Monday, 4 July 2022

Western culture is toxic and it damages all of our lives

Firstly, I want to start with a disclaimer. This is a short post. But this topic could easily be the subject of a long essay or even a book so I'll just concentrate on what I think are some key points.

Western culture is often seen as arising with the ancient Greeks, with Socrates, Plato, and the others who gave us philosophy, geometry, and democracy. Move forward and we reach the end of paganism and the beginning of organised religion. Christianity gave us original sin. This concept didn't come from Jesus, and although some Christians believe it originated in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, it came from the writings and ideas of St Augustine who was born in 354 AD: 

"Original sin is an Augustine Christian doctrine that says that everyone is born sinful. This means that they are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God. It is an important doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church. The concept of Original Sin was explained in depth by St Augustine and formalised as part of Roman Catholic doctrine by the Councils of Trent in the 16th Century."

The very idea that people are 'born bad' leads to the idea that they need to be controlled and punished, something that is still a feature of Western culture today. And along with this comes the patriarchy of Christianity and the subjugation of women.

Fast forward to the 'enlightenment' which is reckoned to have happened during a period between the late 17th century and the early 19th century. Although it stressed reason, logic, criticism, and freedom of thought over dogma, blind faith, and superstition, it also gave us philosophers like Hobbes who wrote about life 'being nasty brutish and short' a pessimistic view of humans who he thought were selfish and only interested in personal gain. The solution? Put a powerful person - a sovereign - in charge to punish people who stepped out of line.

Then we have the 'othering of nature'. This is key because it deems that humans are not part of nature and that the natural environment is something to be owned and exploited. This has led to the rampant destruction of nature and mass exploitation of animals in factory farming which is causing huge damage to our planet:

"From religious texts teaching that God provided humans with dominion over Earth, to futuristic literature pitching nature as our past and human ingenuity and technology as our future, the narrative that humans are beyond – or even superior to - nature is deeply entrenched."

The rise of the concept of the individual through Goethe and Mill to the present has also caused damage by helping to undermine the community. We are social animals first and foremost, we depend on our families, friends, and community - something the Covid crisis reminded us of. A person growing up in the middle ages in England would have thought of themselves as part of a community, not an 'individual' in the sense that we do now. Without the cult of individualism, Margaret Thatcher would never have been able to say "There is no such thing as society". When our culture focuses on 'me', 'my happiness', and 'my wealth' we have a toxic recipe for exploitation and repression.

The age of Empire in which European countries such as Spain, France, Holland, and Great Britain built empires around the globe, brings us a new wave of problems. Whatever you may think of empire it was (and still is) the looting and pillaging of natural resources and people from foreign countries. It has led to mass death, environmental destruction, and rampant racism throughout the globe. If you are going to subjugate peoples, enslave them, and steal their property and resources it's a whole lot easier to do it if you see them as being inferior to the (white) colonists. Empires such as Britain's also helped to spread homophobia around the world. Countries that hadn't previously discriminated against gay people in a formal way, through the law, began to do so.

These are some of the key reasons why racism, misogyny, homophobia, and an obsession with criminalising and punishing people are so prevalent in Western societies and other places around the world.  The climate and biodiversity crises are the direct result of the 'othering of nature' and threaten the future of our species and life on our planet. 

As I write this a new variant of Covid is ripping through communities and hospital admissions are going up. But most of the people I know are flocking to indoor events with poor ventilation without taking any precautions such as wearing a mask. Whilst this is to some extent understandable given the restrictions of the past two years it's also an example of Western exceptionalism, something that comes from the history and concepts I've been describing. In the far east, in places like Japan, people think nothing of wearing a mask. It's part of their sense of community and protecting themselves and others.

So how can we move away from our toxic and harmful culture towards one which equally respects all people and the nature that we are a part of? Well, we can learn much from indigenous societies that see themselves as one with nature. Such societies account for only 5% of the Earth's land mass but 80% of its biodiversity. Not only that but many indigenous societies have much more civilised ways of dealing with gender and sexual orientation than we do. In indigenous culture:

"It wasn’t until Europeans took over North America that natives adopted the ideas of gender roles. For Native Americans, there was no set of rules that men and women had to abide by in order to be considered a “normal” member of their tribe.

In fact, people who had both female and male characteristics were viewed as gifted by nature, and therefore, able to see both sides of everything. According to Duane Brayboy, writing in Indian Country Today, all native communities acknowledged the following gender roles: “Female, Male, Two Spirit Female, Two Spirit Male and Transgendered."

There is much we can learn from indigenous communities and their cultural concepts need to be much more widely appreciated and implemented. We don't have to live the way we do with our narrow and toxic view of gender, our obsession with criminalising people, our rampant destruction of nature, and the primacy of the individual over all the rest of us. Time is running out. We need to get on with it!

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Rail strike: Mick Lynch shreds the MSM hacks

Yesterday, 21st June, was the summer solstice. It was also Mick Lynch day. Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT was on the picket line with his members on the first day of the national rail strikes. He and his members are fighting for a decent pay rise in the face of 9% inflation, worsening terms and conditions, and redundancies, which the rail employers are trying to push through at the behest of Boris Johnson's government.

