Notes from the front – of the week 11/2/2015


Greece confrontation moves closer – Syriza hasn’t blinked

The confrontation between the anti-austerity Syriza government in Greece and Germany – which stands behind the decisions of the financial troika of the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank – is shaping up for a denouement as early as the end of this month. Greece’s current bailout programme is due for renewal on 28 February.

The parameters of this confrontation are already clear.

On the one hand, the EU institutions could afford to write-off all the Greek debt – it would not have a significant financial impact on EU finances, nor on any other aspect of the EU economy. Except for one overwhelming consideration: contagion. If Greece’s debt were written off and Syriza’s policies proved a success, then a queue will form of Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and before long Italy, which taken together is not simply absorbable without a radical re-making of the fiscal structure of the Eurozone. That is why Merkel and the representatives of the other European governments are insisting there is no room for compromise with Greece.

On the other hand, the negotiating hand held by Syriza is the threat of Grexit. The turbulence unleashed across the Eurozone and the destabilisation of the Euro if Greece were forced out is also a desperate problem facing Merkel and European capital. Again, while the Eurozone could cope with Greece leaving, the danger is contagion. If one country can leave the Eurozone, then others may follow and the entire stability of the Euro as a common currency be undermined.

As the showdown approaches it may come to a matter of who blinks first.

Both sides are manoeuvring to strengthen their position before the final showdown. The EU institutions are looking to step up the pressure on the Greek government, including through provocative steps such as the European Central Bank announcement that it will no longer accept Greek government bonds as collateral for loans.

Although a short-term compromise cannot be ruled out, the acute Greek crisis does not allow long-term postponement.

In the meantime the Syriza government is getting on with setting out its domestic programme. At the first meeting of the newly elected parliament Alexis Tsipras outlined Syriza’s first steps to undo the harm done by the previous government’s austerity programme. He set out plans to improve social welfare, the abolition of a hated property tax and stopped privatisations. The minimum wage will return to its pre-crisis level of €750 per month next year (having been cut to €580) and workers’ rights will be restored. He also pledged a major crackdown on widespread tax evasion by the rich. Even before this speech Syriza’s popularity had doubled in the polls to 70 per cent.

Meeting fears that the government’s policy might include concessions to the reactionary ideology of its junior coalition partner, the ANEL, the government took a series of steps on migrant rights. It announced the closure of the concentration camp-like detention centres for immigrants and granted citizenship rights to children of migrants born in Greece.

Syriza is not only implementing its manifesto but it is acting at every turn to promote the interests of the working class, the poor and the oppressed. This is a completely new turn of events in Western Europe, not seen for generations and all political forces have to adjust to the new situation.

The other governments of Europe are no less dogged in pursuit of the interests of the class they represent, big business as a whole and the banks in particular.

In this context international solidarity is vital. The Greece Solidarity Campaign has organised a ‘Let Greece Breathe- Drop the Debt’ protest in Trafalgar Square in London at 1pm on Sunday 15 February. More info and other activities can be found here.


US steps up destabilisation campaign against Venezuela

The US is seeking to take advantage of the economic problems confronting Venezuela as a result of the fall in price of oil by stepping up its destabilisation campaign against the Maduro Chavista government.

The seriousness of this is underlined by the increasingly stark warnings from across Latin America that what is planned for Venezuelan has echoes of the 1970s in Chile, when the overthrow the democratically elected Allende government was followed by the brutal military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa compared the current ‘economic war’ against the Venezuelan government – where sections of big capital aligned with the right wing opposition have used their economic power to cause shortages – to the right’s preparations for the toppling of Allende, saying: ‘We are reminded of the economic warfare that was carried out once they realized that they could not achieve victory in the ballot box and were defeated in the legislative elections in 1973.’

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño added that the steps taken by the Venezuelan government to confront hoarding and scarcities are ‘absolutely legitimate’ in light of this, saying ‘That Venezuela takes determined decisions to protect its economy and its citizens, is absolutely legitimate.’

Patiño went on to explain that at the core of this destabilisation lies Venezuela’s oil reserves – the largest in the world – nationalised by the Chavez government. As the profits cannot be returned to private hands without taking back control of the country, as Patiño put it, international and domestic forces are looking ‘to take that country like many others, that is the reality of the history of humanity.’

As part of this, the U.S. government confirmed a new set of sanctions last week which target former and current Venezuelan officials.

In response, the Non-Aligned Movement group of 120 nations issued a statement denouncing U.S sanctions [on Venezuela] as an intervention into Venezuelan affairs ‘intended to undermine Venezuela’s sovereignty, its political independence and its right to self-determination.’

