Whilst politicians go off on their holidays, let's unite and fight

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3 hours 22 min ago

OurNHS is the only media outlet that is fiercely pro-NHS. We break vital stories that other media miss. And now we need your help.

Did you know that this month, the Tory government quietly proposed an inquiry into moving towards a pay-to-use NHS? OurNHS openDemocracy broke this story, and already it’s been read by well over 100,000 on our website, and picked up from our site by the Guardian, the Independent, and in parliament.

OurNHS www.opendemocracy.net/OurNHS is the only media outlet that is fiercely pro-NHS, producing regular exclusive articles on what’s happening and how people are fighting back.

This summer, more than ever, we need fight to protect & restore our NHS. In the two months since the election, despite their pledges, the Tories have already:

·         scrapped targets for safe numbers of nurses & waiting times

·         launched a destructive attack on doctors, already suffering low morale

·         pressed ahead with hospital sell-off and privatisation plans.

Many of these stories were missed by the rest of the media, or picked up only from our coverage – including the ‘pay-to-use’ NHS and hospital sell-off articles.

And we need your help to continue this work.

Why OurNHS openDemocracy needs you:

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Why we need OurNHS:

It is relied on by journalists, politicians and laypeople for accurate, readable stories and angles other media often miss, as well as bite-size guides for campaigners.

It fights for an NHS that provides comprehensive, universal, timely, high quality, tax-payer funded, publicly owned healthcare.

It works closely with the main groups campaigning to protect the NHS (like Keep Our NHS Public, 38 Degrees, 999, Medact, health trade unions and professional bodies, the NHS Bill campaign, TTIP campaigners, People Vs PFI and more), helping them to shape and publicise their message and networking them together.

Its editor, Caroline Molloy, also appears on national radio & TV as a voice against privatisation & cuts, countering the corporate agenda pushed by PRs and think tanks.

But we need your help:

Can you spare £5 a month to support this work? See our website to donate online, including details of how to make both regular and one-off donations to help cover our costs (employing an editor and technical support).

 PS: Other recently published highlights include:

·         The privatising cabal at the heart of our NHS, by Tamasin Cave, Spinwatch.

·         7 things everyone should know about PFI, by Joel Benjamin, People Vs PFI

·         Anti-TTIP MEPs silenced ahead of knife-edge vote, by Molly Scott-Cato MEP

·         8 reasons you really can’t trust the Tories with the NHS, by editor Caroline Molloy

You can donate online here bit.ly/NHSdonate. If we can get 400 people to support this work by giving £5 a month, that would secure OurNHS’s future. Can you be one of those 400?

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The creation of ‘trafficking’

Open Democracy News Analysis - 10 hours 11 min ago

Trafficking received its current definition only fifteen years ago. Since that time, the policies pursued in its name have done incalculable damage to the children they purport to protect.

Washing dishes at a streetside eatery in Cotonou, Benin. Adam Cohn/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Many children in west Africa are brought up in households belonging to people other than their own parents. There is a long tradition of fostering, yet in many cases the practice is now considered to constitute ‘trafficking’ or ‘modern slavery’ because the children involved are put to work during their stay. This makes little sense, yet the terminology of ‘human trafficking’ and its consequences—namely that the ‘traffickers’ involved should be prosecuted—has remained in vogue since at least 2000 with the support of European and American funding. This has almost certainly caused more harm than good.

Alongside these foster children are the tens of thousands of independent adolescent migrants who deliberately leave home to search of work. In both scenarios some children are badly exploited and abused. Those that live with their employers, such as the region’s hundreds of thousands of child domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable. However, some prosper and flourish.

Efforts to curb exploitation over the past two decades have foundered because they have been based on ideas and methods imported from Europe and North America. By and large they have sought to prevent children from working away from home, rather than to protect children from harm regardless of where they live and whether they were at work or school. This approach fails to adapt to the realities of childhood in west Africa and the practicalities of growing up in villages with little infrastructure.

The creation of ‘trafficking’

The abuse of live-in child domestic workers began to be documented systematically in countries such as the Benin Republic, Nigeria and Togo during the mid-1990s. At the time I worked as the director of Anti-Slavery International, a London-based charity that became highly involved in the process of identifying the region’s exploited children, recording their testimonies, and generating policy measures to protect them more effectively. However, these efforts became entangled in well-intentioned developments outside the region.

Researchers quickly established that many hundreds of children from Benin and Togo were being shipped across the sea each year to work for west African households in Gabon—a richer, petrol-exporting country. This ‘movement for work’ was labelled ‘trafficking’ in English and ‘trafic’ in French, which has slightly different connotations but nonetheless implies contraband taken across a border. At the time, neither word had a precise technical, yet alone legal meaning. When the first findings of research in Gabon were published in 2000, all 133 west African girls and one boy who were interviewed in Gabon were described as “trafiquées” (translated into English as “trafficked”). This meant that they, like most west African adults who sought a living in Gabon, had arrived in Gabon as undocumented migrants.

Trafic’ and ‘trafficking’ acquired their legal meanings with the United Nation’s adoption of two treaties in 2000. The first defined ‘trafficking in persons’ as a criminal act, implying the need to prosecute those responsible. The second declared the term ‘trafic’ (in French) to mean ‘smuggling migrants across a border’. At the same time, the United States adopted its own law on ‘trafficking in persons’ and launched a global crusade to seek more prosecutions and heavier punishments for traffickers.

The virulence of inaccuracy

These developments were, in many ways, disastrous for children, as they induced many west African states to produce policies and laws to stop one of the main methods used by young people in west Africa to get on in the world. Benin, ostensibly seeking to punish child traffickers, adopted a new law in 2006 that stopped anyone under 18 from moving away from home without an official permit. Benin’s Ministry of Family and Children, in a national study published in 2007 and supported by UNICEF, estimated that over 40,000 Beninese children were “victims of trafficking” and that each year almost 15,000 children were trafficked. The implication was that a massive two percent of the country’s children were in the hands of criminals, even though the employment of children as live-in domestics and in other jobs continued to be socially acceptable.

