Tag Archives: Tony Benn

Radical action now is the only sensible option

Radical action now is the only sensible option
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 February 2018

Today the UK faces a number of serious and interlinked threats to the public’s health and future wellbeing. Tinkering around the edges, gradual reform or triangulation-style politics are simply no longer commensurate with the challenges bearing down on us. Radical action – implemented right now – is the only realistic option.

Research consistently shows the UK has one of the highest levels of inequality – and one of the lowest levels of social mobility – in Western Europe. However, last year the Guardian reported the government’s own Social Mobility Commission found “policies have failed to significantly reduce inequality between rich and poor despite two decades of interventions by successive governments”. Headed by former Labour MP Alan Milburn, the study noted there had been “too little” progress since 1997, with many policies implemented in the past no longer fit for purpose. The study warned “that without radical and urgent reform, the social and economic divisions in British society will widen, threatening community cohesion and economic prosperity”, noted the Guardian.

Pollution is also a significant problem, with around 40,000 deaths every year in the UK attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, according to a 2016 Royal College of Physicians report. In response, the government announced in July that the UK will ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040. London mayor Sadiq Khan criticised this measure, arguing Londoners needed action on pollution right now. But while Khan has introduced several important measures, including the roll out of an Ultra Low Emission Zone in the capital, in October the Commission on the Future of London’s Roads and Streets criticised Khan himself for not going far enough. The Green Party have also highlighted the hypocrisy of Khan talking a good game on “healthy streets” while backing the plan for the Silvertown Tunnel – that is, a new urban motorway – in east London.

Turning to climate change, the future is looking bleak. Last month a new forecast published by the Met Office assessed that annual global average temperature could reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels during the next five years – already breaking the hopeful goal of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Indeed, the United Nations news service recently noted “pledges made under the Paris Agreement are only a third of what is required by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”.

Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, fleshed out the danger of climate chaos in 2014: “What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term. In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.”

What is required, according to the respected climate scientists Professor Kevin Anderson and Professor Alice Bows, is for the wealthier nations to immediately adopt a de-growth strategy – wholesale systems change on a far greater scale than the allied mobilisations that ‘won’ the Second World War.

So who should we look to for assistance in implementing the radical policies that will address these threats?

The re-designed Guardian newspaper sees itself, in the words of editor Katharine Viner, as the repository for “thoughtful, progressive… and challenging” thinking. However, it is important to remember the Guardian strongly opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to become leader of the Labour Party, instead lending its support to New Labourite Yvette Cooper. Before and after Corbyn was elected, a string of Guardian columnists including Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Suzanne Moore and Martin Kettle, were let loose, spewing invective, half-truths and nonsensical arguments to undermine the Islington North MP and the movement behind him.

“The Guardian represents a whole batch of journalists, from moderate right to moderate left – i.e. centre journalists – who, broadly speaking, like the status quo”, Tony Benn memorably wrote in his diaries. “They like the two-party system, with no real change. They’re quite happy to live under the aegis of the Americans and NATO… they are very critical of the left… they are just the Establishment. It is a society that suits them well.”

A Corbyn-led Labour Party winning the next election on the back of energised social movements offers the best chance for significant progressive change in my lifetime. But while it is essential to defend Corbyn from establishment attacks, those who wish to address the threats I’ve listed above need to understand they will almost certainly need to push beyond Corbynism in its current guise. If Corbyn and his core leadership team can be persuaded and/or pressured to be more radical, that’s great, but if not, then the grassroots needs to be prepared to go further to achieve change.

On the environment, though Corbyn’s Labour Party put forward many good proposals in their 2017 general election manifesto, Greenpeace noted “there are some important areas for improvement” including the party’s continuing promotion of North Sea oil and gas and its “cautious support” for airport expansion in south east England. More importantly, the Labour manifesto, like the Tory Party, championed economic growth – precisely the ideology and economic path that is propelling the planet over the climate cliff.

We desperately need radical, joined-up thinking. For example, a reduction in private car use and increased funding for public transport would have number of positive knock-on effects for society beyond helping to reduce carbon emissions: a reduction in air pollution; less noise and improved quality of sleep; fewer road deaths; safer streets meaning more people walking and cycling, leading to more people exercising and less obesity and depression. All of which would lead to a reduction in stress on the NHS.

This kind of holistic thinking has long been the mainstay of the Green Party who, let’s not forget, stood aside 30 candidates for another progressive candidate they thought had a better chance of winning the seat at the last general election. It is the Green Party who have been questioning the concept of economic growth and discussing, long before Labour, the idea of a Universal Basic Income and Land Value Tax. Last month Green MEP Molly Scott Cato suggested extending VAT to all processed and factory farmed meat to help combat climate change and encourage healthier eating habits.

Though Corbyn is riding high at the moment, joining forces with the Green Party would massively strengthen the movement that has made his leadership so successful.

