Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers

Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
25 November 2013

‘No Platform’ – the decision not to give a platform to those whose views are deemed to be abhorrent – is a popular policy of the Left in the UK. Organisations can ‘No platform’ by refusing to invite certain speakers to events they organise or protesting their appearance at other events; individuals can use the tactic in a different way refusing to appear on a platform with a given individual. This tactic isolates the targeted individual, putting down a public marker showing that they are not part of normal political debate. I would argue that to be an effective and respected tactic that will be supported and understood by the general public ‘No Platform’ needs to be applied in a broadly consistent manner.

With all this in mind, it is worth giving some attention to the recent decisions of Owen Jones about who to appear with on a platform. As one of the most influential figures on the contemporary British Left, his actions inevitably serve to represent the left to some extent and are likely to shape the choices that other Leftists make about who to appear on a platform with, and who not to.  Unfortunately, his decisions seem confused and hypocritical. He appears to ‘No Platform’ relatively powerless people, while being happy to speak alongside far more objectionable members of the ruling elite.

Before I continue, however, I want to make it clear I think Owen Jones is a brilliant voice for the Left in the UK. He has successfully taken apart establishment figures such as historian David Starkey, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Guido Fawkes, has strongly criticised Israel’s attack on Gaza on BBC Question Time and destroyed the pro-war argument at the Huffington Post debate on the 2003 Iraq War. I often Tweet in support when Jones appears on television. Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.

Jones is set to speak at the 30 November 2013 Stop the War Coalition conference. On finding out Mother Agnes Mariam wad also scheduled to speak at the conference, Jones told the conference organisers he would not appear alongside her. With US journalist Jeremy Scahill also refusing to speaking alongside Mother Agnes, she has pulled out of the conference.

Mother Agnes is a Catholic nun who lived in Syria until recently. She has received a lot of media attention for arguing the 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria was a provocation by Syrian rebels. Critics say she is an apologist for the Assad Government.

Jones, of course, has every right to not share a platform with someone whose views he finds objectionable. However, the problem is in February 2012 Jones appeared on BBC Question Time alongside none other than John Prescott – the Labour Deputy Prime Minister during the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War has led to approximately 500,000 Iraqi deaths according to a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine.

Prescott confirms his own responsibility for being a leading participant in initiating the invasion in his autobiography:

‘The massive [15 February 2003] anti-war march in London had been very worrying, but I felt we were all in this so the cabinet should stick together.’ (John Prescott with Hunter Davies, Prezza. My Story, 2008, Headline Review, London, p. 284).

So, to put it simply, Jones is happy to appear alongside Prescott, a British politician intimately involved in initiating the illegal, aggressive invasion of another country that led to the deaths of over 500,000 people, but he refuses to speak on a platform alongside Mother Agnes who is, at worst, a propagandist for a Ba’athist dictatorship. Bashar Assad’s Government have been a leading participant in the Syrian Civil War that had killed over 100,000 people by July 2013, according to the United Nations.

Jones addressed this criticism of him in his defence of his decision not to appear at the conference alongside Mother Agnes:

‘The… argument is that I am “happy” to share platforms with those who prosecuted the war against Iraq – including former members of the Blair government – on TV platforms before, but not a Syrian nun. The response here is pretty straightforward. If a pro-war politician had been invited to the Stop the War conference, I would have refused to share a platform, too. That’s because an anti-war conference is an event where – despite differences or nuances in views – everybody is there to make common cause. We are there as allies, as part of the same movement. When I appear on, say, Question Time to debate ministers, there is no presumption of common cause.’

This explanation is contradicted by Jones’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions in July 2012, which I described in a previous article:

‘Finding out that Kelvin McKenzie was also on the panel, Jones pontificated on Twitter about whether he should withdraw in protest because of the former Sun Editor’s lies about the Hillsborough football victims. Unsure about the ethics of appearing with McKenzie, incredibly Jones sought the advice [through Twitter] of Iraq War supporter and Blair apologist David Aaronovitch. Jones eventually decided to appear on Any Questions, noting he would donate his appearance fee to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.’