But he also spent much of the day on television being 'interviewed' by mainstream media hacks such as Kay Burley from Sky TV. The questioning Lynch faced was predictably hostile but also largely inane. The sort of 'political' inanity that 'journalists' routinely get away with in the UK. Stupid questions designed to embarrass and undermine someone standing up for workers taking industrial action. 

Richard Madeley, on GMB, kicked off by asking Lynch if he was a Marxist. Apparently, this came from a Tory MP. Lynch replied that Madeley was talking "twaddle" much to his questioner's dismay. I doubt that the MP or Madeley have a clue what Marxism is but this is a routine line of attack used by the hard right to undermine leftists and trade unionists.

Then we had Burley interviewing Lynch on a picket line. He was standing in the sunshine with half a dozen pickets. She asked him if he was "flustered", an odd question when he was clearly calm and collected, and then referred to the miner's strike as if the peaceful picket behind him was the Battle of Orgreave. " I can't believe this line of questioning" - he dealt with her superbly, stuck to the facts, and left her looking flustered.

One of the many highlights of the day was a session with Chris Philp, Minister for Technology, on Newsnight. Like all Tory ministers, Philp lied about the strike and Lynch told him he was a liar repeatedly. Top marks for that!

Mick's superb performance was lauded by many thousands on Twitter and he's still trending today. It was an object lesson in how to deal with the billionaires' kiss-ass 'journos'. A new term has now entered the English language - "A Mick Lynching". From now on 21st June should be known as Mick Lynch Day and be added to our calendars as a new bank holiday. Superb stuff! 😊

Rail Strike: The Government Can Afford Decent Public Sector Pay Rises

Members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) are taking strike action over pay, conditions at work, and proposed redundancies. Predictably there has been a mainstream media fest of attacks on the striking union. We are told that many are being inconvenienced including students taking their exams, but what we’re not being told is that we have the highest personal tax in sixty years, the highest inflation in forty years, and a record number of people using foodbanks.

Meanwhile, the government is milking the strike for all it’s worth as a distraction from Boris Johnson’s #PartyGate crisis and the likely by-election losses in Wakefield and Tiverton on Thursday. Grant Shapps, who should be trying to resolve the strike, and could if he chose to, called the strike a stunt and refused to meet the RMT, even invoking the ghost of Harold Wilson to justify doing nothing.

All public sector workers are suffering

It’s not just the striking rail staff who are suffering from the cost of living crisis, all public sector workers are, including teachers and nurses, with some of the latter having to use food banks. Rising rents, fuel costs, energy bills and 9% inflation have produced a cost of living crisis which is hitting millions of workers very hard. So why isn’t the government giving workers a decent pay rise? The government and the Bank of England tell us that raising workers’ pay will push inflation higher but workers’ pay isn’t causing inflation. The main factors are: firstly, the fall in the value of the pound since Brexit has increased the cost of imports including fuel and other imported goods; secondly, energy and fuel costs have increased partly due to the Ukraine crisis but mainly due to profiteering by the fossil fuel companies. The impact of increasing pay will have little effect compared to these factors. As Richard Partington states in the Guardian:

“Despite the warnings of wages fuelling the inflationary fire, there is little sign of a wage-price spiral taking hold. The Bank of England reckons average pay growth across the economy, excluding bonuses, is between 4% and 6%. Although well in excess of pre-Covid rates, that is hardly shooting the lights out. With record job vacancies and unemployment the lowest in five decades – as well as the highest inflation for 40 years, which is heading to 11%, according to the Bank – it is perhaps more surprising wages haven’t spiralled significantly higher already.”

There is no money?

The other old excuse that the government gives us is that it can’t afford to raise public sector pay to meet workers’ needs – the old ‘there is no money’ argument. But this simply isn’t true. If the government were to give all public sector workers a decent pay rise of say 10%, most of that money would be returned to it. The reality is that the public sector pay rise will largely pay for itself. How? Because a significant percentage of that pay rise will be returned to the government through income tax and national insurance and, as the increased wages are spent and that money circulates around the economy, it is taxed further – it’s called the fiscal multiplier. For a fuller explanation of the affordability of public sector, pay rises see Richard J Murphy’s account here. The key point Murphy makes is that we can afford to pay for a decent pay rise for public sector workers without having to raise taxes.

Last October Boris Johnson told the Tory Party conference that Britain was on the path to a high-wage economy under his leadership. Not only is that not true but it’s likely that under his leadership the UK is heading for a recession. So much for levelling up. So, with the government’s mismanagement of the economy and indifference to workers’ struggles to put food on the table, it looks like we are facing a summer of discontent. We should get behind striking workers in the fight for a more equal society and a better economy for all.

