Category Archives: UK Domestic Politics

Book review: Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility by Jo Littler

Book review: Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility by Jo Littler
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2017-January 2018

The concept of meritocracy – “a system structured around advancement of people who are selected on the basis of individual achievement” – has been a powerful idea in post-war industrialised societies, especially in the more economically unequal US and UK.

From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and now Theresa May, meritocracy – and its close cousin ‘equality of opportunity’ – “has become the key means of cultural legitimation for contemporary capitalist culture”, Jo Littler, a Reader in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London, argues in her wide-ranging volume. This neoliberal-friendly dogma has a strong grip on the general public, with a 2009 Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey finding 69% of respondents agreed with the statement “Opportunities are not equal in Britain today, but there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to”. Just 14% disagreed.

In her impressive introduction Littler highlights a number of key problems with this dominant ideology that both justifies increasing levels of inequality and obfuscates decreasing levels of social mobility. First, “it endorses a competitive, linear, hierarchical system in which by definition certain people must be left behind”, she notes. “The top cannot exist without the bottom.” In addition, it pushes a socially destructive ethic of self-interest and individualistic thinking, tends to view talent as an innate characteristic, uncritically valourises certain professions and forms of status, and downplays structural inequalities that mean ‘climbing the ladder’ is simply much harder for some people than others.

Today, the culture of meritocracy has absorbed the language of equality and identity politics that grew out of the 1960s social movements, she notes. This has important ramifications for activism and resistance, with Littler arguing this appropriation “has created lonely forms of selective empowerment, ones profoundly ill-equipped to deal with the wider structural causes of sexism, racism, environmental crisis and economic inequality.” As she discusses in the book’s second half, a lot of popular culture perpetuates the meritocratic myth – The Apprentice and the 1990s sitcom Sex In The City, for example – while TV shows such as The Wire, Breaking Bad and Lena Dunham’s Girls provide smart critiques.

Surely the definitive study of the subject, Against Meritocracy is very much an academic work with bags of references and footnotes, though one that is broadly accessible to the general reader. With Jeremy Corbyn’s belief in collective aspiration presenting a real challenge to capitalist-compatible meritocracy and the British plutocracy more broadly, the book has an important role to play in informing the growing movement working to sweep away the Tory government. As the US socialist Eugene Debs said “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks” – an egalitarian sentiment Littler would support, I’m sure.

Against Meritocracy is published by Routledge, priced £29.99.

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This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons – interview

This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons – interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 November 2017

Changing the culture around nuclear weapons to seeing them as just another dangerous weapon of mass destruction, won ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) a pivotal UN treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize last month. Ian Sinclair interviews Rebecca Sharkey, ICAN’s UK Coordinator from 2012-2017 on the background, the future – and the UK’s role in it.

Ian Sinclair: As the Nobel Peace Prize highlights, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was an incredible achievement. How did it come about? What was the most difficult hurdle ICAN had to overcome to make it happen?

Rebecca Sharkey: Nuclear weapons were born in WWII, one of the darkest chapters in human history. The fear of nuclear weapons hung like a silent and terrifying cloud over the lives of millions of people during the decades following Hiroshima. And it was only by luck that one of the very many near misses didn’t mutate into a nuclear nightmare. Growing up in the eighties, I can remember that on the horizon in the distance in my nightmares was a mushroom cloud, silently unfurling in slow motion to destroy everything I knew and loved. But although my fear largely dissolved at the end of the Cold War, as it did for most people, the threat of nuclear weapons did not go away; if anything, our volatile world is more unsafe than ever. At the heart of ICAN’s campaign is a wake-up call to the world about this existential threat, and an urgent call to action to prevent catastrophic humanitarian harm.

One of the myths instilled in those of us brought up in nuclear armed countries is that nuclear weapons provide security. It is this unsubstantiated claim that underlines the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and is an article of faith for so many decision makers in countries like ours. Prime Minister Theresa May stated in July 2016 that it would be “an act of gross irresponsibility” for the UK to give up its nuclear weapons; it would constitute “a gamble with the safety and security of families in Britain that we must never be prepared to take”. At the same time, the UK’s [then] Defence Minister Michael Fallon MP repeats the mantra that “We share the vision of a world that is without nuclear weapons, achieved through multilateral disarmament”. This ‘doublethink’ is the reason why so many previous attempts at nuclear disarmament have stalled: why would you give up something that you believe is essential to your security? Overcoming deep acceptance of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and what currently represents a mainstream moderate position in nuclear armed states was ICAN’s central and most difficult hurdle to overcome.

ICAN strategy is to change the culture around nuclear weapons, stripping them of their perceived value and status, stigmatising them so that they can be seen for what they really are: weapons of mass destruction with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. As ICAN colleagues have argued, “We showed how the claim that nuclear deterrence has prevented war requires ignoring the poor record these weapons have at preventing conflict. We demonstrated the pervasive harm they have caused to many people living in areas affected by use and testing, undercutting claims that nuclear weapons provide security”. Instead of answering the question ‘how can my country be safe without nuclear weapons’ we turned the tables and asked ‘how can the world be safe while nuclear weapons continue to pose a threat to everyone?’

In practical terms, this involved building a global coalition of organisations and individuals all committed to campaigning for the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law, as the other weapons of mass destruction are. In 100 countries, ICAN campaigners lobbied decision makers, circulated petitions, organised creative stunts, wrote articles and pitched to journalists, held public meetings, protested in the street, made a splash on social media. We came together at civil society forums to share and debate ideas, to sharpen our messages and tactics, and to make friends. We shook up international government-level disarmament conferences by bringing groups of campaigners of all ages and from all continents to debate with diplomats and promote our talking points; we gave speaking platforms to the survivors of the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as to the victims of nuclear testing, such as members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association; we showed hard-hitting films to diplomats to shake them out of their complacency; we brought in experts to explain in alarming detail the impact of nuclear weapons on the human body, on the environment, on the climate, on the global economy. We built strong partnerships between civil society and the states championing the treaty, without whose brave leadership the treaty – and ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize – would not have been possible. The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, hosted by Norway in 2013 and Mexico and Austria in 2014, shed new light on the perils of living in a world armed to the brink with nuclear weapons. They clarified the urgent need to prohibit these weapons under international law.

Campaigners for a nuclear-free world have traditionally been dismissed by the establishment as being idealistic peaceniks. ICAN turned this unfair characterisation on its head by focusing on facts, and by ‘owning’ realism; we showed up the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ for what it is: a theory. We highlighted Ward Wilson’s 2013 book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, which cast a critical eye over some of the myths that have become ingrained in our thinking about nuclear weapons, especially that they ended WW2 and have kept the peace since (they didn’t and they haven’t). At meetings with politicians and civil servants, I would arm myself with copies of ‘Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy’, a chilling 2014 Chatham House report which showed that “since the probability of inadvertent nuclear use is not zero and is higher than had been widely considered, and because the consequences of detonation are so serious, the risk associated with nuclear weapons is high”. I also took copies of ‘The climatic impacts and humanitarian problems from the use of the UK’s nuclear weapons’ by Scientists for Global Responsibility, which presents sobering evidence that the launch of the nuclear missiles of just one UK Trident submarine could kill 10 million people and cause devastating climatic cooling. Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Controldocuments the risks inherent in possessing, in his words, “the most dangerous technology ever invented”. Speaking at ICAN meetings, Schlosser encouraged campaigners to draw attention to the numerous instances during the Cold War when a nuclear detonation hung on a razor’s edge, as well as the close shaves such as when the US almost detonated its own nukes on its own soil. Inspired by this approach of highlighting the potential for self-inflicted disasters, we launched a campaign in the UK – ‘Nukes of Hazard’ – which threw a spotlight on the lorries which routinely transport fully assembled nuclear warheads along ordinary roads across the UK, often passing close to schools and homes (what could possibly go wrong…?).