On the face of it a national study should have been authoritative; however the criteria used for assessing which children had been trafficked were far too wide. Any child working away from home was identified as ‘trafficked’. The study itself reported that just 2,066 children out of 40,000 had been “moved by a broker”. The other 38,000 children had migrated voluntarily but were considered “exploited” because they were working away from home, not because they had complained about their working conditions or felt they were worse off than when living with their parents. Ironically, the study did not even mention children who were earning a living from commercial sex, even though research a few years earlier had identified adolescent sex workers in the capital, including Nigerian girls brought there to earn money for people who paid for their journeys.

Once inaccurate information is publicised, it is remarkable how it circulates endlessly. In this case, a UN special rapporteur investigating the sale of children and child prostitution was told while visiting Benin in 2013 that 40,000 children were trafficking victims, most of them girls working as live-in domestics. Another UN specialist working in Gabon, herself from Nigeria, acknowledged that ‘child fostering’ in itself did not amount to trafficking, but “may be abused and can become a form of exploitation in which children work long hours without schooling”. The figure of 40,000 trafficked children was repeated in a report for the 2015 International Labour Conference and Radio France International referred to Benin’s “40,000 child slaves” in a broadcast in April 2015.

The wrong cause

However, the real problem goes much deeper that the replication of erroneous statistics or even the false designation of many adults and children as ‘traffickers’ and ‘trafficked’. The world’s preoccupation with stopping children from working, and especially working away from home, has prevented Benin and other countries from introducing effective measures to protect migrant and working children. On the contrary, the policies resulting from this drive have, if anything, made life more difficult for them. Their combined effect has been to increase the bribes paid to border officials and to encourage the use of clandestine and dangerous ways of transporting child workers. They have demonstrably not improved working conditions or promoted the rights of child workers.

As one of those responsible for bringing the situation of Benin’s child workers to public attention in the 1990s, I cannot comprehend why international organisations and western donors do not pay more attention to the views expressed by the young people who are at the heart of this issue. An academic article published five years ago quoted a group of children in Benin as saying that if they were members of parliament, they would not prohibit children from working either in Benin or abroad. Instead, they would insist on the working conditions being made acceptable, at least as long as it was not possible to guarantee that the alternative for children would be quality schooling.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Working children: rights and wrongs Young people's migration and the pursuit of status Pathologising young people’s movement Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Fracturing democracy? State, fracking and local power in Lancashire

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 23:11

Fracking may have been rejected in Lancashire, but the battle reveals that power is being stripped from the people of Britain.

After an unusually hot spring, another heatwave hits Lancashire and all of Britain in late June. As scattered clouds are lazily rolling over the magnificent red-brick structure of county hall in Preston, a large group of protesters with sunburnt necks and shoulders are clustering round near the Pitt Street entrance, trying to escape the sizzling heat in the semi-shade of a line of young chestnut trees. To the accompaniment of a gigantic, blue barrell-turned-drum, the colourful gathering breaks into a chant: “Frack free Lancashire, frack free planet!”

On the 25th and 29th June 2015, Lancashire County Councillors decided to refuse permission for two fracking applications by Cuadrilla: in Roseacre Wood and Preston New Road, Little Plumpton. This follows a long campaign and a lot of arduous work by numerous local residents' groups, environmental organisations as well as campaigns such as Frack Free Lancashire, among others. Outside the county chamber, the announcement of the votes is greeted by loud cheering that is soon eclipsed by tears of joy and friendly hugs. The outcome is an unprecedented victory for the local residents and their self-organising as well as the local democratic process that involves parish, borough and country councils. It also comes as a definite blow to the national government's stated interest in “going all out for shale” in the UK. Given this controversial priority, I look at how democracy has fared in the country since it declared that around 60% of its land would be available for fracking companies to licence.

In late June 2015, the Development Control Committee at Lancashire County Council, who determined the decisions, were under a lot of pressure because the legal advice provided to the Councillors seemed to leave them no choice but to approve the application for Preston New Road (PNR) lest the Council and the people of Lancashire foot the bill when Cuadrilla appeal the decision. Ultimately, an alternative legal opinion was sought and provided to the Councillors and, after a unanimous vote to refuse permission to frack at Roseacre Wood a few days earlier, the Councillors felt there were also sufficient grounds to reject the PNR application.

The results of the votes clearly diverge from the recurrently short-sighted policy-making and technocratic narratives that characterise much of the global and national discussion about the future of resource extraction and energy production. The Council did not cave in to financial pressures and the discourse that portrays fracking as a matter of an overriding national interest. The process, however, has also made something else plain clear; it confirmed that the agenda of resource extraction, energy production and their impact on climate change cannot be surrendered entirely to political representatives and industry. What is missing in their approach is a true and sustained commitment to an open dialogue about the systemic issues surrounding the future of energy as well as the future of democracy.

The worrying trend is that even at the level of the county council – where the planning process comes into contact with local representative democracy(i) – the grounds for refusing permission for fracking are thoroughly disappointing from a democratic point of view. The permission to frack in PNR was refused on the grounds of noise and visual impact. The application for fracking in Roseacre Wood was rejected because of the potentially severe impact of the planned development on the road networks. The permissions were refused not because of the adverse impact of fracking on human health or climate change or the fact that there were thousands of objection letters and many more petition signatures that were submitted in relation to the two applications.(ii) It is obvious that the focus of the planning system should be on the considerations about what constitutes an acceptable use of land so I do not argue that the Development Control Committee should have a responsibility to take into account all kinds of possible objections to fracking. I do argue, however, that outside of the Committee, there is insufficient room for citizens to exercise their democratic right to make decisions about what sort of development they would like to have in their locality and which energy sources offer best chances for ensuring a better common future. What happened in Lancashire is not an exception but a symptom of an increasingly problematic relation between state, fracking and democracy, understood not solely as a rule of periodically elected representatives but as an ability of people to govern themselves and make direct decisions about their communities.