*This article was first published in Critical Mass Magazine 0n 21/06/22

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Boris Johnson the lame duck PM will cling on as long as possible

On Monday 6th June Boris Johnson won a no-confidence vote of Tory MPs. The vote was triggered by submission of letters by 54 or more Tory MPs to the 1922 committee. Many, including the MPs themselves were surprised by the outcome. Johnson 'won' with 211 votes to 148. That's 59 - 41%. The result was a disaster for Johnson who, despite what he thinks, is now a lame duck PM. 

Of course, after the vote was announced Johnson was back with the ususal blether and bluster saying he'd won and it was time to "move on". I couldn't help wondering how many cabinet ministers voted against him - assuming the ballot really was secret enough to keep their intentions safe.

So where do we go now? Johnson is safe for now but there are two byelections in Wakefield and Tiverton coming up on 23 June which the Tories are expected to lose. Will that be enough to spark another rebellion? I think it will, and I've no doubt that plotting to remove him is happening as I write this and that, next time, it will be much more effective. There are also ongoing investigations into Partygate which will damage Johnson further.

I'm confident that Johnson will be gone by the next general election but who will replace him? No doubt Jeremy Hunt will fancy his chances, and Liz Truss has been named as a favourite to be the next leader (!). The problem is that there are no obvious outstanding candidates and whover gets the job we can expect very little to change.

The Tories are devoid of any useful ideas that can help to improve conditions for people in the UK. They have already started blethering about tax cuts which is about all they can think of, but tax cuts will not solve the cost of living crisis, nor any othe other multiple crises we face.

Johnson's latest 'vote winner' is a plan to allow a right to buy for tenants who live in housing association properties. This is a barmy idea which will further reduce the stock of social housing and is unlikely to resonate with the electorate. 

The good news is that Johnson is going and that he has fucked up his career yet again. The bad news is that any replacement is unlikely to be better than him and could potentially be worse, not to mention the fact that we have nothing that could be desrcibed as an 'oppostion' in the UK.

The struggle for economic justice and equlaity goes on!

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Rage Against The Tories! Join The TUC Demo On 18th June!

It is high time we demonstrated our rage against the Tories. The TUC has called a national demo on June 18th. This lying, cheating, corrupt government partied while millions were locked down and thousands died. Now they do nothing while energy giants enrich themselves on the back of war in Ukraine.

TUC Demo

Hedge fund speculators are driving up the cost of living. And now, when workers are fighting back, the Tories want to legislate against the rail unions in order to keep their gravy train running. So full marks to the union leaders for condemning the latest attack on our fundamental rights. Now it is up to us to build the national demo called by TUC.

Workers’ Rights

As part of Brexit, we had been promised a Bill of Rights for workers to replace our EU protections. Instead, the legislation in the Queen’s speech on 9th May was more like a Bill of Wrongs. Trade union disappointment turned to anger when it became clear that in addition to broken promises on employment protection, the government had no plan to protect us against the inflation crisis.

When workers began to take action for themselves, and some of us started winning, the government response was a continuation of decades of attacks on the right of workers to have union protection. So, on Sunday, Transport Minister Grant Shapps announced he intends to introduce legislation to require ‘minimum staffing’ on the railways if rail workers strike. The announcement came as the RMT is balloting its 40,000 members on strike action because of concerns about job security, pay and conditions.

Manuel Cortez, the General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association said: “What we are seeing here is desperate nonsense from the Tories, who have chosen to attack working people in our union who kept the railways running every day of the pandemic. What the Government should be doing is putting in place measures to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.”

All this comes at a time when the government is planning to gut the rail system with cuts of £3 billion and thousands of job losses.

At the same time, it was reported that the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, was ‘planning to loosen the grip of trade unions on schools’ by ‘bolstering’ the rights of teachers who choose not to join a trade union’ by allowing non-union members to be accompanied to a grievance or disciplinary hearing by a lawyer or other representative.

Thatcher’s Legacy

The UK has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in the developed world, a claim which has been rejected by the government but which was supported by Full Fact. The attack on unions began in earnest under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the early 1980s. Thatcher, who famously described the miners specifically and the labour movement more generally as “the enemy within,” went on to introduce heavy restrictions on the unions.

Downing Street papers from 1983, released under the 30 year rule, show that the true intention was to “neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership,” in established industries and make sure that, “our new legal structure discourages trade union membership of the new industries.”

The Blair/Brown Labour government of 1997-2010 had every opportunity to repeal the Thatcherite legislation but failed to do so. Thatcher went on to describe Blair as her ‘greatest achievement’.

Join A Union

At a time when we are experiencing a cost-of-living crisis only strong, independent trade unions can protect workers’ rights and standards of living. Critical Mass supports the TUC Demo on June 18th, but we also recognise that it is trade union bureaucrats who have often been the barrier to strike action. Strong, independent trade union organisation can only be effective if it is organised at the grassroots level. The working class cannot rely on politicians or bureaucrats to fight our battles. We have to organise ourselves to defend and extend our rights.

*This article was first published on 25/052022 in Critical Mass Magazine. Thanks to MIke Stanton for his contribuion.

