Notes from the front – of the week 25/11/2015


All out for Labour in Oldham – reject the cynical war-mongering of the right

The last week has seen a continuation of the right-wing assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, given added drive by the terrorist attacks in France which have, at least temporarily, driven public opinion in the direction of supporting British involvement in the war in Syria.

The focus of this attack has been on whether the Corbyn leadership would be capable of defending the population from any external attack that threatened its safety.

The issue became the Labour leadership’s attitude to the powers of the security services in anti-terrorist operations and the use of ‘shoot-to-kill’ authorisation. But it also harked back to the debate over Trident and the question put to Corbyn in September as to whether he would ever ‘push the nuclear button’, with the decision to appoint Ken Livingstone to co-chair Labour’s defence policy review which will consider Trident renewal.

The NEC’s appointment of Livingstone was greeted with the typical furore in the right-wing media that has met every step Corbyn has taken to promote the policies that he was elected on. This was aided by the initial response of Maria Eagle, who suggested having a co-chair at all was an attack on her as a woman, even though it is normal practice for Labour’s policy commissions to have Co-Chairs drawn from the NEC and Shadow Cabinet.

The witch-hunt of Livingstone was not aided by his remark about the mental health of one of his critics, but the frenzy whipped up about this was out of all proportion to the offence – as it was with Andrew Fisher earlier. And continued after Livingstone had clearly apologised.

The attempt by the Tories and the right throughout has been to shift the debate off the economy and austerity, issues on which they consistently lose – as for example on tax credits – and onto the issues of the ‘war on terror’, defence and security where they think they can cast Corbyn as putting his anti-war principles before the defence of the population.

The right was aided by some initial misformulations by the leadership, which rather than setting the issue of appropriate constraint on the use of ‘shoot-to-kill’ in the context of the need to extend all necessary powers to the security services to deal with a terrorist threat, instead appeared to place such constraints as the main concern.

This was rapidly corrected. But despite that the right launched a massive media and political campaign against Corbyn, claiming he would not prioritise the safety of the population. This had some success as reflected in the ComRes poll last weekend, which showed a drop in Corbyn’s favourability ratings and low results on whether he could be trusted to protect the population. Only 17 per cent of those polled trusted Corbyn to keep them and their family safe compared to 39 per cent for Cameron. However, a slightly earlier poll by Ipsos-Mori gave Corbyn and Labour considerably stronger results than ComRes. It is likely the situation is somewhere between the two.

The right’s offensive has flowed on to the debate on Syria, where the Tories are keen to take advantage of the outrage at the Paris attacks to reverse their September 2013 defeat on bombing raids.

The Autumn Statement on 25 November threatens to return the focus of debate to the economy, where the Tories are weak, so Cameron intends to launch a Parliamentary statement on Syria at the end of this week.

This is a clear attempt to keep the pressure on Labour through concentrating on security and defence.

Also, if Cameron can win a parliamentary vote on attacking Syria there will be one.

The Tories approach on the bombing of Syria is cynical. Rather than set up a substantive discussion on the issues confronting the Middle East and the route to a restabilisation of the situation, Cameron is using the issue of bombing as a stick to beat Labour.

Keeping the debate on security issues through to the Oldham by-election next week is the first goal, as the Tories believe this creates the most difficult context for Labour. Another is to deepen the divisions in Labour’s ranks. Provoking a major rebellion or worse forcing Corbyn into the situation where he has to authorise a ‘free vote’ would make Labour appear chaotic and rudderless on a major issue of war. This could do Labour long-term damage at the polls.

Alongside this the Labour right are continuing their plots as to how to oust Corbyn. The Economist on 17 November added its call to those its dubs Labour’s ‘sensibles’ to speed up their plans to get rid of Corbyn, and get on to ‘building a grass-roots base to rival the one that put him in a post he did not deserve to win’.

However a YouGov poll for the Times showed that the right are making slow progress in building up any base against Corbyn in the Party. In the poll 66 per cent of Labour Party members said they thought Corbyn was doing well, which is up from the 59 per cent of members who voted for him in September.

