Monthly Archives: August 2015

What Jeremy Corbyn supporters can learn from Margaret Thatcher

What Jeremy Corbyn supporters can learn from Margaret Thatcher
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
17 August 2015

If there is one thing everybody following British politics over the last month can agree on it is that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable.

“Nobody”, former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain wrote in the Guardian last month, “imagines he could be prime minister.” The unelectability of the MP for Islington North is like the British weather: we might not like it but there’s nothing we can do about it. Frustratingly, this is a common belief among Corbyn supporters too.

When it comes to progressive social change it seems lots of people adhere to what Red Pepper co-editor Hilary Wainwright describes as “the highly conservative assumption that what is possible is reducible to choices between what exists or has historically existed.”

However, we don’t need to imagine a wholly new future to challenge the political elite’s framing of Corbyn as unelectable. Rather, all we need to do is turn to Corbyn’s polar opposite on the parliamentary political compass: Margaret Thatcher.

Today, the Iron Lady can seem like a political and historical colossus that was always destined to be prime minister. But wind the clock back a little over 40 years and Thatcher, like Corbyn, had just thrown her hat into the race to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, following Ted Heath’s defeat in the two 1974 general elections.

We all know what happened next: Thatcher was elected Tory leader in 1975, and then Prime Minister in 1979, serving for an epoch-making 11 years. But what were her chances circa 1975? “This was a stunning transformation which no one would have predicted twelve months earlier: one of those totally unexpected events – which in retrospect appear predestined”, notes John Campbell in his biography of Thatcher about her successful bid to succeed Heath. Charles Moore, author of another biography of Thatcher, concurs: “Many regarded her candidacy as nothing more than a chance to prepare the ground for challenges by someone more serious, or merely for malcontents to let off steam.” The Guardian’s Anne Perkins simply notes Thatcher was seen as “unelectable” by her own party. Thatcher herself seems to have been one of the doubters, telling her Parliamentary Private Secretary “The party isn’t ready for a woman and the press would crucify me.”

She was right. According to Perkins, like Thatcher’s husband Denis, “every newspaper” thought “she was out of her mind”. The Sunday Mirror’s Woodrow Wyatt argued Thatcher would take the Tory Party in “an extremist, class-conscious, right wing direction” which would keep it out of office for a decade. She was “precisely the sort of candidate who ought to be able to stand, and lose, harmlessly”, argued The Economist. “Leading Heathites… believed that the Tory party must stay on the middle ground to stand a chance of winning elections”, according to Campbell.

If all this sounds strangely familiar four decades later, Moore provides another uncanny historical parallel: “As the campaign entered its closing phase, the ‘establishment’ which Mrs Thatcher had decided to take on pulled out all the stops.”

Of course, there are many significant differences between Thatcher’s and Corbyn’s bids to lead their respective parties and, if the Labour backbencher should win, their attempts to lead the country. However, my key – though obvious – point still stands: the unexpected can and sometimes does happen. And it can happen a lot quicker than anyone was expecting. There is, in short, no unchanging historical or political forces, or logical reason, why Corbyn couldn’t be prime minister.

In the 2009 Greek general elections Syriza received just 3.6 percent of the vote. Six years later they were in government. Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos formed in January 2014. 10 months later a poll found they had become the most popular party in Spain. UKIP won the 2014 European elections. In 2010 the SNP won six seats in the General Election. In May the SNP routed Labour, winning 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. In 2008 a black man became president of the United States of America.

As Tony Benn was fond of saying about grassroots social change: “First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.” Benn’s dictum is right on the money when it comes to his friend’s leadership campaign. In June Polly Toynbee literally erased Corbyn from the race, arrogantly debating the prospects of “the three main contenders” before settling on the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper as the most promising candidate. Earlier this month the Guardian published a comment piece from former Home Secretary Alan Johnson titled ‘Why Labour should end the madness and elect Yvette Cooper’. And, in a little covered interview, Conservative heavyweight Ken Clarke warned: “Don’t underestimate Jeremy Corbyn… It’s not certain he will lose an election… If you have another recession or if the Conservative government becomes very unpopular, he could win.”

Clarke is no doubt even more concerned by the recent Survation poll that found Corbyn is more popular with the electorate than the other candidates, particularly with UKIP supporters. The survey noted Corbyn was tied in first place with Andy Burnham when respondents were asked who they thought would be the most likely to win the next general election as Labour leader. In addition, a YouGov poll for the Evening Standard found Corbyn “has more support among the London public than his nearest rivals, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, put together.” The fact that many of Corbyn’s political positions are supported by a majority of the general public can only increase his electability.