When the risks and consequences around nuclear weapons are looked at face on, it becomes an idealistic position to suggest that the status quo can continue indefinitely. By focusing on humanitarian and climatic impact, on risks and consequences, the terms of debate are moved from the theoretical (and therefore unprovable) realm of ‘deterrence’ to a pragmatic discussion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), human rights and environmental protection. Within such a framework, it is impossible to argue for the continued existence of nuclear weapons. It is the disarmers who become the realists, the proponents of nuclear weapons the idealists.

IS: What was the involvement of the US and UK in the negotiations that led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

RS: In October 2016, the UK’s disarmament ambassador Dr Matthew Rowland was seen fist-bumping his US counterpart after speaking at the United Nations General Assembly against a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. As I wrote at the time, “It was staggering to hear the hypocrisy in Rowland’s speech. He lectured UN member states on the need to ‘do no harm’ whilst doing harm himself to proposals for genuine progress on nuclear disarmament. But the UK and other nuclear armed states continue to threaten catastrophic worldwide harm to people and the environment through their continued deployment of nuclear weapons which creates an existential risk of accidental, unintended or deliberate use. Far from being a leader on multilateral disarmament, the UK has been unilaterally rearming its nuclear arsenal and is now refusing to support new multilateral negotiations towards a global ban treaty”.

Ahead of the first Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo in March 2013, colleagues at Article 36 put in a Freedom of Information request which revealed that Foreign Office officials were well aware of the potential for success of ICAN’s approach. In their emails to each other, they acknowledged that a humanitarian approach had led to the effective stigmatisation and prohibition of cluster munitions, and expressed concerns that something similar could happen with nuclear weapons. Far from engaging with the substance of the conference, which was a facts-based discussion of the consequences of nuclear detonation and the challenges of providing any kind of humanitarian response, Article 36 argued that the “UK’s internal and public explanations for its eventual decision not to attend are focused on concern that the UK would not be able to pass itself off as a leader in nuclear disarmament and anxieties about international political processes”.

The UK government decided to join the US and the other ‘P5’ nations (permanent members of the UN Security Council – UK, US, Russia, China and France) in a boycott of the Oslo Conference, as they went on to do again for the second Humanitarian Impacts Conference held in Mexico the following year. Bitterly divided amongst themselves, these five nations ironically united against the rest of the world to defend the weapons of mass destruction they point at each other. However, without these ‘heavyweights’ present, it was in some ways easier for the 127 nations which did participate at the Oslo Conference to make progress, alongside international organisations, UN agencies and a focused and well organised civil society contingent under the umbrella of ICAN. At the 2013 Committee of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) a couple of months later, South Africa delivered a statement on behalf of 80 member states on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which boldly stated: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”. The foundations for a new ban treaty were firmly laid, with these 80 countries being joined by many more at the next round of disarmament talks – all spurred on by ICAN campaigners lobbying politicians and decision makers at international conferences and at home in capitals across the world.

Fast forward to the treaty negotiations earlier this year, and the UK chose once again to boycott UN-mandated negotiations (122 countries had voted in favour of them), in spite of treaty obligations under the NPT to “negotiate in good faith”. Instead, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft joined the Trump administration in a highly unusual and irregular press ‘protest’ outside the UN conference room, refusing to take questions from journalists on a floor NGOs couldn’t get to, whilst other countries filed into the room behind them to do actual work. This was following previous attempts by the US to pressure its allies, particularly NATO states, to vote no to the ban treaty resolution, and “not to merely abstain”, and furthermore that “if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them”. Despite claiming that a ban treaty without the nuclear armed states would be meaningless, the United States revealed through this diplomatic move that it believes a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, would indeed have a significant impact.

IS: In the New Statesmen you note ICAN’s strategy “was to push ahead whether or not the nuclear weapon states participated”. What was the thinking behind this strategy?

RS: To use an analogy from the smoking ban: for years, the government knew smoking was very bad for the health. Successive public campaigns urged smokers to cut down, not to smoke in front of their children, not to smoke in the car etc. All the attention was on the smokers. It was only when the evidence about the damaging effects of passive smoking emerged that the idea of banning smoking in public places become possible: now instead of this being about the smoker’s needs it became an issue of public health, of concern to everyone. As someone who can remember working in a windowless basement office with colleagues who chain-smoked, I can really appreciate the cultural shift that has thankfully made such a situation unthinkable nowadays. I can also remember wondering how on earth the smoking ban would be enforced – would the police go to all the pubs in the land and arrest thousands of people? But the smoking ban marked real societal change – the smokers, while still battling with their addiction, understood that their behaviour was damaging to others, and without too much fuss took their smoking to the pavement outside the pubs and offices. It’s far from a perfect analogy with the nuclear weapons ban, but the smoking ban illustrates a point about how change in society can happen by reframing an issue so that the damaging behaviour of a minority is not allowed to threaten the basic rights of the majority. It’s also about understanding where and who the change is going to come from – and that’s not smokers banning smoking or nuclear-weapons-possessors banning nuclear weapons.

Proponents of nuclear weapons, like smokers, are not bad people. But both have developed a dangerous habit, which they may need help to quit. The oft-repeated line of British politicians and officials is that the UK is committed to nuclear disarmament, but only when the conditions are right. The humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, is going a long way towards creating those conditions. In the last few years, evidence about the catastrophic climate impacts of nuclear weapons was confirmed using the latest climate change modelling technology, revealing that the ‘nuclear winter’ scenarios described in the eighties were not exaggerated. Soot thrown up into the atmosphere from the gigantic explosions would block out the sun, triggering a mini Ice Age which would cause a global crop failure leading to widespread ‘nuclear famine’. This is the equivalent of the evidence about passive smoking: it makes nuclear disarmament an urgent global public health imperative, one that trumps the perceived needs of the nuclear possessors.

Nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented; but the notion that they are acceptable can be. 159 countries – 80% of UN member states – signed up to a joint statement at the United Nations led by Austria in 2015 expressing deep concern about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Like the passive smokers, this silent majority of non-nuclear-weapon countries has a right to be heard and protected – and this is why ICAN was determined to push ahead whether or not the nuclear armed states participated.

IS: Are you hopeful that the UK will engage with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the future?

RS: Uniquely among all nuclear armed states, the UK has within it a significant body of population and politicians opposing the status quo: Scotland. During the independence referendum, Scots engaged in real debate and discussion about what sort of society they wanted to live in – the sort of political engagement that is so lacking for most of us most of the time. If you were setting up a new nation, would you choose to spend billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction that are stored an hour’s drive from your major cities and transported by road past your population’s homes on a regular basis? Uh, no. Ronnie Cowan MP, whose Inverclyde constituency borders the Faslane nuclear weapons base, explained how having nuclear weapons on your doorstep sharpens the mind: “Sometimes I think that people’s approach to Trident is an abstract one, but in my constituency it is real; it is a real weapon with the very real capacity to murder millions of men, women and children”. In Scotland, elected representatives and parliament overwhelmingly oppose nuclear weapons. Campaigners like Janet Fenton and politicians like Bill Kidd MSPhave worked hard to ensure that Scottish resistance is aligned with ICAN’s humanitarian approach and the global ban treaty movement, and a recent speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emphasised this link: “We will never accept that a limit should be placed on the contribution Scotland can make to building a better world. Strong voices for peace and justice are needed now more than ever. Last week, ICAN, the global campaign against nuclear weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize. Our party stands proudly as part of the global movement for peace. So let us restate this today. No ifs, no buts from the SNP. We say NO to weapons of mass destruction. We say NO to nuclear weapons on the River Clyde, or anywhere else”. One of the main contenders for leading Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, has also called for the UK to sign the new global ban treaty. Incidentally, another reason that Scotland has been able to have such an honest public debate about nuclear weapons is the emergence of crowd-sourced independent media outlets such as CommonSpace and The Ferret.

