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EDITORIAL: JUNE 20th – A BLACK DAY FOR LABOUR

In A.Graham, Editorial on September 2, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Last month a cartoon message started doing the rounds on the social media. It featured some graffiti spelling out the words, “WORKERS OF THE WORLD ABSTAIN!”

A slogan, of course, as ridiculous as the action of the Labour Party leadership in the Commons on June 20th.  Which is how it makes its point. After all, the task of a Parliamentary opposition (according to tradition) is to oppose – as effectively and eloquently as possible – in order to instil some impact into any parliamentary debate. This is particularly true if we’re looking at the introduction of any far reaching legislation.

So what, then, do we make of the mass abstention by members of the Labour leadership in the vote on Tory plans for “welfare reform” in the opening debate on the Bill?
The Bill received its first reading in the Commons on July 20 – which emerged as a black day for the interim Labour leadership. Harriet Harman, who is currently standing in as Labour leader until a new one is chosen, seemed to see abstention as a “responsible” response which would allow the party to “listen to the views of the voters”.  Does that mean that the current Labour leadership has no views of its own on welfare provision? Something that lies at the very heart of the party since the days of Clement Attlee?

The best that can be said is that it’s a cop-out that avoided making a principled stand which ended up  making the Cameron/Osborne duo look even smugger than usual.  But could it be that this tactic also took into account that those hardest hit by Tory cuts on welfare spending are the poor and the vulnerable – who are least likely to vote , or (in the case of the homeless) are least able to?

DEMONISED:
These are the people who have been demonised in the media. They are described as “skivers”, “disability cheats”, not to mention being feckless and lazy – those who can’t be bothered to get up and do a decent week’s work. This is the image instilled through the steady drip of poison from such papers as the Sun and the Mail.

As for the fate of those families who’ll be hit by changes to the child allowance, this, too, is based on media stereotyping.   According to this particular claim, some women have more and more children even if they can’t afford to bring them up – and they shouldn’t be subsidised by the state to allow them to do so.

Can it be that Harman is willing to listen to the views of those voters who’ve fallen for such stereotypes?  It’s saddening that, according to a TUC poll undertaken in 2013, hostile attitudes to welfare have become widespread. There’s now a common believe that too much welfare has created a culture of both dependency and dishonesty. People believe what they read in the papers rather than what’s happening around them. Maybe, by way of a reality check, some might try relying on Ian Duncan Smith’s department to try to make ends meet!
Abstention in the face of reality is wrong. And a principled Labour opposition should stand up and declare that further benefit cuts is totally wrong.  It should work to counter the stereotypical lies and distortions spewed out by a right-wing media. But once a tactical withdrawal from the moral high ground has been made, it’s difficult to say the least, to recover the principles that have been so wantonly abandoned.

Having said that, many Labour MPs did ignore the edits issued by the leadership. A total of 48 Labour members voted against the Bill, including Jeremy Corbyn, and Diane Abbot who declared that she didn’t become an MP in order to abstain.

Their stand is to be applauded. Meanwhile, it’s ironical that the new leader of the Liberal Democrat rump in the Commons now appears to be more left wing than the Labour leadership. Tim Farron has described the Tory welfare cuts as “unfair, unwise and inhuman”, and has called on Labour to join with the LibDems in voting against future readings of the Welfare Bill.

END


OPINION: THE BATTLE FOR LABOUR’S SOUL

From our Editor-in-Chief, Alistair Graham

Since Jeremy Corbyn threw his hat into the ring, the contest for Labour’s leadership has become much more interesting. With other contenders for the position staking out their positions to the right of centre (even Andy Burnham, sadly, it would seem), we now have a genuine left-wing candidate.

For most of us on the Clarion, Corbyn seems to tick the right boxes. For the record, he’s been MP for Islington North since 1983, winning two thirds of the total vote in the last election. He’s a member of the Socialist Campaign Group and is an active supporter of CND.  He also supports animal rights, and was a tireless anti-apartheid campaigner. He’s been an active trade unionist – and in his favour, too, is the fact that he’s submitted the lowest expenses claim of any MP.

