Monthly Archives: June 2014

Westminster Abbey Occupation

Yesterday members of DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts), Occupy, and UK Uncut staged a protest in the grounds of Westminster Abbey. This was to highlight government cuts to the ILF (Independent Living Fund), a fund which enables some of the most severely disabled members of society to live relatively independent lives*. Cuts to this fund are of course part of the much wider cuts the government is imposing on the most disadvantaged members of society in the name of Austerity.

I was fortunate enough to be involved in the organisation of this protest, and this is a brief personal view of how events unfolded on the day.

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The Westminster grounds where the protest took place. Picture © Christine Matthews

Having met at a secret location close to Westminster at lunchtime, and having meticulously gone through final preparations, we set off for the Abbey at 3.30pm. The plan was to occupy the front grounds of the Abbey, and set up camp before the authorities had time to act. However my role was as part of a small team that was to talk directly to the Dean of the Abbey, John Hall, and hand him a letter outlining the reasons for the protest.  So while most of my fellow activists went through the gates and began setting up camp, I and a colleague went into the Deans Court Yard and asked to speak to the Dean.  We weren’t sure if he would come out, but after about 10 minutes he duly appeared and we gave him the letter and explained our case. Discussions with him were amicable enough, and he did express some support for the rights of disabled people, however he was adamantly opposed to the concept of direct action, and particularly if it affected his church! We did explain how the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed great concern recently for the plight of people suffering government austerity, and how a couple of months ago 27 Anglican Bishops signed a letter condemning policies which have led to a massive upsurge in the use of Food Banks. We also said we wanted to work with the Church to ensure the protest remained peaceful and non-disruptive. However he was having none of it – and said he would not allow the protest to continue. After 10 minutes or so we parted.

On returning to the front of the Abbey it was clear things hadn’t gone quite to plan. The gates to the grounds were locked and the police had formed a cordon around the camp. This meant that although 100 or so protestors were inside the grounds, many more, including myself, were now trapped outside and unable to join the protest. More seriously, not all the equipment  had made it inside the site, so it was not possible to build the camp in the way that was orginally planned. This was actually quite a big problem as several of the protestors were severely disabled with specific care needs.

There then ensued a long stand-off, with the protestors inside building the camp as best they could, while those of us on the outside provided vocal encouragement. On the outside we were also joined  and supported by David Graeber (Professor at the London School of Economics) and John McDonnell (one of the few MP’s who actually seems to care about the plight of ordinary people). The performance artist Pete  the Temp also appeared and got the crowd going in his usual exuberant style.

As time passed by it became clear that there were increasing concerns that, due to the logistical problems outlined above, it would not be possible to sustain the camp overnight (the original plan was to hold the camp for 3 weeks, until the close of parliament). Also police numbers were constantly increasing, far outnumbering the protestors, raising the threat that some sort of forced eviction was being planned. Finally, shortly before 9pm, the decision was made to leave the camp, and the police allowed everyone to go, taking their equipment with them.

On the surface it was disappointing that we weren’t able to hold the camp as long as we intended. However the protest was nonetheless very successful in generating a lot of publicity for a massive issue, with many reports across the media*, both about the protest itself and also cuts to the ILF. What I thought was particularly significant was that one week earlier no fewer than 50,000 people gathered in Parliament Square to protest against Austerity (including many well-known speakers) – and the media barely mentioned it. Yesterday 200 protestors tried to stage an Occupation, and it generated significant amounts of publicity for the issue in question. It goes to prove, in my opinion, that traditional methods of protest achieve nothing, and non-violent direct action is the only realistic way to achieve change. I was also personally disappointed that the church showed little interest in helping support disadvantaged people, and seems to be far more interested in looking after itself. Some would probably say I’m naive in expecting it to behave in any other way.

* ILF Details: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/31/independent-living-fund-disabled BBC Report on the Protest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-28074848

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Iraq

It’s with some hesitation that I write anything on this subject – partly because it’s not really what this website is about, and partly because so much has been written on it already I don’t want to waste time going over well-trodden ground. However there are a few aspects of Iraq’s recent past which are rarely discussed, and I think it worth people considering them when forming an opinion.

