Is the UK helping to fuel the Syrian conflict? Interview with Oxfam’s Andy Baker

Is the UK helping to fuel the Syrian conflict? Interview with Oxfam’s Andy Baker
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
19 August 2016

According to news reports, the fighting in Syria, especially in and around the city of Aleppo, has escalated in recent weeks. Can you summarise the scale and breadth of the humanitarian crisis in Syria today?

The crisis in Syria is well into the sixth year now. Civilians are increasingly the victim of bombings, attacks, and displacement by all warring parties which are primarily and directly responsible for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country. Powerful countries such as Russia, the US, France and the UK are also fuelling the conflict to varying degrees whether through inadequate diplomatic pressure, political and military support to their allies, or direct military action. The recent fighting around Aleppo is the latest example of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children caught in the cross-fire, threatened by death from land and air, and facing severe shortages in food and medicine that could lead to even more deaths. Overall in Syria, humanitarian needs are increasing every day, while access to civilians, especially in besieged areas, has not improved beyond one-off deliveries here and there, tied to ongoing political negotiations.
 
Speaking to Sky News in March 2016 about the Syrian war, you
said “we can’t only lay the blame at the feet of the Russians”, noting that Britain – and other nations – have also “fuelled the fire” of the conflict. Can you explain how Britain has done this?

To start, it must be noted that the parties to the conflict – the Government of Syria, armed opposition groups and UN designated terrorist organizations – bear the primary responsibility for the suffering in Syria. Powerful countries such as Russia and the US are also fuelling the conflict, including via direct military action.  To a lesser degree, the UK and France are also fuelling the conflict whether through inadequate diplomatic pressure or their more limited military actions.

Some governments, including permanent members of the UN Security Council, have become belligerents in the civil war. For example, while Russia’s role in talks on Syria is key and it must play an important role in the resolution of the crisis, the reality on the ground is that the increased Russian military involvement and intervention since September 2015 marks a clear escalation of conflict, with devastating results for civilians. Russia and the US, countries with power and the main instigators of the recent provisional ceasefire, spend a combined $8 billion dollars on the war within Syria in 2015, dwarfing the $1.5 billion the US contributes in aid, with Russia contributing just $9 million towards humanitarian assistance.

Some countries like the UK have been top donors to aid efforts that are reaching Syrian refugees, and when and where possible civilians inside Syria. Their support to vulnerable populations that rely on humanitarian aid outstrips most other countries, and they have played a significant role in mobilising more money from other nations, but they also need to deploy more efforts towards an end to the conflict which is leading to more vulnerability and needs every day.

The UK and other members of the UN Security Council have a responsibility to ensure civilians are protected and peace and security maintained. Resolutions of the Security Council have been consistently flouted and ignored by their allies on the ground. Britain is also part of the US led coalition against ISIS that has ongoing military operations in Syria. This has done little, if anything, to deal with either civilian suffering or the root causes of the conflict.
 
Britain’s part responsibility for the ongoing conflict in Syria will be news to most people. From your vantage point as the head of Oxfam’s Syria response team, why do you think there is such a large disconnect between Britain’s Syrian policy and the public’s understanding of it?

There’s been a lot of focus in the UK on the issue of refugees, especially those who have taken the risky journey across the Mediterranean to reach Europe. But this issue is only the result of a bloody conflict that has driven nearly a quarter of the Syrian population out of their country. As long as powerful countries including the UK do not address both the protection of civilians and the root causes of the conflict and put an end to the bloodshed by pushing for a political solution and stopping any active role in the conflict, Syrians will keep on trying to reach safety.
 
What changes to Britain’s policy on Syria would Oxfam like to see?

  • The UK Government should use its power on the UNSC and other diplomatic routes to influence parties on ground both to seek a peace process, and to respect human rights and humanitarian law in the conduct of hostilities
  • The UK Government must ensure UK arms and ammunition aren’t transferred to the warring parties
  • It’s deeply disappointing that the UK Government is not on track to meet even its modest commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrians by 2020. The government must not only deliver on its existing commitments to resettle the most vulnerable Syrian refugees but also welcome to the UK more people fleeing conflict, including making it easier for families, split apart by violence, to reunite

If individual citizens are concerned about the Syrian war and want to act in some way to help, what do you propose they do?

They need to write to their elected representatives and push them to lobby the government for real political pressure on the Syria: on resettlement of refugees, the aid response, for protection of civilians and a more proactive diplomatic role on the resolution of the crisis.

People can also donate to Oxfam’s Syria Crisis Appeal. Oxfam has reached over 1.5 million people in Jordan and Lebanon, as well as communities inside Syria with desperately needed food, water and shelter.

Will de-coupling solve climate change? Interview with Samuel Alexander

Will de-coupling solve climate change? Interview with Samuel Alexander
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
16 August 2016

‘Decoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed’ ran the headline on the International Energy Agency (IEA) website in March 2016. “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change”, noted IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. The idea that the de-coupling of economic growth and carbon emission – that is ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’ – is a powerful tool in the fight against dangerous levels of climate change is a popular one, with a 2014 report co-authored by Lord Stern, and backed by the United Nations, the OECD, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and co-authored by Lord Stern pushing the idea.

Dr Samuel Alexander, Co-Director of the Simplicity Institute and a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, has written a number of articles critiquing the idea of de-coupling. I interviewed him to find out why, and what solutions he proposes to the threat of climate change.

Ian Sinclair: What is the thinking of those who herald ‘de-coupling’ as a promising tool in stopping dangerous levels of climate change? Why do you think it has proven such a popular idea?

