Notes from the front – of the week 8/10/2015


Jeremy Corbyn gets key Labour policies in place

Less than one month into Jeremy Corbyn’s new leadership of the Labour Party, a series of key policies are already being set out that can form the basis of a popular manifesto.

The enthusiasm that greeted Jeremy Corbyn throughout his leadership campaign was carried into the Labour conference (27-30 September). His and John McDonnell’s speeches (see here) buoyed up party members and began to set out the agenda they propose to deliver Labour victories in elections.

Key initial elements of this agenda that were put forward at Labour Party Conference included establishing a National Investment Bank, renationalising the railways, restoring trade union rights, protecting the self-employed, a £10-an-hour minimum wage and bringing Academy and Free Schools under greater local democratic control. This begins to present a serious alternative to the Tories that can galvanise public support.

This was followed up after conference with Jeremy Corbyn using his attendance at the CWU’s ‘People’s Post’ Rally on 5 October (part of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity protests at Conservative Party Conference) to call for the Royal Mail to be brought back under public control. The rally attracted over eight thousand people, with Corbyn addressing one thousand people inside Manchester Cathedral before speaking to seven thousand more outside. As the Mirror reported, this was four times the number attending the Conservative Conference being held in the same city.

Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, added to this momentum by putting out a statement calling for the government to pursue maintaining steel production in Redcar and not to simply allow the plant to close. This contrasted with the debate at Tory party conference which avoided all mention of the problems in Redcar.

The Labour leadership’s anti-austerity framework, which will cut the government’s current expenditure deficit without hitting bottom and middle earners, is popular and poses a big threat to the Tories. This is why Corbyn and McDonnelll are under sustained attack from Cameron and the media.

Labour’s right wing, which is considering how and when to execute a coup to oust the Corbyn leadership, has for present been forced on to the back foot by the success of these new policy announcements.

Corbyn’s supporters are also organising to defend his policy platform and take forward the movement built up by his campaign for Labour Leader. On 8 October (today) Momentum was launched. It is a grassroots network to promote Corbyn’s politics and Labour’s new anti-austerity agenda, which should be given widespread support.


No approval for austerity in Portuguese elections

The outcome of the Portuguese election on Sunday 4 October has been widely portrayed as a triumph for the right-wing coalition led by the Social Democrats and a victory for all the European parties pursuing austerity policies. This is a completely false presentation.

The ruling ‘Portugal Forward’ coalition lost 28 of its 132 seats in parliament and lost its overall majority too. Its share of the popular vote fell by 11.8% to 38.6%. Its 104 tally of seats is 12 seats short of a bare overall majority. The coalition may struggle to find allies, who are generally to its left. No minority government has seen out its full term in Portugal since the Revolution of 1974.

It is only possible for the right to attempt to form a government because the main opposition Socialists (a sister of the Labour Party) refuses to ally with anti-austerity parties to its left.

The Socialists conducted a campaign based on a milder set of policies than the ruling coalition. They advanced by 4.4% to 32.4% and gained 11 seats (winning 85 in total) from the 2011 elections.

The bigger winner was the aggregate forces of the Left Bloc – which combines a number of left currents – and the Democratic Unity Coalition (DCU) – which includes the Communist Party and the Greens. They both oppose austerity. The Left Bloc is now the bigger of these two, effectively doubling its vote to 10.2% and winning 19 seats. The DCU, where the CP is the major force rose marginally to 8.3% and 17 seats.

The accurate picture is that the ruling pro-austerity coalition has lost 12% of the vote and a stable government. 10% of that vote has gone to parties either mildly opposing or rejecting austerity altogether. Within that trend, it was the committed opponents of austerity who did best.

With talk of recovery in Portugal and after the imposition of the Memorandum in Greece, parties implementing austerity all across Europe have been hoping to marginalise their opponents. The Portuguese election shows that currently this is simply wishful thinking on their part.


Syria – a new turning point and Cameron’s drive to war

The intervention of the Russian air force in Syria is shifting the relations of forces in the struggle in Syria and Iraq. Already the Russian planes are engaged in two to three times as many sorties as the combined forces of the US-led ‘coalition’.

The Pentagon has claimed that it has killed 10,000 ISIS fighters, from 7,162 missions, at the cost of $10m a day to the US. That is, just over one fighter per mission. Absurdly, the US only acknowledges two civilian deaths in this process.

The ineffectiveness, and hesitancy, of the US intervention is a result of the priority US and its coalition allies place on ‘regime change’ in Syria. The consequence is that strengthening the anti-Assad opposition is more important than defeating ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. As the US itself has admitted, there is no ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad that is active militarily. Therefore the donations, arms and volunteers that have poured in from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE have instead gone to support opposition militias like Jabhat al Nusrah and Anwar al Sham that are linked directly to al Qaeda forces, and indirectly to ISIS itself. Turkey has allowed foreign militants across its frontiers to join ISIS itself as well as al Nusrah, etc.

