Notes from the front – of the week 3/6/2015


Tories launch new racist offensives

With the election now over, the Tories are decisively reasserting the scape-goating agenda that was suspended for fear of building up UKIP during the election campaign. Various reactionary measures were announced in the Queen’s Speech on 27 May, including proposed legislation on ‘extremism’ and immigration.

‘Extremism’ Bill

The Extremism Bill is proposed to increase the state’s powers to repress the political activity of Muslim communities. Already the Muslim communities’ basic political rights have been under attack. Muslims have been removed from school governing bodies (as in Birmingham) and from elected local government positions (as in the Mayoralty in Tower Hamlets). The new bill will intensify this Islamophobic assault.

The Home Secretary will get draconian powers to ban ‘extremists’, while Ofcom will get extra powers to act against channels that broadcast ‘extremist’ content.

Police will gain powers to apply to the high court for an order to limit the ‘harmful activities’ of an ‘extremist’ individual.

There will be new powers to close mosques on the basis of alleged ‘extremist’ influence and the Charity Commission will be obliged to root out charities that allocate funds towards ‘extremism’.

While the focus of this legislation is Muslim communities, and it is being pushed through on the back of Islamophobic hype about the alleged spread of Islamic ‘extremism’, the extremely broad definitions used by the Tories could be used against many other forms of protest, dissent, civil disobedience or opposition to the government in the future.

The definition of harmful includes the ‘risks’ of public disorder, alarm, distress or creating a ‘threat to the functioning of democracy’. It will be possible to ban speech just because a court agrees that it risks causing alarm or distress. There will be new censorship powers; where people subject to these orders will be required to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication for the web, social media or print.

The Bill keeps the definition of ‘extremism’ vague precisely so that it can be used flexibly against any point of view it perceives as a threat.

It is this general threat to civil liberties that has led the Tory former Attorney General Dominic Grieve to say he is concerned these new powers could result in people being prosecuted for just having a point of view. Whilst the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller has questioned what views that are not already forbidden by law are intended to be captured by this vague definition of ‘extremist’. The Liberal Democrats, who do not remotely support ‘extreme’ political views, blocked the Tories pursuing these Orwellian powers during the last parliament.

The first targets of this legislation are Muslims, posing the real danger Muslim individuals and organisations that have expressed views on the Middle East that are not in line with those of the government will find themselves targeted and then their rights and freedom removed. This is about silencing those who are critical of imperialism’s actions in the Middle East and stopping Muslim communities gaining influence in local politics.

But others will not be safe from its effects. It was not so long ago that the Tories labelled miners on strike for jobs as an ‘enemy within’, the ANC fighting apartheid as ‘terrorists’, and banned Sinn Fein from speaking on broadcast media.

Immigration Bill

With austerity due to intensify, as another round of public sector cuts is launched, the Tories are bringing forward another immigration bill. As with previous bills, this will have no impact on overall immigration levels, but will whip up racism, distract attention from the government and blame immigrants for falling living standards, and justify repression and harassment of minority communities

The new Bill will propose that wages paid to undocumented migrants should be seized. It will extend checks required by landlords and banks to stop undocumented migrants from renting housing or opening a bank account. Landlords will be expected to obtain ‘satisfactory evidence’ that prospective tenants have the legal right to live in the UK and will need to take copies of the documents and hold them on file for 12 months after the tenancy has ended. There are also proposals to evict illegal migrants more quickly.

Staff in banks and hospitals as well as landlords are increasingly expected to act as border guards. This simply encourages increased racist discrimination in housing, banking and health. Private landlords in particular will avoid going through extensive document checks and simply turn away anyone who looks or sounds like they might not be ‘British’.

It will become a new offence for businesses and recruitment agencies to hire abroad without first advertising in the UK – a policy that was also featured in Labour’s election manifesto. Plus all foreign criminals awaiting deportation will be fitted with satellite tracking tags.

None of these measures will reduce immigration. But they will lead to increased racism, and allow the Tories to claim that migrants are responsible for pressure on public services and falling living standards.

Labour leadership campaign moves even further to the right

As the Labour leadership campaign unfolds all the contenders have become engaged in a race to the right.

Unlike the leadership contest in 2010, there is no left candidate in the race.

Every candidate has made it clear that they endorse the Tory austerity agenda. Thus whoever wins, this will leave Labour with no critique of the hugely damaging cuts planned by George Osborne.

As a distraction, the Labour leadership will inevitably increase the racist, anti-immigration rhetoric that shamefully disfigured the recent election campaign. All of this will be done under the entirely false prospectus of appealing to aspirational voters or the ‘centre ground’. Instead, it will prevent Labour from capitalising on the inevitable unpopularity of the Tory government, which is implementing the second half of a decade-long austerity policy.

Liz Kendall has led the march into UKIP’s fetid territory by championing the interests of ‘white working class youth’ marking a break by the Blairites from their previous rather pro-immigration stance. But the other leading contenders Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are only in the process of catch-up, with both (eg here and here) taking Labour further to the right on immigration.

Aping the Tories or UKIP on their agenda will only benefit them, not Labour. Only by offering an alternative to the Tories is it possible to defeat them.

Despite Labour’s shift to the right there will be mass movements and struggles against the Tories’ attacks, and broad campaigns fighting austerity, wars and racism. These will find some support on the left in the Labour Party. For example 10 of the new Labour MPs have already signed up to a letter opposing austerity (see here).

But the rightward shift of Labour is likely to continue the process of the strengthening of parties that position themselves to the left of Labour particularly on austerity: initially the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru. And it will see the development of mass struggles and campaigns that oppose both the Tories and Labour’s capitulation to its agenda.

Italy – Social democracy losing ground

The Italian regional elections on 31 May were the first setback for the austerity government of Matteo Renzi and his centre-left Democratic Party (PD), since he became prime minister in February 2014.

Although Renzi’s party won five of the seven regional posts being contested, it lost the key swing fight in Liguria to the centre-right. With 23 per cent of the national vote it has dramatically lost ground compared to its 41 per cent at last year’s European elections.

While Renzi’s party won in its traditional strongholds such as Tuscany, the anti-euro, anti-immigrant, Northern League made big advances in both northern and central Italy. The Five Star Movement, which puts forward similar positions, also made gains.

Living standards in Italy are still declining. Since 2008 there has been a triple-dip recession. GDP has been almost stagnant for over a decade. Pathetic first-quarter growth of 0.3 per cent this year has been played up as the best performance in three years. Unemployment remains at 13 per cent of the labour force and household incomes have been falling for years.

Renzi, who is seen as an Italian-style Blairite, is pursuing a similar austerity framework to Francois Hollande in France and implementing neo-liberal labour market reforms. As such policies continue to undermine living standards, his party can only expect to lose further electoral support.