Again unique among nuclear armed states, the UK has as Leader of the Opposition a politician who is a long-time campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Jeremy Corbyn has a long way to go to persuade his Party of his view, and Labour policy continues to be the same as the Conservatives’ in favour of renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons at eye-watering cost. But there is the real prospect of change, a glimmer of which was seen last year with the opening up of public debate when Corbyn stated he would not be prepared to ‘press the button’. A good friend of ICAN’s, Jeremy Corbyn sent his new Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, Fabian Hamilton, to attend the UN treaty negotiations earlier this year. Hamilton wrote afterwards that “Labour will work with ICAN to prevent the use of these horrific weapons that are not only a threat to innocent lives, but also a threat to international peace and stability”. At the end of October, Fabian Hamilton went further by telling a newspaper that a future Corbyn government would sign the treaty: “Parliament voted a year ago to renew Trident and it’s in the manifesto, but let’s move on. In July the United Nations voted for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. I supported it and Jeremy Corbyn supports the ban – that has gone unnoticed.” Hamilton said Corbyn should move “slowly and through Parliament” to sign the treaty if elected prime minister, and said similar UN treaties for chemical weapons and landmines had proven effective. (A nation that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, so long as it agrees to destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan). Also at the UN treaty talks in June was Green MP Caroline Lucas, an ICAN champion who wrote: “You might hope that Britain would be taking a leading role in the talks, but our government is conspicuous by its absence”. Sturgeon, Corbyn and Lucas all raised the humanitarian initiative and global ban treaty when addressing tens of thousands of people in London in February 2016 for what was dubbed the country’s biggest anti-nuclear weapons rally in a generation, organised by ICAN partner CND.

The ban treaty provides an opportunity for a new public discussion about nuclear weapons in this country, side-stepping the divisive polarisation that this topic usually generates. One of the few Conservative politicians to engage with ICAN, Derek Thomas MP wrote after our meeting: “I am completely in agreement that multilateral disarmament is something that we should pursue as an urgent priority and I will be pressing the Government to take all necessary steps in its power to secure multilateral disarmament. I have looked closely at the work of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) and am in support of their aims”. Unfortunately, this positive statement is to be found in the middle of a blog entitled ‘Why I am voting in support of the Prime Minister and our nuclear deterrent’, but it does show how the ban treaty can start the vital conversations and debates that need to happen in order to create change.

Nuclear weapons aren’t going to disappear overnight, but the stigma now enshrined in international law will help to change attitudes. Nick Ritchie, Lecturer in International Security at the University of York, wrote a couple of years ago that, “A new ban treaty would strip UK nuclear weapons of their veneer of legitimacy and substantially diminish the domestic political values assigned to these weapons. Such a shift in the international normative context of nuclear weapons would begin to wither the roots of cultural nuclearism in the United Kingdom”. We are already seeing how the treaty might affect UK law on nuclear weapons: anti-nukes activists from Trident Ploughshares cited the ban treaty as part of their defence in court last month and were released with just a warning, after they took part during the summer in a blockade of RNAD Coulport, where the UK’s nuclear warheads are stored and loaded onto Trident submarines.

It is my firm belief that the British establishment will soon wake up to the reputational damage that our possession of nuclear weapons will increasingly cause. We like to be seen to be doing the right thing; we care what other countries think of us. UNA-UK’s ‘global Britain scorecard’ highlights the good work the UK proudly does in contributing to UN peacekeeping and providing support for overseas aid, while criticising the UK for failure in ‘responsible arms trading’ and ‘multilateral nuclear disarmament’. UNA-UK’s methodology “follows the UK’s own analysis that Britain’s security and prosperity is underpinned by a strong, rules-based international system with the United Nations at its heart”. The ban treaty has stigmatised nuclear weapons, making them not just illegitimate but illegal: threatening to use WMDs is no longer an acceptable or legal way to go about international relations. It may take some time for this truth to sink in, but with the combination of pressure from the international community, from global and UK civil society, from Scotland and from within the political establishment at Westminster, change is coming.

Britain renounced the use of poison gas after WWI by signing the 1925 Geneva Protocol; now, nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, we should show moral and political leadership by stopping Trident renewal and joining the majority in the international community to renounce nuclear weapons. While the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons may be controversial today, a few years from now I believe it will be the new normal for the UK and the rest of the world. The door remains open for the UK and other nuclear armed nations to Do the Right Thing. In the words of the ICAN statement on winning the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: “We applaud those nations that have already signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and we urge all others to follow their lead. It offers a pathway forward at a time of alarming crisis. Disarmament is not a pipe dream, but an urgent humanitarian necessity”.

Universal Credit – internationally “unique” in its harshness, and headed for 7 million of us

Universal Credit – internationally “unique” in its harshness, and headed for 7 million of us
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
1 November 2017

Despite opposition both inside and outside parliament, the Conservative government continues to press ahead with rolling out their Universal Credit scheme. I asked Bernadette Meaden – an Associate of Ekklesia thinktank who writes about Universal Credit, welfare reform, and social and economic justice – to shed light on the complex debates around Universal Credit: why it was introduced, who it will affect, and how concerned citizens can resist it.

Ian Sinclair: What is Universal Credit? When was it introduced and where are we at with its ongoing rollout?

Bernadette Meaden: Universal Credit (UC) is the flagship policy of Conservative welfare reform, the brainchild of Iain Duncan Smith and the think tank he founded, the Centre for Social Justice. It is a single benefit for people on a low income, whether in work or out of work. It replaces six ‘legacy’ benefits; Jobseekers Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Income based Employment and Support Allowance, and Income Support.

UC was the central plank of the Coalition government’s 2012 Welfare Reform Act, which was described as the biggest shake-up of the social security system in sixty years. The 2012 Act also introduced harsher benefit sanctions, the Bedroom Tax, the Benefit Cap, and Personal Independence Payments to replace Disability Living Allowance.

The implementation of UC began in 2013, for a small number of claimants who were single, able to work, and had no dependents, as the simplest cases on which to test the system. From the very beginning it was beset with technical difficulties. The rollout has taken much longer than originally planned, and costs have spiralled. It is now predicted that the full rollout will not be completed until 2022, by which time around seven million people will be drawn into the system.

IS: In several recent news reports The Guardian has stated the goal of Universal Credit is to simplify the benefits system. Is Universal Credit simply only about “simplifying” the benefit system or are there other motives behind its introduction?

BM: There appears to have been a range of motives behind the introduction of UC, and these, combined with seemingly a complete ignorance of life on a low income, are what give rise to its numerous flaws.

Iain Duncan Smith and his colleagues began with some very flawed assumptions and a fundamental misunderstanding of poverty, mistaking its symptoms for causes. Their ‘Broken Britain’ narrative said that poverty was caused by debt, addiction, poor educational attainment, worklessness and family breakdown. Poverty was not so much about an unjust distribution of wealth, but more about the behaviour of poor people. Fixing poverty meant fixing poor people and making them behave differently.

There was a preoccupation with people who were not working, and a belief that many had made a lifestyle choice to live on benefits. Because of this, making life on benefits far more difficult for people and thus driving or ‘incentivising’ them into employment became an overriding aim of welfare reform and UC. The fact that UC is also a benefit for people who are in work, or who cannot work because of ill health, disability, or caring responsibilities appears to be an irrelevance, with ‘making work pay’ and getting people into work still being citedas the justification for UC.

The suspicion and disrespect for people reliant on benefits even extended to seriously ill and disabled people, who have been treated with such harshness that the United Nations says the government has committed ‘grave and systematic violations’ of their human rights, leading to a ‘human catastrophe’. Almost unbelievably, UC continues this process, with the abolition of both the Severe Disability Premium and the Enhanced Disability Premium, and the slashing of the allowance for a disabled child. So whilst families with a disabled member are more likely than others to be living in poverty, many will be even worse off under UC. (NB For current claimants there is some transitional protection, so please don’t panic).