This isn’t just about Jones – it has wider ramifications because his confusing morality is indicative of a wider cultural problem. Polls show 28 percent of respondents to a 2010 BPIX/Mail on Sunday poll said former Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes. A 2010 ComRes/Independent poll found even more support for this, with 37 per cent of people saying Blair should be put on trial. Unsurprisingly, this large section of public opinion is not reflected in the mainstream media. The Morning Star is the only national newspaper that has publicly called for Blair to face a war crimes trial, as far as I am aware.

But it’s not just silence – key participants in the initiation of the Iraq War are regularly invited onto our screens and to write for national newspapers. Prescott has hosted and appeared on the BBC’s satire programme Have I Got News For You, Alastair Campbell was invited to guest edit the New Statesman and Tony Blair regularly appears in the Guardian’s comment pages to shower us with his wisdom on peace in the Middle East.

While the opinion polls quoted above shows a significant percentage of the British public supports Blair appearing in the dock, it’s clear a further, momentous shift in public opinion would be necessary before the Blair Government is held to account for the invasion of Iraq. However, this shift is going to be all but impossible to achieve while Have I Got News For You, the New Statesman, the Guardian and, yes, Owen Jones, continue to treat the guilty men and women as though they were part of the political mainstream. In short, although Jones is a strong anti-war voice, his decisions on who to ‘No Platform’ effectively normalises the murderous actions of Prescott and his cabinet colleagues.

The Obama Illusion

The Obama Illusion
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
November 2008

Those wishing to keep a level head should certainly keep away from the mainstream media. Jonathan Freedland, writing about Barack Obama’s July speech in Berlin for the UK’s most progressive national newspaper the Guardian, breathlessly reported that the Democratic US presidential nominee “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water.”

Although he doesn’t reference the second coming, the liberal American journalist Jann Wenner’s description of the Great Black Hope is no less gushing: “There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline…. Like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama challenges America to rise up, to do what so many of us long to do: to summon ‘the better angels of our nature’.”

The propensity of some journalists to bow to the powerful clearly knows no bounds. But what lies behind the slogans, soundbites and rhetoric presented to us by Obama’s slick PR machine and the wilfully naïve media?

Contrary to the widespread myth surrounding his candidacy, from his public statements there is very little to suggest Obama will make significant changes to US foreign policy – the topic of his Berlin speech and the issue that most affects the rest of the world.

Like George Bush, Obama views the world in Manichean terms and believes the United States has a divine right to intervene anywhere in the world. “We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good”, he proclaimed in his first major foreign policy speech in April 20a07. “We must lead by building a 21st century military…. I strongly support the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.” That’s right folks, liberal America’s poster boy wants to increase the size of the US military, whose 2008 budget is already a staggering $711 billion – a figure greater than the budget of the next 45 highest spending countries in the world combined.

It is important to remember Obama’s opposition to the foreign policy of the Bush administration has largely been on tactics grounds – cost and failure – rather than principled moral objections.

For example, Obama believes the US invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq is a “strategic error”, rather than an illegal act, as described by ex-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, or the “supreme international crime,” as the Nuremberg Tribunal determined in 1946.

Indeed, for a man who prides himself on being a “citizen of the world”, Obama is strangely silent about the suffering of other nations under the boot of his own. How many times has he mentioned the more than one million Iraqi people who have died because of the invasion, according to UK polling company Opinion Research Business?

His headline-grabbing pledge to withdraw from Iraq is actually nothing of the sort. If you read the small print you will find Obama has only promised to withdraw combat troops, which only comprise about a third of US forces currently in Iraq and Kuwait. Earlier this year Robert Kahl, Obama’s foreign policy coordinator on Iraq, recommended keeping between 60,000 and 80,000 troops in Iraq until at least 2010 to play an “overwatch role” – supposedly to conduct “counter-terrorism” operations, train Iraqi government security forces and protect US facilities and citizens.