So, before politicians, journalists and, yes, Corbyn supporters, blindly repeat the establishment-framed and establishment-preserving argument that Jeremy is unelectable, they would do well to ponder the words of Nelson Mandela, a man who knew a thing or two about political change: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Book review. ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ by Arundhati Roy

Book review. ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ by Arundhati Roy
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August – September 2015

Indian writer and dissident Arundhati Roy’s work has long embodied John Pilger’s belief that a journalist should be ‘an agent of ordinary people, not of those who seek to control them.’ Scathing and lucid, the slim Capitalism: A Ghost Story, is no exception.

Made up of seven short, accessible essays, Roy deftly skewers the hypocrisy and rapacious nature of India’s elite, highlighting the extreme inequality and poverty, corruption and subjugation that are endemic in ‘The World’s Largest Democracy’.

The book’s first section explains how the influence of big business has neutered many NGOs and charities working in the Global South. For Roy, this corporate patronage is all about ‘turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists… luring them away from radical confrontation’.

Elsewhere Roy slays several liberal sacred cows including Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, the Gates Foundation, and Muhammad Yunus’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning micro-finance initiative, the Grameen Bank.

She peppers her denunciations with shocking facts. For example, the richest 100 Indians own assets equivalent to a quarter of the nation’s GDP, while 80 percent of Indians live on less than 50 US cents a day.

Meanwhile, in the central state of Chhattisgarh, a government-organised militia has burned, raped and murdered its way across hundreds of villages, forcing 50,000 people into police camps and 350,000 people to flee.

Those, like this reviewer, who are unfamiliar with India will wish that a map had been provided. A glossary explaining Indian terms, place names and people would also be very useful.

However, these are small criticisms of a fascinating primer on contemporary India, a country whose importance in global affairs will only grow in the years ahead. With many non-US progressives seemingly more knowledgeable about the actions of the US than their home nations, Roy’s book is a timely reminder that many people’s focus of concern is back to front.

Capitalism: A Ghost Story is published by Verso, priced £7.99.

Following or shaping public opinion? The Labour Party and the welfare state

Following or shaping public opinion? The Labour Party and the welfare state
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 August 2014

Speaking about the government’s proposed benefit cuts on the BBC Sunday Politics show last month, the interim Labour Party leader Harriet Harman announced “We won’t oppose the Welfare Bill, we won’t oppose the household benefit cap, for example what they brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children”. Why was the main – supposedly left-wing – opposition party refusing to oppose the policies of a hard right Tory Government? Harman explained: “What we’ve got to do is listen to what people around the country said to us and recognise that we didn’t get elected again.”

As it happens 48 Labour MPs defied their party’s three-line whip on the Welfare Bill and opposed the government’s plans to slash benefits from the poorest in society. Of the four Labour leadership hopefuls, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper all followed Harman’s lead and abstained on the proposed bill, while Jeremy Corbyn out right opposed it.

As an aside, Harman’s belief that public opinion sides with the Tories on welfare is arguably misplaced. Writing about the YouGov poll taken two days after Chancellor George Osborne’s budget, Ekklesia’s Bernadette Meaden noted that while a large percentage of people agreed with the general proposition that benefits are “too high”, questions about specific groups highlighted different attitudes. For example, asked about disabled people, 46 percent of respondents felt that too little was spent on them, nine percent felt that too much was spent and 28 percent felt that the amount was about right. Respondents views on what people out of work should receive was evenly split, with no majority saying they get too much. Regarding the cuts in general, 38 percent of those questioned said benefit cuts had gone too far, with just 24 percent saying they had not gone far enough.

However, for arguments sake – and there is plenty of polling evidence to support this conclusion – let’s agree the government’s proposed benefits cuts do have the support of a majority of the people and the public lean to the right when it comes to welfare. Does that mean that all progressives should simply accept this reality and sit back as the Tories decimate the welfare state? It sounds an absurd argument just typing it out but this is exactly what the Labour leadership is arguing.

