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!

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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.

Libya: The West vs. The United Nations

Libya: The West vs. The United Nations
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 September 2017

The United Kingdom joined the NATO military intervention in Libya “to uphold the will of the United Nations Security Council”, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons on the eve of the war. Six years on and the UK government continues to cite the authority of the UN to justify their actions in Libya, with the Foreign Office noting last month that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had visited Tripoli “to discuss what more the UK can do to support the [UN-backed] Government of National Accord (GNA) and the UN-led political process to help stabilise Libya.”

A bit of background. There are currently two rival power centres competing for legitimacy and control in Libya – the GNA led by Fayez al-Serraj and a rival authority in the east of the country under the control of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). More broadly, Libya is wracked by violence and chaos – a hellish mess that NATO bears significant responsibility for. “Continuing armed clashes have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and interrupted access to basic services, including fuel and electrical power. Forces engaged in the conflict are guilty of arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances, and the forceful displacement of people”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. “Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, including children, who flock to Libya mostly en route to Europe, experience torture, sexual assault and forced labour at the hands of prison guards, members of the coast guard forces and smugglers.”

The “crucial question”, the Foreign Secretary argued in March this year, is “How to make sure that Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya.”

So who is Haftar? “Libya’s most powerful and polarising figure”, is how Frederic Wehry, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, summed him up in The Atlantic magazine. The septuagenarian Haftar served as a Field Marshal in Gaddafi’s army, leading Libyan forces in the Chad war, before being forced into exile in the US, “where he developed close links with the CIA”, according to the House of Commons Library blog. In 2011 he returned to Libya and emerged as a rebel commander in the NATO-backed uprising in which Gaddafi was toppled and killed. Asserting himself after the NATO war, in 2014 Haftar announced “Operation Dignity”, ostensibly a campaign to defeat terrorists in Benghazi, though some observers see the military surge as more complex. Writing in the London Review of Books, foreign correspondent Tom Stevenson notes Haftar “has been taking on Islamic State, non-IS jihadists, and anyone else who stands up to him”, while Ahmed el-Gasir from the group Human Rights Solidarity told Al Jazeera last month that many perceived “Operation Dignity” as an attempted military coup. Indeed, a March 2017 report from the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) which was compiled after two council staff members travelled to Libya and met Haftar, notes he “sees his mission as a national project covering all of Libya.”

Not mentioned in the CMEC report is the fact human rights groups have highlighted numerous abuses committed by forces aligned with Haftar, “who seem to have torn up the rule book”, according to Hanan Salah, HRW’s senior Libya researcher. Having visited Benghazi earlier this year, Wehry notes “reports of torture, disappearances, and the destruction of property emerge with numbing frequency”, with forces armed by Haftar responsible for many of the abuses.

“The tactics employed by Gaddafi in 2011 created certain divisions between towns or tribes, but they do not compare to what Haftar has done… the level of violence and disregard to the sanctity of human life and value of human dignity is unprecedented in Libyan society”, notea el-Gasir. Politically, Wehry warns of Haftar’s “militarization of governance”, in which “he has replaced elected municipal leaders with uniformed military officers” while “the Gaddafi-era intelligence apparatus is back on the payroll.”

However, despite the West’s public backing for the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli, last year Middle East Eye, citing air traffic recordings they had obtained, reported “a multinational military operation involving British, French and US forces is coordinating air strikes in support of” Haftar from a base near Benghazi. This backing is confirmed by Wehry, who notes “The French, the British, and the Americans sent special operators who provided varying levels of intelligence and front-line support” to Haftar. Middle East Eye’s scoop about the West’s relationship with Haftar followed another expose from the news website that reported the British Special Air Service (SAS) were fighting Islamic State in Libya, alongside Jordanian special forces.

More recently, Middle East Eye reported that leaked 2014 emails between the UAE Ambassador to the US and the then US National Security Advisor Susan Rice seem to “indicate that the United States knew about illegal arms shipments to rebels in Libya” from the UAE. This transfer – which likely went to Haftar’s forces – would, of course, have contravened the UN arms embargo – established with the backing of the US and the UK in February 2011.

