Tag Archives: Owen Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economy

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

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

NHS

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

Education

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

Transport

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

Royal Mail

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

Welfare

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

Immigration

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

Trident

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

Foreign Policy

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

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

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

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

Jones versus reality

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

Who is Owen Smith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS: just a murderous death cult?

ISIS: just a murderous death cult?
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
14 January 2016

The language and framing we use to speak about an issue can either illuminate and help to explain or it can obfuscate and limit our understanding, and thus keep possible solutions out of reach.

Driven by the media’s McCarthy-style witch hunt of anyone who does not publicly denounce ISIS in the strongest terms humanly possible, politicians and commentators have fallen into the dangerous habit of simplistically defining and dismissing ISIS. They are an “evil death cult”, the Prime Minister told parliament in December 2015. Following her leader’s example, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan called them a “murderous death cult” on BBC Question Time. Not to be outdone the neutral BBC’s Andrew Neil named them “A bunch of loser jihadists” and “Islamist scumbags” carrying out “Beheading, crucifixions, amputations, slavery, mass murder, medieval squalor… a death cult barbarity that would shame the Middle Ages”. The Left has scarcely been better. Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics left-wing writer Owen Jones stated ISIS “is a murderous death cult… that attracts these pathetic, murdering losers”. Challenged on how we should deal with the group, Jones explained “Obviously there is no prospect, ever, of negotiating with this murderous death cult. They don’t want to negotiate, they have an apocalyptic vision of the world which they wish to satisfy.”

These statements certainly describe one, very public, side of ISIS. However, as the retired American General Stanley McChrystal told The Guardian, “If the west see ISIS as an almost stereotypical band of psychopathic killers, we risk dramatically underestimating them.” Charlie Winter, a senior researcher focussing on ISIS at Georgia State University concurs, explaining “Far from being an army of irrational, bloodthirsty fanatics, IS is a deeply calculating political organisation with an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure.”

Writing about ISIS’s attempted state-building, Charles Lister, author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, notes ISIS’s “standard governance practice” includes “establishing public welfare programs, offering countless forms of social service, commercial good quality inspections, tax offices, transport companies and much more.” In a 2014 article titled ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has a Consumer Protection Office’ Aaron Zelin, a Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, comments the group’s “sophisticated bureaucracy” includes a court system and a roving police force, along with services such as an electricity department, a post office, road repairs, religious schools and healthcare. “ISIS helps run bread factories and provides fruit and vegetables to many families”, Zelin notes. “In Raqqa, ISIS has established a food kitchen to feed the needy and an Office for Orphans to help pair them with families” aswell as conducting polio-vaccination campaigns. Apparently ISIS have set up a Complaints Office (complete with a suggestions boxes) in an attempt to weed out corruption. And last week The Guardian reported on the organisation’s Research and Development Centre run by technicians and scientists and its Communications team, which is staffed by up to 100 people and has “a schedule and workload that could rival a television network.”

Rather than wilfully play into the media’s seedy little game of feigned moral outrage, politicians and commentators need to face up to some very inconvenient facts. According to the EU Commissioner for Justice over 5,000 Europeans have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Numerous reports have noted that many Sunnis have chosen to live under ISIS control rather than the Iraqi Government. According to Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, there is evidence of refugee flows into ISIS controlled territory. Though far from easy, there are positive steps that could be taken in response. To stop ISIS recruiting in the West we need to stop publicly labelling the people who join them “pathetic, murdering losers” and engage and deal with the complex personal, social, economic and political factors that lead them to turn to ISIS in the first place. To reduce ISIS’s power and control in Iraq we need to consider why much of the Sunni population is so wary of the Iraqi Government forces. And to reduce ISIS’s authority in Syria we need to reduce the violence and chaos that the group exploits and push for an end to the war as soon as possible.

The problem is this: all these possible solutions involve coming to terms with our own reprehensible role in the crisis. The West’s military interventions in the Middle East have has undoubtedly played a key role in radicalising Muslims residing in the West. The West has supported the Iraqi Government while it gunned down unarmed Sunni demonstrators, barrel bombed Sunni-dominated areas and let Shia militias run wild, carrying out widespread war crimes. And in Syria the West has helped to escalate the conflict and wrecked attempts at negotiation a peaceful solution to the conflict. So aswell as being deeply unhelpful when it comes to defeating ISIS, calling them “a murderous death cult” also has an important political role – of moving the spotlight away from own destructive actions.

If we are serious about helping to reduce ISIS’s power and territory, what we desperately need is a grown-up, nuanced, evidenced-based debate about the organisation and the reasons behind its growth and continued existence. To take one example, a rational approach would dismiss Owen Jones’s crude assertion that “there is no prospect, ever, of negotiating” with ISIS and ask questions about ISIS’s internal divisions and factions and its external support. Is there a more moderate or pragmatic wing of the group? How might groups or fighters that our currently fighting with or allied to ISIS be persuaded to break away? Could we negotiate with the state and non-state actors currently supporting ISIS? Would it be possible to persuade – that is negotiate with – those who plan on joining ISIS in the future?

