Notes from the front – of the week 22/4/2015


Europe’s bloody hands – anti-migrant policies amount to mass murder in the Mediterranean

The drowning of more than 800 people in the Mediterranean Sea on 19 April is the deadliest migrant disaster since the Italian sea rescue operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ ended in October 2014. The decision by the EU to scale back Italy’s naval rescue operations was immoral and indefensible in a civilised society. It amounted to attempting to deal with a migration ‘problem’ by allowing hundreds of people to drown – in other words by killing them.

As the International Organisation for Migration reports, since the start of this year more than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean, over 30 times higher than the number who died in same period of 2014.

‘Mare Nostrum’ patrolled the entire waters from Italy to the North African coast and is estimated to have saved 150,000 people’s lives in a year. Its EU replacement, Triton, is a significantly smaller border surveillance operation and only patrols up to 30 miles off the Italian coast.

Within the EU, Britain’s coalition government, Germany and others withheld support from ‘Mare Nostrum’ and would not continue backing the scale of Mediterranean search-and-rescue operations necessary to save large numbers of migrant lives. Britain claimed that preventing migrants from drowning simply encourages people to attempt the sea crossing. This obscene justification is false – the availability of rescue services is not a fundamental driver of migration.

The increasing flows of migrants are due to the spreading chaos, sectarianism and state break-down across the Middle East and North Africa, much of which is the result of the West’s decade and a half of military interventions, regime changes and bombing. Some of this chaos is now spreading into Sub-Saharan Africa east and west, with refugees leaving Sudan, Somalia and now Nigeria.

In response to the mass deaths, rather than reinstating the previous more effective rescue services, the EU is proposing to launch attacks on those proving the transport to cross the Mediterranean. An emergency meeting of EU interior and foreign ministers on 20 April announced it will launch military operations against networks of migrant ‘smugglers’ based in Libya.

It is true some of these operators are leeching off tragedy by charging huge amounts and then abandoning people in unseaworthy boats a hundred miles from the nearest European coast. But stopping their operations will not deter the thousands of displaced and endangered people seeking a means to escape. And it will not save lives in the short term.

Moreover it just adds another disastrous Western intervention into the region. Italy has been trying to find a pretext to militarily intervene in Libya, its former colony, and wants EU endorsement.

In Britain politics is currently dominated by the general election campaign, where the Tories are temporarily playing down their anti-migrant campaigning as their polling was showing this was just building support for UKIP. As a result it is scandalously only Labour, of the three main parties, that has placed ‘controlling immigration’ as one of its top five pledges, with Ed Miliband promoting the myth that migration undercuts pay. In this light it is particularly welcome that Labour has now called for the Mediterranean search-and-rescue operations to be immediately restarted.

Major parties deadlocked – SNP advances

The two major parties remain deadlocked in the opinion polls, with any lead registered for one rapidly offset by a contradictory poll. The main established polling trend is the rise of the SNP, which would see it become the third largest party in a hung parliament if it was reproduced on 7 May.

This reflects a more general point: the majority of voters are anti-austerity. This has been true for some time. On the eve of the last budget polls showed 58% thought austerity wasn’t working. This trend has become more pronounced, but media coverage of it has mainly been confined to left blogs as the mainstream media is keen to disguise this fact, so it only appears in the margins of its coverage. In addition, there is growing support for public ownership, with significant majorities preferring nationalisation to private ownership or ‘whichever works best’ in six out of eight public service areas, including health, rail, schools and post.

This mood underpins the SNP’s surge, which has successfully presented itself as and anti-austerity party, while Labour has seemed intent on self-inflicted wounds by attacking the SNP from the right. The anticipated loss of seats in Scotland will most likely be the biggest factor preventing a Labour majority government.

The entire ruling class, the Tory press and the BBC are now focusing on preventing any link-up between Labour and the SNP post-election. Cameron is explicitly appealing to English nationalism in a reactionary and desperate bid to cling on. Michael Gove’s wife went so far as to tweet that a Labour-SNP government would be a ‘communist dictatorship’, that would allow Scotland and ‘the North’ to ‘leech’ off the rest of the country!

Rather than the Tories’ hysteria, the prospect of a Labour government forced to rely on support for the SNP would exercise a left influence on issues like austerity and Trident. However Labour is clearly mainly directed to a post-election deal with the Lib Dems based on continuing austerity. The problem is that this looks unlikely to deliver a Parliamentary majority and even a Lab-Lib coalition would be forced to rely on other parties to govern, primarily the SNP.

The outlook is less positive for the Tories – hence their unfunded ‘giveaways’ to housing association tenants and share buyers, dog-whistle attacks on the SNP and English nationalism. Their polling has only once or twice gone above 34%, which is far from enough for an overall majority. They could not achieve this on 35% in 2010. However, the vagaries of the First Past the Post electoral system means a lot depends on how the votes for the minor parties pan out. But on present trends they can only aim to be the largest party.

But even if the Tories won the most votes – or even the most seats – it would be very hard for Cameron to construct a Parliamentary majority as, apart from the DUP, no other part wants to be in coalition with him. Even the LibDems clearly would prefer a round of government with Labour. Not out of principle, but because they fear another five years with the Tories would wipe them out completely. But anyway there are very few variations on the current polls that would deliver the Tories/DUP/LibDems an overall majority.

Alongside these trends it should be noted that neither the Greens to the left, nor UKIP to the right are surging in this election. The Greens have slipped back to around 5% and UKIP has made no breakthrough on 13%.