CAN’T WIN, WON’T WIN?
So, what’s not to support? Well, there was that hoary old chestnut, the argument that he couldn’t win the leadership, so why waste our support? Current trends though now seem to suggest otherwise.  He’s certainly built up a momentum that left other candidates trailing. Another claim was that if he did win it would make Labour “unelectable”.  The Socialist message, we’re told, does not attract the electorate, and so we have to compromise and “play it safe”.  As Neil Kinnock did, of course, against Major. There are also those on the left, but not in the Labour Party, who might argue that it’s all irrelevant anyway. They declare the need for a broad-based, anti-austerity, anti-Tory coalition to build the opposition to oppose the atrocities committed by the Cameron-Osborne Government.

CAMPAIGNING ACROSS THE BOARD:
Of course we need such a campaign, and no doubt the Clarion would be part of it. But it would surely have greater impact if it was also backed by the Labour Party and its leader. After all, at the end of the day if we’re to defeat the Tories it will be at the ballot box. And the only alternative government under our present voting system would be a Labour one.  Surely we need a government that can phase out “austerity”, rebuild the fractured NHS, give us the kind of education that our children (and their parents) deserve – as well as boosting welfare to levels where it can serve society adequately. If so, we need a Labour government that can act with conviction.

A final thought. Those who see themselves on the left wing of the Labour Party should back their convictions. A sizeable vote for Corbyn would send a message through the Party that the membership wants change. And if Labour is to restore its sense of identity and have a future in serving the people, such change may well not just be necessary but vital.

AG

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RED LOVE: The story of an East German family

In C.Spiby, Reviews on September 2, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Maxim Leo’s book ‘Red Love’ is so much more than the story of a family from the GDR; it is the story of WW2 anti-fascist heroes, the relationship between parents and their children, and a state and its people. Clarion subscribers will find it a truly fascinating read.

With the unique perspective of author Maxim turning 19 as the Wall comes dored_love_coverwn, and his father, Wolf being 19 when the Wall went up, this family history traces three generations of German socialism.

But as each generation comes of age, there is a lessening of the cause, a lessening of the hope of socialism.

Under Walter Ulbricht and the Soviet Union this road to socialism is replaced at first by a paranoiac state and then by the 1980’s, by a generation who have become so remote from the cause and the possibilities of socialism that the freedom they seek seems indistinguishable from the freedom to be just like those in the West. In the end Maxim feels that “Society isn’t the main subject of my life. I am.” A view probably shared by his entire generation.

Their story is the story of their state. Maxim writes “Our family was like a miniature GDR…where ideology collided with life.”

While his father, Wolf, was not a Party member, it was not because of his opposition to socialism, but his opposition to that particular kind of socialism which destroyed the people’s trust in their own state, the son stating at one point “He sometimes laughs at me for needing so many things to be happy.”

What clearly started as an exercise in family history has become so much more. Its topics range from

  • history (Werner, one of Maxim’s grandfathers shifts from almost ambivalent Nazi supporter to Communist Party member, expressing with real authenticity the experience of life in WW2 and post WW2 Germany)
  • politics (“Others became Communists because they felt drawn to the world of ideas. For Gerhard it’s a matter of experience, of feeling, of friendship.”
  • philosophy (“Man is different from the animals primarily because he deliberately applies laws and thus creates a just coexistence.”)
  • socialism and humanism (the disgrace with himself that Maxim feels when he is interrogated by Stasi and capitulates immediately, giving them the information they seek in a moment while recalling Gerhard, his grandfather who resisted days of torture by the SS for his role in partisan activities is among one of many touching moments – this time of pride and shame).

‘Red Love’ is great journalism: it’s engaging and informative, revealing authentic experiences of real people through hope and trauma. But just as the example of the GDR saddens me, so too does Maxim’s underlying conclusion.

The “GDR was the result of the struggle, the reward. The point of life. He {Gerhard} couldn’t get out of it without losing himself. ‘That was my country,’ he said in that interview. And it sounded sad, but also a bit proud. And I reflected that it couldn’t be my country for precisely that reason. But I said nothing.”

For me the GDR is not something consigned to history. It is a tragedy of what could have been.

From it we can still learn much; of how far it swerved on the road to socialism, how it can warn us, but also that it was not an utter failure. In ‘Red Love’ we are introduced to people who believed in something greater. Totalitarianism and the end of the Cold War never killed that.

‘Red Love’ is published by the Pushkin Press (2014 paperback, English translation).