By reducing US troop levels in Iraq, Obama hopes to transfer 10,000 extra troops to escalate the increasingly bloody “good war” in Afghanistan, where president Bush “responded properly,” he noted. Indeed, by signing an order in July authorising illegal US military ground incursions in to neighbouring Pakistan, the incumbent US president seemed to be paying tribute to the senator from Illinois, who had stated his support for the exact same policy a year before.

“I continue to believe that we’re under-resourced in Afghanistan… the real centre for terrorist activity that we have to deal with and deal with aggressively”, said Obama in the summer.

Compare this militaristic posturing to this month’s admission by the British military’s top brass that the war can not be won militarily, and the testimony of the current British ambassador to Afghanistan, who reportedly said the US/NATO presence is “part of the problem, not the solution” and that the American strategy was “destined to fail.”

On Iran, Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in June, “there is no greater threat to Israel – or the peace and stability of the region – than Iran.”

Interviewed by Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly last month about the so-called nuclear ambitions of the Iranian government, Obama stated he “would never take a military option off the table”.

US dissident Noam Chomsky perceptively points out that by constantly threatening Iran with military strikes, Obama is brazenly violating the UN Charter, and also going against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans, with 75% favouring building better relations with Iran, according to a recent Program on International Policy Attitudes poll.

Furthermore, by telling a Cuban-American audience in 2007 that he would continue the barbaric 47-year embargo on Cuba because “it is an important inducement for change,” Obama adopted a view that is not only opposed by the majority of Americans (who broadly support ending the embargo), but also runs counter to global public opinion, with the UN General Assembly last year voting 184 to four in favour of ending the blockade .

Obama’s hawkish pronouncements shouldn’t really be surprising when you consider most of the United States’ wars in the modern era have been initiated by Democratic presidents – Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam, Carter in Afghanistan and Clinton in Somalia, Kosovo and Iraq in 1998.

As the only realistic alternative is the Republican John McCain, progressives in the United States and around the world will undoubtedly by hoping for a Obama victory on 4 November.

However, we should not be under any illusions about what that really means. Those opposed to aggressive western military interventions abroad and corporate-led globalisation, and who are fearful of climate change and interested in promoting fair trade and human rights, will have to continue to fight for these causes – regardless of whether the next president of the United States is John McCain or Barack Obama.


Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
7 October 2016

“We’ve got to win in Cardiff North. We’ve got to win in Nuneaton. We’ve got to win in Milton Keynes”, asserted Owen Smith in the recent leadership campaign. “We’ve got to get Tories and Greens and Liberals to vote Labour.”

In the mainstream commentary surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, one thing is clear – he must claim the centre ground of politics and reach out to Tory voters. The BBC’s political coverage is often based on this assumption, with the corporation deciding to hold its 2015 televised Labour leadership debate in the well-known marginal seat of Nuneaton.

This has been the dominant, so-called pragmatic, way of doing parliamentary politics for my lifetime – what Professor Jeremy Gilbert from the University of East London calls “politics as marketing”. In this conception of politics, “there is only ever a very narrow range of opinions which can really be considered sensible, because they are predicated on an understanding of how the world really works.” Voters are rational, self-interested actors with fixed preferences. The politician is sold to the voters as likable and competent, much like a salesperson selling the party brand to customers. “The target market is almost exclusively floating voters in marginal constituencies”.

Writer Tariq Ali argues this endless battle for the mythical, ‘sensible’ centre ground has led to the creation of an “extreme centre” in British politics, with Tory-Labour bipartisanship leading to destructive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the financial crisis, privatisation, rising inequality and nasty and dangerous narratives being pushed on welfare and immigration.

Aswell as being tone deaf to radical social movements, this focus on a tiny number of voters in marginal seats ignores what has been called the largest party in British politics – the 15.7 million who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election.

Corbyn himself has repeatedly said he wants to reach out to those who don’t vote, especially young people. Noting that turnout went down from 84 percent in 1950 to 66 percent in 2015, Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Oxford agrees, arguing “the best strategy for Labour to increase its share of the vote is to target people who vote for minor parties and the much larger groups [who] have given up voting or even registering to vote.”

