Monthly Archives: September 2015

Labour’s Lurch to the Left

By electing Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader, the Labour Party has finally thrown off the last vestiges of Blair-ism and taken a firm step back towards its Leftist roots. This has led to much shock, both within the party and outside it, with the inevitable virulent attacks from the mainstream media. So what is actually happening here? Has Labour really made itself unelectable by taking on a thoroughly discredited ideology, or is this the start of a fundamental change in our political system?

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Unlike in the 1980’s, society is no longer blighted by militant Trade Unionism. Picture © Nick Efford

The first thing to say is that the frequent comparisons with Labour’s last lurch Left in the 1980’s are completely wide of the mark – because the country and the economy are in vastly different positions now to what they were then. In the early 1980’s the economy was stagnating, largely, many believed, due to the effects of militant Trade Unionism (those old enough to remember will recall the devastating strikes of the 1970’s and early ’80’s, including the dreadful ‘Winter of Discontent’). Under such circumstances it wasn’t very likely the electorate were going to turn to a party espousing hard-Left policies (and don’t forget that at the same time the whole of Eastern Europe was still in the grip of Soviet-style Socialism, again hardly an advert for the benefits of Left Wing economic practices.) So when Margaret Thatcher came along promising to rein-in the unions and let ‘the markets’ provide wealth for all, it was hardly surprising she was able to crush Labour and romp to three consecutive election victories.

However things are now very different. The current economic crisis, and excessive government debt, have been caused not by Trade Union militancy, but by an out-of-control financial system, itself the product of Right Wing free-market economic theory. In other words, in the 1970’s the Left caused the problems, with the Right promising the solution, whereas now the roles are reversed with Right Wing theory causing the problems, and the Left promising to come to the rescue.

Having said that though events aren’t simply a mirror image of each other (history never does quite repeat itself) and we need to be aware of the differences. In the 1980’s inequality wasn’t that severe, so there was a real feeling that ‘we’re all in this mess together’; and in those circumstances Margaret Thatcher was able to mobilise support from all classes of society – both the business community and workers. Now however, after 35 years of ‘Free Markets’, levels of inequality are far, far greater than they were in the 1980’s, and are in fact nearly at levels not seen since before the First World War. So it’s absolutely obvious that we’re not now ‘all in it together’, and while a privileged strata at the top of society enjoy almost unheard-of wealth, those at the bottom are being forced to endure endless cuts to public services and ever-deeper Austerity. In other words society is incredibly divided, and in such circumstances no one party can whip-up widespread popular support. The Tories with their ‘business as usual’ approach can probably rely on the continued support of the top third of the population, who are currently doing very nicely, thank you (that’ll be the third of the population that voted them into power – just – in the May election). Meanwhile, at the other end of society , an extremely large number of people (though quite how many it’s hard to judge) will probably vote for any party which promises an end to their poverty and economic misery. In the middle are all those who are just about getting by, but would probably like to see a change from the usual batch of disingenuous politicians, or have sufficient moral integrity that they don’t just vote out of self-interest. The big question is whether Corbyn and the Labour Party can turn enough of that middle section to vote for them. To do that they need to show pragmatism, maturity and above all, economic competence.

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John McDonnell, Labour’s new Shadow Chancellor, is putting forward very different economic ideas. Picture © Kolrobie

The first thing they need to do is show they’ve learnt the lessons of history and aren’t just old-fashioned Socialists, who want to nationalise everything and in so-doing – in most people’s opinion – crush the economy. They need to recognise that the public do, in general, support private enterprise, but it’s the repulsive excesses of unregulated Free-Market Capitalism – out-of-control multinationals, corporate corruption, cronyism, rampant tax-avoidance, all leading to vast inequality – that people want to see the back of. Things on that front are looking good so far where, despite the media’s attempts to portray them as old-style Socialists, Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell have actually so far only talked about re-nationalising essential public services (a policy which opinion polls indicate is supported by the majority of the population). Their policies of balancing the books, not by Austerity, but by clamping down on tax-avoidance and increasing taxes on the very wealthy are also sure-fire vote-winners. So, economically they are so far looking very sound indeed.