Education Matters: “LES GRANDES VACANCES”

In R.Richardson on September 2, 2015 at 4:15 pm

School’s out! Six glorious weeks for the kids to do nothing much but “hang out”, apart from a family holiday holiday break involving sun, sand and too much ice cream

At least it used to be like that, but – as Rosie Millard in the “i” newspaper points out, life for today’s school children isn’t as carefree as it used to be. Her youngest’s teachers recommended 15 to 30 minutes a day on “on line” platforms (?), to ensure that he doesn’t fall behind.  For older children there’s the summer reading course – a book a week to be ticked off and a German text-book to work through.

“Les Grandes Vacances” are no longer what they used to be for kids – and let’s not even start on how it’s changed for teachers!

DRIVING THROUGH THE EDUCATION BILL:
Laura McInerny of the Guardian believes that the first hundred days of a new Parliament is the time for pushing through radical new policies.  The Education Bill certainly carried further policies already outlined – in particular the drive to ensure that all schools become academies (readers are reminded that all secondary schools in Gloucestershire except one are now academies).  Now “coasting” schools, as identified by Ofsted, will be marked down for intervention.

JUST COASTING ALONG:
Education Minister, Nicky Morgan, was pushed in Parliamentary Question Time to define a “coasting school”, and floundered. But since then a fairly loose definition has been arrived at. A school will be judged on its performance over a period of three years  as to whether or not its pupils have achieved their potential based on their starting point (we reported in the last issue on base line testing for four year olds to be introduced as a pilot in September). The brightest should be stretched and the less able supported.  If these criteria are not met, the governors will be required to begin the conversion to academy process.  Most worrying, consultation before the academisation process begins is to be scrapped.

DISAPPOINTING QUESTIONS:
Labour tabled some amendments to the second reading of the Bill, mostly concerned with the professionalism of the academy chains who sponsor schools , requiring them to be Ofsted inspected as are local authorities. But I was disappointed to realise that if these amendments were adopted, then Labour seemed to be happy to go along with the increasing spread of academies countrywide, and the consequent erosion of local authority powers.

PROMOTING MILITARISM:
Browsing through the informative website , “Schools Week”, I came across the surprising news that cadet units in state schools are to be increased five-fold  by 2020 at a cost of £50 million. At present out of 275 cadet units nationwide, only one hundred are in state schools.
The Combined Cadet Force which runs half of these says that this expansion is “part of the Government’s aim to promote military ethos in schools  and to instil  values in young people that will help them get the most out of their lives.”
Forces Watch, which is a campaign group looking at army recruitment, is of the view that £50 million is a huge amount of money to fund more military activities in schools at the expense of universal provision across the curriculum.

IN THE FOREST:
There are now three schools in Cinderford which are judged to be inadequate. We’ve reported before on the former Heywood Community School, which lost its sponsor, E-act, some months ago. It was renamed Forest High School, and is now run by sponsor South Gloucestershire Schools Academy. The recently appointed head says that they have “already taken positive steps to turn the school around.”

The two primary schools in special measures are St. White’s Primary and St. Anthony’s – a free school.

Both schools issued positive statements from their heads, but Graham Morgan, district and county councillor, said that “education was ruined when it was taken out of local authority control. That’s the crux of it, it’s semi-privatisation …  the sooner it is put right the better for everybody.”

We whole-heartedly agree with you, Graham – but sadly we don’t think it will be put right any time soon!

RUTH RICHARDSON

THE IMF: the biggest loan shark business in the world?

In A.Graham on September 2, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Most of us must surely know by now of the dubious activities of the International Monetary Fund (the IMF) and its twin body, the World Bank.  But fewer will  have heard of the Bretton Woods agreement, reached towards the end of the war, back in 1944. It was then that the IMF came into being.

Those leading economists who met at Bretton Woods did so to plan a new world economic order. Their aim was to try to bring order from the chaos created by the war – and also to try to ensure that the world economic collapse of 1929 through the 1930s would not happen again.

No doubt they had the best intentions – particularly the British delegate, John Maynard Keynes. He wanted to ensure a level of economic stability, in which the weaker nations would not be penalised or end up going to the wall.  Keynes was arguably the most influential economist of his day – at least in the UK and Europe – and his influence continued to hold right up until the the virus of “monetarism” arrived on the scene in the 1970s and ‘80s.