The West’s support for Haftar is dangerous for three reasons. First, the US and UK are assisting a “warlord” (the Guardian’s description) whose forces have been accused of numerous war crimes by human rights groups. Second, the West’s backing for the Field Marshal is undermining attempts at national reconciliation. “Support by Western special forces, particularly French, to General Haftar has made it more difficult to reach a compromise with him because he thinks he has important external backing and therefore does not need to compromise with the unity government”, Mattia Toaldo, a Libya specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Middle East Eye. Finally, supporting Haftar runs counter to the West’s professed support for the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the UN peace process and the UN arms embargo.

Frustratingly, the West’s shady dealings in Libya have gone largely unreported by the supposedly critical and fiercely independent UK fourth estate. Shamefully, one has to read the Middle East Eye and American magazine The Atlantic to find out about the support the UK has given Haftar. The British media has a similarly woeful record when it comes to UK involvement in the Syrian war, with the New York Times, rather than a British newspaper, reporting in 2013 that UK intelligence services had been working covertly with Saudi Arabia and the US to funnel arms to rebels.

“If people really knew the war would be stopped tomorrow.  But of course they don’t know and can’t know.” This was Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s reaction after listening to an account of the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War.

What would be the British public’s reaction to the UK’s covert interventions in Libya today? Unless British journalists start doing their jobs we may never find out.

Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?

Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 September 2017

The myth of the BBC exerts a powerful grip on many liberals and leftists in the UK. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee recently described the corporation as “the nation’s crucible, upholding an idea of fair reporting in the turmoil of these bitterly divided times”, while in 2015 the National Union of Journalists General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet wrote an article for the Morning Star that argued the BBC “plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage.” For BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg it’s a matter of life or death. “I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC. That’s what we do”, she told the Press Gazette after collecting the prize for Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards last year.

Compare these platitudes with what the first BBC Director-General said at the height of the 1926 General Strike. Considering the tacit understanding that existed between the government of the time and the BBC to give the latter operational autonomy, John Reith noted in in his diary the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”

The publication of Tom Mills’s book The BBC: Myth Of A Public Service 90 years later suggests little has changed. Surveying the history of the BBC, Mills notes its structure is “profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society” which means its news journalism “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

The mainstream media’s bias towards established power tends to increase during wartime. Take the BBC’s John Simpson’s whitewashing of the British occupation when British forces officially withdrew in 2014, for example. Afghanistan “is stable, it is working and it doesn’t look as though the Taliban are coming back. I think in the grander view of things you’d have to say it has been pretty successful even though it ought to have been more successful”, Simpson reported on the Today Programme.

The BBC’s usually Western military-friendly coverage resonates with much of the British media’s reporting of Afghanistan. “With few honourable exceptions, in the Afghanistan war the media failed” to “to tell the people what is really going on, as distinct from what the government says is going on; to penetrate propaganda and lies” and “to provoke debate”, according to the late veteran reporter Philip Knightley.

Rarely mentioned during the UK’s direct military occupation of Helmand was the wider historical context for the intervention. Speaking about the war in 2014 Hew Strachan, Professor of the History of War at University of Oxford, was clear: “Quite frankly, what drives British defence policy in the first decade of the 21st century is its alliance with the United States. No government says that openly because it wants to pretend it continues to have an independent defence policy.”

Speaking at an event earlier this month organised by the Royal United Services Institute thinktank the BBC’s Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban highlighted just how serious he was about the cementing the so-called Special Relationship. ‘They [British unit commanders] were lacking in intellectual curiosity. If you told them you had been there when the Russians had been there, there was almost never a follow up question about “Oh, how did they do this?”’, Urban commented about his experiences of reporting on the ground in Afghanistan. ‘Whereas I was contacted by officers from US Marine battalions that were deploying saying “We are doing our study day and we’ve got your [1987] book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Can you explain X, Y and Z?” And as a result of which I built relationships with some of these US Marine guys that then resulted in embeds when they were taking over some of these places.’

To summarise, Urban appears to reveal he advised the American military on how to fight better in Afghanistan – a war, we shouldn’t forget, that was deeply unpopular in the UK, involved the military occupation of another country and tens of thousands of conflict deaths. Moreover, through building a friendly relationship with the US military Urban believes he was given embedded reporting posts with American forces.

How, exactly, does this fit with the BBC’s claims to be impartial and independent?

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
4 September 2017

Every now and then an opinion piece is published in the press lamenting the lack of political songwriting today.