Samuel Alexander: Decoupling (or dematerialization) refers to the idea of increasing our economic output without increasing or even decreasing energy and resource inputs. (We should at once distinguish between ‘relative’ decoupling and ‘absolute’ decoupling. The former refers to a reduction of inputs (resources) per unit of output (GDP). The latter refers to an absolute or overall reduction of inputs. If an economy expands faster than the efficiency gains it may achieve, it is possible for there to be relative decoupling without absolute decoupling). With respect to climate change, the idea or hope of decoupling is that we can continue growing our economies while reducing total carbon emissions to a safe level. 

Decoupling can be achieved by technological or design innovation that helps us produce our commodities more efficiently, or through market mechanisms that price fossil fuels in a way that disincentivises their consumption and incentivises the production of low-emission or no-emission alternatives. 

This strategy for combating climate change is so popular because it suggests that we don’t really have to rethink the dominant economic paradigm of growth or change our lifestyles much. That is, by way of decoupling, it is widely believed that we will be able to keep growing our economies without limit, and continue living high-consumption lifestyles, while absolutely decoupling that economic activity from fossil fuels.

It’s a nice idea, perhaps, but the theoretical possibility of absolute decoupling (which is required) doesn’t have much empirical support in reality. It’s a strategy that has been talked about for decades, all the while carbon emissions have continued to grow. But people continue to put so much faith in decoupling because it is non-confronting. It allows politicians to claim that they’re pursuing environmentally progressive policies, even though history suggests it is a strategy that doesn’t work.

It allows consumers to go on consuming, trusting that soon our consumption practices will be decoupled from carbon emissions. This is a dangerous myth.

Faith in decoupling deflects attention away from the problems that lie at the heart of global environmental (and social) problems – those being, capitalist economic systems that require limitless growth for stability, and the belief that the ‘good life’ requires material affluence. If we don’t rethink those fundamentals, we won’t solve the climate challenge. There are environmental limits to growth, and we are in the process of colliding with them.

IS: You have been very critical of the concept in terms of it helping to address climate change? What are the problems with it?

SA: There is nothing in itself wrong with decoupling – far from it. I am absolutely in favour of decoupling. There is no way we will solve our environmental challenges unless we learn how to produce our goods and services in less energy and resource intensive ways and reduce overall demands on the planet. My problem with the decoupling strategy is how it is used to deflect attention away from the need to rethink growth economics and consumerism.

Within a growth-orientated economy, efficiency gains (relative decoupling) tend to be reinvested in more growth not reduced impacts (absolute decoupling), and this means that emissions continue to go up, despite the efficiency gains. For example, suppose some clever designer figures out how to make a car with 10% less carbon emissions. That seems like good news, suggesting that the car manufacturing industry could reduce its emissions by 10%. But if the economy grows and people buy more cars than they did last year, then the overall emissions of the car manufacturing industry can go up, even though the industry is producing each individual car more efficiently. There may be relative decoupling, but not absolute decoupling.

This is a particular example of general phenomenon. Over recent decades global economic output in terms of GDP has in many ways become less carbon-intensive per unit of GDP, which seems like good news (and in a sense it is), but since the global economy has been growing over those same decades, total carbon emissions have not been reducing. That is not good news. We need absolute reductions, not just efficiency gains.

In fact, in July this year a report came out by the United Nations (based on work by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) which showed that over the last decade, the global economy has actually become less efficient per unit of GDP (i.e. not even relative decoupling!). The explanation is that more production has been outsourced from relatively efficient economies of Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea to less efficient economies like China and India.

This should deeply challenge the faith people have in decoupling as the solution to all environmental problems. But it probably will not. Even the UN report, which showed that the global economy has become less efficient in the last decade, still says that we need to continue growing our economies but decouple that growth from environmental impact. In order to do this, they basically recommend the same ideas that have been around for decades (technological innovation, market mechanisms, etc) – that is, the very same ideas that have failed to achieve reduced environmental impacts to date. It seems that the ideology of growth has a tight grip. It seems unquestionable within mainstream environmental thinking. And thus business as usual more or less prevails. Efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

IS: How does de-coupling/green growth fit with the finite emissions budget – the maximum amount of carbon emissions that can be released to have a 50 percent chance of keeping the global temperature rise to 2oC, according to the scientific consensus?

SA: In 2011, climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows published a paper that rigorously explored this question, asking what carbon budget would be available if we wanted a 50% chance of keeping the global temperatures from rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. They then made ambitious assumptions about the peaking of emissions in developing nations and their decarbonisation trajectories thereafter, which allowed Anderson and Bows to determine an approximate carbon budget left over for the developed nations of the OECD. They concluded that in order for those wealthy nations to meet their carbon budgets, they would need to decarbonise their economies by about 8-10% per year, which they aren’t getting close to achieving. Not even close. (For a summary, see here).

Of course, this is a modelling exercise based on assumptions, and assumptions have to be assessed for plausibility. They can always be challenged. Nevertheless, the scenario Anderson and Bows explored is actually extremely conservative. For example, a 50% chance of avoiding dangerous climate change seems recklessly low. We wouldn’t cross the road if we have a 50% chance of arriving safely, so we shouldn’t be so reckless with climate systems – the stability of which we rely on to flourish. Furthermore, the Paris agreement states that we should be taking measures to keep temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees, which implies a tighter carbon budget than a 2 degree goal.

So, if we explored a carbon budget scenario which, say, aimed to keep temperatures no higher than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and expected, say, an 80% chance of success, then the decarbonisation requirements would become even more demanding. What this means is that even if people challenge aspects of Anderson and Bows analysis (for example, assume more faith in carbon capture and storage or geoengineering), their general conclusion remains robust. A safe climate requires extremely steep decarbonisation trajectories.