So it was openly stated that UC aimed to change the behaviour of claimants, on the apparent assumption that most were generally lazy, feckless and irresponsible. The decision to pay it monthly, in arrears, was designed to mimic the world of work ‘which will encourage personal responsibility for finances’ and ‘teach them to budget’. The payment of the housing element direct to claimants instead of to landlords was also intended to ‘encourage responsibility’.

One of the most remarkable features of UC is the introduction of in-work conditionality. This means low paid workers who may previously have claimed Housing Benefit but now rely on UC to make ends meet can be subject to sanctions which previously only applied to those who were not working. This is a radical (some may say extreme) move which may be unique in the world. The latest evidence suggests that people on UC are much more likely to be sanctioned than those on ‘legacy’ benefits, and the sanctions are more severe.

Whilst UC is sold to the general public as a simplification of the benefits system, it is sold to employers as giving them ‘access to a more flexible and responsive workforce’. Part-time jobs and zero-hours contracts have proliferated in recent years, because they suited employers, but UC seems designed to keep workers in this casual, insecure employment under constant pressure. They will be required to attend a Jobcentre and demonstrate that they are attempting to work more hours or increase their pay, on pain of sanction. So UC is paid monthly in arrears because it wants claimants to behave as if they have a steady and secure income, pressures them to try to increase their earnings, but enables and encourages employers to turn those same workers on and off like a tap.

Low paid, part time and temporary workers already have very little power – UC will sanction a worker who is fired for misconduct, leaves a job voluntarily, ‘or loses pay through misconduct’. This could give unscrupulous employers the whip hand, and mean workers on UC will be afraid to lose or leave a job, or even complain, no matter how badly they are treated.

The payment of UC to one bank account in the household, perhaps springing from that belief in the traditional family, means some women may no longer have independent access to money. This could be very bad for women in an abusive, coercive relationship. Split payments can be requested, but domestic violence organisations have said that this in itself may cause problems for vulnerable women.

Under UC, the two child limit is expanded so that eventually all families who make a new claim will be limited to support for two children, even if the three children were conceived years before the rule was introduced. The motivation for the two child limit seems to have been a rather resentful attitude towards poor people having children ‘at the taxpayers’ expense’. In welfare reform thinking, taxpayers and benefit claimants might as well be two different species, whereas in reality all claimants are also taxpayers.

UC is a fundamental change in the way social security operates. Since the inception of the welfare state people paid their National Insurance and then, if they fell on hard times, claimed benefits as their entitlement. As the founders of the post-war Welfare State intended, there was little stigma attached to claiming one’s entitlement.

Under UC, support will be meagre and conditional, and for many people it will come with so much pressure that they will do almost anything to avoid having to claim it. For people who believe that poverty is largely a matter of personal responsibility, and that redistribution of wealth and cash transfers to the poor should be kept to an absolute minimum, this will be welcome.

Even whilst he was overseeing the implementation of UC, Iain Duncan Smith was floating the idea of a personal savings account into which people would pay to insure themselves against sickness or unemployment. ‘I am very keen to look at it, as a long-term way forward for the 21st century’, he said. UC, it seems, is the flagship policy of a man who does not really believe in social security as we understand it, and is looking forward to the day the UK is more like the US or Singapore.

IS: What have been the effects of Universal Credit in the areas where it has been introduced already?

BM: Where UC has been introduced, the main effects have been a steep rise in debt, rent arrears, foodbank use, and homelessness. This is mainly due to the length of time people have to wait for their first payment, which in theory should be six weeks, but in practice can be several months. Even the official six week wait, which is a deliberate design feature, leads to these problems. The government says Advance Payments are available, but these are in the form of a loan, and repayments will be taken out of subsequent payments, leaving a meagre income even more meagre. Some people’s finances may never fully recover from the minimum six week gap with inadequate or zero income.

IS: What has been the response of organisations and charities that focus on welfare?

BM: Almost every charity and organisation that deals with welfare issues is horrified at the awful impacts they are seeing, with unprecedented levels of anger and concern. Citizens Advice recently warned that the full service rollout was ‘a disaster waiting to happen’. Foodbanks and other charities have also responded in practical ways of course, but there is a fear that as the rollout continues, these organisations could be overwhelmed.

IS: What solutions would you propose to the problems with Universal Credit?

BM: I would seriously question whether UC is fixable. There is a tiny kernel of a good idea there, with support that rises and falls with your earnings, and in theory the simplicity is attractive, but that attraction may be superficial. Behind this ostensible simplicity lies a fiendishly complicated IT system and a requirement for RTI, Real Time Information which must be frequently updated. The ‘simplification’ actually means that people reliant on UC may become more vulnerable to administrative error and IT glitches, because if something goes wrong, everything goes wrong. If all your eggs are in one basket, it is a disaster if that basket is dropped.

If UC was made more generous, if the conditionality and sanctions were removed, if a first payment was received in good time, if more resources were put into efficient administration, if all Department for Work and Pensions staff were required to treat claimants with respect, and if the numerous other problems were fixed then it could be less of a disaster. But there are so many problems built into its design it is difficult to see how it could be fixed, rather than starting again from scratch. But so much has been invested in UC now, politically and financially, we may be stuck with some version of it.

IS: What action do you recommend people concerned about Universal Credit take? Does the Labour Party offer a base for principled opposition?

BM: I would say make as much noise about it as possible. At the moment the government is simply refusing to recognise or acknowledge the scale of the problems UC is causing. The DWP has had years of practice, being in a permanent state of denial about the harm being caused to claimants, particularly those who are ill or disabled. Even letters from coroners linking deaths to DWP decisions, and condemnations from the UN have been dismissed. It has to become a major political issue which makes Conservative MPs fear for their seats, and the only way to do that is to raise it at every opportunity, making it impossible for them to ignore. And of course, as UC rolls out across the UK the hardship will steadily increase, so if you can volunteer or donate to a local foodbank, homeless shelter or any other organisation that is dealing with the fallout, so much the better.

As far as the Labour Party is concerned, I think Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams really understands the sheer scale of the problems intrinsic to UC, and the depth of suffering being caused, and she has great compassion. At the moment I’m not aware that the Labour Party has any comprehensive plan to deal with UC, other than pausing it and taking stock. But when dealing with an unfolding disaster, stopping it unfolding is essential.

I would like to see Labour develop a progressive and supportive social security system which works in the current economy, by lifting the pressure and taking the risk away from individuals, rather than piling it onto them, as UC does. A Universal Basic Income or Universal Basic Services are possibilities. But yes, on the whole I would say that the Labour Party can offer a base for principled opposition, if it starts from a position of respect for people who need social security, and an understanding that the need for support arises from social and economic injustice, not personal failings.

‘A Fantastic Foreign Secretary’? William Hague Leaves Office

‘A Fantastic Foreign Secretary’? William Hague Leaves Office
by Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
21 July 2014

You’ll have heard, of course, of the maxim “Don’t speak ill of the dead”. However, you are probably less familiar with the media’s recent modification to this: “Don’t speak ill of the recently departed Foreign Secretary”.

Over at the Financial Times political commentator Janan Ganesh noted William Hague, who announced he was stepping down as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs last week, “has hardly erred” since taking over the Foreign Office in 2010. “Nobody disputes his technical competence, his facility with a brief, his easy but authoritative style of management”, explained Ganesh.

The Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor Julian Borger reported that Hague had “suffered early setbacks but emerged at the end of it as a pioneering campaigner in partnership with one of the most glamorous film stars on the planet.” Indeed, Borger devotes over half of his article’s 756 words to Hague’s work with film star Angelina Jolie on sexual violence. And the “early setbacks”? That would be the rumours of Hague having an affair with his assistant and the incident when planes broke down trying to rescue British citizens from Libya.

Perhaps most shocking of all, Zara Taylor-Jackson, UNICEF UK’s Government Relations Manager, tweeted that Hague “has been a fantastic Foreign Secretary. He’s shown remarkable leadership in his efforts to end sexual violence in conflict.”