So, who doesn’t vote and why don’t they bother? Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary university, notes the people who don’t vote tend to be “the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested.” Speaking to voters in Manchester before the last general election, the BBC’s Emma Ailes reported that “it seems anger not apathy is turning people off voting” – an observation highlighted by polling. According to a 2013 poll by Survation the top reasons given by people for not voting were a belief that their vote will not make a difference; that the parties and candidates are all the same; a lack of interest in politics; not enough information or knowledge to choose; and that their beliefs are not represented by the parties and candidates.

This deeply concerning reality is neither natural nor inevitable. As I note above, in 1950 general election turnout was around 20 percent higher than it is now. The Nordic countries have very high levels of voter turnout.  Indeed there have been British elections recently with very high turnouts – the Scottish referendum (85 percent – the highest turnout in any British election since universal suffrage) and the EU referendum (72 percent). Arguably, in contrast to most of the elections of the past 35 years, these two votes actually meant something – there was actually a real choice for voters to make.

This gets to the heart of the issue. Citing British Social Attitudes survey data, in 2010 Alison Park, the Research Director of the National Centre for Social Research, noted one reason for the low turnout in recent elections “is that New Labour’s move to the political centre in the 1990s has led to voters thinking there is relatively little difference between the two main parties.” Professor Bale explains turnout goes down when “the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague”.

To counter these common criticisms of modern politicians, Corbyn needs to position the Labour Party as a clear and easily understandable alternative to the Conservatives and make sure the party follows through on any promises it makes. In addition, Labour needs more working-class MPs, a problem Corbyn’s 2015 proposal to provide grants to less affluent parliamentary candidates would help alleviate.

To mobilse non-voters commentator Owen Jones has suggested Labour carry out the biggest registration drive in history. And with Labour membership standing at over 600,000 and Corbyn attracting crowds of 1,000s of people, journalist Paul Mason believes Labour supporters can play a key role by being ambassadors in their communities, engaging with the wider electorate. Trade unions, which have traditionally encouraged the working-classes to vote, also have an important role to play.

However, it is important to note the First Past The Post system means significantly expanding the electorate will not, on its own, win the election for Corbyn. This is because the people who don’t vote tend to live in Labour dominated seats, meaning a higher turnout in most constituencies would simply mean a bigger win for the Labour MP. However, it would still lead to some gains, with a Fabian Society analysis showing a 7.3 percent boost in turnout in marginal seats would lead to Labour winning 52 seats if each new voter backed Labour.

Corbyn, then, will almost certainly need to attract significant numbers of people who had voted Conservative. This isn’t as unbelievable as the mainstream media would have you believe. Polling suggests many of Corbyn’s political positions – on the NHS, on railways, on housing and foreign policy – have the support of large sections of the British public, sometimes the majority of Tory voters.

Beyond the narrow electoral math, there are a number of reasons why Corbyn’s Labour Party (and other political parties) should work hard to engage with non-voters – for their party’s own benefit and for the nation as a whole.

First, though it may not translate into immediate electoral gains, getting the support of non-voters would increase the popular vote for Labour, one source of legitimacy in political debates. In addition, it would increase the number of the poorer people who are interested and involved in Labour politics, and politics more generally. This process would hopefully mean Labour increasingly becomes more responsive to working-class concerns (such as income inequality and social housing) and begin once again to seriously represent the working-class communities who have been effectively ignored by New Labour and the Tories for decades.

More broadly, this could be the starting gun for a mass reengagement with the political system, with previously disheartened and unrepresented sections of society becoming invested in parliamentary politics and the outcome of elections. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It is clear the Brexit vote was decades in the making, the product, in large part, of the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ that the UK has endured since New Labour was established. For example, a recent Oxfam report noted the UK’s extreme level of inequality was a likely contributing factor in the vote to leave the European Union. Similarly, focus groups ran by Britain Thinks found “Britain is divided – a nation of people who describe themselves as ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’”. The research found the ‘have nots’ – who were much more likely to vote Brexit – described “a powerful sense of injustice about their situation in life” and “the feeling that systems are in place which work in favour of elites and against their best interests”.