It’s pretty obvious that Iraq is in a right mess just now, and it’s also pretty obvious that not much good came out of the Western military intervention in 2003. What is less clear, in the light of the Arab Spring and recent events in places like Syria, is how much better or worse things would have been if the West had never intervened. Personally I think that question is unanswerable. However it is fairly obvious there would have been a pretty severe uprising, though just how brutal the ensuing conflict would have been is impossible to know. If Syria is anything to go by it would have been pretty bad.

The Middle East is riven by a massive sectarian divide between the Sunni’s and the Shia’s, a divide that runs from Iran, through Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon, down through Kuwait and Bahrain. This is the source of much ethnic tension, particularly in places like Syria (where a Shia minority rules a Sunni majority) and Iraq (where, under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni minority ruled a Shia majority). Of course ethnic tension doesn’t have to lead to conflict, but the recent history of that part of the world has been a powder-keg of problems.

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Iraq’s borders were negotiated and decided upon by Britain and France after the First World War.

The entire region was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire until the First World War. In the First World War Turkey sided with Germany, and after being defeated, the area came under control of the League of Nations. In 1920 the country of Iraq was created, with France and Britain setting-up rather arbitrary borders which took little account of what the people in that region actually wanted. Full independence came in 1932, and the country was a monarchy until 1958, when there was a military coup, after which it was ruled by a series of dictators. Unfortunately this coincided with the cold war between Russia and the West, which meant that, all over the world, lots of nasty regimes were propped up as allies in a vast geopolitical game. Thus the repressive regime in Syria was supported by Russia, while in Iraq, Saddam Hussein skilfully played off the various factions so that he was at different times supported by both the Soviets and the West, both of whom were happy to turn a blind eye to his appalling human rights record. The net result of this was that the ordinary people of these countries never had the chance to express their will or guide their countries in the way they would have liked, ethnic tensions simmered, and brutality and violence became the norm. Under such circumstances extremism thrives, as ordinary people become ever-more desperate for change, and are ever-more likely to resort to violence as a means to achieve it. History also shows that whenever repressive regimes fall, things invariably get very much worse before they get better (think for example the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and, more recently, the dreadful genocidal war after the fall of Tito in Yugoslavia).

Against that backdrop it was pretty inevitable that when the repressive Iraqi military regime fell, all the simmering tensions between the Shia’s and the Sunni’s would burst forth, and bloodshed would be inevitable. Of course the Western Intervention in 2003 brought that moment forward – and any glimmer of hope that transition to a new system of government could be done relatively peacefully, was dashed by the absolutely unforgivable incompetence of Blair and Bush in having no post-invasion plan whatsoever. (They seemed to think that dismantling every organisational structure of Saddam’s regime and simply uttering the word ‘democracy’ would lead to a positive outcome – for that criminally negligent act alone they should stand trial.)

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Some of the 5,000 Iraqi Kurds gassed by Saddam Hussein during his attack on Halabja in 1988. Picture © نامعلوم

So, in my view, the problems we are witnessing now are not really the result of the 2003 invasion (though it may have made things worse) but the result of decades of Western support for a brutal regime simply because it was seen as a regional ally against Soviet Russia and, later, Iran. (During his 24 years in charge it is estimated that Saddam Hussein murdered some 250,000 of his own people in order to stay in power – and one can only wonder at the psychological effect on the population of having to live so long with such violence, fear and brutality.) If during all those years the people could have expressed themselves properly, things wouldn’t have got so severe that extremist violent views could now become acceptable to such large parts of the population. (It’s also worth noting that even now the same policy is being pursued with Saudi Arabia, where a brutal repressive regime is supported, because the West regards it as a regional ally.)

So, the people of Iraq are now suffering a catastrophe for which we are, at least partly, responsible.  What can we do about it? The answer now, sadly, is probably very little. The situation is too complex for us to be able to see our way to a solution, and it is highly unlikely that any Western intervention would achieve anything anyway other than to put more lives at risk. It will be painful to watch, but the people in that region have to find their own answers, something which for far too long we’ve stopped them from doing.

