Notes from the front – of the week 22/10/2015

With Tories under pressure from Corbyn’s agenda Labour right continues to plot

After only five weeks as Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shift in Labour’s agenda to oppose the Tory government’s proposed attacks on living standards has begun to pose some problems for Osborne and Cameron.

The last week saw the Tories face unexpectedly sharp problems on their proposed cut in tax credits.

This was always a potential maelstrom for the Tories as David Cameron had explicitly told a live TV debate before the May General Election that a Tory government would not touch tax credits. As with Clegg’s broken promise on tuition fees before the 2010 election, this has laid the Tories open to the charge of electoral dishonesty on an issue that would hit the pockets of precisely the ‘hard working families’ the Tories claim to represent.

The cut they now propose, of £4.4 billion, will leave about three million families an average of £1000 a year worse off – according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies – and disproportionately harm the lowest paid. Many of those affected were Tory supporters in May, as was bought home graphically on BBC1’s Question Time on 15 October, when just such a Tory voting working mother attacked the government for reneging on their commitment to tax credits and spelled out the impact on families like hers.

Alongside this Labour published research that showed that 71 Tory MPs represent seats where there are more families set to lose substantial income than the size of the MP’s majority at last May’s General Election.

Before Jeremy Corbyn’s election, Labour’s capitulation to the Tories’ agenda on cuts meant Cameron and Osborne could avoid paying the price for this, but Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s announcement that Labour in government would reverse any cuts to tax credits presents Labour as a clear alternative.

This has all stoked talk of rebellion within Tory ranks.

The likely adverse electoral consequences, with these cuts being pushed through against Labour opposition, is deepening concern amongst senior Tories. The Bow Group, a Tory think tank, former Tory chairman Lord Tebbit, former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell and London Mayor Boris Johnson have all urged reconsideration of the proposals.

In addition Jeremy Corbyn is increasing the pressure on Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, with the latter showing signs of being rattled. At Corbyn’s second and third PMQs Cameron was forced on to the back foot of the issues of tax credit cuts, shortage of homes, NHS failures, disability rights and the steel industry crisis.

These successes at PMQs followed Labour’s decision, led by shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, to vote against the Tories’ damaging economic framework on 14 October by opposing the so called Charter for Budget Responsibility. The Charter prohibits both government borrowing for investment and for consumption over the economic cycle. Labour MPs raised the necessity of government borrowing for investment, acquiring assets that generate increased revenue and stimulate economic growth. As set out here, John McDonnell was totally correct to insist Labour oppose the Charter. McDonnell has consistently set out a pro-investment strategy. With the Tories not allowing any amendment to the Charter, McDonnell’s tactical shift on voting proved necessary.

A small number of Labour MPs, 20 in total, broke the whip to abstain on the Charter. This represents the right wing rump of the PLP, who spend their time in the media attacking Corbyn.

These hardline Blairites remain determined to remove Corbyn and are pushing for a Labour leadership election next year without Corbyn on the ballot paper. As Tony Blair’s former Director of Political Operations John McTernan set out in The Telegraph on 14 October, the Blairite proposal is to exploit a lack of clarity in Labour’s rule book to carry out an undemocratic coup against Corbyn. The current rules refer to ‘potential challengers’ to an incumbent Leader which makes clear the intention of the rules is for the latter to be on the ballot. But in the absence of this being spelt out explicitly the Blairites are claiming Corbyn will have to secure an unattainable threshold of MP and MEP nominations. The implication is they are considering seeking a legal ruling where a judge ‘interprets’ Labour’s rules in their favour.

However if the proposed coup can be thwarted, the Tories’ problems can only increase. The adherence to austerity will damage Tory support. The government will soon be setting out, in its Autumn spending review, how it plans to slash a further £20bn, on top of the £12bn of welfare cuts announced in the Summer Budget. Further cuts to disability benefits, amongst other things are expected. There will be five more years of cuts to public services and welfare.

The current reductions in per capita NHS spending, alongside attempts to impose worse working conditions on health workers, are promoting discontent with Tory handling of health care. The junior doctors’ demonstration on 17 October was the latest in a series of protests, focussing attention on the NHS’s growing funding crisis.