They will of course also be attacked for relatively trivial things, and just need to make sure they don’t give their enemies any more ammunition than they have to (Jeremy Corbyn would be well-advised to bite his tongue and sing the National Anthem occasionally); and they will need to explain and deal with past ambiguous statements on things like the IRA and Israel, which so far they have done pretty successfully. However there are three issues they do need to be very wary of, issues which are highly contentious but don’t necessarily follow a straightforward Left/Right divide.

The first is nuclear weapons. Jeremy Corbyn may well support nuclear disarmament, but he needs to be aware that though there is plenty of support for cutting-back on the astronomical costs of running Trident, that doesn’t mean that the general public agree with him that nuclear weapons should be got rid of altogether. Ignoring public opinion on that issue would be a massive vote-loser, and could indeed cost him an election victory.

The second issue is migration. Opinion polls show that immigration is for most people now the single biggest election issue. Though there is no doubt that most of the population want to show compassion for refugees and help where they can, that doesn’t necessarily mean they support the sort of open-door policy nowadays being espoused by some politicians. If Labour were to move in that direction, and so increase significantly the already problematic 330,000 per year net inward migration, they would undoubtedly be alienating many of their potential supporters.

And the third issue is the EU referendum, which admittedly is a potential minefield for all political parties. Jeremy Corbyn has already stated he will campaign for Britain to stay in regardless, which is a bit premature and could even go against some of his union backers. He and his team need to think very carefully how they will play this, as again they don’t want to shoot themselves in the foot over such a divisive issue.

In summary though, Jeremy Corbyn and his team are serious contenders indeed, and despite all efforts by the mainstream media to portray them as crazy no-hopers, the skill with which they have (so far) dealt with their detractors has their opponents already realising that defeating them in the next general election will be no easy matter.

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The Migration Crisis

The news recently has been full of the migration crisis, with politicians, commentators and the public alike all wringing their hands in anguish at the human tragedy, while at the same time struggling to come up with any comprehensive solutions. Opinions have also been divided between those who think all migrants/refugees should be welcomed with open arms, and those who think Europe is already full and more arrivals represent an existential threat to our future. Sadly as time has gone on the issue has become ever-more emotional, and the fact that a single image of a drowned child can shift public (and thence political) opinion so profoundly, shows how out-of-control and illogical the debate has become.

In my view a lot of highly-significant facts have been completely omitted from the discussion so far, and with this article I am going to try and rectify that, by bringing some very important information back into the debate.

The first thing to say is that it is in my view completely wrong to frame all the arguments around the needs of refugees, without even considering the impact on the native populations of the countries they are fleeing to. To dismiss such concerns as irrelevant or, even worse, racist, is to effectively ignore the needs and desires of vast numbers of ordinary people. Such blinkered thinking can only lead to resentment and, if left to fester, will store up massive and serious problems for the future. It is absolutely obvious that the arrival of large numbers of people from different societies and cultures will potentially lead to massive (and potentially unwanted) changes in the society in which they are arriving. Such changes should be recognised and carefully managed, with due consideration being given to the impact on the local population. That is why in so many countries refugees live in separate camps, because the native populations, while happy to provide a safe space for people to find refuge, nonetheless don’t want to have their own way of life significantly altered. This is a perfectly reasonable position.

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Syrian migrants walk along a Hungarian motorway as they try to reach Germany. Picture © photag_ag

The predominantly Western view of integrating refugees into society completely ignores this issue, and is the reason there is so much resistance to providing refuge to people fleeing for their lives. Additionally it should be noted that the concept of providing a safe-haven for refugees is generally accepted as being a temporary situation, ending as soon as the place the refugees have fled from becomes safe. However it is absolutely obvious that if the policy is to integrate refugees into society, then the odds of them ever going home become almost zero: because as soon as they have made the new country their ‘home’ (particularly if they are fleeing poorer countries for richer ones) why would they ever want to leave? This leads to the vital point that refugees, regardless of how genuine their original claim, are also migrants, because the reality is they are here to stay.