Footballer Jake Daniels Comes Out As Gay

Today, as I write this, it's May 17th, the International Day against homophobia, transphobia, lesbophobia, and biphobia (#IDAHOBIT2022), and I’m reading about Jake Daniels, the 17-year-old Blackpool footballer who has come out as gay. Daniels is the first UK footballer to do this since Justin Fashanu in 1990, and his announcement has been greeted with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. The Guardian reported on the praise and support he has received from players, ex-players, and pundits:

“Massive credit to you and the way your friends, family, club, and captain have supported you,” wrote the Tottenham and England forward, Harry Kane. “Football should be welcoming for everyone.”

While it’s good to see the backing Jake has had, we should be asking why in 2022 does anyone need to do this? Why indeed is it headline news and is it really of such interest whether anyone is gay or not? It was much more difficult for Fashanu thirty years ago and his life ended tragically with suicide in 1998 after he was accused of sexual assault.

While we must hope that Jake’s bravery in coming out will have a positive effect and encourage others we know that the LGBTIQ community remains under attack, and is suffering from a lack of government support in the UK. Whilst the Tories announced in the Queen’s speech a bill that would ban conversion therapy for gay people they failed to also include a conversion ban for trans people despite the fact that they had promised to do so.

The recent exposure of the pending Roe v Wade supreme court decision to ban abortion in the USA has sparked fears amongst the LGBTIQ community that they will be the next target with a ban on gay marriage. In Hungary, LGBTIQ citizens have been under attack by the Orban government which has tried to conflate homosexuality with pedophilia. In April the government held a referendum that asked voters whether:

“they supported four things: the ‘teaching of sexual orientation’ in schools without parental consent; the ‘promotion of sex reassignment therapy’ for children; the exposure of children to ‘sexually explicit media content’; and showing ‘media content on gender-changing procedures’ to minors.”

After a campaign by LGBTIQ groups and NGOs the referendum was declared invalid because 1.6 million people spoiled their ballots and, as a result, less than 50% of voters cast valid ballots. Whilst this is a notable victory for the community, the referendum was only called to back up an anti-LGBTIQ law that had already been passed.

In recent times, trans women have been a particular target for abuse and attacks on social media, and gender-critical ‘feminists’ have been actively campaigning against trans women being regarded as women. There is clearly some confusion between biological sex, male and female, and gender, women and men, the former is biology, and the latter being a purely social construct is about gender. The key problem here is the toxic nature of western culture which, although many like to regard it as fair and even sophisticated, is narrow-minded, backward-looking, and causes real harm to individuals and communities.

The indigenous people of America celebrated five genders in their societies. Instead of a dichotomy of male and female, they had a spectrum:

“In addition to the conventional male and female, the Native American people also recognised Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male, and Transgendered identities. Each tribe has their own word for these gender variants, but the concept remains the same throughout the Native American community.”

Not only are the gender concepts of these indigenous peoples much more sophisticated than our own, but there was also no prejudice directed at people who were not of the male and female genders or were homosexuals.

I wish Jake all the best and I hope he has a successful career. As for the inadequacies of western culture and the hate directed at people who do not conform to our narrow-minded view of humanity in terms of sexual orientation and gender, I’m not holding my breath. But, like many others, I’ll be working to build a better society where individuals of all genders and sexualities are respected and accepted as equals.

*This article was first published on 18/05/2022 in Critical Mass Magazine

Cost Of Living Crisis: Millions are Missing Meals

New data released today by The Food Foundation shows the shocking impact on families of the cost of living crisis, with millions of families going without regular meals. The data, based on a survey carried out between the 22-29 April, shows:

  • a 57% jump in the proportion of households cutting back on food or missing meals altogether in just three months
  • In April, 7.3 million adults live in households that said they had gone without food or could not physically get it in the past month, which includes 2.6 million children. This is compared with 4.7 million adults in January
  • Food banks are reporting that users are increasingly requesting products that do not need cooking, as the cost of living crisis bites deeper and families cannot afford energy bills.

As the massive 54% increase in energy bill costs, raising the annual price for a typical home to £1,971 a year, hits families hard, the Foundation expects a further increase in fuel insecurity. And, as if this was not bad enough, energy bills are set to rise further in the autumn, as the energy price cap is set to rise again. In response to this, Keith Anderson, the CEO of Scottish Power said:

“Ten million poorer households needed bill discounts of £1,000: five times more than the government plans to offer in October”, and, “on our forecast, we could see the cap in October going to £2,900.”

Many people heard about a London pensioner, Elsie, when Susanna Reid challenged Boris Johnson about her predicament on GMB. The 77-year-old has one meal a day and travels on buses during the day to keep warm. Johnson, the former mayor of London, failed to provide any satisfactory answers but tried to take personal credit for the freedom bus pass for the over 60s, which he mistakenly thinks is a 24 hour pass when it is not currently valid before 9 am. Most of the credit for the recent scheme is in fact due to Gordon Brown, and it is paid for by the London boroughs.