The UKIP stall means that there is a real possibility that Nigel Farage can be defeated in South Thanet. Success in that would deliver a blow to the UKIP project and the politics of racism. South Thanet is the place to be during this election if you are not campaigning locally. The South Thanet Labour campaign can be found here and details of Stand Up To UKIP’s 2 May Day of action are here.

Communication Workers Union – privatisation of mail imposes defeat on the left

The defeat of Billy Hayes in the CWU’s General Secretary election is a major set back for the left.

During the fourteen years of Hayes’ leadership the CWU has become a part of every significant left development across the progressive movement in Britain.

The essential reason for the election defeat was that a section of activists in the postal industry have turned inwards, following the privatisation of Royal Mail. For over 30 years there has been a prolonged fight to keep the industry as a public service. During this time, two Parliamentary Bills and a major political lobbying campaign by management have been defeated by postal workers.

This time the carriage of the Postal Services Act 2011, permitting privatisation and the subsequent flotation in late 2013, was possible because of the strong parliamentary majority of the Coalition Government. Despite an effective campaign by the union, the political balance of forces could not be overturned. This position was sealed when the Labour leadership, before the sale, ruled out re-nationalisation.

Even the threat of strike action could not deter investors who were offered shares at fire-sale prices. The initial flotation was oversubscribed twenty-five times.

Supporters of the left inside the CWU will now have a serious struggle to maintain the union’s progressive stance.

Greek debt default is necessary

The hardball proclamations from the Eurogroup of finance ministers and Germany’s Schäuble in particular that Greece could exit the Euro with no EU ‘contagion’ effect on the whole EU has been exposed as reckless nonsense.

Last week, as the risk of a Greek exit from the Euro was seen to rise, there was a slump in Portuguese government bond prices and speculators eyed the next likely target. The fear that renewed turmoil in Greece could have a negative impact on the already fragile world economy is well grounded. At the recent IMF meeting in New York, Obama found time to meet Greek finance minister Varoufakis to ‘urge flexibility on all sides’. The US President is not anti-austerity, but clearly believes the risks of forcing Greece out are too great not to make some concessions.

The US stance determines that of the IMF, which is one key player in the negotiations. In an intriguing report, widely-read Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau wrote (£), ‘My understanding is that some Eurozone officials are at least contemplating the possibility of a Greek default but without Grexit [Greek exit from the euro]. The complexity is severe, and they may not have had the time to work it out.’

The difficulty of all such reports is that they tend to increase the pressure for capital flight from Greece. As the FT is no friend of Syriza, it is difficult to assess the validity of all its coverage. But the reported discussions would be in accord with the realistic concerns of the US.

No one seriously doubts the need for a Greek default, as a necessary condition for economic recovery. According to the EU Commission Greek government debt stood at 176% of GDP at the end of 2014, and there are widespread reports that tax revenues have fallen this year. Under austerity Greek government debt has only risen, contrary to all official forecasts. Greece cannot pay its creditors ad infinitum. The debt level is insupportable and default inevitable, no matter how offensive the stance of the Troika.

Even a default, however named, would only be a necessary step. Economic recovery requires an end to austerity and its reversal. Those battles still lie ahead.

Ukraine – US preparing Kiev for resumption of war

Despite the Minsk II peace agreement, sponsored by Germany and France, the US is helping Kiev move towards launching a new offensive against the Russian population in the east. Having been forced to accept the February ceasefire, evidently Kiev does not want to maintain the peace.

Troops from the US and its loyal deputy Britain have now arrived in Ukraine to ‘train’ Kiev’s military forces, with Canadian soldiers due to arrive shortly. These provocative deployments are undermining the ceasefire and have encouraged Ukraine to breach it. Last week Kiev forces attacked the area around Donetsk airport.

The US is ignoring Germany’s pleas to help consolidate the Minsk agreement. Merkel will try to persuade it and Kiev, but will not obstruct the war preparations.

The regime in Kiev is vigorously clamping down on dissent across Ukraine, because it faces increasing discontent due to collapsing living standards and the unpopularity of military conscription. Thanks to IMF mandated policies the economy is slowing and unemployment has reached over 18 per cent, more than treble its level last year.

Kiev’s clamp down involves censorship, harassment and terror. Journalist and politicians who oppose Kiev’s anti-Russian campaign are being arrested, imprisoned, assaulted, disappeared and murdered. Ukraine’s Ministry of the Interior claims to have a database of about 200,000 ‘enemies of the state’.

Given the involvement of US military advisers, it should be no surprise that death squads are being unleashed. Over the past few months around ten prominent opposition figures have died ‘mysteriously’, with several executed by masked gunmen. The dead include a journalist who was exposing the neo-Nazis within Kiev’s government, anti-fascist activists, critics of state censorship and a pro-Russian politician.

Kiev’s offensive is reliant on Ukraine’s neo-Nazis, because they are the most ideologically committed to fighting the Russian population and the left. Their extreme right militias target dissidents in west Ukraine and form the most determined battalions sent to attack the rebellion in east.

Kiev is trying to build up these forces. So on 9 April Ukraine’s Parliament passed a bill glorifying the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the nationalist militia that supported Hitler’s occupation of Ukraine in the Second World War and collaborated in the holocaust against Ukrainian Jews, Poles and other minorities.

The US-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, that investigates Nazi war criminals, condemned this decision to honour fascist collaborators and grant them special benefits. But Ukraine, with US backing, will make no concession on this. The preparations are for war not for reconciliation, the aim being to extend imperialism’s control across the whole of Ukraine.