In fact, their conclusions call radically into question the compatibility of those decarbonisation trajectories and economic growth. If we only had to decarbonise by 1% p.a., we may be able to achieve that while still growing the economy. If we took radical action and really tried to scale up renewables and enforce a range of efficiency measures, then perhaps we could decarbonise by 3-4% p.a. But not even mainstream economics (like Nicholas Stern) believe that we could decarbonise by 8-10% or more while still growing the economy. In order to achieve such deep decarbonisation we will also need to use significantly less energy, but given the close connection between energy and economic output, less energy means less consumption and production.

In short, a very strong case can be made that avoiding dangerous climate change requires giving up growth economics, at least in the wealthiest parts of the world. Again, people don’t want to hear this, especially politicians, so they start making implausible assumptions about, for example, the ability of geoengineering to save us from climate instability. If people come to see that transitioning ‘beyond growth’ might actually be in our own interests, however, then there will be less pressure to pursue reckless geoengineering strategies.

IS: In 2014 you wrote a critique of ‘Techno-Optimism’. What is this and how does it relate to ideas around de-coupling/green growth and climate change?

SA: This is closely linked to what I’ve been saying. Techno-optimism is a term I use to describe the unjustified faith many people place in technological solutions to social and environmental problems. It is a faith that unfortunately shapes mainstream environmental thinking and policy. The basic idea is that we don’t need to rethink growth economics or consumer lifestyles, because technology will save the day. It suggests that we can globalise affluence in a way that is sustainable. But I argue that that would depend on a degree of decoupling that is implausible to achieve.

I should not be misunderstood here. This is not an anti-technology argument. Clearly, we will need to exploit all appropriate technologies in order to transition toward a sustainable economy. I just don’t think we can make that transition without also fundamentally reorganising our economies and embracing deep post-consumerist lifestyle changes. That’s the point most people aren’t prepared to face up to.

We need to remember that technologies are tools – they are means to ends. This implies that technology is neither good nor bad, in itself. It all depends on how and why we use technology. For example, currently we are exploiting new technologies to help us ‘frack’ for oil and gas in order to make profits. This is but one example of using technology in ways that will only exacerbate our problems, not solve them. To my mind, our problem isn’t a lack of technology. Our problem is a lack of understanding about how best to use the technologies we already have.

IS: If de-coupling and green growth is not the answer to combating climate change, what solution do you propose?

SA: I’m not going to be able to provide a satisfying answer in the space available, but I’ll present the broadest possible outline. In order to understand an appropriate response, one has to understand the nature and extent of the problems. We live in an age of gross ecological overshoot; moreover, billions around the world are, by any humane standard, under-consuming; and the human population is growing. This radically calls into question the legitimacy of both high-consumption, high-carbon ways of living and the growth economies of the wealthy nations. There is absolutely no way seven billion people, let alone nine or ten billion, could live high-consumption lives. So we need to fundamentally rethink our global development agenda.

It seems to me that the only way humanity can transition toward a just and sustainable economy is for the richest nations to initiate a ‘degrowth’ process of planned economic contraction, in order to leave sufficient ecological room for other nations as well as biodiversity. Eventually, all nations on the planet will need to achieve a steady-state economy, which would cumulatively operate within the carrying capacity of the planet. This is required not just for climate change, but also as a response to all environmental problems. It’s also required for social justice, because there is no way we can sustainably eliminate poverty by continuously growing the economic pie. In an age of ecological overshoot, the only sustainable path poverty alleviation is through the redistribution of wealth and power. Again, this is not a popular strategy in our neoliberal age. It is unlikely to be embraced, but I am of the view it represents the only path to a just and sustainable world.

IS: Are there examples from history or from the world today of your proposed solution, or a similar level of societal change, being successfully implemented?

SA: We live in unique times and face unique challenges. Of course, every moment in history has its challenges, but today our challenges are global and our crises are overlapping. Never before has a global civilisation been challenged to swiftly transition to a new energy regime to avoid climate instability; never before have we had seven and half billion people on the planet, each of whom are wanting to live a dignified life; never before have we been in such gross ecological overshoot, while every nation is pursuing growth. So, in a word, no, there is no historical example of a wealthy nation voluntarily pursuing a degrowth process of planned economic contraction. But there is simply no other way for humanity to flourish within safe planetary limits. If we are serious about sustainability and serious about global justice, we need to take degrowth seriously. And more and more people are. Fragments of the degrowth economy are sprouting up everywhere, even if these post-capitalist experiments presently remain marginalised.

There is a silver lining to this challenge however – a source of grounded hope. The consumer lifestyles which have been held up as the peak of civilisation in recent decades haven’t really provided the fulfilment people hoped for. Consumerism doesn’t really satisfy the human desire of meaning. This opens up space for those people living high-consumption lifestyles to actually reimagine the good life in ways that significantly reduces their impacts while increasing quality of life. But this isn’t just about lifestyle change. It also means restructuring and relocalising our macro-economies in ways that promote values of sufficiency, moderation, and distributive justice. This is what degrowth means. It means working toward an economy that provides enough, for everyone, forever.

Is Owen Jones right that Jeremy Corbyn has the same policies as Ed Miliband?

Is Owen Jones right that Jeremy Corbyn has the same policies as Ed Miliband?
by Ian Sinclair
29 August 2016

In his now infamous July 2016 blog ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’, Guardian columnist Owen Jones argued Corbyn’s policies are pretty much the same as those of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party at the time of the May 2015 general election. “It seems as though Ed Miliband presented his policies as less left-wing than they actually were, and now the current leadership presents them as more left-wing than they actually are”, Jones noted. “It’s presentation, style and sentiment that seem to differ most.”