At May’s General Election the parties of the previous government (Tory and Lib Dem) together lost a 14.4 per cent share of the electorate from the 2010 election. With no Lib Dem shield at the next election the Tories alone will face voters’ anger at the continuing reduction of living standards. If Labour sticks to Corbyn’s agenda it is well placed to be the main beneficiary of growing popular discontent.

The Peoples Assembly Against Austerity wing within the Labour Party is discussing the policies Labour needs to end austerity and economic stagnation. John McDonnell and other speakers will address the 14 November conference in London, hosted by the Labour Assembly Against Austerity. (Details here, registration here).

Whipping up racism and Islamophobia – the ‘nasty party’ lurches rightwards

Despite their claims to be appealing to the centre ground the Tories have cranked up their racist ideological offensive aimed at migrants, refugees and Muslims.

Since being elected to government in May the Tories’ rhetoric has systematically dehumanised migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

The biggest scandal is the government’s resolute refusal to play any part in EU plans to accommodate the wave of refugee arriving in Europe – even though Britain has been more complicit than other European governments in carrying out the wars and bombings that have created the chaos in the Middle East driving these refugees to Europe. Instead Cameron proposes to further tighten the already highly restrictive asylum system, with pledges to punish those deemed to have abused the rules.

David Cameron’s minimal offer to only take up to 20,000 refugees over five years from the camps around Syria has been widely criticised, including by retired judges and Church of England bishops publicly urging him to take more.

This failure of refugees is extended to immigration in general through the 2015 Immigration Bill currently in parliament. This proposes landlords be required to ascertain the immigration status of potential tenants by checking passports and visas. This will evidently discourage some landlords from letting tenancies to anyone from an ethnic minority.

Additional measures are that anyone deemed to be working illegally will face up to six months in prison and may have their wages seized. Driving a vehicle will become an offence if you do not have legal status. This will encourage routine traffic stop operations targeting ethnic minorities. Increased powers will be granted to immigration officers to enter premises, close businesses, gather evidence and arrest without a warrant. The Bill will extend the current ‘deport now, appeal later’ powers.

Widespread concerns have been raised about the Bill, including from the UNHCR, which is critical of the proposals on ‘illegal working’, access to services and bail.

The government has also unveiled a string of anti-Muslim measures, including a major drive against ‘entryist’ infiltration of the public sector, charities and businesses. It is proposing banning orders on non-violent alleged extremists, threatening to close mosques and place bars on alleged extremists working with children and vulnerable people. There will be an official investigation into how Muslims apply sharia law in Britain.

The Tories claim these McCarthyite measures are to counter ‘extremism’ – a term they have not precisely defined, but it will include justifying violence even when there is no plan to commit violent acts and urging people not to vote.

The Tories campaign again ‘extremists’ has been a cover for removing Muslims from public positions of influence, as with former Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman and the false ‘Trojan horse’ claims about Muslims taking over Birmingham schools.

Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police has suggested the measures will be counterproductive. He has said ‘there is a concern that efforts to control extremist narratives will limit free speech and backfire if we don’t get the balance right. The efforts to control extremism and limit protest by those caught by too wide a definition may undermine the very rights and British values you seek to protect.’ He believes there is a danger the new plans will turn officers into ‘thought police … policing religion and not just Muslims’.

At the Tories’ October conference Cameron, assisted by a pliant media, dressed up their right-wing agenda as a move towards the middle ground of politics. But Home Secretary Theresa May used her speech to set out this racist agenda, claiming immigration has zero economic benefit and is responsible for worsening schools, hospitals and housing, plus the driving down of wages.

May’s speech provoked a storm of criticism, including from the Institute of Directors which attacked her for ‘irresponsible rhetoric and pandering to anti-immigration sentiment’. Others pointed out the return of the ‘nasty party’, the term May herself coined for the Tories in 2002.

Details about Stand Up to Racism’s Refugees Welcome Here Rally on Wednesday 4 November can be found here.