The positive outcome in Lancashire is undoubtedly a result of the local residents' perseverance in mastering the welter of legal regulations and precedents which they skilfully utilised to make and defend their case. They also raised a host of other relevant topics that should be a matter for democratic debate such as issues of climate justice and the influence of corporate interests on politics. None of these concerns, however, could be brought to bear on the Committee's decisions. In effect, fracking in Lancashire (and the UK) may be and has been framed and viewed as a problem of and for planning systems. Rarely is it debated as something that has real consequences for people, communities and democracy. Meanwhile, fracking has been at least temporarily banned in states such as France, Germany, Bulgaria or the New York State where some democratic discussion about it has taken place. In the UK, on the other hand, many see the fracking objective to be the driving force behind the rewriting of some of the most important laws. Below I am listing a few examples of the scope of controversial pressures and recent changes to the legislation. I am paying particular attention to those of its provisions that appear to be designed in ways that help evade different forms of popular democratic contestation and reinforce persistent inequalities between various stakeholders.

Localism Act, 2011. The Localism Act was supposed to devolve some powers from the central government levels to local representative bodies. It introduced a new requirement for developers to consult local communities in the pre-planning stage – before they submit their applications. As part of their engagement with the community, Cuadrilla has also established a special community liaison group in Roseacre where representatives of the company, their consulting engineers and local residents have met fairly regularly. Necessarily however, the meetings did not offer room for debating whether or not the development should take place but were overwhelmed by discussions about technical parameters, measurements and designs, where experts' role was to reassure the residents about the safety of the development or advise on the appropriate mitigation measures.

Quite paradoxically given its name, the Localism Act has also given government ministers responsibility for making decisions about nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs). When a development gains the status of the NSIP, it can move ahead even without local consent. The government has already added the highly controversial nuclear waste storage facilities to the list of NSIPs so it is clear why many are afraid that fracking might become the next NSIP. There is also another, less apparent, side to the status of an NSIP. International experience with strategic oil pipelines, for example, shows that all projects that are declared to be in the national interest of a state tend to be heavily policed and their “defence” against real or perceived threats becomes securitised. A very early foretaste of what this might entail could be seen even during the protests in front of County Hall in Preston. In addition to the usual police presence, the colourful and peaceful gathering of local residents was policed with the help of Metropolitan police, at least three vans of the operational support unit and a private security company with multistage security checks inside the County Hall.

    Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, 2014. The Act had been dubbed the “gagging law” as it places substantial burdens on the ability of NGOs, charities and other organisations to campaign on issues of legitimate concern during an election period. In contrast, there is no parallel restriction that would apply to lobbyists representing vested corporate interests. Cuadrilla's consultant lobbyist – Hannover Communications International Ltd.iii which boasts about its unconventional oil and gas portfolio to span from Shell and Valero to Cuadrilla and Tamboran Resources – is, therefore, let off the hook to lobby whenever it sees fit.

    Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, 2014. The Act introduced new dispersal powers where a police inspector may issue an authorisation to disperse for a period of up to 48 hours with an immediate effect, replacing an earlier requirement to consult with a local council to designate a dispersal zone in advance. This may have a potential impact on the policing of protest in the UK.

    George Osborne's letter dated 24 September 2014 (revealed January 2015). The Chancellor sent a letter to his cabinet colleagues (Committee on Economic Affairs) urging them to fast-track fracking, making the rapid progress on the issue their personal priority as well as responding to some requests from Cuadrilla. The letter also shows government's commitment to full exploration and plans to centralise regulation by moving to a single national regulator once production is under way.

    Infrastructure Act, 2015. The Act introduces a political definition of fracking as a process that involves more than 1,000 cubic meters of fluid per stage or more than 10,000 cubic meters of fluid in total. These quantities are less than what was used in the fracked well at Preese Hall, Lancashire and less than what has been used in some wells in the United States. If the law had been enacted before the operation at Preese Halliv began, legally speaking, it would not constitute fracking.

The Act also changes trespass laws for underground drilling access. It grants drilling companies automatic access rights to use deep-level land (below 300m) in any way for the purposes of exploiting petroleum, including passing through, putting in and keeping any substance in deep-level land. Since fracking uses horizontal drilling, this means that companies can drill under anybody's land without their permission or compensation. The Department of Energy and Climate Change played down objections to the proposal raised during the consultation stage as mainly campaign texts and moved ahead despite popular opposition.

Finally, the Act forces the government to assume the economic objective of drilling corporations as its own national objective since the law obligates all future governments to maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum (and hence, oil and gas extraction). This is at odds with the UK's climate change legislation as well as its international commitments to become a low carbon economy.

    Environment Agency opens a Standard Rules Consultation, March 2015. New standard rules, generic risk assessment and waste management plan are proposed for onshore oil and gas activities at exploratory wells. The stated aims of the proposal are to generate a positive financial impact on business as well as saving time and money.

    Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on fracking, July 2015. After a Freedom-of-Information request, an un-redacted version of the report on the impact of fracking on rural economy is revealed. The covering note appended to the report states that it is a draft literature review for internal use only and that it is based on assumptions that are not supported by appropriate evidence. The full report, however, demonstrates that the previous, heavily redacted, version left out significant chunks about potentially negative impacts of fracking – in the name of not letting early thinking close down discussion.

The above list looks rather pessimistic when it comes to the prospects of ensuring that debate about fracking is a level playing field for everybody. More democratic debate and decision-making, however, is crucial if we care about the human dimensions of fracking that are currently being obscured in planning jargon and discourses. If democracy (not only locally and nationally but also internationally) is about putting the interest in real effects on vulnerable populations on the front burner, then we need to talk openly about the consequences that the dash for unconventional gas has had and is likely to have on democracy.