First, it is important to remember public opinion is not magically created in a vacuum free from social, historical or cultural influence. We have, for example, an often rabid right-leaning national press and poverty porn television programmes like Benefits Streets, How To Get A Council House and, wait for it, Benefits House – Me And My 22 Kids. Cumulatively, all this anti-welfare state propaganda seems to have negatively influenced the public, with a December 2012 YouGov poll finding a huge amount of ignorance when it comes to welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the true figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate it to be 0.7 percent). In addition, on average people thought that an unemployed couple with two school-age children would get £147 in Jobseeker’s Allowance – more than 30 per cent higher than the £111.45 they would actually receive.

Importantly, the poll found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant. “Voters who have a better grasp of how benefits work and what people actually get, oppose the government’s plans. When people learn more about benefits, support moves away from coalition policy”, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said about the survey. This is why it is so important the Labour Party challenge the government’s fact-free narrative on welfare and do not, for example, repeat the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work, as Burnham did during the BBC Sunday Politics leadership hustings.

More broadly, did I miss the meeting when we all agreed the right thing to do in the face of a dangerously uninformed public is to follow it slavishly? Luckily throughout history people have stood up to and challenged popular opinion on issues such as slavery, racism, sexism and gay rights – and through years of hard work eventually changed public opinion for the better. For example, in 1975 Ipsos Mori found just 16 percent of Britons thought gay couples should be able to marry. By 2014 – when gay marriage was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland – support had more than quadrupled to 69 percent. Gay people would still be waiting to get married if they followed Harman’s highly conservative political logic. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Surely politics should be about developing and staking out positions that one thinks will improve society and then attempting to persuade people, using evidence and rational argument, to support that position? And if people are ill-informed about an issue, then we should be educating them, not following their ignorant lead.

Returning to the Labour Party, the central question is this: who among the leadership candidates will challenge the dominant right-wing narrative on welfare and shift the debate into the realms of reality and who will blindly follow public opinion into a pit of ignorance?

Correction: Andy Burnham did not “repeat the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work… during the BBC Sunday Politics leadership hustings.” He failed to challenge the myth that people are better off on benefits than in work on the BBC Newsnight leadership hustings in June 2015.

Pouring more fuel on the fire: the case against UK airstrikes on Syria

Pouring more fuel on the fire: the case against UK airstrikes on Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2015

On 26 June, Seifeddine Rezgui, a 23-year-old student, murdered 38 people at a beach resort in Sousse, Tunisia. 30 of the dead were British nationals. Subsequent news reports have noted Rezgui received training at an Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIS) base in western Libya.

Speaking to the BBC a few days later, David Cameron argued IS was an ‘existential threat’ to the United Kingdom which required a ‘full spectrum response.’ Building on the prime minister’s inflammatory language, on 1 July, defence secretary Michael Fallon announced the government would likely seek parliamentary support to extend the current UK bombing of IS in Iraq to Syria.

The discussion in the mainstream media about the proposed intervention has been predictably narrow, focusing on questions of tactics and strategy. Will airstrikes be effective? Who will the UK airstrikes help on the ground? Is the Syrian conflict too complex to intervene? These concerns – what could be called the ‘fight the war better’ school of criticism – certainly deserve serious consideration. However, there are a number of important arguments and facts that are conspicuously absent from the ongoing debate taking place within the media and political elite.

No to war

Considering the horrifying record of UK military interventions in the Middle East since 2001, it’s extraordinary that further military action is now being seriously considered in Syria. The UK – fighting alongside the US and other allies – has decimated Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, killing and wounding hundreds of thousands of people and leaving whole swathes of the Muslim world seething with hatred at the actions of the West.

It is widely acknowledged that the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent occupation, played a central role in the creation of IS.

‘We definitely put fuel on a fire. Absolutely’, retired US army general Mike Flynn, head of the defence intelligence agency until August 2014, told Al-Jazeera when asked about the invasion of Iraq and IS.

In August 2014, the New York Times reported that the leader of IS spent five years in a US prison in Iraq ‘where, like many ISIS fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised’. General Flynn agrees that the US prison system in Iraq ‘absolutely’ helped to radicalise Iraqis who later joined al-Qa’eda in Iraq and the group that became Islamic State.

Asked by Al Jazeera English’s Mehdi Hasan if drone strikes tend to create more terrorists than they kill, Flynn, who had a key role in secret US drone operations, replied: ‘I don’t disagree with that’.

Moreover, an expansion of UK airstrikes on IS would be playing into IS’s overall strategy.

With the Sousse attack likely targeting British nationals (the hotel attacked was well known as a British holiday destination, and the gunman ignored local people), Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, argues that the attack was an attempt by IS to provoke a response. ‘Its strongest recruiting tactic is to present itself as the one true guardian of Islam under attack from “crusader” forces’, Rogers notes.