This underlines the fact that the right can only hope to oust Corbyn in the short-term using the ambiguity in the Labour Party rules on leadership challenges to try to keep him off the ballot. Despite various commentators suggesting that this would not be the correct legal interpretation of the rules – excluding Corbyn from a rerun unless he was supported by 20 per cent of MPs and MEPs – the courts are not a reliable instrument and the rules should be clarified by the NEC at the earliest date.

However, the most important question in the short-term is how Labour performs in the Oldham by-election, the outcome of which will be used as the first real measure of Corbyn’s performance. It is unfortunate that it comes so close to the wake of the Paris attacks, as this has driven security rather than austerity up the public’s agenda, aiding the Tories rather than Labour.

But as long as Labour has a reasonably good result the attacks of the right can be held off for a further period. That is why everyone who can should aid Labour’s election campaign in Oldham.

Turkey shoots down Russian plane

On 24 November Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in northern Syria, claiming it had veered into Turkish airspace for less than 20 seconds.

It is the first time since the height of the cold war between the West and USSR, almost half a century ago, that a NATO state has engaged a Russian military aircraft in air-to-air combat.

It is also is a stark reminder of which side Turkey and the West are on in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey, alongside Saudi Arabia, resources ISIS and other Islamist militants fighting to overthrow the Syrian government. It also provides passage for ISIS supplies, purchases ISIS oil and alongside Israel has been engaging cross border military attacks on Syrian government forces.

The fundamental goal in Syria of the US, Turkey, Israel and the Islamist fighters is regime change.

On the other side of the conflict are the forces genuinely fighting to defeat ISIS, which are the Syrian government, Russia, Hezbollah, the Kurds and Iran.

Since the Russian air force started to intervene at the end of September, at the Syrian government’s request, ISIS and Al Qaeda aligned forces have lost some ground. It is this reversal that the West and Islamist militants are currently responding to.

ISIS stepped up their foreign terrorist attacks. The Paris attack in particular has helped increase popular support in the West for bombing Syria.

The British government is pressing MPs to vote for military action in Syria, with the claim that the priority will be to attack ISIS. This justification is just as fake as the case put forward in 2003 for overthrowing the Iraqi government, when it was claimed the invasion was necessary to eliminate non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

The Stop The War Coalition is urging people to lobby their MPs against Britain being dragged into this escalating conflict.

Defeat for left in Argentina

The election of the US-backed right-wing candidate Mauricio Macri as President of Argentina is a serious blow to Latin America that will be used to undermine the left across the region.

Macri won the second round of the Presidential election on 22 November by 51.4 per cent to 48.6 per cent and has already started to realign Argentine policy and subordinate it to US priorities.

At his first press conference on 23 November Macri attacked the Venezuelan government and said he would seek Venezuela’s suspension from regional Mercosur trade bloc. Unlike all other Latin American presidents he is backing the US’s campaign to destabilise Venezuela and the latter’s violent opposition movement.

This electoral blow to the left is because the global economic slowdown and collapse in commodity prices hit the Argentine economy and the government did not take the necessary action to defend the population’s living standards.

The Peronist left policies pursued by the Kirchners (first Néstor and then Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) delivered a revolution in distribution. From 2003 to 2012 the economy grew at 1.7 per cent on average and the governments raised living standards and achieved a huge reduction in poverty.

But since 2012 Argentina’s growth has almost halved and inflation is high (possibly above 20 per cent). The redistributive policies have not sufficient to sustain living standards, which has undermined the support for the left.

What has been, and still is, needed is an increase in investment to raise growth. A revolution in production is required, where the state directs investment into the economy.

The US is trying to roll back the whole left advance in the region and is heavily engaged in supporting the region’s right wing opposition movements. The most important targets it is focussed on are Brazil and Venezuela.

In Brazil advantage is taken of the recession there to whip up a political crisis that discredits President Dilma Rousseff and the PT.

In Venezuela the Assembly elections are due on 6 December elections, amid a huge US campaign to delegitimise the government and the elections process.

An inadequate economic policy in Argentina has cost the left dearly. Similar economic challenges face other left governments across the region, which need to be acted on. Otherwise the left risks being driven back elsewhere in Latin America.