Notes from the front – of the week 25/3/2015

Budget promises only more austerity

Despite a rapturous welcome to George Osborne’s last Budget (on 18 March) from the press and the BBC the political impact has been negligible. Party political support registered by polls has been barely affected.


The average of opinion polls in the 5 days after the Budget gave Labour a lead of just under one percentage point. In effect the two main parties are tied in the low 30s per cent and have been for some time, which would be insufficient to deliver an overall majority for either of them.

David Cameron’s supposed gaffe in declaring he would not seek a third term actually reflects the current impasse. Despite the bluster from the Tories and their media supporters, jockeying to replace Cameron has been under way with the realisation that they cannot win an overall majority. Cameron’s ‘slip of the tongue’ is in reality a pre-emptive and desperate bid to stay on as Tory leader after what will be successive failures to deliver outright victory.

The chorus of demands that Ed Miliband rule out an agreement with the SNP should be seen in the same light. Making demands on Labour in office completely belies the false bravado of Tory election optimism. In fact it is important not only to the Tory party but to the British ruling class as a whole that a Labour-led government rules out any agreement that might soften the austerity drive. Demonising Alex Salmond and the SNP’s mildly anti-austerity stance is an attempt to exclude anything but a resumption of austerity after the election. No comparable declarations have been demanded, or given, in relation to the pro-austerity Lib Dems.

Osborne’s Budget failed to lift Tory support in the polls because it is clear that, after a hiatus, austerity will be return with a vengeance. These renewed cuts have little to do with the deficit, growth or other secondary matters. The fundamental fact is that the profitability of British firms is not recovering and may even be falling once more. Therefore the austerity offensive is set to continue.

The particular problem for the Tories is that, having sidelined overt racism for the duration of the election campaign to deflate UKIP it is left solely with a platform of claiming economic success. This ought to be ideal territory for Labour, given its own focus on the ‘cost of living crisis’. However, Labour’s embrace of austerity (however milder or slower) means it has locked itself into an electoral embrace with the Tories. During the ‘recovery’ the Tories have flatlined in the polls. Labour has lost 10 per cent or more since mid-2012 as it embraced austerity. The Tories cannot win outright in May. But any Labour failure will be entirely self-inflicted. The priority on the left is to kick the Tories out.

Hope in solving climate crisis

According to the International Energy Agency, last year for the first time in 40 years carbon emissions produced by energy did not rise despite the fact that the global economy grew by three per cent. The only time that carbon emissions have not increased before in this 40 year period has been when the global economy was in recession.

This lack of rise has been driven by China reducing its reliance on coal and moving towards renewable energy, as well as imposing energy efficiency standards on industry.

This achievement reinforces the point that humanity can decouple economic growth from carbon emissions – so it is entirely possible to raise people’s living standards while tackling climate change.

Time will tell whether this develops into a trend, but it is certainly the case that in order to avoid escalating climate change global carbon emissions from all sources – energy, agriculture etc – need to peak within the next five years and then start falling.

Rising Western bellicosity against Russia

Imperialism is steadily deepening its cold war orientation to Russia. Whilst Western military budgets are currently constrained, resources in Europe that do exist are being progressively moved to encircle Russia.

Sweden, which portrays itself as neutral but is aligned with the US and NATO, has announced it is moving troops to the Baltic Sea island of Gotland after a decade-long absence. Gotland lies midway between mainland Sweden and Latvia and is the strategic island which dominates the Baltic Sea. Militarising the island helps to threaten Russia’s access through the Baltic.

Ukraine is imperialism’s prime focus for military action in Europe. How and when to actively breach the February Minsk 2 ceasefire Agreement is under discussion. The Ukraine government is trying to roll back the agreement, with the inevitable resumption of civil war. The agreement called for dialogue with the representatives of the Donbass region’s peoples’ republics then elections and the establishment of broad autonomy for the region. But Kiev is not talking to the leaders in the east – it is insisting on establishing control over the east before the process is moved on and demanding the people’s republics capitulate. The law about the east passed by Ukraine’s parliament last week requires the ‘rebels’ surrender to the Ukrainian government before there are elections and a federalised structure determined.

What is happening with Minsk 2 is similar to how Ukraine dealt with the earlier Minsk 1 agreement. The military aspects were partially implemented but the political aspects were not; Ukraine refused then to negotiate with the eastern regions about a new constitution and in January it re-launched its war on the east.

US General Breedlove, the top NATO commander in Europe, is pushing for Minsk 2 to be declared a failure, so a new Western offensive can be launched. Also on 23 March the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on President Obama to send lethal weapons to Ukraine to fight against the east, a proposal Obama is considering announcing at some point.

The US goals are clear: get Ukraine into NATO and install the US ballistic missile defence system on Russia’s border. The US always claims this system is needed to hit non-existent Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). However the real target is Russia’s ICBMs, which do exist and deter the US from pre-emptively launching its own nuclear weapons at Russia. The US system aims to knock out Russian ICBMs with interceptors rendering Russian defences ineffective. Then the US can force Russia to submit to its demands.