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Governments and Tax

This week the issue of corporate Tax Avoidance was in the news – again. Firstly it was reported that Thames Water, despite making profits of £259m, will not being paying any tax this year*. (With corporation tax at 20% that’s a loss to the taxpayer of £52m – even more galling when you consider that Thames is intending to pay £100m in dividends to its various shareholders.) Thames has managed to do this by making judicious use of ‘capital allowances’.

Next up, there were protests outside high-street favourite Boots, following on from a campaign to get the government to investigate the company’s tax affairs. Since being taken private in 2007 it is estimated that the company has avoided about £1.3bn in tax* (enough to cover 3 years of NHS prescription fees) by channeling its profits through Tax Havens and using Limited Liability Partnerships .

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Vodafone: The frequent target of anti-tax-avoidance protestors. Picture © Jonathandeamer

And finally Vodafone were in the frame again, and the subject of a series of protests by UK Uncut about their perpetual tax avoidance tactics. Despite being headquartered in the UK, they  run large amounts of their profits through the tax haven of Luxembourg, the result of which is that, even though the UK is highly profitable for them, they haven’t paid any corporation tax here since 2011. They are also still bearing bad blood after a dodgy tax deal with the Inland Revenue in 2001 let them off £6bn in tax.

These are of course only the latest in a long series of scandals involving companies such as Starbucks, Google, Amazon, Facebook,  Apple etc – all companies which have extensive operations in this country but claim, incredibly, to make almost no profit here. There are many legal loopholes they can use to avoid tax, the most common of which is Transfer Pricing. However the crucial point is this – although it is very easy to point the finger of blame at these outfits, ultimate responsibility for all this deception lies with the government. Legislation can easily be made to deal with tax loopholes, but the government simply refuses to do it  – in fact, worse, they help facilitate it (for example George Osborne’s recent changes to the Controlled Foreign Companies act has made tax avoidance by UK-based multinationals much easier.) The excuse they give is that the UK must be ‘competitive’ on tax law in order to attract businesses. Competitive on tax of course means competing with other countries to see who can charge the least tax and, by necessity, who can make the largest cutbacks to public services; and as all countries are doing this it becomes nothing other than a  perpetual spiral of decline – the so-called ‘race to the bottom’ – the main tool of which is Austerity. (It’s also worth remembering that with tax avoidance costing the economy £95bn/year, clamping down on that would remove the requirement for austerity completely). In addition, and ironically for those who support the idea of free markets, such practices by  multinationals give them a huge advantage over smaller UK companies who can’t avoid tax, the result of which is that many small UK businesses could be driven into bankruptcy.

It is obviously unacceptable that large, unaccountable corporations should be able to hold governments to ransom in this way, but they can only do it because governments allow them to, under the guise of being ‘pro-business’. (Helped along with a fair bit of funding for their political parties  and some strong behind-the-scenes lobbying as well.) In this way our whole democratic system has been corrupted by the power of money, and true power now lies with those who control the politicians, not we who elect them. And until people wake up and stop voting for the same old parties, this situation will continue indefinitely, with ever increasing wealth for those at the top, and ever-declining living-standards for those at the bottom.

* Thames Water: http://www.standard.co.uk/business/business-news/more-taxfree-profits-for-thames-water-as-it-rakes-in-the-cash-9527543.html Boots: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-29/u-k-government-urged-to-probe-alliance-boots-over-tax-affairs.html Vodafone: http://www.ukuncut.org.uk/blog/press-release-uk-uncut-set-to-tackle-vodafone-stores-over-tax-avoidance-

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Privatisation – The Next Financial Scandal

This week it was revealed just how lucrative privatisation contracts have become for the private firms which get them, and by the same measure just how much the general public has been ripped-off by them. This time it  relates to the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) method of privatisation, whereby companies in the private sector are paid to build and run large public infrastructure projects (eg schools, hospitals etc). It turns out that the government, in its eagerness to get these projects away, has frequently under-priced them, and then to compound the problem, rising property prices have delivered further massive windfalls to the developers – windfalls which would have gone to the public if the projects had remained government-owned.

