Notes from the front – of 23/3/2016

Labour’s opposition was instrumental to the Tories’ Budget crisis

Less than one year after winning the General Election the government has suffered a significant setback under the pressure of Labour’s attacks. The Tories have been forced to reverse a number of budget proposals, the Chancellor’s reputation for competence is in shreds, a cabinet minister has resigned, Tory infighting has intensified and Labour has advanced in the polls.

Labour under Corbyn is successfully exploiting the government’s fundamental weakness. The balance of forces does not favour the Tories implementing a harsh austerity programme. The government’s low level of popular support alongside its slim parliamentary majority is insufficient to drive through all the planned attacks.

The Tories no doubt ran an effective electoral campaign in 2015, but they cannot defy the underlying balance of forces. They only secured 36.8 per cent of the vote in last year’s general election. This is a far weaker position than the previous government, where the coalition parties were elected in 2010 with a total of 59.1 per cent of the vote. The current government is trying to implement a deeply reactionary agenda, with far greater attacks on living standards than Margaret Thatcher but with five per cent less support than in the 1980s.

In parliament the government only has a working majority of 17 votes, so a rebellion of just 9 Tory MPs can defeat its proposals.

Where Labour intelligently opposes government austerity attacks it can provoke Tory rebellions. Under Corbyn’s leadership the party has abandoned the right wing’s strategy, as implemented last July when Corbyn was the only Labour Leadership contestant to vote against the Welfare Bill proposing cuts to tax credits, Employment and Support Allowance, housing benefit and the household welfare cap. Rather than capitulate before a fight has even been attempted, the Labour front bench now puts up a determined opposition.

When the Chancellor announced his Budget the proposed cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) were its biggest single revenue-raising measure over the next five years. They would have left 370,000 people on average £3,500 a year worse off according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The government had only recently announced £30 a week cuts to Employment Support Allowance, another disability benefit.

Corbyn’s response to the budget focussed on opposing the cut to disability benefits. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Owen Smith reinforced this and Labour promised to reverse the proposed cuts.

Post budget polling by YouGov reported 70 per cent believed PIP cuts were the wrong priority and Labour support rose to 34 per cent, with the Tories on 33 per cent and Lib Dems on 6 per cent.

More than 20 Tory MPs signed a letter to Cameron opposing the proposed cuts and the party’s Budget crisis started to unfold. With the Tories preparing a U turn, the internal fight over who to blame for the reversal became entangled with battles over the EU referendum and the competing leadership ambitions of senior Tories.

Iain Duncan Smith resigned as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The Times reported David Cameron was blaming the Chancellor George Osborne for the row and Corbyn called for Osborne to resign.

To limit the political damage the government reversed its PIPs cut proposal and took the highly unusual step of accepting two Labour amendments to the finance bill, agreeing to cut VAT on women’s sanitary products and on solar panels.

The combination of Tory weakness and Labour opposition is why the government has twice been forced to announce U turns on welfare cuts. It withdrew proposed cuts to tax credits last November and has now cancelled PIPs cuts whilst claiming it has no further plans to cut welfare.

Of course the Tories will continue cutting welfare, but these policy reversals and party infighting about the EU referendum, which will continue till 23 June, are damaging its support.

Meanwhile big business, which opposes a Corbyn-led Labour government, is also concerned that Labour is succeeding in weakening the Tories. Efforts to build up the Lib Dems as a fake opposition are being stepped up alongside the campaign for Labour to replace Corbyn with a right wing, and therefore ineffective, leader.

Oppose the Brazilian coup preparations

Brazil’s state institutions are preparing a constitutional coup to overthrow the elected President Dilma Rousseff and to stop former president Lula being able to succeed her in office.

With the Brazillian economy contracting, by 3.8 per cent in 2015 and further since, the right wing, aided by the US, is exploiting increasing popular discontent to put in place a judicial coup, which is now unfolding step by step.

The judiciary, prosecutors and police are working with the opposition to subvert the country’s democracy.

The lower house of Congress has kicked off proceedings to impeach Rousseff claiming corruption in election spending. These allegations, which she denies, are not being investigated by an impartial panel. Instead a partisan impeachment commission has been set up by the lower house with 65 members, 36 of whom themselves face pending legal proceedings.

It has long been assumed that Lula will run again for president in 2018 after completion of Rousseff’s second term so the state is also trying to eliminate this possibility. Police have wire tapped both Rousseff’s and Lula’s phones and the judiciary has instigated corruption charges against Lula. A judge, who publicly thanks anti-government protesters, ordered the detention of Lula for questioning earlier this month and since has released recordings of Lula’s private phone calls to the media.

Defending Lula from these attacks, Rousseff last week appointed him to her cabinet as chief of staff, which another judge then blocked with an injunction.

The coup preparations are backed by the US. Each step is coordinated with Brazil’s oligarch-owned television and print media, outlets linked to the previous dictatorship.

In the country’s 1964 coup the Brazilian military was at the forefront of overthrowing the left wing government. The US was also directly involved then and helped plot critical aspects. The ensuing military dictatorship held power for 21 years and brutally suppressed opposition and tortured dissidents. In 2014 a Truth Commission revealed that the US and Britain had provided training in the torture techniques. Amongst the 1970s torture victims was Dilma Rousseff, the current President.

The PT (Workers Party) has held the presidency for the last 14 years. Lula served two terms from 2002 to 2010 and Rousseff has been in office since. The current steps towards a coup aim to take the opportunity of the economic crisis in Brazil and a fall in popularity of the government, to remove the PT from office now. The right doesn’t want to wait for the next elections as the situation may shift and the PT return to power. This is why it is correct to characterise the campaign of the right in Brazil as looking to carry through a judicial coup.

Support Cuba’s sovereignty and end the US blockade

President Obama’s three day visit to Cuba from 20 March represents an achievement for the Cuban revolution, which has defeated the US’s recent efforts to internationally isolate it. Instead of overthrowing the Cuban government, the US itself became increasingly isolated in Latin America, a region where support for Cuban sovereignty against US aggression had been rising.

So the US has modified its strategy, whilst maintaining the prime objective of regime change.

The aim is that Obama’s visit should help improve the US’s image across Latin America. But the US is not normalising relations in general with Cuba. It is only restoring diplomatic ties and slightly easing some of its sanctions regime. The 55 year long economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba is largely remaining in effect, with its punitive components very much in force.

Obama has only partially removed some of the sanctions under his executive authority. The US Congress has not lifted the blockade. The US does not intend to return the territory occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base.

Cuba cannot export its products to the US, its banks cannot have normal relations with US banks and business cannot done with US companies. US citizens cannot visit Cuba for holidays, but only on licensed educational trips that ‘promote the independence of Cubans’.

Over the past 50 years the US has engaged in numerous overt and covert attacks on Cuba, including supporting terrorist actions. Currently the US violates international law by beaming propaganda radio and television signals into Cuba.

Also the US State Department and USAID fund anti-government groups in Cuba. Most countries in the world have laws against such activity. The US and European states strongly sanction the act of receiving funds from a foreign power. It is likewise a crime in Cuba.

The US falsely claims there are prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Cuba. The individuals the US focuses on are a small number of Cubans who have been convicted and sentenced to prison for offences that would result in convictions in the US: terrorism, espionage and illegally receiving funds from a foreign government. The US wants to build up these anti-government activities and has no intention of lifting the main economic sanctions.

Despite the thaw with the US, it is vital to continue to defend Cuba’s sovereignty, demand the US blockade is lifted and support the activity in Britain of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.