A gradual taking away of citizens' rights in times of intensified popular mobilisation is not a new phenomenon; it is well-known to students and researchers of social movements. The pace of this process in the UK, however, has been staggering. Legislation that rules much of the fracking activity has been passed over a period of just two years and many potential challenges associated with anti-fracking campaigning, protest, trespass litigation etc. have been removed, bolstering industry confidence in the eventual success of their ventures. As a result, the persistent gap between citizens' rights on the one hand and industry and state resources on the other, has widened even further.
Moreover, the local resident groups in Lancashire have been boxed in by the planning system and national narratives that have redefined what constitutes a reasonable concern and a relevant objection to fracking. With no room for a robust democratic debate about fracking, the planning procedure carefully selects which objections are valid and which are not. Citizens' attempts to gain an authoritative voice on the social impact of fracking run up against a wall of technical regulations and undue pressures from politicians.

To be sure, this is not an exclusively British problem. Global climate change is also seen as a technology or economic problem that can be solved by geoengineering and appropriate trade systems. Climate change is not necessarily automatically seen as an environmental or social justice issue and its human side is largely secondary. As the protesters in Lancashire chanted, however, frack free Lancashire does not mean much without a frack free planet. This does raise important moral and democratic questions about vulnerability, inequality and best models of democracy. The potential consequences of fracking go beyond road destruction, noise pollution and change in landscape; they extend beyond Lancashire. The impacts of climate change tend to be distributed unequally across different regions and different parts of the population. And it is the protesters that are bringing all of these aspects of fracking to the forefront by challenging embedded assumptions and asking tough questions about responsibility and the necessary scales for meaningful action.

What lessons can be drawn from the anti-fracking struggle in Lancashire? It is clear that with great courage and perseverance, it is still possible to challenge the system and win even when one is playing by its rules. It is important to be able to do that because it ultimately achieves what it is supposed to achieve – at least for the time being. As the above overview of the recent legislation shows, however, rules can be changed quite quickly, after scant democratic debate and with little regard for public opposition. Are there then any vulnerabilities of this system that local groups could use to their advantage when they are striving to live with clean water, air and land not as luxurious commodities but as part of a healthy and equal planet? They can definitely set up their own democratically-run renewable energy initiatives. In addition to providing clean energy, this would also insert the issues of democracy and responsibility for climate change into the national and local discourses as well as producing positive global effects. Instead of letting fracking and state policies fracture it, local communities can play a vital role in repowering democracy in and beyond the UK.

iBefore the applications at Roseacre and PNR, Cuadrilla applied for planning permissions at seven other locations in Lancashire. Five of them (decided between 2009 and 2011) never went to a relevant committee. Instead they were decided by a delegated chief officer.

iiAlthough not evident in the formal process, they did make the case of local groups opposed to fracking stronger

iiiThe company works also for such clients as: Goldman Sachs, Allianz, Microsoft, Sky plc as well as several pharmaceutical concerns.

ivIn 2011, Cuadrilla's activities at Preese Hall triggered two tremors and put a temporary halt to fracking in the UK.

Sideboxes Related stories:  On Brighton beach: austerity, alienation and the battle for democracy Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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A moron speaks...

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 23:11

According to a former adviser to Tony Blair, MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership are "morons". What does one of them have to say about a leading Corbyn policy, nuclear disarmament?

Support for Trident is dwindling. Flickr/The Weekly Bull. Some rights reserved.

In an intemperate outburst – some might call it an emotional spasm – John McTernan, ex-adviser to Tony Blair, told Newsnight viewers on 21st July that MPs who "lent" their nominations to Mr Corbyn to "broaden the debate" were "morons". 

One such MP was former Labour stand-in Leader, Dame Margaret Beckett. During an interview with BBC Radio 4's World at One today Mrs Beckett was asked if she was a moron for nominating Mr Corbyn. She replied: "I am one of them." She meant she was one of those who nominated Corbyn, not she was a moron, though the press since has delighted in interpreting her comment as she was admitting to being a moron!

McTernan is the same political advisor who in the months running up to May’s General Election advised Labour's outgoing leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, the viscerally pro-Trident former shadow defence secretary, who led Labour to an unprecedented historic electoral wipe-out in Scotland, with only one Labour candidate winning a seat (an openly anti-Trident politician, Ian Murray, MP for Edinburgh East, who is now shadow Scottish Secretary).

After a weekend of collective political assassination by the press – when all the heavyweight Sunday papers from the left-leaning Observer and Independent on Sunday, the right wing Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph ran endless columns berating Corbyn personally and politically, liberally buttressed by endless supine comments from Corbyn’s Labour Party colleagues, all gutlessly quoted anonymously attacking him and all he stands for.

The result?  Recent polling reported in the Times suggests that Corbyn is now even further ahead, putting him 17 % ahead of nearest rival, Andy Burnham, of those recorded as planning to vote for him when the ballot opens early next month.

A principled stand

One of the staunchest and best thought out of Corbyn’s policies is his opposition not just to the replacement of the Trident nuclear WMD system – with the planned £100 billion modernisation – but also his opposition to all nuclear weapons, everywhere. In this he differs markedly from his three Labour leadership rivals, Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall, each of whom, at a time of extreme austerity, countenance spending that £100 billion of taxpayers’ money on a high tech mass killing system, instead of on housing, health care, the environment and “green jobs”, or global peacekeeping and international aid.

And mainstream political commentators, including Jason Cowley, astonishingly the editor of the formerly leftist political weekly, The New Statesman, who chose to peddle his anti-Corbyn, pro-Trident views in the right wing Daily Mail, still attack Corbyn’s policies.

So what does the “moron” Dame Margaret Beckett think of nuclear weapons? Below are some extracts from her valedictory keynote speech as Labour Foreign Secretary, made to a prestigious conference in Washington DC, eight years ago, entitled: “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons?”

Whose views – Corbyn’s, Burnham, Cooper or Kendall – do they most resemble?

Remarks by Margaret Beckett at Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, 25 June 2007

I expect that many – if not all – of you here today read an article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal at the very start of 2007. The writers would be as familiar to an audience in this country as they are respected across the globe: George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn.