A couple of assumptions lay behind this much repeated concern about popular music. First, ‘political music’ is taken to mean music giving voice to left-leaning, anti-establishment politics – AKA protest music. Second, that the Golden Age of political music ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Bob Dylan’s broadsides against the military-industrial complex and American racism to John Lennon’s feminist Woman Is The Nigger Of The World and a slew of anti-Vietnam War songs. Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi echoed the concerns of the emerging environmental movement, while artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder soundtracked the racism and economic disadvantage experienced by African Americans. In the UK Pink Floyd released bestselling albums making uncomfortable statements about consumerism and suburban living, while Canadian Neil Young sang about colonialism from the POV of first nationers on epic tracks like Cortez the Killer and Pocahontas.

With the turn to neoliberalism still being contested in society, Thatcher’s Britain was also a fertile ground for protest music, including songs and public statements made by The Smiths, working-class hero Billy Bragg and The Jam (see Going Underground and Town Called Malice). Robert Wyatt’s version of the anti-Falklands War song Shipbuilding hit the top 40 chart in 1983, while Ghost Town, The Specials’ spooky hymn to urban decay, reached number one two years earlier. Social and political concerns were also important to many of the bands that dominated the international stadium circuit during the 80s. On the electrifying Bullet in the Blue Sky U2 denounced US intervention in Central America, Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel sang about apartheid South Africa, and Bruce Springsteen gave a voice to working-class families struggling to make ends meet in Reagan’s America.

However, by the time New Labour was at the height of its power in the late 90s British popular rock music had come to be dominated by deeply bland music. Coldplay, Keane, David Gray, Dido, Travis and Robbie Williams all sold millions of records by saying nothing at all, to paraphrase another nondescript songwriter popular at the time.

Fast forward to today and a slew of hipster-friendly rock acts endorsed by the Guardian, Q, Uncut and Mojo magazines are in the ascendency, though they seemingly have nothing coherent or substantive to say about what’s going on in the wider world: Fleet Foxes, Australian experimentalists Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear, War on Drugs, Spoon, Wilco and Kevin Morby to name but a few.

Dominating the Latitude, Green Man and End of the Road music festivals, these bands are very obviously influenced by classic rock artists like Dylan, The Beatles, Young, Springsteen and Pink Floyd – but the influence seems to be solely musical, with their heroes socio-political concerns largely disregarded. US singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who is often compared to the great wordsmiths of the past, has released sixteen albums since 2000, with pretty much every song on every record focussed on the never-ending ups and downs of his romantic life.

(As an aside, I should say I am a fan of nearly all of these bands – my critique is not coming from a position of ignorance or antipathy).

Of course, there are exceptions to my argument – Radiohead’s twenty first century ecological dread and critique of late capitalism (see Idioteque and all of their seminal OK Computer album) and PJ Harvey’s musical exploration of the UK’s foreign wars come to mind. However, these artists tend to be disconnected from the broader trends and fashions of popular music. For example, Asian Dub Foundation’s incendiary 2000 album Community Music attacking Blairism, corrupt cops, nationalism, racism, corporation-led globalisation and warning of an impending financial crash, stuck out like a sore thumb at the time and has been quickly forgotten since then. And let’s not forget Springsteen and Young have made two of the angriest political albums in recent years with Wrecking Ball and The Monsanto Years, respectively – a fact that should shame their younger musical peers.

Finally, these OAP rockers highlight a key third assumption behind the original lament about politics and popular music: it really only applies if you define popular music as mainstream ‘rock music’ or ‘guitar music’.

There is lots of exciting and interesting protest music being made today – just in different genres and away from the mainstream. Rapper Plan B’s 2011 riots-inspired Ill Manors is arguably the greatest British protest song of the last decade. In the US R&B star Beyonce’s message of feminism and black power has reached a mass audience with her hit 2016 album Lemonade, while hip hop’s man of the moment Kendrick Lamar’s Alright is sang at Black Lives Matter rallies. Kanye West’s 2012 track New Slaves draws a connection between slavery and the involvement of profit-seeking corporations in the US criminal justice system today. Across the border, on her latest album Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq sings about the rape of indigenous women and lands in Canada. Elsewhere, on her electronic 2016 album Hopelessness the brilliant Anohni turned her attention to Obama’s drone wars, climate change, toxic masculinity and the death penalty.