Elsie is far from being the only person in dire straits. The Guardian reported today that folk in Downham Market, which has the highest proportion of over 65s in the country, were having to use the local library as a resource to keep themselves warm:

“This winter the library introduced free Keep Warm and Go bags packed with everything someone may need who was struggling to keep the cold away, including gloves, thermals, a scarf, blanket, and a hat.”

Fran Valentine, the library’s manager, said it had proved popular. “We’ve had a lot of people coming in and picking them up,” she said.”

As the crisis deepens, there is no indication that the government is going to take the actions necessary to alleviate it. The fossil fuel companies, Shell and BP, are reporting record profits, but there is no sign of a windfall tax or any further action from the government in the wake of Rishi Sunak’s paltry £200 loan and £150 council tax rebate.

The government needs to take urgent action now by taxing excess profits, raising benefits in line with inflation, increasing the minimum wage, expanding the provision of free school meals, raising the winter fuel allowance, and ensuring that a realistic rebate is provided across the board on energy bills. Will any of that happen? Despite the poor showing for the Conservatives in the recent local elections, there seems little prospect of Boris Johnson’s government taking any meaningful action.

* This article was posted on 10/05/2022 in Critical Mass Magazine

Roe V Wade Leak Sparks Outrage Across The USA

The Supreme Court of the USA (SCOTUS) draft majority opinion on Roe v Wade has been leaked to Politico. The leak sparked outrage and protests outside the supreme court building. Politico reported:

"The draft opinion is a full-throated, unflinching repudiation of the 1973 decision which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights and a subsequent 1992 decision – Planned Parenthood v. Casey – that largely maintained the right. “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” [Judge Samuel] Alito writes.

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” he writes in the document, labeled as the 'Opinion of the Court.' “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

The Roe v Wade SCOTUS ruling occurred in 1973 when Norma McCorvey ('Jane Roe'), a resident in Texas, challenged the state's ban on abortion. Wade was her local district attorney and McCorvey's lawyers filed a lawsuit alleging that the ban was unconstitutional. They won in Texas, but the state appealed to SCOTUS which ruled 7-2 that the constitution has a 'right to privacy' which protects a woman's right to choose an abortion.

Ever since that judgement, religious and right-wing groups have been working to overturn it. In recent times, since Joe Biden's win, Republican-lead state legislatures have introduced draconian anti-abortion laws. CNN reports that 13 states have enacted 'trigger laws' designed to come into effect if Roe v Wade is overturned by SCOTUS. Ohio is a state planning to bring in a law which would not allow a woman or a girl to have an abortion even if the child was conceived through rape or incest. Some states are even planning to prevent a woman travelling to another state for an abortion.

The assault on women's rights is not unexpected and it has been facilitated by Republican presidents, most recently Donald Trump, packing SCOTUS with conservative judges. But the Democrats also bear responsibility for the situation. In his 2007 election campaign Barack Obama promised to codify the right to have an abortion into law but failed to do so, despite having a majority in congress. In theory it is still possible for the Democrats to codify abortion if they remove the filibuster, but this looks very unlikely.

Unsurprisingly, many Twitter commentators are comparing the probable end of a woman's right to choose abortion to Margaret Atwood's book ‘The Handmaids Tale’, in which women are subjugated and forced to bear children for others. Atwood herself has commented, "It is really a form of slavery to force women to have children that they cannot afford, and force them to raise them".

What this judgement and the proposed bans show is that the right's 'concern' for the unborn child doesn't extend to children who have been born. Once they have been born, they can be abandoned to lives of hardship and poverty. If only they cared as much about children and adults as they appear to do about embryos and foetuses. Make no mistake, the right-wing groups that are attacking and undermining women's rights are Christian fascists with a patriarchal vision of society. If they succeed, what will be their next target? Expect further attacks on the LGBT community and PoC.

* This article was first posted in Critical Mass Magazine.

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Are we heading for a global and national economic downturn?

According to the Guardian, the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook is ‘sobering’. It predicts a fall in growth, rising inflation, and increasing inequality. As you might expect, some of this is down to the war in Ukraine:

“The war has disrupted the supply of corn, gas, metals, oil and wheat, as well as pushing up the price of critical inputs such as fertiliser (which is made from natural gas). These developments have prompted warnings of a looming global food crisis and a severe increase in world hunger.”

It’s also the case that Covid has disrupted global supply chains, and some economists have been predicting the end of globalisation. What the article doesn’t mention is that, since the 2008 global crash, the world economy has been propped up by central banks creating billions of dollars to bail out banks and corporations. And while many would welcome an end to growth and a move to a steady-state economy to counter the climate crisis, this can only happen in a managed way to avoid detriment to workers and the vulnerable. As things stand, the global economy is managed for the benefit of the banks, corporations and the 1%.

But what about the UK economy? We are familiar with the queues of lorries at Dover and empty shelves in supermarkets due to Covid and Brexit, but the cost of living crisis, caused by an outrageous increase in energy bills and rising inflation, is threatening to push us into a recession. Tax justice campaigner Richard Murphy and economist Danny Blanchflower raised concerns about this in a recent article in the Daily Mirror:

“Politicians are talking about a cost of living crisis. But, with major energy suppliers fearing that 4 in 10 households will not be able to afford to properly heat their homes this winter, it is much more than a cost of living crisis.