The upshot has been that the US finds itself on both sides of the same war, fighting against ISIS and the ‘jihadist’ currents where they oppose pro-US forces, while at the same time arming and supporting them to fight Assad. Not surprisingly therefore the US’s campaign against ISIS has been making little progress.

The US’s reliance upon terrorist and sectarian forces is not a new policy. Wikileaks has revealed that the US embassy in the Syrian capital, Damascus, was advising Washington to take advantage of the presence of transiting Islamists activists crossing Syria to enter Iraq, and Sunni fears of Iranian influence as early as 2006, long before the ‘Arab spring’. This was at the same time as Sunni-Shia civil conflict in Iraq was at its height, itself a product of US foreign policy.

Russian policy appears to be to first stabilise the Assad regime as a precursor to a wider regional stabilisation. Russia’s intervention follows its 2013 success in preventing airstrikes against Assad through a deal on Syrian chemical weapons, and its role in brokering the negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Its bombing raids have targeted ISIS, but also al Nusrah (al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) and al Sham (a split from al Nusrah). It is these latter two organisations that the US has recently begun – entirely falsely – attempting to present as the more ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, as opposed to ISIS itself. In contrast with the absence of clarity about US bombing sorties and military targets, the Russian Defence Ministry has been continually broadcasting, via YouTube, each bombing mission it has carried out

But, as Robert Fisk put it in the Independent: ‘The Russian air force in Syria has flown straight into the West’s fantasy air space. The Russians, we are informed, are now bombing the ‘moderates’ in Syria – ‘moderates’ whom even the Americans admitted two months ago, no longer existed.’

In its attempt to maintain some semblance of a policy of supporting opposition to Assad while opposing ISIS and other sectarian extremists, the US has had to perform some remarkable gyrations. Initially it supported the so-called Free Syrian Army, composed mainly of deserters from the Syrian army itself. But this soon collapsed. The CIA has since attempted to train, arm and infiltrate new ‘moderate’ forces across the Turkish border, but none have established any kind of base independent of ISIS or the al Qaeda affiliated forces, either being rapidly wiped out or going over to the radical militias. The US army had publicly admitted that there were no ‘moderate’ forces active on the ground; but once Russia started bombing, al Nusrah and al Sham began to be described as ‘moderate’ – which they patently are not. These forces are now being groomed in an attempt to made them more politically presentable in the West in order to maintain a fig leaf for America’s failed policy against Assad.

Presenting such forces as acceptable allies is already underway. Retired US General, and former CIA Director, David Petraeus is canvassing the need to ally with al Nusrah. Newsweek magazine headlined an article ‘Can the US stop Putin attacking our allies?’ Gulf coalition partners are also applying cosmetics. The Executive Producer of News for Al Jazeera English, Kelly Jarrett, has instructed all staff not to refer to al Nusrah as ‘al Qaeda affiliated’.

Such moves are for domestic consumption in the US, EU and UK, to try to overcome the obstacles to public support for stepped up Western intervention, which is already rather hostile and rendered more so by the character of the proposed regional allies. It is not helpful to have allies on the ground identified as sectarian terrorists who defend the goals of 9/11.

This all creates problems for Cameron who needs strong political cover to achieve his aim of a new vote in Parliament allowing the UK to further sub-contract for the US inside Syria. The decision of the Labour Party Conference to oppose UK bombing of Syria without UN authorisation has made this harder. Despite his majority, Cameron is not assured of a majority support for action in Syria in a whipped parliamentary vote, as there are Tories opposed to such action that would break the Tory whip.

Cameron’s vulnerability on the issue was well illustrated when responding to a TV interview on Saudi/UK relations which followed Jeremy Corbyn’s attack upon the vile character of the Saudi and Bahraini dictatorships in his conference speech. Cameron appeared unable to justify it.

The situation in the Middle East is changing. The Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian and Russian governments have set up a strategic co-operation on intelligence gathering against ISIS and friends, based in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has welcomed the Russian action in Syria, and may yet invite the Russian air force into Iraq. Iraqi PM, Haider al Abadi has accused the US of a lack of resolve in defeating ISIS.

It is unclear how the US government will react to the Russian engagement. NATO is meeting later this week. The Russian government has offered talks to the US to avoid proximity between the two nation’s aircraft whilst engaged in sorties. First signs are not promising. While the US is itself systematically violating Syrian air space, NATO has complained about Russia breaching Turkish air space on two occasions. The Russian government has admitted one was accidental, and denies the second.

A purely hostile response by the US is a strong likelihood, which could include a major increase in arms and support to some of the opposition militias in Syria, perhaps by the Pentagon rather than the CIA and Gulf states, as at present.

In these circumstances, the duty of the anti-war movement is to prevent the UK government strengthening imperialist efforts to militarily dictate the fate of the Syrian and Iraqi people. No mandate from Parliament for Cameron’s war drive!