In a similar vein the 2011 riots that swept England were informed by social and economic issues coming out of ‘the extreme centre’. In addition to difficult relations with the police, an extensive LSE-Guardian study noted rioters identified a number of motivating grievances, “from the increase in tuition fees, to the closure of youth services and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance.” The report continues: “Many complained about perceived social and economic injustices.”

If the UK is to move forward and build the progressive, more equal, tolerant, just society that Corbyn supporters and many others want, then the political system has to sincerely engage with, and listen to, all of society – not just swing voters in Nuneaton.

What next for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party?

What next for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party?
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
7 October 2016

With Corbyn increasing his mandate as Labour leader and securing his position for the foreseeable future, Ian Sinclair asked writers, union members and activists sympathetic to Corbyn about what the Labour leader should do next.

Maya Goodfellow, freelance writer

Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour party. Over a year ago, as the Labour leadership contest lurched into motion, this seemed an unthinkable possibility. Now, after a disastrous coup attempt and a bruising summer of infighting Corbyn has seen off another challenger and increased his mandate.

But we can’t ignore the challenges ahead: distrust on the economy and immigration, an almost complete collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland, rising support for UKIP, and deep internal divisions – these are but a few of the obstacles the Labour party faces.

The next step? To weave a clear narrative that appeals to working class and middle class people alike. That means a slicker media operation; Corbyn needs to engage sound bite politics and use the press to his advantage at a national level. And Labour needs to get into communities at a local level. As well as campaigning on the doorstep, it should be Labour helping to keep open local libraries on the brink of closure and providing support to people hit hardest by cuts by running foodbanks.

Corbyn’s speech to party conference was a marked improvement from his recent performances; he has learnt from unnecessary mistakes that have been made over the past year.

The road ahead is by no means smooth but change is possible.

Anthony Curley, Unite’s Young Member’s Officer

Something Jeremy has in abundance that other politicians can only dream of is that younger voters trust him. He has not been made and moulded by the system that brought us uninspiring career politicians, pushing cuts and eternal austerity onto the less well-off.

When he speaks to my generation he gets a hearing.  He gets that the basic hopes of a secure roof over our heads and not living a hand-to-mouth existence have been taken from young people.  He is the only leader talking about how we need redistribution and reordering of our priorities because as things stand today, young people entering the workplace today will be worse off than their parents.

I have high hopes for the Workplace2020 initiative Labour launched over the summer.  It tells my generation that this is a party serious about leading the fight for decent work, including taking on the Tories itching to use the Brexit vote to further attack our rights and wages.

If there was some comradely advice I would give to Jeremy and his team though it is this – don’t leave it too long to set out your plan to create decent jobs, provide homes and help us with the crippling debts that young people are being burdened with.

Under Ed Miliband, the party left it too late to say what they stood for, what they would deliver for the people.  Voters were simply confused or worse, unexcited.  Don’t make that mistake again, I say.

And Jeremy, the next time you come to Liverpool, my city, bring your cabinet team and the PLP moaners with you. They can meet the people you meet when you’re here, people who see in you a reason to vote because things can be different.

Jeremy was elected to do things differently.  He has inspired my generation.  Labour MPs must not stand in his way.”

John Hilley, commentator and human rights campaigner

Having seen off the Blairite coup, we should be greatly encouraged by Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding re-election, resisting the most concerted establishment onslaught ever seen against a leftist leader. Despite relentless smears, most lamentably from the system-serving Guardian, his grassroots approval shows that, beyond all the media fearmongering, people really are receptive to Corbyn’s sincere socialist politics, and can be won around to policies that truly transcend neoliberal ‘realities’. With Seumas Milne’s guidance, Corbyn has shown he needn’t pander to a hostile media and witch-hunter narrative. He should keep speaking directly to the street, creating new social media platforms that connect and educate.

Corbyn now has to steer consistently leftwards, using the failed coup and his second solid mandate to reject and dismiss the Blairites. The real challenge is not about ‘party unity’ or rescuing moribund Labourism, but constructing a new movement politics. Crucially here, Corbyn needs to embrace the resilient Yes mood in Scotland, Labour (and leftist others) having failed to engage the case for progressive independence. He should also seek a much greener alignment, using (like Naomi Klein) emergency climate change to expose the consequences of corporate capitalism for people and planet. Having been proved correct in refusing to support Britain’s imperialist wars, Corbyn should be similarly positive in upholding bold alternatives to economic militarism and nuclear weaponry.