This is a bold claim made by a very influential left-wing commentator. Therefore it is worth seriously considering the claim. With this in mind, I sketch out some key policy differences between Corbyn and Miliband below.

Economy

On the economy, Jones argues though “the Labour leadership now says it’s anti-austerity”, the fiscal rule accepted by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell means his economic policy is similar to that of ex-Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, “including a focus on deficit reduction”. James Meadway, the head of policy for Corbyn’s leadership campaign and former chief economist at the New Economics Foundation, notes Jones “is wrong to claim that John McDonnell is offering Ed Balls’ fiscal policy. He is absolutely not. He is opposed to cuts.” During the 2015 general election campaign Ed Balls “offered up cuts”, Corbyn explained to Jones before Jones wrote his blog. “To be clear, Labour is now an anti-austerity party opposed to the rundown and break-up of our public services”, notes Meadway.

Miliband’s Labour stated it “support[s] the principles behind the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Treaty (TTIP)”, though was concerned about a number of issues including “the impact on public services and the Investor to State Dispute Settlement Mechanism”. Miliband’s Labour pledged to “ensure the NHS is protected from the TTIP treaty.” Commenting on Miliband’s position, The Guardian’s Political Correspondent Rowena Mason noted TTIP is “a key issue for many voters on the left” and “it does not look like this will satisfy those who view TTIP as a deal for big corporations and want it to be abandoned entirely.” Corbyn opposes TTIP outright.

NHS

Jones argues Labour under Corbyn “would reverse NHS privatisation: again, Labour at the last election committed to repealing the Health and Social Care Act and regretted the extent of NHS private sector involvement under New Labour.” However, though Labour’s 2015 election manifesto promised to repeal the Coalition Government’s NHS privatisation plans, it also saw a role for existing private firms in the NHS because it pledged to cap profits of private firms on NHS contracts. The manifesto had nothing to say about the hospitals built under the Private Finance Initiative policy instituted by Tony Blair’s Government. Earlier this month Corbyn confirmed a Labour Government led by him would cancel PFI contracts.

Education

Jones doesn’t mention any education policies. Miliband promised to reduce university tuition fees to £6,000 per year. The 2015 Labour manifesto did not mention the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) scrapped by the Coalition Government. Corbyn has promised to abolish tuition fees completely, reintroduce student maintenance grants and reinstate the EMA.

Transport

Jones says Corbyn’s plans to renationalise the railways “beefs up Labour’s pledge under Miliband’s leadership.” In actual fact the 2015 Labour manifesto only promised to “reform our transport system in order to provide more public control and put the public interest first.” If all this seems a little vague that’s because it is: “We will review the franchising process as a priority to put in place a new system… a new National Rail body will oversee and plan for the railways and give rail users a greater say in how trains operate. We will legislate so that a public sector operator is allowed to take on lines and challenge the private train operating companies on a level playing field.” This is not renationalisation.

Royal Mail

Jones doesn’t mention the Royal Mail. Miliband’s Labour promised to “safeguard the public interest in the [now privatised] Royal Mail, supporting the creation of a staff-led trust for the employee share, and keeping the remaining 30 per cent in public ownership.” In contrast, Corbyn proposes to renationalise the Royal Mail.

Welfare

Jones doesn’t mention welfare policy. Corbyn explained to Jones before his blog was published that Miliband’s Labour used “appalling language on the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], on welfare systems”. Corbyn is presumably referring to comments made by Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary under Miliband, about how “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work… Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.” When she was first appointed by Miliband in 2013, Reeves said Labour would be tougher than the Tories on benefits. Similarly, a briefing from Labour’s welfare spokesman under Miliband led to the Daily Mail headline ‘Now Ed Miliband gets tough with onslaught against “evil” of benefits scroungers’. Corbyn voted against the Welfare Bill in July 2015 and is strongly opposed to benefits cuts.

Immigration

Jones doesn’t mention anything to do with immigration. During the 2015 General Election campaign Labour produced their UKIP-pandering ‘controls on immigration’ mugs, while Reeves announced Labour would extend the period for which EU migrants are prevented from claiming out-of-work benefits from three months to two years. “The plans take Labour further than proposals so far announced by the Conservatives,” The Guardian noted at the time. Corbyn has long been a defender of migrant rights.

Trident

Jones doesn’t mention Trident. Labour under Miliband supported the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Corbyn opposes the UK owning or using Weapons of Mass Destruction and is attempting to change Labour Party policy on this.

Foreign Policy

Jones asserts “Corbyn opposed the Iraq war; so did Miliband. The Labour leadership’s policy was to vote against the bombing of Syria, as it was under Miliband.” This is a particularly disingenuous argument from Jones. First, because he chooses to omit several significant foreign policy votes and positions – the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, the 2014 vote on the UK bombing Islamic State in Iraq and the British occupation of Afghanistan. All were supported by Miliband and opposed by Corbyn.

Second, Jones’s summary of Miliband’s position on Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2013 (both opposed by Corbyn) is incomplete at best. In 2003 Miliband was teaching in the United States. Apparently he contacted people, including Gordon Brown, to try to persuade them to oppose the war. Speaking at the Labour leader hustings in 2010 Ed Balls labelled Miliband’s claim to be anti-war as “ridiculous” noting that Miliband “did not tell people” he was against the war. Even if Miliband privately lobbied Labour politicians, this misses a key point, as I’ve argued previously:

“There were numerous opportunities for Miliband to make a public stand against the impending war – which arguably would have had a far greater impact than his supposed behind the scenes advice – including speaking at the biggest protest in British history. That Miliband, at best, opposed the war in private strongly suggests to me that he was thinking more about his future political career than the welfare of Iraqis or the British soldiers being sent to fight in Iraq.”