Secondly, it should be strongly noted that refugees are people crossing from an unsafe country into a safe one. If they then choose, of their own free will, to carry on travelling into other safe countries they are then, by definition, economic migrants (even if, according to the UN definition, they are also refugees). This is because they are making the purely economic decision that the country they are in isn’t good enough for them, and they would rather live somewhere else. For example the people in the camps at Calais, trying to cross the English Channel, aren’t fleeing for their lives from Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or any other of those countries. They are all, every single one of them, fleeing France – and as France is not an unsafe country, they are therefore migrants. (This distinction is recognised by the EU ruling that refugees should seek asylum status in the first EU country they arrive in. The EU, riven by indecision and incompetence, seems completely unable to enforce this rule.) It is also worth noting that most of the Syrian migrants in the news at the moment, including the boy who tragically drowned, were coming from Turkey, and Turkey is not an unsafe country either.  In fact Turkey has been building huge refugee camps to house Syrians since the start of the civil war, but thousands of people have decided they don’t want to stay in that country, and so have chosen to make the journey through Greece and into Europe. That is their decision and they are also therefore, by definition, migrants.

The EU has struggled to come up  with a solution to this crisis, and one of the ideas that keeps getting bandied around is the concept of enforced quotas. This has met with much national resistance, with the UK deciding to opt out completely. Hardly surprising, as once again the politicians have chosen to completely ignore public opinion. Also they have come up with the completely unworkable idea that the number of refugees should be proportional to a country’s existing population. One wonders how their thinking could be so stupid, as that will only serve to increase populations in already overpopulated countries. It also takes no account of those countries already struggling with large-scale immigration (like the UK), and how this will make an already difficult situation very much worse. Far better, should such a policy be introduced, would be to base quotas on population densities (more refugees to lower density countries) and also taking account of current migration levels. For example, of the larger European Countries the most densely populated are Holland (at 497 people/sq km) and the UK (at 410 ppl/sq km). Meanwhile France (121 ppl/sq km) and Poland (122 ppl/sq km) have less than a third as many people for their land area*. Surely it would make more sense to house the bulk of the refugees in those countries? This situation is compounded by the fact that the UK is currently seeing net inward migration of 330,000 people per year (equivalent to a city the size of Nottingham), some of the highest in Europe, while many EU countries, particularly the Eastern ones, are seeing net population outflows. Any resettlement policy which ignores these statistics is idiotic.

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Irish Naval forces rescuing migrants coming across the Mediterranean to Italy. Picture © Irish Defence Forces

The EU is undergoing massive internal problems, largely as the result of the unforeseen consequences of policies that initially seemed very sensible. The free movement of peoples is putting huge strains on the infrastructure, housing and public services of countries seeing net population inflows, and this refugee crisis is in danger of making a bad situation worse. The way to deal with this, surely, is to come up with a policy which takes account of our moral responsibility to care for the victims of war, while at the same time minimises the impact on our own populations. So far the British policy has been largely to provide finance and resources for refugee camps in close proximity to the areas of conflict (we are the second biggest donor, after the US, of such finance, and have to date given £1bn*). That has to be the right policy, and if necessary should undergo massive expansion so that a) Refugees have no need to flee to Europe and b) They are in the area ready to return to and rebuild their country when the conflict is resolved.

This leads on to one final point I wish to make. Anyone watching the news can’t help but have been struck by how much most of the migrants have been paying people traffickers to get them to Europe. It is not cheap (in most cases costing thousands of pounds), and so it is clear that those fleeing Syria are not generally the deprived poor, but the relatively affluent and well-educated middle classes. In other words just the people Syria will need when it starts to rebuild its shattered economy. By allowing these people to stay in Europe we may think we are being humanitarian, but in reality we are stealing the cream of their talent, and making it even less likely that Syria, and other similar countries wrecked by conflict, will ever be able to recover themselves.

Addendum: It is worth saying that this debate frequently refers to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, a document which unfortunately has become obsolete as the world has moved on so much in the 64 years since it was written. For example it gives one definition of a refugee as someone who:

‘… owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality…’

Unfortunately, given that even the world’s most advanced countries still experience quite widespread discrimination (against women, homosexuals, the poor for example) it means that almost everyone walking this planet could justify claiming some sort of refugee status if they so choose. That is ridiculous. Additionally the 1951 convention makes widespread use of the term ‘country of nationality’. It is therefore completely unable to deal with the increasingly common situation whereby individuals claiming refugee status deliberately destroy their documents, and then either refuse to divulge their nationality, or else lie about it, in order to increase their chances of being granted asylum.

* Source Migration Watch http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/356

* Source Department for International Development https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/458717/DFID_Syria_Crisis_Response_Summary__2015.09.04_.pdf

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