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Privatisation means that while the NHS struggles financially, the private companies behind it are making vast profits. Picture © Francis Tyers

The contracts have proved so lucrative that many of the companies have been selling them on without even bothering to complete them, instead just pocketing an instant profit. The numbers involved are huge, running into £100’s of millions* (one company alone, Balfour Beatty, has made profits of £189m on government contracts in just a few years). When the PFI contracts were being set up, one of the arguments in favour of them was that any excessive profits would find their way back to the taxpayer, through increased  tax revenue, but that too is failing as many of the companies now running these projects are based in tax havens, and so as well as making vast profits at public expense, they don’t actually pay any tax at all.

The irony of this of course is that while an essential public service like the NHS is itself under the financial cosh, and struggling to find the money to provide crucial services, the private companies behind it are now awash with public cash.

And now a further problem has been identified. These PFI contracts are being sold on and ‘traded’ on the financial markets, so that essential services in the UK are ‘owned’ by financial entities in far-flung parts of the globe. This is a very peculiar situation, and worryingly similar to what happened with the sub-prime mortgage crisis which led to the financial crash of 2008. One academic has already flagged it up as a potential threat to the entire financial system.*

So yet again we see the general public being ripped-off by the corporate sector through the process of privatisation, and yet again we see the financiers playing their games to produce profit for themselves, with little thought for the long-term consequences for everyone else. How much longer must we be forced to go through this before governments stop making policies which benefit their corporate buddies, and instead act in the interests of the ordinary people they’re supposed to serve?

* Excessive profits:  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/exclusive-how-private-firms-make-quick-killing-from-pfi-9488351.html Financial Risk:  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/rush-to-buy-big-pfi-contracts-risks-repeat-of-subprime-crisis-9497024.html

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Free Market Fundamentalism

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Mark Carney: The Bank of England governor finally recognises fundamental problems in our Economic System. Picture © World Economic Forum

Those of us opposed to the mantra of ‘The Market’ which is forever espoused by devotees of Free Market Capitalism, were pleasantly surprised when the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, spoke out last week against ‘Free Market Fundamentalism’. He was talking at a conference entitled ‘Inclusive Capitalism’ where he stated that if bankers didn’t give up the “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” way of doing business, then their industry would collapse*. That someone in such a high position in the City of London should utter such words was really quite extraordinary, and a sign that some at least at the heart of our Free Market system are starting to wake up to its flaws.

Many of us are campaigning to build a system and society that provides social and economic justice for all, as well as caring for the planet we live on. The far left Socialist view of tightly planned, highly regulated, state run economies has largely been discredited after the collective failure of Soviet Russia and the old Eastern Bloc. However, in proving that Capitalism was the superior system, we’ve now swung completely the other way, in favour of private ownership of everything with minimal regulation. This directly led to the financial crisis of 2008, and ever greater levels of inequality, with the already-wealthy able to play the system to increase their riches, while the poor are forced to endure falling living standards under Austerity. In addition the endless pursuit of profit means environmental concerns are constantly left by the wayside, threatening the very eco-system we need to survive.

Unfortunately fundamentalist thinking, in whatever area, is very difficult to shake off once entrenched, and that’s what we’re seeing with those people who have so strongly wedded themselves to the ideals of Free Market Capitalism. Even with all the evidence of how broken a system it is, many still cling to its ideology with an almost religious fervour.

Capitalism is indeed a powerful, efficient  and effective economic system, but in its pure ‘free market’ form it is utterly devoid of ethics, has no concept of social responsibility, places no value on the environment, and it encourages people to pursue short-term monetary reward over long-term social benefit. Therefore if Capitalism is to continue as our economic system of choice, it must be tightly regulated, with safeguards put in place to ensure it operates for the good of all, not just the few. Many of us have known this for quite some time, and perhaps, at last, some of those in power are starting to get it too.

http://www.moneyexpert.com/news/capitalism-could-destroy-itself-unless-bankers-begin-uphold-ethical-standards-says-bank-england-governor-carney/800582842

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