In contrast, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement, speaking at hundreds of anti-war meetings and rallies. On the Syria vote, the parliamentary record shows the Labour motion tabled by Miliband was very similar to the defeated Government motion, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the more experienced foreign affairs experts in the Commons. “I can find no difference of substance or principle anywhere in the two offerings”, explained Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats. Likewise, ex-Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind noted “virtually all” of Labour’s list of requirements for supporting military action “appear in the Government’s own motion.” In addition, Miliband stated that he would support military action against Syria without a United Nations Security Council Resolution – essentially agreeing with the Government again.

Jones versus reality

After considering the information above, one can only argue Corbyn’s policies are the same as the austerity-lite policies of Labour under Miliband if one chooses to ignore large swathes of policy areas or is ignorant of Corbyn’s and Miliband’s actual policy positions. That the analysis of Jones – a huge and influential left-wing voice in the mainstream media – is so pitiful and shallow is extremely concerning, and very damning, indeed.

Who is Owen Smith?

Who is Owen Smith?
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
29 July 2016

Labour leadership contender Owen Smith MP has stated he is “going to be just as radical” as Jeremy Corbyn. “Jeremy has been right about so many things”, Smith argued at the launch of his campaign. This pitch to Labour voters has been taken up by the Saving Labour group hoping to dispose Corbyn, with its supporters telling members of the public “there is no real difference… between Owen Smith and Jeremy”.

Is this true? How does this framing of the leadership contest fit with Smith’s actual political record?

Smith has already been criticised for his previous senior positions at Big Pharma corporations. “Smith worked for Amgen as its chief lobbyist in the UK for two years before becoming MP for Pontypridd [in 2010]. Before that he was a lobbyist for US drug firm Pfizer from 2005”, notes the Guardian. “While at Pfizer in 2005 Smith endorsed a Pfizer-backed report offering NHS patients easier access to private-sector healthcare”. According to The Times newspaper Smith stated in a press release “We believe that choice is a good thing and that patients and healthcare professionals should be at the heart of developing the agenda.” For Lisa Nandy MP (“a cracking Labour MP” – Guardian journalist Owen Jones) Smith’s senior role at Pfizer is a good thing because “having seen how a pharmaceutical company and capitalism operates from the inside is probably quite important, to be honest. If you are going to critique it, you need to understand it.”

Responding to questions about his position with Pfizer on the BBC Today Programme, Smith stated “I’ve never advocated the privatisation of the NHS” and “I believe in a 100 percent publicly owned NHS free at the point of use”. Nandy repeated this narrative in her interview with Owen Jones, replying “Yes” when Jones asked her to confirm Smith “wants an entirely publicly run National Health Service – no privatisation?”

In the real world, when Smith unsuccessfully fought the 2006 Blaenau Gwent by-election and he was asked about the involvement of the private sector in the NHS by Wales Online, he replied:

“Where they can bring good ideas, where they can bring valuable services that the NHS is not able to deliver, and where they can work alongside but subservient to the NHS and without diminishing in any respect the public service ethos of the NHS, then I think that’s fine.”

Asked about the controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes introduced by the Blair Government, Smith responded: “We’ve had PFI in Wales, we’ve had a hospital built down in Baglan through PFI. If PFI works, then let’s do it.” In the same interview Smith sings the praises of New Labour’s introduction of academy schools, which was strongly opposed by the teaching unions. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances”, noted Smith.

In July 2015 Smith abstained on the Government’s Welfare Bill, which the government’s own figures confirmed would push 330,000 children from low-income families further into poverty, with single mothers and ethnic minorities hit particularly hard. Now running for the Labour leadership, Smith told the BBC’s Andrew Marr his vote was a mistake that he now regretted. How sincerely he believes this is brought into question by his appearance on BBC Newsnight in September 2016 when he confirmed his support for the £26,000 benefit cap, saying “We are in favour of an overall reduction in the amount of money we spend on benefits in this country and we are in favour of limits on what individual families can draw down.” In March 2015 the Guardian reported the UK Supreme Court had “found that the effect of the policy [the benefit cap] was not compatible with the government’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child”.

Earlier this month Smith voted to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons. Asked by Marr if he was prepared to “annihilate possibly millions of people” by firing Trident, Smith replied that “You’ve got to be prepared to say yes to that.” But wasn’t he once a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, asked Marr? When did he realise he was wrong? “About 15 years ago”, Smith replied. This doesn’t fit with a June 2006 Daily Mail report, which noted “Yesterday Owen Smith… came out in opposition to the Trident nuclear deterrent”.

Noting Smith entered parliament in 2010, the Guardian’s Zoe Williams argues he cannot be “tarnished by the Blair years and the vote on the Iraq war.” Indeed, though he was a Special Advisor to pro-war Labour Cabinet Minister Paul Murphy in 2003, Smith and his supporters have repeatedly highlighted his opposition to the war. However, interviewing Smith in 2006 Wales Online noted “He didn’t know whether he would have voted against the war”, with Smith arguing “the tradition of the Labour Party and the tradition of left-wing engagement to remove dictators was a noble, valuable tradition, and one that in South Wales, from the Spanish Civil War onwards, we have recognised and played a part in.”