Beyond failed efforts to pin Brexit on Corbyn, it’s still Tory and ruling class forces that are riven by conflict over Europe. Corbyn has real political space here to harness public alienation and anger over ‘austerity’ (actually a smokescreen term hiding relentless capitalist misery), and a key opportunity to craft a new 1945-type vision of the better society. This would require the rightful re-taking and ownership of public assets, and much more radical checks on the City. Again, any such change depends on imaginative movement building.

There’s nothing to be gained under ‘New Improved Labour’.

Kate Hudson, General Secretary, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Jeremy has brought public sentiment on nuclear weapons into the mainstream, challenging the dominant media/establishment narrative. His principled position on Trident replacement is fundamental to his huge popularity and why he won – and re-won – the leadership.

His opening up of debate via the Defence Review enables Labour to quit positions that are a hangover from cold war attitudes, and enter into the twenty-first century – what are the security challenges we face and what will address them: think climate change, terrorism, pandemics and cyber warfare. This rethinking now needs to be driven forward. Labour needs modern policies based on contemporary needs and realities.

Some say that Jeremy should drop his anti-nuclear position – that Labour will be more electable if he sticks to an anti-cuts agenda. This attitude does a disservice to Labour. Whether or not Britain has nuclear weapons is a rational question about what is in the best interests of Britain – our security, our economy and industry – as well as a global question, of international security and human survival, not to mention our longstanding legal obligations.

How can the £205 billion cost of Trident replacement be best reallocated across society and industry, to help fulfil Jeremy’s social and economic pledges, for a more just and equal society? An urgent step for Labour is setting up a shadow Defence Diversification Agency (DDA). When a Corbyn-led government cancels Trident replacement, the door will be open for hundreds of thousands of new skilled jobs. The workforce needs to be involved in planning and participating in those developments. It’s time to get a shadow DDA up and running. Cancelling Trident replacement is in all our best interests

Will Armston-Sheret, Momentum member who volunteered and then worked for the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader Campaign as Head of Data

Jeremy Corbyn needs to continue to build on the enthusiasm of his leadership campaign by encouraging greater activism and participation in Labour’s grassroots. Only a revitalised, activist party can reach out to the millions who no longer listen to Labour.

The Party is institutionalised, inaccessible and, frankly, undemocratic. How can we realistically expect to build a mass member party, when the membership are treated as fodder, whose only role is to leaflet and identify Labour voters? Leafleting and voter ID are both crucial aspects of political activism, but our members want to do more and are a terribly poorly used asset.

Labour’s structures and practices worked well in the 20th century but are outdated for the 21st. The party makes policies and takes decisions at a level far removed from the ordinary membership. The real power in the party is with a select few in these institutions and the party bureaucracy. We need to change the party.

Jeremy must embark on a process of transforming the party into a genuinely democratic one, reversing the years of democratic disengagement from ward level upwards, by making local parties more accessible and giving members more say over party decisions and policy. Only by doing this will he be able to reinvigorate Labour and empower the huge number who support him. An inspired and empowered mass membership can re-engage Labour with the millions of voters who have stopped listening to us, win elections, and transform society.

Book review: Britain’s Secret Wars by T. J. Coles

Book review: Britain’s Secret Wars. How and Why the United Kingdom Sponsors Conflict Around the World by T. J. Coles
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2016

Mark Curtis’s influential and constantly useful Web of Deceit. Britain’s Role in the Real World was published 13 years ago. Though it’s not made explicit, Britain’s Secret Wars seems to be an attempt to update Curtis’s critical history of UK foreign policy, with T. J. Coles exposing often covert wars “waged for the financial benefit of sectional interests and result in widespread crimes against humanity”.