What these three responses to Hague’s resignation reveal is that propaganda is just as much about what is left out as what is actually stated.

So all three failed to mention that Hague was a key player in the NATO attack on Libya in 2011. The West quickly overstepped the United Nations resolution, escalating the level of violence and number of dead and arguably fanning the flames of conflict into Mali. Today Libya is in a state of perpetual violent crisis, with rival militias fighting over Tripoli’s international airport in the past week.

They also failed to mention Hague’s role in pushing for war in Syria in August 2013, a course of action that would have increased the level of violence and dead, according to such anti-war liberal pinkos as two former NATO Secretary-Generals and Yacoub El Hillo, the highest ranking UN humanitarian official in Syria at the time.

They also failed to mention Hague’s involvement in the continuing US-NATO military occupation of Afghanistan. Last week the United Nations reported civilian casualties in Afghanistan had surged 24 percent in the first half of the year – their highest levels since 2009.

They also failed to mention Hague’s role in standing with Bahrain’s rulers in opposition to democracy and human rights, and how Hague continued the long-standing British policy of supporting the other Gulf autocracies of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE, overseeing billions of dollars of arms sales to these undemocratic governments.

They also failed to mention that while Hague has been foreign secretary Britain has armed Israel and provided cast-iron support to Israel as it attacks the “prison camp” of Gaza.

And finally they also failed to mention how Hague has given his support to the murderous US ‘war on terror’ and all that entails – drones attacks on seven nations, US special forces operations across the world, extraordinary rendition and the US prisons in Bagram and Guantanamo.

All this is not to single out Hague as especially bad or evil – he is simply fulfilling his role as British Foreign Secretary. If he had thought or acted differently he would never have risen so high in the British political elite. As the historian Mark Curtis explained in his 1995 book The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy since 1945 “Rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World, British foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour have been in power.”

However, I would argue that writing an assessment of Hague’s time as Foreign Secretary and not mentioning any of these significant global events displays an extraordinary level of internalised establishment-friendly thinking – something huge chunks of the British media seem to excel at. As Curtis said in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, “The British liberal intelligentsia generally displays its servitude to the powers that be rather than to ordinary people, whether here or abroad.”

 

How Jeremy Corbyn can beat the establishment

How Jeremy Corbyn can beat the establishment
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
11 October 2017

My new Peace News article ‘The biggest fight of our lives’ includes comments from George Lakey, Matt Kennard and Alex Nunns. Due to space considerations I could only include a small portion of the commentary each of them sent me in the article itself. Below are their full comments.

Why is Jeremy Corbyn seen as such a threat to the British establishment?

Matt Kennard, author of The Racket: Corbyn is seen as such a threat to the British elite and establishment because he is a major threat to their interests. They are not stupid. They understand when a political figure and movement endangers their ability to retain domination of the economy and political system. Never in the history of Britain has an anti-imperialist socialist ascended to the position of leading any of the major parties. It’s huge moment in British history – and arguably world history. If he becomes Prime Minister it will be the first core capital country ruled by an anti-imperialist socialist. They have every right to be fearful. Corbyn is the real deal, he can’t be assimilated into the state-capitalist elite’s framework on either end of their spectrum. Because of that they have to turn to unconventional warfare, which we’ve seen over the past two years every day.

The threat Corbyn poses is that he shows that Another World Is Possible. His vision is optimistic about what we can achieve as a species and upends all the useful ideology that has been built up over the neoliberal period that says we have to cut public spending and to eliminate any idea of collectivism. Corbyn has shown that it doesn’t have to be like that, and not only that, but these policies are popular amongst the electorate. He has put to bed for generations the idea that left ideas can’t win elections, the idea they’ve been beating us with ever since 1983 and Michael Foot’s ‘longest suicide note in history’. Now, we find out that actually it was the policies themselves that the Labour right didn’t like, not that they won’t win elections. The 2017 elections changed everything.

Alex Nunns author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power: There was a period when Labour under Corbyn was accused of being no more radical than under Ed Miliband, but those criticisms were dispelled by the election manifesto. It’s inconceivable that Miliband would have stood on a promise to renationalise energy, water, railways and the Royal Mail, for example. The difference is shown by the two leaders’ tuition fees proposals. Miliband’s offer to reduce tuition fees by £3,000 to £6,000 was a neat encapsulation of his entire leadership strategy: well-intentioned but timid. Corbyn had a no-nonsense approach: Labour will abolish fees all together.

There’s clearly been a fundamental shift in Labour policy. If you look at the policy papers Corbyn released in the 2015 leadership contest, which were pulled together in a rush by his policy advisor Andrew Fisher, so many of them appear in the 2017 manifesto, also authored by Andrew Fisher. A National Education Service, rent controls, a National Investment Bank—it’s remarkable the extent to which Labour ran a general election on Corbyn’s leadership contest platform. That programme was such an astonishing success in 2015 precisely because it was such a break from Labour under Blair, Brown and Miliband, so I don’t think it’s possible any more to argue that Corbyn offers reheated Milibandism.

Corbyn is seen as such a threat by the establishment because he would mark a historic break with the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated British politics for more than three decades. Extracted from its political context, Labour’s 2017 manifesto could be seen as quite mild compared to historic socialist and social democratic programmes. But politics is all about context, and while the manifesto was not perfect, it represented a bold challenge to the status quo. It unashamedly outlined a vision of a different society based on the principles of collectivism and universalism, after decades of individualism and means-tested entitlements.

Of course what the British establishment fears most about Corbyn is his foreign policy stance, which wasn’t so clearly represented in the manifesto—for example the continuation of Trident was in there because it is Labour Party policy, but it’s obviously not Corbyn’s preference. But I think the British state fears that he means what he says on foreign policy, and if he was prime minister he would have an enormous opportunity to transform Britain’s role in the world. That would meet fierce resistance.

If Corbyn’s Labour Party is elected into government at the next general election, how do you think the British establishment will try to undermine it?

Alex Nunns: In every way possible! We know from history what usually happens when left governments are elected. They face destabilisation from capital, both domestically and internationally, they are subjected to a hysterical press operation to undermine them, they face diplomatic pressure from other countries, and they have to deal with sabotage from the state they have been elected to run. We’ve already seen threats of a military coup against Corbyn.

There is one caveat though: how vociferous these efforts are depends on the circumstances. We don’t know when the next election will be, but it’s possible that the instability of Brexit will present a unique historical opportunity for a radical Labour government. The forces of capital are not onside with the Conservative Party’s version of Brexit. It’s possible to imagine circumstances where tolerating a Corbyn government, at least in the short term, becomes an option for them. It was very interesting in the 2017 general election that business and the state did not intervene in any major way on the side of Theresa May. No doubt that was largely because they all expected a Tory landslide anyway, but what didn’t happen in the election was almost as interesting as what did. There were no doom and gloom threats about a Labour government from big business, there didn’t seem to be an effort to sabotage Labour by the state. Given that even Conservatives now expect Corbyn to win the next election, you’d expect it to be different next time. But Brexit throws a unique variable into the equation.

Matt Kennard: Well, the method of choice in peripheral world economies has been military coups and political assassinations. I’m thinking of people like Allende in Chile or Lumumba in the Congo. I wouldn’t expect that to happen in the UK, but the establishment has never been tested properly in this way for centuries (we never had a revolution in the French sense so the social relations and the aristocracy are literally centuries old).

But there’s other ways to do it. And actually what is happening to Donald Trump in the US is instructive. I despite everything he stands for and worry for the future of humanity while he is president, but it’s still clear that the overt imposition of the deep state into the political life of the US is hugely worrying. If they do this to a far-right oligarch who threatens what the establishment wants, they will do the same, probably worse to a left-wing version who doesn’t accede to bombing the designated enemy of the day.

George Lakey author of Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can: They will use whatever tactics and strategies will put us on the defensive, because, as Gandhi never tired of pointing out, going on the defensive is a sure way to lose! If they are smart strategists, they will be flexible and keep trying things that will get progressives to mount the barricades in defence.