And finally we need to remember the simplistic and often hysterical public statements and positions the media demands politicians and commentators robotically parrot are not necessarily good for the wider world and are not helpful if we wish to reduce the terror threat to the UK and other countries.

Does arming the Kurds mean the West is supporting forces committing war crimes?

Does arming the Kurds mean the West is supporting forces committing war crimes?
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
29 November 2015

In the sometimes hysterical political debate that has happened since the Paris terrorist attacks, a strange consensus has coalesced around how the UK should respond to the rise of Islamic State.

With the Kurds garnering a great deal of sympathy in the West since the 1991 Gulf War, prominent progressive commentators opposed to direct UK military intervention in Syria agree that we should be “systematically arming” the Kurdish militia, as Labour leftist Owen Jones forcefully argued on a recent edition of BBC Sunday Morning Live. Similarly, last year Aljazeera presenter Mehdi Hasan wrote that “Progressives need to get behind the Kurds”. Ditto George Galloway. The Tory Government agrees, and has been training and arming Kurdish forces in Iraq since 2014.

The respected human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is another supporter of arming the Kurds, recently arguing a “successful strategy might be to empower” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq – both of which have been fighting Islamic State.

However, in October 2015 Amnesty International released a report that found “evidence of alarming abuses, including eyewitness accounts and satellite images, detailing the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages” in areas of northern Syria under the control of the Syrian Kurdish political party PYD (the political party of the YPG). “By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the [PYD-controlled] Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes,” Lama Fakih, a Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International, noted.

I challenged Tatchell on Twitter, asking why he was urging support for groups that were committing war crimes, linking to the Amnesty International report. His reply? “This action was wrong but exceptional & untypical of YPG. Overall, they have a good record of protecting civilians.”

“Exceptional & untypical” is certainly one way to describe what Amnesty International call “the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians” from atleast eight villages. Reporting from the same area in July 2015, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn explained the conflict “has many aspects of an ethnic war: the Kurds are driving out Sunni Arabs, whom they accuse of being Islamic State supporters.” In June 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 107-page report on the human rights situation in PYD-run enclaves in Syria. According to HRW there are arbitrary arrests of the PYD’s political opponents, abuses in detention, the use of child soldiers and excessive force was used to quell political protests.

A similar picture emerges of the Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq. A February 2015 report by Human Rights Watch highlighted how “Kurdish forces have confined thousands of Arabs in ‘security zones’ in areas of northern Iraq that they have captured since August 2014” from Islamic State. In addition, “Kurdish forces for months barred Arabs displaced by fighting from returning to their homes… while permitting Kurds to return to those areas and even to move into homes of Arabs who fled.” Local Kurds told HRW that Kurdish forces had destroyed dozens of Arab homes. One European diplomat with familiarity of the areas under Kurdish control explained there was “deliberate, systematic destruction of Sunni Arab property” by the Peshmerga. “It’s not just collective punishment for perceived support. It’s wholesale ethnic cleansing.”

Another recent report for the Middle East Eye describes a recent Dutch television documentary that filmed a commander of the Kurdish People’s Defence Force in Iraq saying that his forces did not take any prisoners. “Not in my forces, nowhere actually. Let’s be honest – simply nowhere. We don’t want prisoners.” (Unsurprisingly, the Kurdish authorities in Syria and Iraq have denied the claims made by the documentary and the reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch).

All this is not to say that, all things considered, arming the Kurds might not be the least worst realistic option available to Western governments and publics interested in defeating Islamic State. However, when deciding on what action, if any, to take in Syria and Iraq, it is essential the general population has an accurate understanding of what is happening in these conflicts, and a realistic picture of those we are supporting or plan to support. The prominent progressives named above have not told their readers the truth about the Kurdish forces they are urging the West to arm. Furthermore, it is likely that the defacto ethnic cleansing the Kurdish forces are reported to have carried out in Syria and Iraq is likely to have been counterproductive, pushing local populations into the arms of the Islamic State or other forces they feel can protect them.

“The charges also raise a complex question for the countries that train and equip Kurdish forces”, journalist Sara Elizabeth Williams notes in her Foreign Policy article about the abuses carried out by Kurdish forces in Iraq. “Can they continue to supply military aid if their weapons are used to commit what experts say amount to war crimes?”

Guardian on the wrong side of history over Corbyn

Guardian on the wrong side of history over Corbyn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 October 2015

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide election to the Labour Party leadership was that he thrashed the other three candidates despite being opposed by almost the entire national press.

There were two honourable exceptions: the Morning Star and the Daily Record both backed the MP for Islington North.

“Corbyn: Abolish The Army” was one particularly memorable Sun front page, while the Sunday Mirror argued Corbyn was “a throwback to the party’s darkest days when it was as likely to form the government as Elvis was of being found on Pluto.”

In September the Express revealed “the evil monster haunting Jeremy Corbyn’s past.” Apparently Corbyn’s great great grandfather ran a workhouse. The shame! Over at The Times the level-headed Rachel Sylvester compared Corbyn’s imminent victory to when “the Vikings and the Mayans brought about their own extinction.”