As this suggests, even if he did oppose the war in 2003 Smith continues to repeat the delusional framing of the pro-war camp. For example, introducing the topic of Iraq in his campaign launch speech, Smith referred to the UK as “a country that has traditionally, patriotically intervened around the world to help impose and understand our values across the globe.” And again he tried to ride Corbyn’s coattails, noting “Iraq was a terrible mistake. Jeremy has been right about that.” The problem for Smith is this isn’t what Corbyn or the mainstream anti-war movement argue. Let me explain: if I slip on a banana skin – that’s a mistake. If I spill coffee down my shirt – that’s a mistake. If I spend months planning an illegal and aggressive invasion of another country that leads to the deaths of over 500,000 men, women and children and over four million refugees, then that’s a crime, and a massive one at that, as Corbyn implicitly suggested in his response to the publication of the Chilcot Report.

Corbyn, of course, also opposed the 2011 Libyan war – just one of the 2 percent of MPs who did. Smith supported the military intervention which steamrolled over peace initiatives being made by the African Union, enabled ethnic cleansing and the levelling of the city of Sirte, destabilised the country and region, increased the number of terrorist groups operating in Libya and exacerbated the refugee crisis.

Interviewed by the Telegraph in June 2006, Smith argued Tony Blair was a socialist. Asked if he has any policy differences with Blair except for the Iraq War, which he said was a mistake, Smith replied “No, I don’t think so.” The Telegraph’s take on Smith? “About as New Labour as you can get”. The Independent’s take on Smith for their report on the by-election was similarly blunt: “A dyed-in-the wool New Labourite.”

Big Pharma lobbyist? Radical? New Labourite? Socialist? Blairite? Corbynista without Corbyn? Who, exactly, is Owen Smith? Looking at his record of following the prevailing political winds, it seems Owen Smith will be whoever he needs to be for political gain.

*Buzzfeed journalist James Ball recently criticised a Twitter meme based on a similar article I wrote for Open Democracy titled ‘Who Is Angela Eagle?’. Comparing the selected points my article highlights about Eagle’s voting record with her overall voting record, Ball argued “can prove what you like with being selective with voting records”. As I explained to Ball, my article about Eagle – and this article – is about highlighting political differences between the challenger and Corbyn on key issues that may be of interest to Labour voters and the broader general public. It is not a complete record of Smith’s political career, obviously. I would hope readers don’t need me to tell them that Smith is not a moustache-twirling, Disney villain and has, I’m sure, made many positive contributions in his political career.

The Politics of Fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion

The politics of fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 July 2016

A common refrain among the elite and mainstream media commentators is that “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are fantasy”, as the headline to an Observer op-ed by Tony Blair put it August 2015. Similarly, just after Corbyn began his campaign to be Labour leader in June 2015 the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee argued the Islington North MP was “a 1983 man” and “a relic”. A vote for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate”, Toynbee argued. Before she stepped aside in the current leadership contest, Angela Eagle went one further, arguing Corbyn “doesn’t connect with Labour voters”.

The latter criticism is easily dismissed – Corbyn was elected with the biggest mandate of any Labour leader in history, and a new YouGov poll finds Corbyn gets the support of 54 percent of the party’s members, with Eagle coming second on 21 percent and Owen Smith trailing on 15 percent.

But what about his politics and policy suggestions? How do they sit with British public opinion?

Like Corbyn, a 2014 YouGov poll for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) found “a majority of the UK public believes the gap between the rich and the poor is bad for society and the economy”, according to Steve Hart, the Chair of CLASS.

To tackle income inequality, in January 2016 the Labour leader suggested maximum pay ratios – a policy backed by 65 percent of people quizzed by YouGov/CLASS. He also pushed for all companies to pay a living wage – supported by 60 percent of people according to a 2013 Survation survey – and stripping private schools of the charitable status, a move the YouGov/CLASS poll found was backed by 55 percent of respondents.

Turning to health, in contrast to Owen Smith’s 2006 Wales Online interview supporting private sector involvement in the NHS, Corbyn believes in a publicly run NHS – a position supported by 84 per cent of the public, according to a 2013 YouGov poll.

In May 2016 Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirmed Labour’s plan was to build 100,000 new council houses a year. ‘More social housing’ was the top answer – given by 58 percent of respondents – when an April 2016 Guardian Cities poll asked people about solutions to the housing crisis. McDonnell also said a Labour government would give councils the power to impose rent controls – a policy supported by 60 percent of British people, including 42 percent of Tory voters, according to a 2015 YouGov poll.

Corbyn supports the nationalisation of the railways, a position backed by 66 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according 2013 YouGov poll. He also believes the Royal Mail should be publicly owned, a position supported by 67 percent of the public, including 48 percent of Tory voters, according to the same poll.

On foreign policy, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement that opposed the deeply unpopular Iraq War, speaking to the biggest protest in British history on 15 February 2003. On Afghanistan, Corbyn opposed the war and supported the withdrawal of British troops. Polls from 2008 onwards consistently found the British public supported the withdrawal of British troops. On Trident, Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to scrapping the UK’s nuclear weapons is shared by a significant minority of the population – an impressive level of opposition when you consider the British establishment and three main parties have historically supported the retention of Trident.

On the issues Corbyn’s politics don’t reflect public opinion, arguably these are often surrounded by significant levels of media-generated misinformation. For example, polls note the majority of the public support a benefit cap of £20,000 nationwide – a cut Corbyn and many charities working on poverty strongly opposed. At the same time a 2012 TUC/YouGov poll found widespread ignorance about spending on welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the correct figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate is 0.7 percent). The survey found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant.

In conclusion, what all this polling evidence clearly shows is that many of Corbyn’s political positions command the support of large sections of the British public, often a majority. And importantly, the polls highlight that many of his positions receive significant levels of support from Tory voters.