Other similarities to Curtis include endorsements from Noam Chomsky and John Pilger and an admirable breadth of research. The book’s first half focuses on UK involvement in the Middle East, with the second section looking at lesser known interventions in nations like Papua, Somalia and Bangladesh – valuable information for activists. Particularly impressive is Coles’s analysis of British support for the governments of Sri Lanka and Columbia, where extensive human rights violations have gone hand in hand with Western big business activity. His exploration of the link between EU overfishing off the Somali coast and the rise in piracy is also welcome.

Referencing mainstream sources alongside alternative media and books and, interestingly, a plethora of House of Commons reports, nearly every assertion is referenced so those interested in investigating further can easily do so.

However, despite this many Coles makes many dubious statements, with little reputable evidence to back them up as far as I can tell. For example, his assertion that “terrorists from all over Libya… began an armed uprising in February 2011” seems to tar all those who took up arms against Gaddafi as criminals, while his belief the Islamic Courts Union dominant in Somalia in the mid-2000s was “a socialist government” is positively bizarre. Turning to Iraq, his statement that “the Iraqi government is controlled by the US” seems far too simplistic. If this were so then why, in 2011, did the Iraqi Government reject the US push to keep US forces in Iraq beyond 2011? Astonishingly, he goes on to argue Al-Qaeda in Iraq “appears to have been” a number of foreign forces including Anglo-American special forces. In support he cites reports from 2005 of UK special forces being discovered dressed as Arabs with rocket launches and radios. This certainly raises awkward questions but to jump to the conclusion UK forces are involved in perpetrating false-flag operations is hugely problematic.

All this is a shame because Britain’s Secret Wars highlights many inconvenient truths for the British state and general public – and is generally a good resource for peace and anti-war activists. Approach with caution.

Britain’s Secret Wars is published by Clairview Books, priced £14.99.


Book review. Kingdom of the Unjust: the US-Saudi connection by Medea Benjamin

Book review. Kingdom of the Unjust: the US-Saudi connection by Medea Benjamin
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
September 2016

Having campaigned against the ‘war on terror’ and penned a book on drone warfare in 2012, American CODEPINK activist Medea Benjamin has turned her attention to the United States’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, one of its closest allies.

Set out in an accessible self-answered Q&A-style format, the book’s first half summarises the political, economic and social conditions in the theocratic Gulf monarchy. All public gatherings are prohibited, with no freedom of worship and a near total intolerance of dissent. Trade unions are banned, the death penalty implemented for non-violent crimes and women continue to be treated as minors who must be supervised by a male relative. Reform is painfully slow. For example, women only gained the right to ride a bike in 2013, and only then in “recreational areas” accompanied by a male guardian.

Why would the self-proclaimed home of democracy and freedom support such an oppressive regime? Benjamin explains that US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the Saudi king in 1945 to agree access to the Kingdom’s vast oil supplies in return for security and military support. Since then, “one by one, US presidents promised to keep Saudi Islamist theocracy in power”, she notes. Under the US’s protective umbrella Saudi Arabia has spent huge sums of money exporting Wahhabism, their extremist version of Islam, most notably backing jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 2014 the US Vice-President noted Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and UAE, was financing and arming Al-Qaeda in Syria.

More broadly, Saudi Arabia has been a key counter-revolutionary force in the Arab Spring, acting to crush democratic movements in Bahrain and Egypt. In Yemen, the US-backed Saudi war on the Houthi rebels has caused thousands of civilian deaths and a deadly humanitarian emergency. “Experts say the [Saudi-led] coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support”, the New York Times noted recently.

Though largely ignored by the British media, the UK Government is also providing support to its close ally Saudi Arabia, and therefore also bears significant responsibility for the on-going Yemen catastrophe.

With Saudi Arabia very sensitive to international criticism, Benjamin urges concerned citizens in the West to support democratic activists in the Kingdom and put pressure on their own political masters. Our responsibility in the West is “to make sure our governments get of their way as they attempt to transform their own nation”, she argues.

A brilliant primer.

Kingdom of the Unjust: the US-Saudi connection by Medea Benjamin is published by OR books, priced £13.

