does not explain is who is paying for this recovery. The gap between the rich and the poor never ceases to increase with bankers earnings are at pre-crisis levels and a drop in earnings for the rest. Households have lost an average of £1,300 since 2010. There are over 50,000 households affected by the bedroom tax. And UNITE the union estimates that there are over 5million workers on zero hour contracts. So there is no recovery for working people, the unemployed and pensioners.
The defeat in Parliament for Government’s motion for war in Syria shows it is increasingly weak and vulnerable. Nobody believes that the NHS is safe in the Tories hands as more and more of its services are privatised.
It is still possible to win the fight against austerity and in defence of public services. That’s why it is important that all of us converge on Manchester to tell the Tories that is time to go!
After the 29th September, we will need to throw our weight behind the unions taking actions in defence of services, jobs and conditions. The NUT and NASUWT members are striking on the 1 and 17 October. The CWU is balloting for action while the government is preparing to privatise Royal Mail. Firefighters have voted overwhelmingly for the FBU to organise industrial action in defence of pensions while 12 fire stations are threatened with closure in London. Even members of the Bakers Union are on strike at Hovis in Wigan against zero-hours contracts.
The call for the demonstration came from the 4,000 strong People’s Assembly in June. It has since been taken up by all the major unions and campaigns. The TUC itself is organising the demonstration. Three special trains from London and scores of coaches around the country will converge on Manchester. Over 50,000 are expected to protest on the day, and all of us need to be part of the fightback.