HOW KEYNES SAW ROLE OF THE IMF:
But back in 1944, the IMF set out its main objectives as the promotion of international economic co-operation, ensuring full employment (sic), and exchange rate stability. Keynes himself saw it as a kind of co-operative fund that member states could draw on, particularly during times of crisis, in order to maintain their economic activity.  He also argued that to focus merely on those countries with economic problems would only create more hardship and more problems for those involved.

But the view from the USA was slightly different – and of course the Americans had far more clout at Bretton Woods. Thus the views of Keynes were largely over-ruled.

DIRECT INTERFERENCE:
Sadly, Keynes died soon after the Bretton Woods conference – though it wasn’t until the 1970s that the role of the IMF began to shift significantly towards direct interference in the governance of client countries.

It started to play an active role in managing the economic policies of those seeking financial aid. There were (and are) to be strings attached to any aid given. For example, the removal of price controls as well as state subsidies, the privatisation of state-owned enterprises – and “enhancing the rights of foreign investors.”

From then on the IMF would unashamedly promote market capitalism, which all too often meant blatant interference in the domestic policies of national governments.  Today, we may look at the example of Greece, and the valiant attempt by a left-wing government to oppose a strict austerity imposed by the IMF – with the German government  acting as cheerleader. No doubt in the eyes of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the upstart campaigners in Greece have now been taught a lesson.

But there have been previous examples of how countries have suffered as a consequence of asking for IMF support. One example was that of Argentina, in 2001 which suffered economic collapse following the IMF’s intervention. There has been a continuing impact on public health and on the environment as a result.

Of course it’s never those with money who suffer. They can shift their capital elsewhere. It’s the ordinary people who feel the impact in a country driven close to bankruptcy as the IMF lays down its conditions for  further bail outs.

John Maynard Keynes must be turning in his grave.

Blood Money: CATCHING GREECE IN THE AUSTERITY TRAP

In A.Graham on September 2, 2015 at 12:51 pm

During those boom years, before the economic collapse of 2008, Greece seemed to be riding high. It had hosted the Olympic games (and Athens gained a shiny new tramway system to go with it). Tourists and foreign investment flowed in to what seemed like a money trap. But in a country where tax evasion is a way of life amongst the very rich, the Greek government’s coffers failed to benefit.

Then came the domino effect of the economic collapse, and suddenly Greece found itself facing mounting debt, and no means to pay it back apart from borrowing more money from such creditors as the IMF and the European Union. At the beginning of the year, both the economy and the Greek government collapsed under the strain.

In the ensuing election, the left wing Syriza Party under its charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras gained victory, promising to end the enforced austerity that was crippling the country. Despite early optimism, it failed.

HUMILIATION FOR THE GREEK PEOPLE:
There’s no doubt that the EU knew what it was doing when it set about bringing the Syriza government to heel. In the new addition of The Global Minotaur*, Paul Mason writes in the introduction that at the beginning of February, the European Central Bank abruptly withdrew its regular loan facility to the Greek banks, and left them to bleed to death.

At the end of the day, Tsipras was backed into a corner and was faced with either agreeing to the demands of the country’s creditors – or, effectively defaulting, which would have meant Greece would be forced to leave the eurozone (and presumably return to the drachma as the country’s currency) – or even leave the European Union altogether.
Such a move would be an enormous leap into the dark. Whilst many in the Syriza party advocate a default position, and a return to the drachma, it was not something that Tsipras felt he could support.

When a hastily-called referendum convincingly backed the rejection of austerity, Tsipras found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. He chose to capitulate to the demands of the IMF and the European Union. The Greek people had been punished for their temerity in challenging their financial masters.

Meanwhile,  the Greek banking system had reached the point of virtual collapse. It was running out of money, pensions couldn’t be paid, whilst some banks were technically bankrupt.

The international Monetary Fund was insisting on its pound of flesh, and was backed by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Indeed, she went further, suggesting that there should be no further bailouts for Greece until repayment of debts were made. One reason for her obduracy may have been that the Germans had invested heavily in Greece during those profligate years before the economic crash – and she wanted that money back. Some critics, however, have made the point that past German governments have had a poor record in paying back their own debts!