The only way to win? Jeremy Corbyn and a Progressive Alliance

The only way to win? Jeremy Corbyn and a Progressive Alliance
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 September 2016

With Jeremy Corbyn winning his second leadership election with an even bigger mandate than the first, it’s time to look ahead to the next General Election.

Unfortunately a number of factors make a victory for Corbyn’s Labour Party unlikely. First the scale of the Labour defeat in 2015 means Corbyn needs to gain more than 94 seats to win a majority. Second, the upcoming constituency review “will hit Labour hard”, according to analysis done by Tory peer Robert Hayward, with the possibility 30 Labour seats will disappear altogether. In addition, the government’s changes to the electoral register, requiring people to sign up as individuals rather than as households, will likely reduce the number of students and young people – two of Labour’s natural constituencies – eligible to vote.

One way of overcoming this depressing electoral math would be to set up a Progressive Alliance with some or all of the following: the Green Party, Plaid Cmyru, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. The proposition has gained traction in recent months, with the Green Party formally writing to Labour, Plaid Cmyru and the Liberal Democrats in June, inviting them to a cross-party meeting to explore the idea. Neal Lawson’s Compass think tank also supports an alliance, and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Lisa Nandy and Lib Dem Chris Bowers have just co-edited a book on the topic called The Alternative. Furthermore, a recent YouGov poll found Corbyn supporters would be happy to go into coalition with the Greens (91 percent of supporters), the SNP (73 percent) or Plaid Cymru (71 percent).

A Progressive Alliance could blossom in several different ways. At a minimum it could simply be a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement in parliament, with members of the Progressive Alliance supporting Labour in motions of confidence and votes on spending. Alternatively, electoral deals could be negotiated whereby the chances of beating the Tory candidate is maximised – by not campaigning or standing candidates in certain constituencies, or by appealing to supporters to vote tactically, for example. In a recent report from the Greenhouse think tank the Green Party’s Rupert Read notes a couple of historical precedents for this: in 1906 the Liberal Party did not run anyone against the Labour candidate in several seats, and in 1997 there was an unofficial ‘non-aggression pact’ between Labour and the Lib Dems.

More radical still would be for the parties in the Progressive Alliance to hold primaries in local constituencies to decide on a single candidate to stand against the Tories – a suggestion made by Lucas.

Frustratingly, Corbyn has repeatedly ruled out the idea of a Progressive Alliance, saying he opposes a pact with Lucas’s Greens in Brighton and the SNP in Scotland. However, Lucas remains hopeful, telling the Guardian in August that Corbyn’s office have indicated they are open to talks about cross-party electoral alliances (she suggests Corbyn’s public statements should be read in the context of the Labour leadership election).

There are a number of reasons the Labour leadership and leftists everywhere should seriously consider a Progressive Alliance. As I mention above, it will be extremely difficult for Labour to win on its own. Second, it could be the catalyst for fixing our creaking First Past The Post system, with an alliance likely to throw up a number of forward-looking policies, including proportional representation, which is supported by the Greens and senior Labour figures including John McDonnell. For Corbyn’s leadership, support for an alliance would likely be transformative, a decisive taking of the political wheel away from the press and Labour politicians out to get him. It would, in short, be an example of the kind of leadership that would leave many commentators and politicians trailing in his wake, desperately playing catch up. An alliance led by Corbyn would also mean the leaderships and memberships of the Green Party, Plaid Cmyru, the SNP and Lib Dems would have a strong interest in supporting Corbyn’s leadership, creating much needed buy in at a time when a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposes him.

A successful alliance “requires some imagination, some breaking out of the old patterns of thinking, and a willingness to engage with people beyond the Westminster bubble”, argues ex-Green Party London Assembly Member Victor Anderson. With listening, negotiation and compromise surely also central to making any electoral pact work, Corbyn is arguably the perfect Labour politician to lead on this.

As the old political tribalism fades away, especially among younger voters, Corbyn and Labour have a choice: they can either move forward into the future or get stuck in the mud of old politics.

“It is time to take the bold step of considering such a pact, for the greater good”, Read urges. “The prize is democracy itself, not to mention getting rid of the Tories.”