The job of socialists is to offer our unstinting solidarity to Venezuela and its right to determine its own future.


Labour is losing votes to its left

The latest opinion poll from Tory peer Ashcroft focusing on Labour-held seats in Scotland that voted Yes in last September’s independence referendum was aimed to grab the headlines with bad news for Labour and the results certainly did so.

The shocking results of the Ashcroft poll suggested that the SNP might take 50 of the 59 Scottish seats, decimating Labour. It should be noted that Ashcroft has had to apologise for inaccuracies in some of his recent polls which have overestimated the problems for Labour. Nonetheless, even on more optimistic polling Labour stands to lose dozens of seats in Scotland.

Labour has responded to this by running a campaign that a vote for the SNP in Scotland may put Cameron back in Number 10. This is entirely unconvincing and will not win back SNP voters to Labour.

Firstly because SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has made it crystal clear that the SNP in Westminster will not vote to keep the Tories in power, rather they will apply pressure to Labour to win their support by steps against austerity, getting rid of Trident and further devolution.

Moreover, the reason Labour is under pressure from the SNP in Scotland in the first place is because rather than campaign again the Tories and their austerity policies in Scotland, the party made the SNP the main enemy. Labour’s joint campaign with the Tories for a No vote, the sniping at progressive steps by the SNP government in Holyrood (abolishing prescription charges, free higher education etc) and putting ultra-Blairite, pro-Iraq war, pro-Trident Jim Murphy at the helm for Labour in Scotland have all contributed to its decline in the polls.

Voters can easily work out that electing SNP candidate to Westminster rather than a Labour candidate does not mean helping the Tories, and instead looks like reinforcing the left pressure on the Labour- led government.

Only a sharp turn to the left by Labour nationally – going further than its current limited promises on living standards proposing a more full-blooded anti-austerity agenda – can prevent a section of the electorate looking left alternatives.

In a lesser way the same can be seen outside Scotland, with the ‘Green surge’ a genuine polling phenomenon. Some polls suggest that former Lib Dem voters are defecting to the Green party almost as much as to Labour. Young voters are particularly attracted by their anti-austerity, environmental policies.

This mood is shown in the recent polling, the latest from YouGov which shows that the majority of potential Labour voters want a shift towards more anti-austerity policies.

It is the objective pressure of the option of shifting to the left and the success which it is likely to bring that has led to furious pre-emptive and concerted attacks from big business, the media and the Blairites (who would rather Labour lose than it form a government with a leadership that might make concessions to the left). While Ed Miliband is not making any such concessions or showing any sign that he may do so, capital fully sees the growing electoral pressure to the left and fears that Labour is more vulnerable to this than the Tories.

Labour’s austerity-lite policies are not only bad economics they are also hurting Labour in the polls. Contrary to those who claimed Labour should worry about losing support to UKIP, and therefore advocated a turn to the right, Labour is losing support to the left, most dramatically in Scotland but also to the Greens south of the border.


Ukraine – will the US scupper latest ceasefire efforts?

Following a week of whistle stop diplomacy, in which Angela Merkel has sought to wrest sufficient concessions from Russia and eastern Ukraine to persuade Obama not to escalate hostilities by arming Kiev, leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France met in Minsk on 11 February.

The aim was to broker a ceasefire following a month of intensified fighting in the east of Ukraine, which have seen the anti-NATO anti-Kiev forces make some territorial advances. They are currently contesting the Kiev-held enclave around Debaltseve that juts into the heart of otherwise Eastern-held territory and is the East’s rail hub.

In response the US had begun moving increasingly rapidly towards supplying the Kiev government with American arms, including heavy weapons, rather than the largely covert support that it has offered up to now. American supply of heavy weapons would almost certainly be accompanied by the presence of US personnel for ‘training’ purposes.

Such steps would inevitably lead to a rapid escalation of the military conflict, as Russia would be bound to respond to an increased military threat so close to its borders. American direct engagement would also tend to step up pressure on other European states to get drawn into the fighting.

This is not what Germany, increasingly joined by other Western European governments, wants to happen.

Germany is already concerned by the damage to its economy from the sanctions regime imposed on Russia. This damage is rippling out to the rest of the Western European economies, leading to France’s Hollande taking a more proactive stance in support of Germany against any escalation of the crisis, including making clear that France is against Ukraine joining NATO.

However to achieve this means a two pronged offensive. Alongside seeking agreement from Putin for a ceasefire framework acceptable to the West, Merkel and Hollande have had to conduct a campaign directed at Washington to win over Obama and the Pentagon.