Britain as usual is firmly tied to the more bellicose US more than it is to Germany and France. It is already disregarding the military de-escalation agreed by the Minsk 2 Agreement and instead has sent a contingent of troops to start ‘training’ Ukrainian soldiers for the next offensive against the Russian population in the east.

With the European states divided about how far to concede the US demand for more sanctions on Russia, EU leaders were not able to agree expansion of their sanctions, but on 20 March they did agreed to extend the timescale of the existing economic sanctions till a peace deal in Ukraine is fully implemented. Given the US is not backing the implementation of Minsk 2, effectively the EU is just rolling on with sanctions for the foreseeable future.

Pro-austerity forces trying to crush Syriza

The pro-austerity forces in Europe continue to conspire against the Syriza government with the aim of crushing it and providing a lesson to all. Whilst no-one wants to be seen with their hands on Syriza’s throat, in reality all the forces representing capital in Europe want to throttle the anti-austerity government.

The latest summit between Tsipras and Merkel seems to have been inconclusive, with the Chancellor in Europe’s strongest economy claiming to have no great influence over the Eurogroup of finance ministers. For its part, the Eurogroup is insisting not only that Greece outline acceptable austerity measures but that it begins to implement them before any of the €7.2bn funds agreed with the previous government can be disbursed. And ECB President Draghi has defended his refusal to provide liquidity to the Greek banks as previously agreed, or the €1.8bn interest that is owed to Athens or consider Greece for the quantitative easing programme that has been introduced.

As the Financial Times reports, in a leaked letter the Greek government points out that its November meeting agreed further debt relief measures if a primary budget surplus was achieved (the budget not including debt interest payments). That has been achieved but no further debt relief has been offered.

The Syriza government remains popular. It has passed a law to provide €300 million in measure to offset some of the worst effects of the humanitarian crisis. Even this extremely modest measure was opposed by the EU Commission. At the same time anti-corruption agents believe they can access billions of Euros in fines to tax avoidance and evasion. There is an increasing urgency as an April 8 deadline looms when a €467 million loan from the IMF falls due.

Alexis Tsipras is completely correct to state that at a certain point, unless renewed funds are made available, the government will either be faced with defaulting on its debts (mainly to the IMF) or ‘servicing these debts through internal resources alone [via cuts]… a prospect that I will not countenance’.

This is a clear statement of intent delivered to the chief proponent of austerity in Europe. It should be supported by all anti-austerity militants and parties in Europe and beyond. It also remains important to support the demand of Syriza, promoted by the Greek Solidarity Campaign and others, for a conference to drop the Greek debt.

French Departmental First Round elections – Sarkozy advances

An initial assessment of the results of the first round of the French Departmental Elections on 22 March indicates a significant shift to the right just over halfway through Francois Hollande’s five-year Presidential term.

In comparison with the first round in 2011, the mainstream right parties and the far right increased their vote shares whilst the Socialist Party (PS) and parties to its left decreased theirs.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP, teamed up with the UDI party, came first with 29.4 per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen’s National Front came second on 25.7 per cent. Francois Hollande’s PS third on 22 per cent. To the left of PS the Front de Gauche, Parti Communiste and Parti de Gauche together appear to have got less than 10 per cent.

The PS has gone from first place in 2011 to behind the FN in third place. It won 25.0 per cent in the 2011 first round, won the 2012 Presidential Election and secured a sweeping majority in the subsequent legislative elections. But support for the PS and François Hollande has collapsed since due to the government’s austerity programme.

The big winner of this year’s first round is Sarkozy, who returned to politics last year to prepare his presidential election bid for 2017. He is backed by French capital which hopes he will replace the PS President.

Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN), which now distances itself from its earlier fascist connections, is being built up as a far-right populist racist party. It is anti-EU and plays a similar role to UKIP in Britain of pushing the political agenda to the right. The FN vigorously demonises migrants and Muslims, then the mainstream parties echo the FN’s demands. Scapegoated minorities become the focus of blame as the widespread collapse of living standards continues in France.

French capital is overwhelmingly pro-EU so does not support the FN taking the Presidency. The current situation is not like the 1930s when capitalist resources were devoted to building up fascist forces for government in a number of European states. Instead now the populist far-right is promoted to help drive forward the racist agenda – the object in France is to secure pro-Europe mainstream pro-austerity parties of both left and right promoting racism, with the right wing mainstream in government if possible as it is the most reliable.

So French capital wants the left defeated in the first round of the next French Presidential election A second round Presidential run-off between Sarkozy and Le Pen suits big business well as the PS will likely call for a vote for Sarkozy and help him into office.

The PS is taking this type of approach to the 29 March Departmental Second Round elections. The PS Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called on PS voters to block against FN candidates in the second round, including voting for the UMP. Of course the UMP does not reciprocate and is not asking its supporters to block the FN even by voting PS; their line in a contest between the far-right and the PS is that UMP supporters should abstain.

The left in Britain should pay attention to the unfolding situation in France. If a pro-austerity social democratic government comes to office here in May, broadly similar political processes should be anticipated; decline of Labour, a significant growth of the far right trying to push racism into the mainstream, as well as continuing minority developments to Labour’s left and within its left.