At the other end of the British media spectrum, the Guardian ran what former British Ambassador Craig Murray accurately described as a “panic-driven hysterical hate-fest campaign against Corbyn.”

The Guardian backed Yvette Cooper, a candidate who voted for the illegal, aggressive war in Iraq in 2003 and the disastrous Libyan intervention in 2011, and supported Trident, austerity, benefit cuts and a stricter asylum system.

Throughout the leadership campaign it continuously ran front pages highlighting the increasingly hysterical concerns of former Labour “heavyweights,” including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Peter Hain and David Miliband.

Writing about the contest a few days after Corbyn made it onto the ballot, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee dismissed Corbyn as “a 1983 man” and “a relic.” Voting for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate,” Toynbee argued.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s opinion editor, was deeply sceptical about the rising support for Jez: “The unkind reading of this is to suggest that support for Corbynism, especially among the young, is a form of narcissism.” Not to be outdone, the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle dismissed Corbyn’s “programme of prelapsarian socialist purity,” while Michael White, the Guardian’s assistant editor, sneered: “Did Jeremy Corbyn used to wear open-toed sandals around Westminster in hot weather? Does he still?”

Slowly losing her grip on reality, G2 columnist Suzanne Moore told readers she didn’t support Corbyn because she has an “innate political distrust of asceticism.” After linking approvingly to an article setting out Alistair Campbell’s problems with Corbyn, Moore expanded her thesis: “Where is the vision of socialism that involves the sharing of life’s joys as well as life’s hardships? Where is the left that argued that nothing is too good for ordinary people — be it clothes, buildings, music.”

After Corbyn was elected by a landslide, Moore was back with more wisdom: “Who is advising him? Ex-devotees of Russell Brand?” she opined. “Corbyn and his acolytes may worship Chomsky and bang on about the evil mainstream media, they may actually believe that everything bad emanates from the US, they may go to Cuba and not notice that it’s a police state full of sex workers, but they are going to have to get with the programme.”

To quote the comedian Mark Thomas: “Trees died for this shit!”

There were, I should point out, honourable exceptions to this “Get Corbyn” campaign at the Guardian. Owen Jones, Seumas Milne and George Monbiot all wrote supportive articles, though they were swamped by the nonsensical anti-Corbyn screeds. Amazingly, in a response to readers’ complaints that the paper was biased against Corbyn, the Guardian’s readers’ editor had the brass neck to write: “Tallies of positive and negative pieces are a dangerous measure, as the Guardian should not be a fanzine for any side.”

So why was nearly the entire British press and commentariat opposed to the candidate whose positions on military interventions and public ownership, to name just two issues, were supported by a majority of the public?

Very obviously the ownership structure of the British press has a significant influence on a paper’s politics. “Essentially I think that what happens is that newspaper proprietors/owners … will appoint an editor and that will be informed possibly by their world view or what they want,” Dominic Lawson, the former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, explained in 2007.

Of course, that editor will then hire senior journalists and managers, who, in turn, hire junior members of staff. And these newbies will rise through the ranks by getting the approval of the senior journalists and managers, who were hired by the editor, who… you get the picture.

The people who end up working in the media today are overwhelmingly from very privileged backgrounds, with Sutton Trust research finding over half of the top journalists were privately educated. Incredibly the study found 37 percent of the top journalists who went to university graduated from just one institution — Oxford.

This similarity in background likely produces deeply held, unconscious shared assumptions about the world — how it works, what is possible, who is a credible source, who should be in charge and who should necessarily be excluded from decision-making.

“If you want a career in corporate journalism you have to accept certain things,” the former Financial Times journalist Matt Kennard explained at an event to launch his new book The Racket earlier this year. “The default position in our media — which is what they call ‘unbiased’ — is to support corporate power and US militarism.” Having spent his political life opposing these destructive entities, Corbyn was never going to be a favourite of the mainstream media.

Guardian journalists would be horrified by the idea but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Guardian’s role has been a deeply undemocratic, conservative one, desperately attempting to maintain “politics as usual” in the face of Corbyn’s challenge to our unfair and unequal political status quo.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on the journalists I’ve mentioned above. It is clear there has been a generational shift over the last few months, with many journalists fading into irrelevance, unable to make sense of or understand the Corbyn surge and the new political reality. Luckily other, smarter thinkers have taken their place — people like Novara Media’s Aaron Bastini, the staff at Open Democracy, Maya Goodfellow from Labour List and, at the Guardian, Zoe Williams and Owen Jones.

With the Guardian and the rest of the media unable or unwilling to adequately reflect progressive left-wing opinion in Britain, it is essential the left focuses on building up a vibrant and popular alternative media. This means supporting and working with existing non-corporate publications such as the Morning Star and also helping to build new, often online, attempts to crack the mainstream, such as Media Lens and Novara Media, which is currently holding a funding drive.

Just as Corbyn’s leadership team will have to think outside the box of Westminster politics if they are to succeed, so too must the left when it comes to the media. Discussions about the media need to be central to Momentum, the new social movement set up to support the policies Corbyn campaigned on. And the left needs to think and dream long-term — beyond 2020 and, yes, beyond Corbyn.