Military generals agree with Gandhi about the importance of staying on the offensive. Even folk wisdom has an appropriate saying: “The best defence is an offensive.” So avoid trying to maintain any previously-made gains; instead, go forward to make new gains. Even when Corbyn himself is attacked, an obvious thing for them to do, don’t meet them on their terms but instead borrow the old civil rights expression and “keep your eye on the prize:” escalate your efforts to make new demands and new gains.

How can activists, grassroots groups and concerned citizens support Corbyn’s Labour Party in office?

Alex Nunns: The first 19 months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership proved one thing above all else—it’s not enough to just elect a leader and think the job is done. Corbyn was leader of a party he did not control. When there was an emergency, such as the coup in 2016 or the general election in 2017, the movement that propelled Corbyn to the fore showed how powerful it was. But in between times, when the action receded to Westminster, there were lulls in the movement and Corbyn struggled as a result. The need for the movement to stay mobilised will be multiplied by a hundred when Corbyn is in government. For this whole project to achieve success, it won’t be enough to have Corbyn as prime minister. He will face resistance. Only the political strength of a movement embedded in society will be able to push him through it. It will have to be on a scale we haven’t seen so far, not even in the general election. This pressure will need to be exerted not only in the Labour Party, but in the broader social movements. How can Corbyn change foreign policy without a powerful anti-war movement? How can he overturn the economic orthodoxy of decades without the anti-austerity movement buttressing him? It has been an exhilarating two years since Corbyn emerged, but the work of campaigners and activists has only just begun.

Matt Kennard: I think it’s clear that just getting out on the streets and talking with people and telling [them] what Corbyn’s Labour is about is powerful. The Momentum mobilisation during the general election was amazing. I door knocked for the first time and I’ll do it a lot more. It’s really important. Also, making sure the Labour Party is democratised in this period is so important. This is our chance to open the party up and make it a mass social movement rather than a plaything for elite liberals who want power. The numbers are on our side which is why the Labour establishment is trying so hard to stop the many efforts to democratise the party and give more power to members. I would give up if I were them, it’s never going to be stopped now, there are too many of us who have been galvanised and involved. Every member vote is won overwhelming now by Corbyn-affiliated candidates. So everyone should join Labour and Momentum. This is a unique historic moment and chance and we have to grab the opportunity.

The other thing is become active on social media. I was initially resistant to social media because I think it plays on some of the worst aspects of human nature, especially narcissism. But the general election proved how important it is now. The Sun and The Daily Mail no longer have the power to sway elections through doing PR for establishment. When they spout lies and nonsense, they will be shamed online, it happens all the time. It’s powerful and we should continue doing it.

George Lakey: What puts us on the offensive, where we can win, is (1) to identify just demands that are in alignment with widely-shared values and can be expressed in common-sense terms. Then (2) to identify a target that can deliver that demand, which might be governmental but could instead be an economic entity like a bank or corporation. Then (3) to launch (or reinforce) a nonviolent direct action campaign that (a) uses a series of escalated actions and (b) attracts a growing series of allies.

A cluster of campaigns around a particular issue becomes a movement. One advantage of a movement is that any particular campaign can succeed or fail in achieving its particular demand but the movement as a whole can nevertheless succeed. Another advantage of a grassroots movement is that it stimulates campaigns around other issues, which in turn can cluster into movements. In the process of all this it’s wise to do intentional leadership development and empowerment at the grassroots, without which the one percent continues to hold too much power no matter how much drama we create with our campaigns.

As the number of movements grows, it becomes possible to create a “movement of movements.” In that stage we become a decisive force on the macro-level and provide openings for Corbyn and other party political leaders to do their part in the arena of state power and, so to speak, “seal the deal.”

Fortunately, we have nearby examples of successful strategy in 1920s and ‘30s Norway and Sweden, especially in their understanding of the role of political parties in making fundamental change. They understood the difference between the tail and the dog. The dog was the animating power of social movements — mobilized grassroots coercive power for change. The tail was the political parties that represented the grassroots in Swedish and Norwegian Parliaments.

The movements’ mobilizations took place mainly through direct action campaigns and cooperatives, both of which remained independent of the parties. The movements strategized independently because they believed that equality, freedom, and shared prosperity could only come from a power shift in society. They saw the political party as the tail of the dog, expressive and useful, but not the same as the animating force, which is the heart and mind of the dog. Jeremy Corbyn’s career has shown how much he understands how fundamental the movements are; the question is whether his new young followers understand that.

I learned from studying Norway and Sweden that if they had relied on Parliament and the electoral process, they would still be waiting for the power shift that in the 1930s enabled them to invent the Nordic model that has out-performed Britain and the U.S. for over 60 years. From the perspective of power, Parliaments negotiate and express change, they don’t make change.

If Jeremy Corbyn is somehow elected Prime Minister, the great temptation in Britain will be to repeat what I call the Obama Syndrome. In the U.S. progressives saw Obama’s election as placing our ally in the White House. What most forgot is that the priority duty of the state’s leader in the U.S. (and UK) is to govern, that is, to hold the state together while managing it. Most progressives fantasized that Obama could instead lead the country into a disruptive period of major change.

I knew that Obama wanted to do so: he’d already acknowledged the correctness of a single payer health plan like Canada’s, and the primacy of avoiding austerity, making peace, and even dealing with climate change. Like the UK, however, the U.S. remains dominated by its one percent no matter who is elected president. Changing that power dynamic cannot happen via the electoral arena, especially when the leader’s party base (the Democrats in the U.S., the Labour Party in the UK) is already owned by the elite.

The way to use an ally in the position of President or Prime Minister is not to fantasize that “they can lead us” but to create the conditions under which they can use their limited power in a one percent-dominated system to tip the balance in struggles between the majority and the one percent.

I knew that Obama would need militant mass movements using direct action to enable him to manoeuvre for major policy changes. Americans were befuddled, however, about which was the dog and which was the tail, and somehow expected Obama to deliver outcomes even though the masses of people were not demanding them through direct action.

The good news if Corbyn is elected is that progressives can do what grassroots movements do best: people power. We can give up one-off protests (rarely worth the time and effort) and organize direct action campaigns with specific demands that can be formulated as common sense and gain wide support, then implement a strategy of escalation in which, to use Dr Martin Luther King’s phrase, a “crisis is created” that forces a response on the state level.

The bad news if Corbyn is elected is the temptation to repeat the Obama Syndrome: an electorate that believes it delivered a “mandate” for change and is disappointed that the valiant leader didn’t somehow “deliver.” A “mandate” is a concept in search of legs; it has no power on its own. Progressive power comes from the collective, disruptive nonviolent action of the people.

One way to use the Corbyn political moment is to allow the freshness that he represents to spread to our own movement actions and organizing methods. For example, progressives could experiment with “taking the pledge” at the outset of each campaign, agreeing never to organize a march or rally.

Why? The pledge empowers the creativity that is too often suppressed at the grassroots. I’ve found that campaigners taking the pledge come up with a marvellous diversity of actions that energize them and motivate others to join them. Their creativity itself breaks through the disempowerment that keeps so many on the sidelines. Nearly 200 different methods of campaigning are on a website, documented in over 1400 campaigns in the Global Nonviolent Action Database (https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/). You need never march or organize a rally again!

The Biggest Fight of Our Lives

The Biggest Fight of Our Lives
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2017

An ‘epic fight’ between the broad left and the forces of the establishment has begun (see PN 2586–2587). The prize couldn’t be bigger. The British left, for the first time in decades, has a very real opportunity to implement significant progressive change on the epoch-altering scale of the 1945 and 1979 elections. As Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani tweeted: ‘If we win, and survive, and enact a major program of economic and political change, the whole world will watch. The UK really could be prototype.’