It is a poverty crisis, which is creating the risk of recession. Worryingly, none of the major economic forecasters – even the International Monetary Fund, which predicts that by 2023 the UK will be the slowest growing country in the G7, (with growth at 1.2%) – seem to understand the UK faces a major risk of a recession.”

They propose 7 steps to deal with this crisis: First, the government has to acknowledge it; second, cut bank interest rates; third, cut taxes – Rishi Sunak has raised taxes so that he can lower them before the next general election; fourth, raise benefits and pensions to match inflation; fifth, spend on jobs – a massive investment in green energy, greener transport, and home insulation; sixth, align our trade rules with the EU, reducing costs to business, and finally pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy and quantitative easing (QE).

Given our situation, all of this makes perfect sense. We can deal with the coming recession, help tackle the climate crisis by creating meaningful jobs and help those most in need. But there is a big problem, we have a conservative government that has no interest in doing any of these things. Its current focus is saving the necks of the PM and Chancellor and looking after its wealthy donors. How hard will this crisis bite? Very hard if nothing is done, especially when fuel costs rise again in the autumn. No amount of QE was spared to bail out the banks in 2008. Why can’t QE be used to bail out our economy to the benefit of all? Do we have to ask who is our government working really for? Whoever they work for, it isn’t us.

As soon as I finish this piece what is the first thing I see on Twitter? A headline from the Independent that reads – Sunak says no new money for cost of living plans demanded by prime minister!

This article was first published on 27 April in Critical Mass Magazine.

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Boris Johnson: The Liar In Chief Has To Go!

There are liars, damned liars, and Tory politicians. And then there is Boris Johnson. And we know with Boris Johnson it's not just his honesty that is the problem. He regards himself as immune to any system of rules, he exists on a plane far above the rest of us. In 1982, one of his teachers at Eton sent a school report to his father:

The report, from classics master Martin Hammond to Stanley Johnson in 1982, criticised the 17-year-old for thinking he should be free of the “network of obligation that binds everyone”.

The teacher also said Johnson "believes it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception".

Johnson's exceptionalism has been evident for the whole of his apparently effortless career. He has been sacked twice for lying. In 1998 he was sacked from the Times for making up quotes on a front page news story. This, of course, didn’t prevent him from becoming an MP and, in 2004, just three years later, he was sacked by party leader Michael Howard for lying about an affair. Of course Johnson has been responsible for other whoppers including the famous £350 million on the Brexit bus: 

“When an ITV reporter told him it wasn’t true, he repeatedly said it was.

According to the UK Statistics Authority, this figure should be £289m a week and, more importantly, it doesn’t include what the EU gives the UK.

Nevertheless, Johnson continued to repeat the lie at least until 2017. The chair of the UK statistics authority wrote a public letter to him accusing him of a “clear misuse of official statistics”.”

So who could have guessed that Johnson would have lied about #Partygate? After all, the rules have never applied to him. The fact that he received a fixed penalty notice for breaking Covid lockdown rules in No. 10 ought to have been enough for him to resign. The fact that he’s lied to parliament about breaking Covid rules on a number of occasions ought to be enough to get him pushed. But no.

This isn’t just about a lying narcissist; the problem we have goes far wider and deeper than that. Firstly, we live in a country that has been dominated for centuries by privileged elites who regard themselves as being above the people and the law. Secondly, these people have contrived to saddle us with a second-rate democracy with no written constitution to provide us with real democratic safeguards against our dishonest and corrupt rulers. Both Conservative and Labour governments have been complicit in this.

The latest YouGov poll of senior politicians shows that 69% of those polled had an unfavourable view of Boris Johnson. None of the senior politicians in the poll fared very well:

YouGov Net favourability of senior politicians (13-14 April)

Keir Starmer: -22
Sajid Javid: -29
Rishi Sunak: -44
Boris Johnson: -45
Priti Patel: -58

This is where we are now. There is very little respect for most politicians, and the fact that the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, has ’allowed’ a vote on Thursday for Johnson’s conduct to be referred to the Privileges Committee is a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. Boris Johnson today has predictably repeated his ’heartfelt apology’ and tried to deflect from his deceit and lawbreaking with the war in Ukraine. His defence is that he is stupid, not dishonest. Even if the Tories get a drubbing at the May local elections will Johnson go? Don’t hold your breath.

New nuclear? - No Thanks

As the UK grapples with the energy 'crisis' - a crisis caused by speculators and suppliers and not the Ukraine war - and with increases in costs for consumers of 54%, attention has turned to improving our energy security. Of course, generating as much of our energy as possible makes perfect sense, and ensuring that energy generation doesn't contribute further to the climate crisis is essential. So what do we hear from the Tory government? Their response is to say they will build seven new nuclear power stations in the UK. 