However, a new London School of Economics study highlights the problems Corbyn’s Labour Government faces in reaching the general public. Analysing press coverage of Corbyn in September and October 2015, the survey found “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Noting other left-wing leaders also received negative press attention, the authors of the study note “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.”

Whether Corbyn will be able to successfully articulate his popular politics and policies in the face of continuous attacks from the overwhelming hostile media, many Labour MPs, the Tory Government and wider British elite, and whether he and his own team is up to the job in getting the message across – these are different and difficult questions which we will find out the answers to soon enough.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Tory Government U-turns

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Tory Government U-turns
by Ian Sinclair
16 July 2016

In his latest Guardian column, Owen Jones argues that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has been “reduced to an ineffective pressure group”. This chimes with a lot of the criticism coming from the Labour MPs opposed to his leadership, Tory politicians and much of the mainstream media – that Corbyn is unable to lead an effective opposition to the Tory Government, and therefore should step down.

In contrast, the historical record shows Labour under Corbyn has defeated the Government on a number of important issues, forcing U-turns at various points. Of course, these victories are not down to Corbyn alone but the whole of the Labour Party and wider Labour movement, often working with civil society groups and other political parties. And, of course, there could always be more defeats for the Government – something that would be more likely if Labour MPs supported their elected leader. I list the victories below so discussion on this topic can be informed by evidence and fact, rather than baseless assertions:

Saudi Arabia prison contract. Guardian, 13 October 2015: “Downing Street has announced that the government is to cancel a £5.9m contract to provide a training programme for prisons in Saudi Arabia… The pressure on Cameron to cancel the Saudi contract escalated when Jeremy Corbyn called on him in his first party conference speech as Labour leader to block the bid to provide training for the very prison system that would carry out the execution of the pro-democracy protester Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr.”

Police cuts. Labour List, 25 November 2015: “George Osborne today caved into pressure from Labour and announced U-turns on both tax credits and cuts to police budgets. Both issues have been major attack lines for Labour in recent months”.

Tax credits. Morning Star, 26 November 2015: “Chancellor George Osborne was forced into a humiliating climbdown yesterday over his toxic plans to slash tax credits. The Tory appeared to make a complete U-turn on the cuts in his Autumn Statement after a campaign led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It saved three million families, who were set to lose £1,300 on average from next April, from being plunged further into poverty.”

Housing benefit cuts. Mirror, 27 January 2016: “The Tories have performed a humiliating climbdown on a cruel benefit cut which threatened to force OAPs, veterans and abused women out of supported accommodation. Housing minister Brandon Lewis was forced to the House of Commons to announce the 1% cut in rent for housing providers that support vulnerable people would be delayed for a year… Labour dragged the Housing Minister to the commons during an Opposition Day debate on housing benefit cuts and supported housing.”

Child poverty indicators. Guardian, 26 February 2016: “The government has been forced into retreat after agreeing that it should continue to report lack of money as a measure of child poverty. Ministers wanted to remove a statutory duty to publish levels of UK household income as part of the welfare reform and work bill but have now accepted, after a battle with the House of Lords, that the material deprivation measures should remain protected…. Owen Smith MP, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said…’Efforts led by the Labour party, our peers, the bishop of Durham and the charity sector have together forced the Tories to climb down on their bid to cover their tracks on child poverty.’”

Sunday opening hours. Independent, 9 March 2016: “David Cameron has suffered a damaging Commons defeat after Conservative rebels teamed up with Labour and SNP MPs to throw out plans to allow supermarkets and large stores in England and Wales to open longer on Sundays.”

Trade Union Bill. Labour List, 17 March 2016: “The Conservatives’ anti-trade union plans suffered a setback last night as they suffered a ‘resounding defeat’ in House of Lords votes. Peers voted against aspects of the Trade Union Bill that would see Labour’s funding take a serious hit, as well as stalling proposals to implement 50 per cent threshold on strike ballots until an independent review has considered electronic balloting, which the Tories oppose… In January, Labour and Lib Dem members of the House of Lords agreed to work together to oppose these reforms, following a decades-long agreement that major changes to party funding must have cross-party support. Both parties voted for the amendment last night, as well as crossbench peers and two Tory rebels.”

Disability cuts. Metro, 18 March 2016: “George Osborne could be about to perform a rather embarrassing U-turn on the cuts to disability benefits… Jeremy Corbyn said Labour is ready to combine with Conservative rebels to inflict what would be a humiliating defeat for the Government, unless ministers back down. The Labour leader said 200,000 of the 640,000 people hit by the changes would lose out altogether as a result of the Government’s plans, which would take £4 billion out of the benefit over the course of the parliament.”

Academies. Labour List, 7 May 2016: “The Government has suffered a ‘humiliating climb-down’ on their controversial plans to turn all schools into academies, burying their U-turn among election announcements across the country yesterday… Lucy Powell said… ‘It is welcome news that the Tory Government has finally listened to Labour and the alliance of head teachers, parents and local government who opposed these plans, and dropped the forced academisation of all schools.’”

Child refugees. Huffington Post, 10 May 2016: “Recently David Cameron has been forced to back down from his plans to ignore helpless Syrian child refugees living without parents in camps. A plan put forward by Labour peer Lord Dubs to resettle child refugees was originally refused by David Cameron, but because of pressure from Labour and rebelling backbench Conservative MPs, he was forced to concede to morality.”

New Labour, not Jeremy Corbyn, is to blame for Brexit

New Labour, not Jeremy Corbyn, is to blame for Brexit
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 July 2016

The message pushed by the Labour Party coup plotters through a pliant media has been relentless: Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted performance in the European Union referendum, likely because of his dislike of the EU, played a key role in the vote for Brexit. This narrative has resonated widely, with a YouGov poll finding 52 percent of Labour members thought Corbyn performed badly, with 47 percent answering he performed well.