The June 2017 general election result was ‘one of the most sensational political upsets of our time’, according to Guardian columnist Owen Jones. Despite being repeatedly laughed at and written off by an intensely hostile media, by other parties and by much of the Labour Party establishment itself, Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to its biggest increase in vote share since 1945. Labour leapt to 40 per cent of the vote after the party had achieved 30 per cent under Ed Miliband just two years earlier.

On 20 April, only 22 per cent of people had a favourable opinion of Jeremy Corbyn, and 64 per cent had an unfavourable view. (Added together, that was 42 per cent unfavourable overall). By 12 June, the figures were 46 percent favourable and 46 percent unfavourable. (Overall, neither favourable nor unfavourable.) (YouGov, 15 June).

Though the Tories have managed to cling onto power, Corbyn’s rise has created shockwaves throughout the political system.

Writing for Open Democracy, Jeremy Gilbert, a professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London, noted the election ‘was a historic turning point’ as it ‘marked the final end of the neoliberal hegemony in Britain’ (1 August). In response the Tories are reported to be considering relaxing the pay rise restrictions on public sector workers, while Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon unveiled a range of progressive policies, including possible tax rises, ‘in an effort to reinvigorate her government’ (Guardian, 6 September). With a recent poll from Survation showing Labour on 43 per cent – five points ahead of the Conservative Party on 38 per cent – Jones believes Corbyn now ‘has a solid chance of entering No 10’ (Guardian, 9 August).

Corbyn is a threat

Though some commentators have argued Corbyn’s Labour Party differs little in policy terms from the party under Miliband, ‘those criticisms were dispelled by the election manifesto’, Alex Nunns tells me. Nunns, author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, says: ‘It’s inconceivable that Miliband would have stood on a promise to renationalise energy, water, railways and the Royal Mail’, as Corbyn did.

More broadly, Matt Kennard, a former Financial Times reporter and author of The Racket, explains to me the key is the direction of travel Corbyn represents: ‘The threat Corbyn poses is that he shows that another world is possible.’

Echoing Gilbert’s analysis, Nunns believes: ‘Corbyn is seen as such a threat by the establishment because he would mark a historic break with the Thatcherite consensus that has dominated British politics for three decades.’ The Labour manifesto ‘unashamedly outlined a vision of a different society based on the principles of collectivism and universalism, after decades of individualism and means-tested entitlements’, he says.

‘Of course, what the British establishment fears most about Corbyn is his foreign policy stance’, Nunns notes. Dr David Wearing, a lecturer at SOAS University of London, agrees that Corbyn represents a huge challenge to the foreign policy elite – and conventional wisdom. Though he has had to compromise on Trident and membership of NATO, Corbyn ‘is a straightforwardly anti-imperialist, anti-militarist figure’, Wearing recently argued on the Media Democracy podcast. ‘I can’t think of any time in the last several decades where it has been a realistic possibility that the leader of a UN security council permanent member, a great power, a great capitalist Western power, could be in the next few years an anti-militarist and an anti-imperialist.’

Kennard agrees: ‘It’s a huge moment in British history – and arguably in world history’. The establishment ‘have every right to be fearful’, he adds.

Rejuvenated Tories

For the words ‘prime minister Jeremy Corbyn’ to become a statement of fact rather than wishful thinking, Labour needs to win the next general election. Standing in their way will be a rejuvenated Conservative party and their powerful supporters, who will likely have learned lessons from their poor performance in June.

According to the Guardian, the Tories have been undertaking an internal review, which will urge the leadership to offer voters clear messages on policy and shake up the party machine (Guardian, 29 August). ‘What didn’t happen in the [general] election was almost as interesting as what did’, Nunns says. ‘There were no doom and gloom threats about a Labour government from big business, there didn’t seem to be an effort to sabotage Labour by the state. Given that even Conservatives now expect Corbyn to win the next election, you’d expect it to be different next time.’

Interviewed on BBC Newsnight, former Labour leader Tony Blair voiced similar concerns on 17 July. ‘The Tories are never going to fight a campaign like that one’, he said. ‘I know the Tories, they are not going to do that. And they are going to have a new leader as well. Secondly, our programme, particularly on tax and spending, is going to come under a lot more scrutiny than it did last time round’.

Barriers

With a Corbyn-led Labour Party victory in the next election a real possibility, it is worth considering the challenges it would face. Speaking to Jacobin magazine, Jon Lansman, chair of Momentum and a close associate of Corbyn, is clear: ‘We will face opposition from all aspects of the establishment, from the powerful, from global corporations’.

Having reported extensively from the Global South, Kennard notes ‘the method of choice’ for undermining leftist governments ‘in peripheral world economies has been military coups and political assassinations.’ The UK, of course, has a very different political landscape with very different political traditions.

Despite this, it’s important to note that soon after Corbyn was elected Labour leader, in September 2015, the Sunday Times carried a front page report that quoted ‘a senior serving general’ saying the military ‘would use whatever means possible, fair or foul’, to prevent a Corbyn-led government attempting to scrap Trident, withdraw from NATO and ‘emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces’.

There is also evidence that MI5 attempted to undermine Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1970s (see David Leigh’s book The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government), and Corbyn himself has been monitored by undercover police officers for two decades as he was ‘deemed to be a subversive’, according to a former Special Branch officer (Daily Telegraph, 7 June).

However, though he notes the British establishment ‘has never been tested properly in this way for centuries’, Kennard is quick to clarify he doesn’t expect a military coup or assassination attempt to happen in the UK.

‘We know from history what usually happens when left governments are elected’, Nunns says. ‘They face destabilisation from capital, both domestically and internationally, they are subjected to a hysterical press operation to undermine them, they face diplomatic pressure from other countries, and they have to deal with sabotage from the state they have been elected to run.’

North American radical activist and author of Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can, George Lakey tells me the elite ‘will use whatever tactics and strategies will put us on the defensive, because, as Gandhi never tired of pointing out, going on the defensive is a sure way to lose.’ If those trying to undermine Corbyn ‘are smart strategists, they will be flexible and keep trying things that will get progressives to mount the barricades in defence’, he notes.

The Labour leadership are, of course, aware of these likely challenges, and seem to be making early moves to neutralise them. ‘The issue for us is to stabilise the markets before we get into government, so there are no short-term shocks’, shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the Guardian on 19 August, explaining he had been meeting with ‘people in the City – asset managers, fund managers’ to reassure them about Labour’s plans.

Mobilisation is key

Speaking about US politics in 2007, Adolph Reed Jr, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, noted: ‘Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to’.

In the UK context, this means the actions of the movement supporting a Corbyn-led government will need to match – and overpower – the establishment onslaught that will be waged against it.

‘The first 19 months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership proved one thing above all else – it’s not enough to just elect a leader and think the job is done’, Nunns notes, pointing to the movement’s central role in fending off the attempted coup against Corbyn in June 2016. ‘The need for the movement to stay mobilised will be multiplied by a hundred when Corbyn is in government.’ Moreover, Nunns points out that the movement ‘will have to be on a scale we haven’t seen so far’.

Lakey points to the successful strategies used in 1920s and ’30s Norway and Sweden as examples Corbyn supporters should follow. ‘The movements’ mobilisations took place mainly through direct action campaigns and cooperatives, both of which remained independent of the [political] parties’ that represented them in parliament, he explains. ‘The movements strategised independently because they believed that equality, freedom, and shared prosperity could only come from a power shift in society.’

‘I learned from studying Norway and Sweden that if they had relied on parliament and the electoral process, they would still be waiting for the power shift that in the 1930s enabled them to invent the Nordic model that has outperformed Britain and the US for over 60 years’, Lakey continues. ‘From the perspective of power, parliaments negotiate and express change, they don’t make change.’

Kennard is strongly in favour of joining the Labour Party and hitting the streets to campaign. ‘I door knocked for the first time [during the June general election] and I’ll do it again’, he notes. Indeed the importance of traditional campaigning techniques was highlighted by a London School of Economics study which found the seats where the Labour leader campaigned – often holding large rallies – saw an average swing of 19 per cent in the Labour Party’s favour (Independent, 15 August).