The article made the case for, and I quote, "a bold initiative consistent with America's moral heritage". That initiative was to re-ignite the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and to redouble efforts on the practical measures towards it.

(…)Let's look at the facts. Despite the recent log-jam, the basic non-proliferation consensus is and has been remarkably resilient. The grand bargain of the NPT has, by and large, held for the past 40 years. The vast majority of states – including many that have the technology to do so if they chose – have decided not to develop nuclear weapons. And far fewer states than was once feared have acquired and retained nuclear weapons.


Even more encouragingly, and much less well known outside this room, many more states – South Africa, Libya, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, [Belarus], Argentina, Brazil – have given up active nuclear weapons programmes, turned back from pursuing such programmes, or – in the case of the former Soviet Union countries – chosen to hand over weapons on their territory.

(…)But the important point is this: in none of those areas will we stand a chance of success unless the international community is united in purpose as well as in action.


And what that Wall Street Journal article, and for that matter [the then UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan, have been quite right to identify is that our efforts on non-proliferation will be dangerously undermined if others believe – however unfairly – that the terms of the grand bargain have changed, that the nuclear weapon states have abandoned any commitment to disarmament.


The point of doing more on disarmament, then, is not to convince the Iranians or the North Koreans. I do not believe for one second that further reductions in our nuclear weapons would have a material effect on their nuclear ambitions.

Rather the point of doing more is this: because the moderate majority of states – our natural and vital allies on non-proliferation – want us to do more. And if we do not, we risk helping Iran and North Korea in their efforts to muddy the water, to turn the blame for their own nuclear intransigence back onto us. They can undermine our arguments for strong international action in support of the NPT by painting us as doing too little too late to fulfil our own obligations. And that need to appear consistent, incidentally, is just as true at the regional level. The international community's clear commitment to a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in successive UN resolutions has been vital in building regional support for a tough line against Iran.


What we need is both vision – a scenario for a world free of nuclear weapons. And action – progressive steps to reduce warhead numbers and to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy.

(…)The judgement we made forty years ago, that the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons was in all of our interests – is just as true today as it was then. For more than sixty years, good management and good fortune have meant that nuclear arsenals have not been used. But we cannot rely on history just to repeat itself.

It would be a grave mistake for another reason, too. It underestimates the power that commitment and vision can have in driving action.

And just as the vision gives rise to action, conversely so does action give meaning to the vision. As that Wall Street Journal article put it: "Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair and urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible"

Practical steps [to disarmament] include further reductions in warhead numbers, particularly in the world's biggest arsenals. There are still over 20 000 warheads in the world. And the US and Russia hold about 96 per cent of them. Almost no-one – politician, military strategist or scientist – thinks that warheads in those numbers are still necessary to guarantee international security.


(…) And I should make clear here again, that when it will be useful to include in any negotiations the one per cent of the world's nuclear weapons that belong to the UK, we will willingly do so.


(…) When it comes to building this new impetus for global nuclear disarmament, I want the UK to be at the forefront of both the thinking and the practical work. To be, as it were, a "disarmament laboratory".


(...) We intend to examine how to provide confidence that the dismantled components of a nuclear warhead are not being returned to use in new warheads. This will have to involve some form of monitored storage, with a difficult balance once again to be struck between security concerns and verification requirements. We are currently working on the design concepts for building such a monitored store, so that we can more fully investigate these complex practical issues.

I said earlier that I doubted that I would live to see a world free of nuclear weapons. My sadness at such a thought is real. Mine is a generation that has existed under the shadow of the bomb – knowing that weapons existed which could bring an end to humanity itself. We have become almost accustomed to that steady underlying dread, punctuated by the sharper fear of each new nuclear crisis: Cuba in 1962, the Able Archer scare of 1983, the stand-off between India and Pakistan in 2002. 

But there is a danger in familiarity with something so terrible. If we allow our efforts on disarmament to slacken, if we allow ourselves to take the non-proliferation consensus for granted, the nuclear shadow that hangs over us all will lengthen and it will deepen. It may, one day, blot out the light for good. 

So my commitment to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons is undimmed. And though we in this room may never reach the end of that road, we can take the first steps down it. For any generation, that would be a noble calling. For ours, it is a duty.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Trident: weak defence Polly Toynbee, Jeremy Corbyn and the limits of acceptable politics Why should we bother with the centre ground? Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Did Kevin Spacey deserves his knighthood?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 23:11

The Old Vic has become part of a network of dissenting theatrical voices that will not be easily silenced.

Inside Spacey's Old Vic. Flickr/Peter Morgan. Some rights reserved.

The Old Vic has become a powerhouse of creative theatre under Kevin Spacey’s direction. It is part of an unofficial network of theatre that is neither commercial nor institutional. This may point the way our culture should and could go.

The Honours list with its references to empire may be outmoded, but for all that some honours are deserved. The knighthood for Kevin Spacey is a case in point. For more than a decade he worked tirelessly at the Old Vic, not simply keeping an old theatre alive, but creating an organisation that will continue to give a range of supporting facilities to actors and playwrights, especially in the earlier stages of their careers. The offices of the Old Vic don’t have the slick, streamlined appearance of a commercial enterprise. There’s a more functional air, a more purposeful air with a team dedicated to theatre. The atmosphere is first name informal. The effect is energising. These people are not careerists, they are committed professionals. The presence of such people is vital to the network of good theatre that exists despite the perennial lack of support in a society of material values.

By contrast, the Old Vic is generous in the support it can offer. What it cannot do is give space to all it would like to see on its stage. But it can, and it does, offer serious advice and encouragement of positive value. Once you are on their radar, they take an interest. They’ll come out and see your work if they can. They’ll go out of their way in a manner that might educate others in the ways of sympathy and concern that embody a truly liberal spirit, all too rare in a competitive culture. The Old Vic is not the only institution of encouragement, but its singularity is the fact of it being a commercial organisation. It is run for profit. Remarkably, the profit is of more than one kind. As such it could serve to broaden our general understanding of the ethics of commerce.