You don't have to be an expert in energy supply to see there is a major problem here. Firstly, nuclear power is eye wateringly expensive, and the plants take many years to build. Hinkley Point C, the new nuclear power station under construction in Somerset, is not expected to open when planned and is now expected to cost £500 million more than previously thought, at a cost of £22.5 billion. The original cost, predicted in 2016, was £18 billion. Not only that, but nuclear power construction contractors have been unwilling to build new nuclear power stations because of the costs and risks. 

Then there is the price of electricity generated. It's very expensive, and the operators have to be guaranteed high prices in order to build and run the plants. So, with the nuclear option, we have years of delay, rising costs, and expensive electricity. Then there is the elephant in the room - how do we deal with the nuclear waste generated by the plants? Despite decommissioning a number of reactors, most famously Sellafield in Cumbria, there is still no long-term solution in the UK for nuclear waste. 

If only there was a quicker, cheaper, and safer alternative. Well, of course, there is. It's called renewable energy. Solar, hydro, and particularly wind power can be used to generate large amounts of energy. According to Wikipedia:

"The United Kingdom is one of the best locations for wind power in the world and is considered to be the best in Europe. By the beginning of March 2022, the UK had 11,091 wind turbines with a total installed capacity of over 24.6 gigawatts (GW): 14.1 GW of onshore capacity and 10.4 GW of offshore capacity, the sixth-largest capacity of any country in 2019. Wind power contributed 24.8% of UK electricity supplied in 2020, having surpassed coal in 2016 and nuclear in 2018."

Wind, solar and hydro can make an even more significant contribution to the UK energy supply, and this will be enhanced with improved larger scale battery storage. Battery storage will keep the lights on, even at times of low wind. The National Grid states:

"The UK government estimates technologies like battery storage systems – supporting the integration of more low-carbon power, heat and transport technologies – could save the UK energy system up to £40 billion by 2050, ultimately reducing people’s energy bills."

Although the government has stated that they do intend to invest in more wind power, they still have a problem with land-based wind turbines because their supporters in the shires don't want their views from the manor spoilt. I can't imagine a nuclear power station would enhance the view. Fortunately, there are signs they may do a U-turn on this. Let's hope they have the sense to U-turn on the nuclear as well. When it comes to energy supply, as a famous Tory once said, 'there is no alternative' - to renewables.

Tuesday, 15 March 2022

#Capitalism is the REAL Crisis

While the war rages in Ukraine the UK has been hit by a cost of living crisis. High inflation, rents and energy bills, and low pay, benefits, and pensions after a decade of Tory austerity have brought us a perfect storm. Millions of families are struggling to manage and keep a warm roof over their heads. Even the middle classes have been hit by an extortionate rise in fuel bills, and money-saving expert Martin Lewis has said "energy bills would cause some to starve or freeze". 

Anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe, AKA Bootstrap Cook, has been actively working to expose the Tory government's mendacity and failure to deal with a crisis which is of their making. A few weeks ago she carried out research to show that the CPI (consumer prices index) which is used to measure inflation, failed to take into account the rise in costs that affect the poorest, particularly food prices. She noted that the cost of some supermarket basics had increased by over 100%. As a result, the ONS agreed to review the items in its prices basket of goods.

Today in the Observer she attacked the government for their complicity in causing this crisis through austerity and failing to sufficiently raise pay and benefits:

"This government has routinely balanced its books on the backs of those least able to shoulder the burdens, and the macabre and heartbreaking roll call of the names of those who have died as a result of the failures and cruelties of the DWP runs to the thousands. And if their deaths, and lives, are not learned from, then many, many more people will die in the months and years to come."

Disabled activist Frances Ryan has pointed out how the Tory antipathy towards disabled people has led them into deeper poverty. Many disabled people missed out on the £20 benefits uplift to universal credit introduced by Rishsi Sunak in 2020 as a result of the covid crisis. The government is set to increase benefits by 3.1% at a time when inflation is expected to rise by over 7%. She says:

"Bear in mind that benefit rates are already at a 30-year low – a level so meagre that the government’s own research shows disabled people are unable to afford food, rent, and energy bills, even before the inflation hike. April’s real-terms benefits cut comes only a few months after ministers cut the universal credit “uplift” of £20 a week. That move itself came after a decade of cuts and freezes to social security. The only things that have gone up for people on benefits in recent years are the queues at the food bank."

Richard J Murphy, the accountant and tax activist, has crunched the figures on the predicted 54% rise in energy prices next month and concludes that the increase will result in massive profits for the energy companies. He predicts that energy producer profits will rise 40 fold as a result of energy price increases, and as he points out: "let’s be clear, that none of the cost of producing energy in the world has changed because of war in Ukraine. In fact, right now, there is not even a shortage of energy in the world because of that war: Russia is still supplying oil and gas right now.", and "It’s vital to remember this: oil and gas are going up in price because people – oil companies, hedge funds, and others - are speculating in oil and gas in the expectation that there will be shortages. No one actually thinks the stuff is going to cost more to produce."