The Western attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – and the airstrikes on IS since September 2014 – fit this narrative perfectly. Turning to possible responses to IS, Rogers contends ‘the best advice, as with al-Qaida over more than a decade, is not to do what it wants you to do.’

According to the US military, their air campaign against IS has so far struck over 7,000 targets, killing 1,000 IS fighters every month. However, Rogers notes, IS ‘has not only survived these attacks but in many places is thriving, attracting up to a thousand new recruits from across the region and beyond’. This is because, as Rogers intimates above, the Western airstrikes themselves – which no doubt kill civilians – act as a recruiting sergeant for IS. This was confirmed by James Comey, the director of FBI, who told congress in September 2014 that the US bombing of ISIS in Iraq had increased support for the group.

In a joint bulletin issued that same month to local, state and federal law enforcement, the department of homeland security and the FBI warned that while ‘single events generally do not provoke an immediate response’ from homegrown extremists, ‘we believe these [US air]strikes will contribute to homegrown violent extremists’… broader grievances about U.S. military intervention in predominantly Muslim lands, possibly motivating Homeland attacks’.

In terms of self-interest, broadening the UK war on IS to Syria will increase the likelihood of more terrorist attacks on British people – something the government claims it wants to reduce.

Finally, though Cameron’s spokeswoman was quoted by the Guardian as saying that military strikes in Syria would be legal under international law due to the threat posed by IS to the British people, this is almost certainly incorrect.

Marc Weller, professor of international law at the University of Cambridge, dismisses this argument, noting that although the UK ‘might argue that IS represents a manifest threat to their own security’ this is contradicted by Article 51 of the UN Charter which says ‘self-defence only applies to actual or imminent armed attacks, rather than potential or possible attacks.’

What could work?

There are many actions the UK government could take, short of military action, that would significantly reduce the power of Islamic State, the suffering their rise has caused, and the terrorist threat to the UK.

With the conflict causing a massive humanitarian crisis, the UK should massively increase its support for aid to the region. ‘Quite apart from the humanitarian imperative, there is the risk of greatly increased bitterness on the part of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people displaced from their homes’, Rogers says.

Britain could reverse its policies in relation to Syria. In addition to providing support to the armed rebellion in Syria, Hugh Roberts, the former head of the North African section at the International Crisis Group, recently explained, the US and UK have ‘sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys… to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting’.

Rather than helping to escalate and lengthen the conflict in Syria, the UK should pressure the key actors to agree a negotiated end to the fighting, which would reduce the chaotic and violent conditions that IS thrives in.

In Iraq, the UK should apply pressure on the Iraqi government to end the sectarian policies it has been pursuing, which have been pushing large numbers of Sunni Iraqis to support IS as a defence against the Iraqi state.

With Rezgui reportedly attending an IS training camp in Libya, the UK should fully support international efforts to stabilise Libya – a chaotic mess allowing jihadis to freely operate, in large part, because of the NATO intervention in 2011.

Dr Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, notes that Turkey has turned a blind eye to IS freely moving fighters and materials across the Turkish border into Iraq and Syria. As a NATO member largely armed by the West, diplomatic pressure should be applied to Turkey to immediately close the border to IS.

Diplomatic pressure should also be applied to the Gulf states to push them to clamp down on their citizens funding and supporting IS.

Finally, if any external military action is needed to combat IS or to keep the peace, then the UK should push for this to be done under the authority of the United Nations – an organisation that seems to have been forgotten by everyone discussing how to respond to IS. And if UN troops are deployed there should be minimal involvement from the Western nations who have done so much to destablise the Middle East in recent years and create the conditions for IS to grow so quickly.

Of course, the UK government’s geopolitical interests and alliances in the region and beyond mean they are likely to continue to follow their current counterproductive militaristic actions and are unlikely to sincerely implement these alternative non-military policies. And with the Labour Party having signaled they are sympathetic to the government’s proposal there is unlikely to be strong opposition in parliament (though Labour have said they will make their final decision after their new leader is elected in September 2015).

Therefore, it is up to the anti-war movement and peace activists to apply pressure on both the government and the Labour Party to force their hand. In the immediate future there needs to be strong opposition to the proposed UK bombing of Syria, while in the longer-term there needs to be a push for non-military solutions to the wider conflict.