However, there are a number of problems with the ‘Blame Corbyn’ story.

Most important is the fact that, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling on the referendum, 63 percent of Labour voters supported Remain – just one percent less than the 64 percent of SNP voters who supported Remain. There haven’t been, as far as I’m aware, any calls for Nicola Sturgeon to resign as the SNP leader.

Ten days before the referendum vote, Labour MP Angela Eagle – currently busy threatening to run against Corbyn in a leadership election because of his poor performance during the referendum –told the Guardian “Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired, he has not stopped. We are doing our best, but if we are not reported, it is very difficult. This whole thing is about Tory big beasts having a battle like rutting stags”. Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson – also currently pushing the Labour leader to resign – confirmed in early June that Corbyn was getting a “raw deal” from the media, noting that Corbyn’s many speeches on the referendum were being ignored by the media.

Research by the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture at Loughborough University concurs with the pre-coup analyses of Eagle and Watson on the media’s coverage of the campaign. “The dominance of Conservative party representatives… was sustained throughout”, the study concludes. “The coverage was also highly ‘presidentialised’, dominated by the Conservative figure heads of the IN and OUT campaigns.”

“In truth there is little in the pattern of the results of the referendum to suggest that Mr Corbyn was personally responsible for Remain’s defeat”, notes John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and the BBC’s polling expert. “The referendum outcome looks more like a pretext for an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.”

However, although the ferocious ‘Blame Corbyn’ campaign doesn’t stand up to a cursory look at the actual evidence, what it has succeeded in doing is focusing everyone’s attention on the nine weeks of the referendum campaign itself. This is a huge problem because, as Gary Younge recently noted in the Guardian, the Brexit vote was decades in the making.

“Those who voted for Brexit tended to be English, white, poor, less educated and old. With the exception of the elderly, these have traditionally been Labour’s base”, Younge points out. After criss-crossing the country speaking to the general public for a video series on the referendum for the Guardian, John Harris declared a few days before the vote “England and Wales are in the midst of a working-class revolt… in Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire the same lines recurred… ‘I’m scared about the future’… ‘no one listens to me’… ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares’.”

Harris noted there was a complete lack of trust in the political establishment. Iraq – along with the expenses scandal and the financial crash – has obviously played a key role in increasing the public’s distrust in those who rule them. Of course, the Iraq war was launched by Tony Blair’s Government, with 92 percent of the Labour MPs opposing Corbyn now who were in parliament in 2003 voting in favour of the illegal and aggressive invasion, according to investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed.

Younge is in no doubt about Labour’s role in the abandonment of large swathes of the country: “The party has been out of touch for some time”, with New Labour’s turn to the right “made with the conscious calculation that its core supporters had nowhere else to go.”

Instead of decisively shifting to a modern social democracy when it was elected on a wave of optimism in 1997, New Labour chose to adapt to the “Thatcherite, neo-liberal terrain” and “set the corporate economy free”, argued the late sociology professor Stuart Hall in 2003. NHS privatisation moved forward with the Private Finance Initiative deals, council house building ground to a halt, tuition fees were introduced, unemployment benefits were kept very low, the benefits system tightened, and claimants stigmatised. At the same time New Labour reduced the ability of working-class communities to resist the increasingly corporate-dominated economy by maintaining the Tories tough anti-union legislation, with Blair proudly stating the UK had the “most restrictive laws on trade unions in the Western world”. Unsurprisingly, income inequality, already sky high after 13 years of Tory rule, rose under New Labour, and the UK continues to have one of the lowest levels of class mobility in the industrialised world.

New Labour also repeatedly attempted to outflank the Tories on the right when it came to immigration and asylum – issues at the heart of the EU referendum debate. Blair used his September 2003 speech to the Labour Party conference to push for a tougher immigration policy – lballed“chilling” by the Immigration Advisory Service. “I don’t want to see footprints left so that the BNP [British National Party] can step into them. I don’t want language used to appease the Daily Mail”, warmed Sir Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, at the time.

The year before Home Secretary David Blunkett had proclaimed asylum seekers were “swamping” some British schools. In 2007 Margaret Hodge MP wrote of “indigenous famil[ies]” missing out when it comes to social housing because we “prioritise the needs of an individual migrant family over the entitlement others feel they have”, a statement cheered on by the BNP. Prime Minister Gordon Brown repeatedly pledged “British jobs for British workers”, criticised by then leader of the opposition David Cameron for using the same language as – yep, you’ve guessed it – a BNP leaflet. Ed Miliband’s party was hardly better. The 2015 General Election campaign brought forth Labour’s infamous ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs, while the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves announced Labour would extend the period for which EU migrants are prevented from claiming out-of-work benefits from three months to two years. “The plans take Labour further than proposals so far announced by the Conservatives”, the Guardian noted.

The effect of all this emotive rhetoric, as Younge notes about Labour’s history of pandering to the Right on immigration, “was not to blunt the rise of organised racism but to embolden it, making certain views acceptable and respectable”.

No matter what he did, Corbyn was never going to successfully turn around these decades-old, arguably now firmly entrenched, social, economic and political shifts in the nine months he had been leader before the referendum.

So, if we are going to start attributing blame in the Labour Party for Brexit, let’s start with New Labour and the Blairite MPs and many of their willing dupes in the so-called centre of the party who repeatedly supported policies and public statements that have effectively led to the abandonment of many poor communities, increased inequality, and shifted national politics to a space that made Brexit more likely.