Kennard also supports the democratisation of the Labour Party to give members more say in policymaking and choosing their representatives. Finally, he recommends people get involved on social media. Though sceptical of the medium initially, he now sees platforms such as Twitter as a way to combat the misinformation and lies spread by newspapers like the Sun and Daily Mail.

With the establishment likely to try to put a Labour government on the back foot, Lakey says it is essential that Corbyn stays on the offensive. ‘So avoid trying to maintain any previously-made gains; instead, go forward to make new gains’, he argues.

The general election campaign provided a good example of how successful this could be following the May 2017 terrorist attack in Manchester. Thought to be weak on ‘defence’ by many, Corbyn could have chosen to follow the government’s line on terrorism. Instead he confronted the issue head on, giving a relatively bold speech that, in part, made a connection between Western foreign policy and the terrorist attacks directed at the West. Rather than being cornered and weakened by the government and media, Corbyn took control of – and arguably changed – the narrative surrounding terrorism, with a YouGov poll showing a majority of people supporting his analysis (YouGov, 30 May) [See editor Milan Rai’s article on the PN blog about Corbyn’s speech and ‘foreign policy realism’.]

Defend him and push him

With foreign policy likely to continue to be a significant line of attack on Corbyn, the peace movement has an essential role to play, both in defending Corbyn’s broadly anti-militarist, anti-imperialist positions and in pushing him to be bolder.

For example, Greens such as Rupert Read have criticised the Labour manifesto for pushing for more economic growth in the face of looming climate breakdown (Morning Star, 12 July), while British historian Mark Curtis has highlighted a number of problematic foreign policy pledges contained in the Labour manifesto, including support for the ‘defence’ industry. And despite Corbyn’s historic opposition to both, as Wearing indicates, the manifesto confirmed Labour’s ‘commitment to NATO’ and its support for Trident renewal.

Despite these important concerns, Corbyn’s campaigning and current polling, showing Labour would have an opportunity to form the next government if an election was held tomorrow, puts the Labour Party, the peace movement and UK politics firmly into uncharted territory.

The Myth of Dunkirk

The Myth of Dunkirk
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 July 2017

The British public, one of my university tutors once said, are still feeling the effects of Second World War propaganda today.

The events surrounding the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in late May 1940 are no exception. The popular story – one of the foundation stones of modern British national identity – goes something like this: facing the German army, the brave British forces were let down by their French and Belgian allies, and forced to retreat to the coast where they were evacuated to safety by the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ manned by volunteer civilian seafarers, given the opportunity to fight another day, and eventually help to win the war. Victory, the nation was told, was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

It hasn’t been mentioned much but Christopher Nolan’s new Dunkirk movie isn’t the first blockbuster with that name. That honour belongs to Leslie Norman’s 1958 hit black and white feature. Watching Norman’s film today – made in the aftermath of the 1956 ‘Suez Crisis’ (AKA Britain’s invasion of Egypt) – it’s easy to laugh knowingly at its quaint nationalism and repetition of the Dunkirk myth. But while Nolan’s film is an incredibly intense and visceral cinematic experience, politically it deviates little from Norman’s unquestioning picture made nearly 60 years earlier. Indeed, Nolan’s film has received glowing reviews in conservative organs including the Telegraph (“heart-hammering and heroically British”), the Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday, which said it should be “compulsory” viewing.

With this in mind, it is worth considering what the popular Dunkirk narrative either downplays or omits to mention completely.

First, as Max Hasting notes in his 2011 history of the war All Hell Let Loose, it is important to recognise that “disproportionate historical attention has focused upon the operations of the small British contingent, and its escape to Dunkirk” in accounts of the fighting in May-June 1940. In reality “the British role was marginal”, he explains. “The overriding German objective was to defeat the French army.”

With the German army quickly advancing through Belgium, in his book 1940: Myth and Reality Clive Ponting notes the British started pulling back from the frontline without telling the Belgian forces on their flank. British forces also refused requests from the French high command to fight alongside French forces (British soldiers were formally under French command at the time), says Ponting. Writing in his diary, General Pownall, Chief of Staff to the Commander of the BEF, described the Belgium military as “rotten to the core and in the end we shall have to look after ourselves.” Asked about the possibility of evacuating Belgians troops, Pownall replied “We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians”.

After the Germans had started cutting off supply lines “stealing from civilians soon became official policy”, according to Nicholas Harman in his 1980 book Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth. And with morale at rock bottom and troops under extreme physical and psychological stress, historian Glyn Prysor notes there was “widespread British antagonism towards refugees and other innocent bystanders.”

Prysor records the story of artillery NCO William Harding who remembers a fellow soldier shooting an old woman in the street in Calais. When challenged by Harding the perpetrator replied “Anybody dressed as old women, nuns or priests or civilians running around get shot.” Harman notes that “British fighting units had orders to take no prisoners” except for interrogation. This policy, combined with the widespread fear of ‘fifth columnists’, led to a “large number of executions without trial”, writes James Hayward in his book Myths and Legends of the Second World War. For example, Harman notes the Grenadier Guards shot seventeen suspected spies in the Belgian village of Helchin.

With the evacuation at Dunkirk moving ahead, Ponting notes “the British relied on their allies to hold the Germans without offering to evacuate their partners.” On 29 May French troops were manhandled off British ships – a fractious relationship highlighted in Nolan’s film. “There are many reported incidents of British officers and soldiers resorting to firing upon their French counterparts at Dunkirk”, Prysor notes. In the end around 340,000 allied soldiers were rescued, including 125,000 French troops.

And what of the “little boats of Dunkirk”? As the historian Angus Calder notes in his 1991 book The Myth of the Blitz “Few members of the British Expeditionary Force owned their passage to ‘little ships’ manned by civilian volunteers”.

Moreover, former Telegraph editor Hasting argues that like all significant historical events “the legend of Dunkirk was besmirched by some uglinesses”.

“A significant number of British seaman invited to participate in the evacuation refused to do so, including the Rye fishing fleet and some lifeboat crews”, he notes. According to Calder the Royal Navy had to commandeer boats in Devon whose owners would not volunteer. However, this is not surprising – Calder explains the British public was only informed of the evacuation in the evening of 31 May, by which time around three-quarters of British personnel had been rescued, so it’s likely many would not have known what they were volunteering for.

Rather than the simplistic and patronising bedtimes stories the British public have been told at school, by the news media, television and film industry, the evidence presented here points to a complicated, sometimes unpleasant – more human – reality.

However, as George Orwell once wrote about the UK, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark”. This happens “without the need for any official ban”, he argued, but by “a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.” The accuracy of Orwell’s truism is demonstrated by the reverence the allied role in the Second World War continues to be held in – across the political spectrum it seen as the Good War, the ultimate Just War.

The problem with this framing, the comedian Robert Newman argued on his 2005 album Apocalypso Now, is that it’s “based on a very misleading premise: which is just because the enemy you are fighting is evil, that makes you good”.

Can it really be a Good War when it included “Allied bombing in which German and Japanese civilian populations were deliberately targeted claimed the lives of about 800,000 civilian women, children and men”, according to historian A.C. Grayling? Were the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the US knew the Japanese government was on the verge of surrendering, part of a Just War? What noble aims and values lay behind British forces working with German collaborators to violently suppress the popular anti-German resistance movement in Greece in 1944-5? Were British forces rescued from Dunkirk so at the end of the war British troops could work with the defeated Japanese forces to crush nationalist uprisings in Vietnam and Indonesia, as written about by the journalist Ian Cobain and historian John Newsinger, respectively? And while we are at it, why were tens of thousands of British troops ‘defending’ Singapore and the Middle East during Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ in summer 1940?

Where are the blockbuster films about these campaigns conducted by British forces and their allies in the Second World War?