As the title of Canadian author Naomi Klein’s generation shaking book about climate change and capitalism argues, the size and all-encompassing nature of the climate crisis “changes everything”.

“It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand”, she explains. “And it means that a whole lot of stuff we have been told is impossible has to start happening right away.”

You can follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter on @IanJSinclair.

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

What Jeremy Corbyn supporters can learn from Margaret Thatcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest crime you’ve never heard of

The biggest crime you’ve never heard of
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 May 2015

They must have known, mustn’t they? How could they not? Perhaps they chose not to know? With the world commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi-run death camps the question of what ordinary Germans knew (and did) about the genocide their government was perpetrating has once again been in the news.

Of course, the assumption behind much of the coverage of the liberation of Belsen and other camps is that we, living enlightened lives in contemporary Britain, are lucky to live in a society where horrendous crimes do not happen. And if they did, they would be quickly reported by our free and stroppy media and quickly halted.

But what if our own government has been responsible for genocide-level suffering, without the media raising the alarm and therefore leaving the general public in a state of ignorance? What would this say about our political class? What would it say about the media? And what would it say about us?

Unfortunately this isn’t a hypothetical debate but the cold, brutal reality.

To understand this distressing fact we need to return to February 1991 when the US-led coalition kicked Iraq out of Kuwait, which it had illegally invaded in August 1990. According to John Hoskins, a Canadian doctor leading a Harvard study team, the US-led air assault “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and healthcare”. Purportedly to compel Saddam Hussein’s government to give up its Weapons of Mass Destruction, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, which lasted until the 2003 invasion. The sanctions regime was enforced by the US and UK who took the toughest line on compliance.

“No country had ever been subjected to more comprehensive economic sanctions by the United Nations than Iraq”, notes Hans von Sponeck, the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, in his 2006 book A Different Kind Of War. “Communicable diseases in the 1980s not considered public health hazards, such as measles, polio, cholera, typhoid, marasmus and kwashiorkor, reappeared on epidemic scales.” In 1999 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died because of a lack of medication, food or safe water supplies.

To counter some of the worst effects of sanctions, in 1996 the UN set up the Oil-For-Food Programme, which allowed Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and other goods. However, the programme was far from adequate. “At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food Programme”, von Sponeck notes in his book. In 1998/99, each Iraqi received a food allocation of $49 – 27 cents a day – for a six month period. In contrast, the dogs the UN used to help de-mine Iraq each received a food allocation of $160.

In protest at what seventy members of the US congress called “infanticide masquerading as policy”, Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq who ran the sanctions regime, resigned in 1998. Noting the sanctions were causing the deaths of up to 5,000 children a month, Halliday bluntly stated “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.” Speaking to journalist John Pilger, Halliday later explained “I was instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.”

Halliday’s successor, von Sponeck, resigned in protest two years later, asking in his resignation letter “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Later he told Pilger “I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now it is unavoidable”.

Making a hat-trick, Jutta Burghardt, head of the UN World Food Program in Iraq, resigned two days after Von Sponeck, describing the sanctions regime as “a true humanitarian tragedy.”

With a few honourable exceptions such as Pilger, Tony Benn and George Galloway, the response of the British political class and media was to either to ignore or dismiss the fact sanctions were killing Iraqis on a mass scale. According to the media watchdog Media Lens, in 2003 Halliday was mentioned in just 2 of the 12,366 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning Iraq. Von Sponeck was mentioned a grand total of 5 times in the same year. Von Sponeck’s book on the sanctions has never been reviewed in the British press, and has been mentioned just once – by the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk.

Echoing the denials of New Labour ministers such as Peter Hain and Robin Cook, in 2002 Observer Editor Roger Alton responded to a reader challenging him about the sanctions, stating “It’s saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry”. The highly respected Middle East specialist Professor Fred Halliday was equally dismissive, rubbishing “claims that Iraq still lacks the means to provide a basic supply of food” in a book review in the Independent in 1999.

The governing elite, assisted by a pliant media and the silence of much of academia, have carried out a magic trick of epic, sinister proportions: in a world of 24-hour news culture they have effectively managed to bury the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a direct result of British foreign policy. The lack of coverage, concern or discussion today about the sanctions shows how shockingly successful they have been in this endeavour.

As Harold Pinter sarcastically noted in his Nobel Peace Prize speech: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”

No conspiracy is needed. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban”, writer George Orwell argued in his censored preface to Animal Farm. He provides two reasons for thought control in democratic society: first, the owners of the British press, socially, politically and economically part of the governing elite, “have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.” And second, he explains that “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

As always, it’s up to those who care about the lives of people regardless of their nationality or skin colour, who care about truth, who take their responsibility as world citizens seriously, to raise their voice and remember this moral and historical outrage.