RELUCTANCE:
So, reluctantly, the deal was signed and equally reluctantly endorsed by the Greek Parliament. Tsipras was forced to rely heavily on opposition parties to push the measures through. His own Syriza party split on the issue, with its former Finance Minister, Yanis  Varoufakis, voting against.
It may be a done deal, but there are now warnings that things are likely to get worse for the Greek economy before getting better (always assuming that they do). According to one influential Greek “think tank”, there is likely to be a sharp drop back into recession. Meanwhile, since this article was written, Alexis Tsipras has resigned as Prime Minister, a move that may well provoke an early general election.

So, it looks like there are more hard and uncertain times ahead for the people of Greece – but there’s only so far one can go in punishing an entire population for “crimes” that they never committed. It’s also a sad, sour, reflection on attitudes within the European Union, where one of its own members is treated like a pariah state. This attitude was not meant to be part of the vision of those who came together to form the bonds that led to the founding of the Common Market as it was initially known.

*Footnote: “The Global Minotaur”, by Yanis Varoufakis   (Zed Books, £8.99), has just been re-published in an updated edition. We hope to review it in the next Clarion.

MODERN TIMES: The Dinosaur column

In Dinosaur on September 2, 2015 at 12:47 pm

dinosaurDOING AWAY WITH CHILD   POVERTY?

Iain Duncan Smith, whose day job is Minister for Work and Pensions, has come up with a dastardly wheeze for eliminating away with child poverty.

That’s a good idea, you might think. Well, no, not exactly. He’s planning new legislation to do away with the official criteria that allows us to define where child poverty exists. So, effectively, we may know that there’s a lot of it about but we’ll no longer be able to prove it to the satisfaction of government officials.

True, he’s come up with a new scale – but it’s got nothing to do with how much income the child’s family has, despite the old saying that money makes the world go round. Instead it’s focused on factors that are more peripheral, such as the child’s level of educational achievement, unemployment in the family, and addiction (whatever that may mean). All these might be the effects of poverty but they don’t necessarily tell us that it exists in financial terms.

Talking in strange tongues?

As I was strolling around our local Co-op the other day I paused to glance at the headlines on the newspaper stand. As you do.

The somewhat xenophobic Daily Express had as its headline, “311 LANGUAGES SPOKEN IN OUR SCHOOLS”. Its subhead stated that there are “Classrooms where English is starting to die out.”

Oh dearie me, I thought. Now some folk might think that such news is a sign that our society is becoming much more multicultural. But I doubt if that’s the sort of spin that the average Express reader would put on it.

I didn’t read the actual article in full, I must admit. That would have involved buying the paper. But it does pose questions, though. Which language does the teacher use to address the class, for example? It could be anything from Aramaic to Yiddish, I suppose. But I somehow suspect it’ll be standard English – which in turn these multi-tongued children would learn too.

I also wondered whether these 311 languages might have included such indigenous tongues as Welsh, Gaelic or even (these days) Cornish?

If so, I have a tip for any Express readers who might be reading this. There was a time when determined attempts were made in Highland classrooms to teach Gaelic speaking youngsters the error of their ways. If any pupils were caught speaking Gaelic in class they were handed a piece of wood called a “torse”. He/she would then hand it on to the next pupil caught speaking their native tongue – and so on.

At the end of the school day the youngster who had the torse was brought out to the front, given a sound beating and told to pass the piece of wood back to the offender he’d got it from , and so on down the line.

Fortunately we now live in more enlightened times, and children no longer have their native language beaten out of them.

Just coasting:

As an ageing dinosaur I’ve always felt that “coasting” was a good thing to do. Just coasting along, with time to appreciate the better things in life, Catch up with a good book or think about life, the universe and everything. After all, is this life so full of care that we have no time to stand and stare?

But not when it comes to schools, it seems. Schools don’t just “fail” according to official criteria. If they’re seen to be “coasting” they’re just as bad.

Now, it seems that three out of four academy chains have been found to be “coasting”. Tut tut! What are we to do about them, I wonder.

And another thing. I know that our public schools, such as Eton, Rugby or Harrow aren’t technically “public” at all. They’re really puffed up private schools. But haven’t they been “coasting” (albeit with a certain amount of complacency) over the years? I know they bask in their traditions, offer an upper class education that’s forced to change with the times – but they’re still “coasting” in my book.

Dinosaur