Wherever you look there is a crisis - climate, covid, cost of living, healthcare, housing - the list goes on. The cause of these crises is neoliberal capitalism, forty years of an onslaught on workers' pay and conditions, and the privatisation of public services to provide easy profits for banks and corporations. Decades of deregulation and environmental destruction. This is no accident. Its a deliberate change brought about by politicians who work hand in hand with the super-rich and the oligarchs that has given us the rotten, corrupt system we live in today. Without real change, things can only get worse. It's time to wake up to the fact that the real crisis we face is capitalism.

* First published in Critical Mass Magazine 14/03/22

Monday, 28 February 2022

Could the war in Ukraine be the end for Putin?

How well is Putin's war in Ukraine going and what is he really going to gain from it? Several days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after Russia attacked on 24 February, it's already clear that governments and their peoples all over the world oppose the war that Putin has unleashed, as do many of the Russian people. Thousands of Russians have bravely taken to the streets, something that is not easy in a country that cracks down severely on any opposition to the government (ed: something that could never happen here, of course). 

There have been many reports of events happening in Ukraine and some are difficult to verify but it's clear the invasion is not going as well as Putin would have wanted. Early reports suggested that 170,000 to 190,000 Russian troops were poised on the borders to enter Ukraine, and it's always been clear the Russians have the advantage in troops, tanks, and firepower. But the Russian Army has failed, so far, to sweep aside Ukrainian resistance and this is not the walkover Putin would have wanted.

It has been reported that some Russian soldiers are young conscripts who thought they were on manoeuvres. Other reports mention Russian tanks breaking down and running out of fuel. It has been said that Russian soldiers have asked Ukrainians for food. So maybe all is not well in Putin's army. Many Russian soldiers may be reluctant combatants not really up for the fight. Although the Financial Times report that the commander spearheading the assault on Kyiv is Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the province of Chechnya who commands some of Russia’s most feared units and who has been calling for stronger tactics to defeat the resistance.

But even if the Russians take Kyiv in the next few days what then? It's pretty clear the conflict won't be over. There will continue to be resistance from the Ukrainian people and almost certainly guerilla warfare will continue. Weapons to help the resistance will be smuggled into Ukraine from other European countries. Indeed, for a ragtag army conscripted from young people trying to flee the city, according to reports, they appear to be both well organised and well resourced. Putin could well end up with a bloody, protracted conflict on his hands and it is hard to see how this could do him any favours at home. Winning a war can make strong men very popular, but losing, or getting bogged down in years of conflict, can be fatal for them.

In the longer term, assuming he gets the 'victory' he wants what can Putin do? He could install a puppet government but that would be resisted by Ukrainian citizens and ostracised by the global community. It's hard to see what he could gain from that, and the chances are that the longer Russian troops have to remain in a country where they will be under attack the more unpopular he will become at home. Putin's war could also lead to the very opposite of what he wants - an expansion of NATO. It's possible that neutral countries like Sweden and Finland could join NATO because of the perceived Russian threat.

It's already beginning to look like this could be Putin's 'Afghanistan' and it's hard to see how he could sustain his 'dictatorship' through such a scenario. The war in Ukraine could be the beginning of the end for him. It's becoming hard to see what he has to gain from this war but easy to see what he has to lose. That said, he only has to fight Ukraine to a standstill in order to create the buffer zone between Russia and NATO that is quite possibly his intention.

*This article was published in Critical Mass Magazine on 28 February 2022

Thursday, 17 February 2022

Bankers quaff champagne while the poor scramble for food

Welcome to Tory Britain. A dozen years after the Tories returned to power in 2010 we have a cost of living crisis, with millions struggling to pay rent, buy food, and heat their homes. At the same time, we have a 'run on champagne' as bankers celebrate the biggest bonuses since the financial crash. The Guardian reports that:

"This week British bankers will start collecting the biggest bonuses since before the 2008 global financial crisis as their employers fight an “increasingly intense war for talent”.

As most Britons face the biggest squeeze on their incomes since at least 1990, already very highly paid bankers are celebrating “particularly obscene” bonuses in the City’s pubs and wine bars".

And this comes at a time that the governor of the Bank of England has been calling on workers to exercise wage restraint at a time when inflation could go as high as 8%, and when Rishi Sunak has just handed £1 billion to banks in a tax break which is intended to keep them 'competitive'.

The relentless attack on the living standards of ordinary Britons continues whilst the bankers, corporations, and the super-rich continue to increase their wealth. This is a trend that began in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher's governments and has continued ever since - with no end in sight. 

So what can we do? We can no longer expect much in the way of support from the state.  Voting for Labour and the other main parties isn't going to make much difference, and although we must continue to support, locally and nationally, parties and candidates who we believe can reverse this trend, we are increasingly going to have to support ourselves in local communities through solidarity and mutual aid

This is happening across the UK in many communities where people are working together to establish community hubs, growing local food, street kitchens, local energy companies, and cooperatives. 

In the longer term, we need to build this mutual aid network into a powerful grassroots movement nationally. Get involved if you can.