The new intifada

A long period of Israeli government provocation has prompted a growth of protest amongst Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Since the start of October, more than 45 Palestinians have been killed, and over 1,800 injured. There have been a small number of Israeli fatalities, with 49 stabbing incidents. As usual, the larger suffering is that of the Palestinians, with justice entirely on their side.

Currently, it is the settler movement that dominates Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s government is encouraging efforts to change the status quo in Jerusalem. All of the tension around Haram al-Sharif and al-Aqsa Mosque are linked to settler movement aims. Two Palestinian organisations that operate on the site have been outlawed.

Elad, a right wing settler organisation, won a major court victory in securing the right to administer archaeological work near the Western Wall. Elad has also been involved in efforts to oust Palestinian families in the nearby neighbourhood of Silwan. The government has authorised large scale excavations in the area near al-Aqsa. There has been a sharp increase in the number of Jewish settlers in Palestinian neighbourhoods, including Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, Mount Scopus and Muslim areas of the Old City.

Restrictions upon Muslim access to al-Aqsa Mosque have been particularly provocative. Many Palestinians have been shot, beaten, or arrested in confronting Israeli police escorting Zionist ‘tours’ of the holy site. There are activists who are advocating the demolition of al-Aqsa Mosque, in order to search for Jewish temples presumed destroyed in 586 BCE and 7CE.

The opposition of the Palestinians has been determined. It is the most sustained bout of street conflict since the 2000-2005 uprising. It has certainly shaken Israel’s international allies. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is attempting to re-engage P.M. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas in new peace talks.

The French government has proposed that international monitors be deployed around Haram al-Sharif. This latter proposal has been rejected by the Supreme Islamic Court, the highest religious authority for Muslims in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

Arab states, on behalf of the Palestinians, have moved a bid at the UN to have the Western Wall declared a Muslim holy site at UNESCO; to condemn Israeli excavations near Haram al-Sharif and in Jerusalem Old City; and to guarantee freedom of worship and access to al-Aqsa Mosque.

Notably the Israeli government has made no contribution to addressing the refugee crisis in the region. Despite occupying part of Syria, the Israeli government has not allowed a single refugee access to sanctuary. The Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk has seen its population reduced from 200,000 to less than 20,000, with 3000 having been killed. The camp was set up by refugees from Israel in 1948. Israel’s international allies have placed precisely no pressure upon it to take some responsibility for the resettlement of refugees.

Inside Gaza, the Hamas government has called for Palestinians to participate in the new intifada. There have been demonstrations and fatalities inside Gaza. However, the collapse of the unity government negotiations between Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have weakened co-operation amongst Palestinian political leaders.

The current struggle in Palestine has drawn a positive response from the international movement in support of the Palestinians, with demonstrations last weekend in a number of countries. It remains crucial to build the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and its initiatives.

US election campaign shows political polarisation amid economic stagnation

The US Presidential election in a little over a year’s time is already showing a sharp polarisation and a breakdown of the traditional centres of power within the dominant Democratic and Republican Parties.

Fundamentally this reflects the inability of US economy to grow at a pace in which the living standards of the majority of the population are rising.

As a result, the political polarisation is supporting Donald Trump on the right of the Republicans and Bernie Sanders who describes himself as a ‘democratic socialist’ on the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Hilary Clinton remains the frontrunner in the race for the Democrat nomination. But she has been unable to deliver a knockout blow to Sanders. The continued speculation that Joe Biden might run reflects big business and Wall Street concern that Hilary is not a sure bet.

Trump remains the Republican frontrunner with about 25 per cent support in the polls for the nomination. The similarly reactionary Ben Carson is his closest rival. In both parties the establishment is struggling to fend off the insurgent candidates because of the deep-rooted dissatisfaction in US society.

However, popular opinion will not determine the election outcome. The US is the country where the dominance of big business and finance over the political process is most obvious. It is the ‘greatest democracy in the world’ that money can buy, with the eventual winner likely to spend more than a billion dollars in the campaign. No candidate who does not fully represent the interests of capital can possibly be elected.