There was some doubt when Kevin Spacey was appointed to run the Old Vic. It was widely said that a Hollywood star could not understand English theatre. What were we going to see? Gimmicky productions with movie stars patronising the London stage? But rather than Marie Antoinette dressing up as a milkmaid we saw idealism tempered by a proven ability to realise those dreams in practical terms. The sacrifice of money and glitz testifies to the sincerity. Kevin Spacey was determined to create something that could work and survive.

It’s a common feeling among Hollywood stars that acting in the English theatre has a legitimacy that the movies [or even Broadway] don’t have. The compliment is genuine, but it springs from a romanticised picture of England as a Brideshead theme park. By contrast, Kevin Spacey clearly operated according to a deep understanding of English theatre, matched by some hard-headed calculations and a determined gamble that was not wise but brave indeed. The enterprise has turned out to be an imaginative leap of a kind aspirants and organisations might learn from, if we have the humility to do so.

Everyday resistance

Humility does not mean ‘knowing your place’. It means being prepared to learn from others. It means tempering personal ambition with a degree of concern for the common good. The Royal Court’s GRIT project is an example of this. Brief sketches blogged have offered ‘everyday acts of resistance’. Among other things it is resistance to complacency, cynicism and despair. What is required is an essentially altruistic energy. What is encouraged is a bond of feeling that in the face of an obstructive political climate urgent writing has a voice. Writers have been urged to participate, an invitation that may stimulate work more substantial than a few, ephemeral lines. This is a conversation that established channels cannot control.

There is a network of theatrical voices that will not be silenced. The dynamic is generated by an informality that is essential to its character and purpose. It is there to challenge, not by ‘cutting-edge’ clichés, but by considered responses of many kinds. The poetics are not lost in the politics. These are not shallow gestures, for this is not dinner-party liberalism but writing that goes down beneath the surface of fashionable opinion and received wisdom. This is writing that knows its place is not set at the table.

When a place can be found it is through those elusive areas of altruism. A case in point is UNESCO, serving the world rather than the interests of class and nation. The UNESCO Cities of Literature have given voice to active communities of the written and spoken word. There was a time so much was said about community as an abstract ideal without identifying specific social needs. To be a City of Literature is to relate writing to its local reality, and to give access to the excluded within that locality. It is a literature that makes something happen, that expresses new styles of moral architecture and a cultural change of heart.

Theatre is an empty space. Writing is a blank page. The silence challenges the artist to say something. We need to express our perceptions of the world. Grumbles at the bus stop are transformed by metaphor and coherent thought into a challenge to orthodoxies of whatever kind. If an orthodoxy cannot meet the challenge of opposition it does not deserve respect. A leavening of dissent is as necessary as the morning’s sunrise.

There are, however, those who prefer darkness and silence. They seek unquestioning assent. They wish to be adored. They seek to be ‘the envy of the world’ as if envy were a virtue. They seek a citadel so secure that nothing happens. They want not life but perfection.

A living culture has its spontaneous, makeshift, rough elements. To be universally liked is to be either drearily bland or in large measure misunderstood. There has to be room for doubt. Life is not perfect. It is within the imperfections that we discover how things are as they are and how we may respond with creative intelligence.

We need those empty spaces outside the mainstream. The time comes, as it should, when institutional theatre accepts the challenge. The success of Peter Brook has been to work within conventions that he extends in the never-ending search for the essence of performance. Determined on his course, he inspires others not to emulate his genius but to work according to his principle: theatre, like society, is in perpetual need of reform. Nothing is sacred except the act of transforming thoughts and feelings into art. Or so I understand it to be.

The enemy is convention, the acceptance of things because they are there. The hope is to create the possibilities that transcend their limitations. Not to understand the urgency of this task is not to be alive.


Sideboxes Related stories:  A theatre of narrative On theatre and human performance Topics:  Civil society Culture Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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What hope for Labour and the Left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 23:11

To understand what a Corbyn win would mean we need to understand what happened in the 80s. Labour must start building beyond the party - it must be part of broader social currents.

Flickr/lewishamdreamer. Some rights reserved.

This essay is in two parts. The first is an answer to some questions from one of my students, prompted by Labour’s disastrous electoral performance in May 2015 and by the surprise surge in apparent support for radical left-winger Jeremy Corbyn in Labour’s current leadership election. The second is an elaboration of some of the arguments made there.

Part One : Jacks Questions

A student of mine (Jack Manton) recently asked me the following questions in an email:

Is there any hope? Can the Labour party come back from this? I look at Jeremy Corbyn and to my (uninformed)mind he seems like a pretty good guy, is that the case? Do you think he is a good choice for leader? Is it even worth hoping he is a good guy? Once the Daily Mail, The Sun and the rest of the press get their hands on him, will they just tear him down? 

I had been putting off formulating any answer to just these questions, which we are all asking ourselves at the moment, for some time. But being prompted by Jack in such lucid terms provoked me into addressing them as fully as I could. So this was my reply, written last week, before the press was actually full of references to the early 80s and the SDP experience - which it now is.

My Answers: Yes and No 

To put it bluntly, there’s always hope of progress, but I think there’s a pretty small chance of it coming through the Labour Party now, despite having been a member for all my adult life. In the parts of Europe where radical parties are making real progress, Spain and Greece (despite how bad the situation is in the latter), what’s happened is that the traditional parties of the centre-left have lost a lot of their traditional support. Labour may well be going the same way in the long term.

Corbyn is a genuinely good guy. But yes, the Tory press will make mincemeat of him if he becomes Labour leader, at least in the short term. But it may be that the most useful perspective is not merely to concentrate on who will win the next general election, especially if we consider the historical precedents.

If Corbyn does become leader, you can expect to hear the media making endless comparisons with the early 80s. That’s when Labour made the biggest shift to the left in its history and suffered its biggest electoral defeat. Having elected an intelligent but un-charismatic left-winger (Michael Foot) as leader in 1980, Labour suffered its worst result since the 1920s at the 1983 general election. I was only 11, but I can still remember well what a blow it was, and how it convinced many people over the course of the 80s that only a moderate Labour party could ever win an election.