In this they are evidently supported by Russia, which is also looking for a ceasefire and a negotiated peace settlement. While some from the Western left have been cynical about Russia’s desire for a peaceful solution, in fact the evidence is that Putin has consistently proposed compromises to end the crisis which have met criticism from both Russian nationalists and the forces in eastern Ukraine.

For example, Russia supported the EU-brokered agreement of February 2014 which would have prevented the crisis taking place at all. It was the US which rejected this and proceeded down the route of a parliamentary coup. Then, in May, Putin appealed to eastern rebels to refrain from holding their Donbass referendum – an appeal which they disregarded. Also in May Russia recognised both the results of Kiev’s sham elections after the coup and Poroshenko as the new President of the whole Ukraine, despite there being no elections in the east and opposition parties being banned from participation. At the same time Russia did not officially recognise the results of the November elections in the east and persuaded pro-independence leaders in the east to stand down.

Russia has made it clear again and again that it favours federalisation within Ukraine, not independence for the east.

Merkel and Hollande want to take advantage of Russia’s desire for a compromise to achieve a ceasefire and a de-escalation of conflict. But in the final analysis they will not do this without the agreement, tacit or otherwise, of the US. This is the conundrum that has faced the European ruling classes in the whole post-war period. They are not powerful enough to risk confronting two enemies at the same time – the United States and their own working classes. A major fallout between the European states on the one hand and the United States on the other would open a significant space for the advance of the class struggle in Europe. They will not take this risk.

That does not mean that there is no hope for a peace plan. The US is still weighing up its options within the framework of supporting Kiev in drawing the whole of Ukraine into the Western alliance. Those arguing for arming Kiev favour escalating the conflict with Russia now, anticipating Putin and Russia are sufficiently weakened that increased pressure now can ‘crack the nut’. Others in the US administration are more cautious and fear being drawn into a lengthy, costly and ultimately inconclusive conflict, when slower and more covert steps might achieve more.

The whole Ukraine crisis reflects back into on-going problems of foreign policy for the Obama administration posed by the pressures on the US economy. Over the last six years the administration has been reducing military spending, with the resources released into investment. Since 2009 official US ‘defence’ spending has fallen by more than one per cent of GDP, which has allowed investment to increase a similar amount, underpinning the more robust growth in the US economy than in Europe.

This shift does not represent a long-term reorientation of United States’ policy against war, merely the increasingly unavoidable logic that in order to retain the United States capacity to launch successful wars it has to rebuild the strength of the US economy. The US ‘pivot’ to the Pacific, offensive actions in Afghanistan and the Middle East plus the Ukraine conflict are all constrained by this priority. How supplying heavy weapons and more personnel to Kiev would affect this framework and the US’s other foreign policy priorities are under discussion.

However what should be clear is that in the entire Ukraine crisis, at each decisive point the US has scuppered or encouraged the breakdown of the previous agreements between Western Europe and Russia. A leopard does not change its spots, and whatever tactical steps the US may agree to now, this will remain its orientation. Nor will the US defer to Germany/France on a matter it considers a vital issue, although it may consider it has space for compromise with the concerns of its Western allies.

The answers to these questions will be seen in how the US responds to whatever emerges from the meeting between Poroshenko, Putin, Merkel and Hollande this week and whether it continues to press ahead with supplying weapons to Kiev.


Radical ‘Common Man’ Party sweeps New Delhi elections

In the first major political setback for Narendra Modi’s Hindu sectarian BJP since its landslide victory in India’s national elections in 2014, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party swept the board in New Delhi’s state elections this week.

The party prioritises its campaign against corruption and its pledges to improve public services and stand up to the Indian establishment in the interests of the ‘common man’ and the poor.

The AAP briefly formed a minority New Delhi state government at the end of 2013, during which time it cut the price of power and water – providing 20 kilolitres of water free per month – set up an audit of the power companies, prevented the expansion of foreign retail companies like Tesco and Walmart, and organised street demonstrations against the police.

In winning the election in New Delhi, the AAP has struck a blow against the BJP, which only won 3 seats. While the long-standing ruling party, the Congress party, which ran New Delhi from 1998 to 2013, was eliminated entirely, winning not one single seat.

Clearly the large Muslim population in New Delhi, fearing the increasing sectarianism of the BJP, formed part of the base of the AAP’s success. It also won support among the poor, for whom cheaper utilities are appealing, and who are also increasingly disillusioned by Modi’s failure to deliver for the mass of the population.

The election of a radical anti-establishment party in New Delhi is a sign of the times in the ‘world’s largest democracy’. The Congress party having failed to deliver over the decades since independence, in 2014 the mass of the population was prepared to vote for Hindu sectarianism on the promise of an Indian growth miracle and help for the poor. But this support is conditional on progress being delivered.

Modi is already paying a price for failure.