Finally, the Morning Star’s favourite singer-songwriter Grace Petrie has been skewering the hypocrisy of the British establishment since 2010 – and, amazingly, still doesn’t have a record deal. As she sings sarcastically on last year’s I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist, “We’re not on the radio because they don’t want to know and by this point it’s really pretty clear that the mainstream music press they just couldn’t care less”.

 

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 August 2017

Writing under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s new book is a timely Washington D.C.-based political thriller.

Presumably finished soon after Donald Trump won the presidency in November last year, To Kill The President begins with an unnamed, newly elected and manically unstable Commander in Chief stopped at the last minute from ordering an unprovoked nuclear strike on North Korea – a storyline that got Freedland plenty of media exposure during the recent US-North Korean nuclear standoff.

Operating in the shadows is the president’s calculating, deeply unpleasant chief strategist Crawford ‘Mac’ McNamara, clearly based on the recently departed Steve Bannon.

Fighting the good liberal fight is Maggie Costello, a former UN aid worker and peace negotiator now working in the White House’s Counsel Office. Ordered to investigate the mysterious death of the President’s personal doctor, she uncovers a plot to assassinate POTUS, grappling with the personal, moral and political repercussions of her discovery. Should she try to stop the murder of the democratically elected head of state, or would the US and the world be a better place if the ignorant and dangerous demagogue was six feet under? This conundrum isn’t as interesting as Freedland thinks it is but nonetheless it’s an entertaining plot device, one that encourages the reader to root for the assassin, in a similar way to Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal.

The centrality of the assassination plot means the book is inescapably premised on a particularly elite view of history – that the real power resides with Great Men and that significant, long-lasting political change is triggered if they are disposed. Social movements, grassroots activism, broad historical currents – all are ignored.

Talking of politics, as a long-time reader of Freedland’s Guardian articles, I was interested to see if his brand of liberal, establishment-friendly politics would be reflected in his writing, or whether he was a skilled enough author to escape, or atleast think critically about, his increasingly irrelevant worldview (e.g. his article just before the general election about Labour’s fortunes titled ‘No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown’).

Spoiler alert: it’s the former.

Diligently following the press pack, lamentably the book is preoccupied with the supposed dangers of social media, and those liberal bête noires – so-called Fake News and post-truth politics. In contrast Media Lens told the Morning Star last year the “media performance” of the corporate liberal media “is itself largely fake news”, arguing the term is deployed to demonise social media and bolster the corporate media. Indeed, Freedland isn’t averse to some post-truth politics himself. For example, “when violence resumed in Gaza” was how he described/dismissed, on BBC Question Time, Israel’s 2014 one-sided bombardment of Gaza that killed 1,523 Palestinian civilians, including 519 children, according to the United Nations.

The previous occupant of the Oval Office – who Costello reverentially remembers serving under – is represented as a benign, wise, rational man. Laughably, at one point Freedland writes that this Obama-like figure insisted an investigation into a “mid-ranking official” in his own administration had as wide a remit as possible to make sure it uncovered any corruption going on. Again, this power worship shouldn’t be surprising when one considers Freedland’s quasi-religious account of Obama coming on stage in Berlin in July 2008: the then Democratic presidential candidate “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water”, he breathlessly recorded.

“We will miss him when he’s gone”, he wrote about president No. 44, who had bombed seven nations, killing thousands of men, women and children, during his presidency. Freedland has acted as a defacto unpaid intern in the White House press office for decades. “I had seen a maestro at the height of his powers. Clinton was the Pele of politics, and we might wait half a century to see his like again”, he gushed at the end of Bill Clinton’s time in office in 2000. “I will miss him”.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask from To Kill A President, but the book – and no doubt Freedland – shows no awareness of the relationship between Obama’s neoliberal, status quo-saving politics and the rise of Trump. Or the key role played by liberal commentators such as Freedland in shielding the Wall Street-funded Obama from serious criticism.

Though it doesn’t match the excitement levels or political conspiracy of the best in the genre – think the unthreatening and simplistic politics of TV show Designated Survivor rather than the radicalism of Costa Gavras’s Z or the lightening pace of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels – Freedland has written an enjoyable page-turner. Just don’t read it to understand US politics, the Trump presidency or how real progressive change might be made in America.

To Kill The President is published by HarperCollins, priced £7.99.

 

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?