The left of the party was led by Tony Benn, who wanted to keep pushing for a radical programme, and they were always very ambiguous about what they would do about the fact that they obviously could not command the support of a majority of the voting public, or even the 40% traditionally needed to win elections under our voting system, at least for the foreseeable future. Many of them seemed to believe that if they just stuck to their guns and shouted loud enough for long enough, then sooner or later the great British public would come around to their way of seeing things. You can see why many people thought this was a stupid approach, and why a lot of those people ended up Blairites in the 90s. 

One of the effects of the shift to the left in the early 80s was that a large faction on the right of the party had split off to form a new party, the SDP (social democratic party), which split the anti-Tory vote, wining hardly any seats but helping Labour to lose lots of them, especially in the ’83 election. After a surge of popularity immediately after it was formed, the SDP dwindled in support, forming an alliance with the Liberal Party, which became the dominant partner and eventually merged with the SDP to form the Liberal Democrats. Many on the Left have argued that the SDP split is what really did for the radical socialist version of Labour in the early 80s, but I think that the split was a symptom not a cause. It was a symptom of the fact that the radical socialist programme which Labour had adopted simply did not command public support, or even the support of much of the party. Most of the people who voted for the SDP in ’83 would not have voted Labour if the SDP hadn't been invented. 

So the argument made by people on the right of the Labour party, and also by the so-called ‘soft left’ was that it was just self-indulgent to pursue a radical manifesto that you knew you couldn’t win an election with ('soft left' was a name given to those Labour members who sort of had a radical analysis of the problems with British capitalism but advocated a pragmatic, cautious approach to actually doing anything about it). They came to the conclusion that the most important thing was always to win the next election, so that the Tories could not cut any more public spending, inflicting yet more cruelty on the poor and the young. When I was a teenager I was very persuaded by this argument.

The trouble is, after Labour started watering down its commitments to radical socialism, it didn’t win the 1987 election (although it did better than in 1983), and it didn’t win in 1992 (but again did better), and it finally had to become the entirely pro-neoliberal ‘New Labour’ before the Tory press would get behind it. After which, it won, and did implement a few positive reforms, but ultimately did nothing to strengthen the collective power of British citizens or the Labour movement.

The result was that once the long economic boom of the 2000s came to an end, and the government  couldn’t keep spending public money while refusing to seriously raise taxes, it had no real basis for mobilising support against a somewhat revived Tory party led by Cameron. It also had no Plan B once the economic model inherited from the Tories (fuel a property boom - let people use personal borrowing to increase consumption - hope that this cycle never comes to an end even though it inevitably will…) came unstuck.

So these days I tend to think that it would have been better if the left had remained in control of Labour in the 80s, even it meant definitely losing the 1987 and 1992 elections (which it lost anyway!). By maintaining principles, but, more importantly, by organising in communities, developing alternative media, etc, instead of just focussing on trying to win the support of the Sun and to look good on TV, then it might have been possible to build a real political movement, and by 1997 there might have been a substantial political force in place which would have been able to back up a genuinely radical government. Instead what we had was a charismatic leader (Blair) who was effectively elected on a promise to the City of London and Rupert Murdoch that he would never, ever, do anything to upset them. 

Of course this might all be nonsense, and of course it might have been that Labour would have just dwindled almost to nothing by 1997 if it had pursued any other course than the New Labour one. In fact I think this is almost certainly what would have happened if Labour had just adopted a radical manifesto, but had not radically changed its political strategy. If you don’t play to win or make some real effort to change the game, then you are obviously going to lose and keep losing, which is what Labour had been doing for most of its history, frankly.

But Labour could have tried to change the game. Some commentators (people like Stuart Hall and Hilary Wainwright had consistently argued that Labour could only win on a progressive platform if it was willing to become part of a broad coalition of social forces and political parties, perhaps entering into some kind of agreement with the liberals and the nationalist parties (for example doing deals to stand down in each other's favour in constituencies they couldn’t win); instead of just thinking it would always be enough simply to try to win a parliamentary majority for Labour, as if that itself was a magic solution to the problem of capitalist power! Arguably if they had been willing to do that, to put together a coalition which obviously included people from different political traditions, walks of life, and parts of the country, then they might have been able to build a democratic alternative to neoliberalism than had real popular appeal. But they didn’t even try.

The reason I’m going on about all this now is that I think the same thing is almost certainly true today. If Corbyn were willing to argue for a change to our antiquated voting system, to work openly with the Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru, to tell people the truth that it might well take ten years to build a movement that would really be able to change things, then he might really be able to make things happen. Unfortunately that doesn’t look very likely - it seems more likely he would just do what Labour did in ’83, and go to the country on a radical manifesto which the papers would destroy, and which people would understand intuitively he could not deliver on anyway (cf Greece), because you can’t deliver a radical programme when you haven’t spent years building up support for it in communities up and down the country. That’s not because he’s a bad guy. But I haven’t seen any evidence that he has the kind of strategic imagination necessary to break the deadlock for the left in England.

There are various other things going on, however. Projects like http://takebackthecity.org, http://www.compassonline.org.uk, http://neweconomyorganisersnetwork.org, http://bricklanedebates.tumblr.com etc, are in different ways dedicated to trying to build a grassroots-led and broadly-based movement for social change. These are all real sources of hope for me. In Scotland the radical independence campaign, with groups like Common Weal playing a key role, developed very quickly once it got some momentum, and the result was the SNP victory at the general election and the SNP moving radically to the left. 

Could something similar be about to happen to Labour? A grassroots surge turning it almost overnight into something quite different from what it has been up till now, with Corbyn’s leadership merely the vehicle for that? It’s possible - although it’s not that likely. It’s more likely that Corbyn’s leadership would indeed be the beginning of the end for Labour; but that in the long term that might be a good thing. It might be that this would finally enable the kind of movement to develop that didn’t develop in the 80s, with organisations like the ones I’ve mentioned forming part of that new movement, and some new configuration of political parties might finally emerge on the left. 

But the key thing to remember here is that the overall lesson of all this history is that there are no quick fixes. It would have taken 20 years to rebuild the Labour movement after the defeats of '83/'84 (’83 election, miners’ strike). But 20 years is only a fraction of most people’s lifetimes these days, and if we’d gone that route instead of hoping that one more election victory, one more set of compromises with Murdoch, would sort everything out for us, then Labour might not be in the disastrous state it’s in today.

So - is there any real chance of Corbyn becoming the next prime minister? I doubt it, unless he does some kind of deal with UKIP and SNP to elect a government which would promise to introduce proportional representation, and then hold further elections; which is what I would love to see happen personally. But then, there’s probably more chance of him doing that than of any of the other potential Labour leaders doing anything very constructive. And even if he doesn’t, then his election as Labour leader could be part of a process of change which would have good results eventually, 10 years or further down the road. Of course, his election as Labour leader remains pretty unlikely, whatever the polls say. But the fact that they are saying it at all should give us a little glimmer of optimism.

So is there any real reason to hope? Well not much, for the short term. But I would say that hoping for the short term is exactly the thing that got us into this mess in the first place, and the best way to get out of it before you’re in your 40s might be to accept that there’s no magic solution in the short term, and think about the best ways to build a popular movement against neoliberalism in the long term. Does it even matter, from this perspective, whether Corbyn wins or not? Not much, to be honest… but he’s such an unknown quantity, it’s so hard to foresee what he’d actually do if he became leader (he probably doesn’t have a clue himself right now), that it’s probably at least worth a punt.

Part Two: reflection on the legacy of the 80s

That was the reply to Jack. There are some points made there that I think are worth elaborating a little further, particularly with regard to the political legacy of the 1980s.

In some ways Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader already marked a return to the divisions of the 1980s, to the extent that it clearly marked the re-emergence of the ‘soft left’ as a distinctive strand within Labour. This had been the dominant tendency in the party under Kinnock and arguably for most of its history, but was widely seen as having willingly submerged itself into the New Labour project in order not to compromise party unity under Blair. The current leadership election, I think, is confirming this fact if nothing else: the soft left is still the historically dominant tendency in the party, and at present it continues to share a collective sense that the Blair project did not end well for the party or the country, and that it is damned if it’s going to be told how to vote by the partisans and architects of that project. The more Blairite grandees have come out for Liz Kendall, the further behind in support she has lagged. Now it seems that for many in Labour, even Andy Burnham’s position is too tainted by association with the Blair years, and only a leadership candidate (Corbyn) who has opposed the leadership literally for 30 years can attract their support.

It’s worth recalling some history here. What I’m going to offer now is a very simplistic sketch, mainly for the benefit of people who, like Jack, are too young to remember any of this. This is a

formulaic way of explaining what happened, but it’s roughly accurate.

The hard left, soft left split

New Labour only ever became possible because the soft left formed an alliance with the right of the party, which had always dreamed of ditching the last residues of socialism from Labour’s rhetoric and programme. Looked at in a long historical perspective, this was always an unlikely alliance. The differences between the soft left and the hard left from the beginning of the 80s had largely been seen as tactical and strategic in nature, rather than fundamental differences of principle and analysis. What made the ‘soft left’ and the ‘hard left’ both ‘left’ was the fact that, broadly speaking, they all accepted a loosely Marxian account of the fundamental problems with capitalism as such, and were committed to trying to create a different economic model sooner or later. The right of the party, conversely, didn’t share the socialism and anti-capitalism of the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ lefts.

However, around the mid 80s some of the differences between soft and hard left came to seem more fundamental. There were really two sets of issues here worth focusing on. On the one hand, the hard left was almost completely hostile to the idea that fundamental changes in the nature, scope, technologies and institutions of global capitalism were going to have any significant political implications. The  decline in manufacturing industry in the global north wasn’t going to affect the way the labour movement organised; the nation state would still be an appropriate vehicle for the implementation of socialism; anyone who said differently was a bourgeois revisionist. This meant that historically radical intellectuals such as Eric Hobsbawm and Stuart Hall were treated as irrelevant or worse by a hard left which really did have its head buried in the historical sand.

It is worth remembering here that from the Militant Tendency/Socialist Party to the Socialist Campaign Group (the main Labour hard-left grouping) to the Socialist Workers’ Party, most hard left and Marxist-Leninist groups didn’t finally admit that globalisation, digitisation and the shift to a service and retail economy (‘post-Fordism’, in other words) weren’t just irrelevant historical blips until some time well into the 21st century. They didn’t drop their commitments to vanguardism  (the idea that one organisation could be the leading force of social change) and democratic centralism (the idea that all members of an organisation had to adhere to a single party line) until even later.

Flickr/mattbuck4950. Some rights reserved.

In the early 2000s, for example, the SWP was still convinced that the anti-capitalist movement could only become historically significant if its partisans were eventually schooled in the discipline of democratic centralism. Such groups also tended to be informed by the idea that the only reason to work with any political groups other than your own was to try to win their members over to your organisation. The notion that you might actually enter into working alliances with other groups over long periods, without trying to wreck those groups and the alliances you had made with them after a couple of years, once you’d recruited all the new members you could from them, was completely alien to the practice of organisations like Militant or the SWP, and wasn’t very easy even for the hard left of Labour ever to come to terms with.

Observing this anti-democratic and anti-pluralist tendency in the hard left of the early 80s leads me to the other key point of rupture between them and the soft left. The hard left of the Labour Party was led by Tony Benn, whose political philosophy was always an odd, if potent mixture of Marxism, democratic socialism, Fabianism, and an almost mystical veneration for the British constitution. Benn was of course a republican, but he was also committed to the idea that parliamentary sovereignty was an idea that could be put at the service of socialist democracy, and was even historically destined to be, blessed as it was by centuries of honest popular struggle. Importantly, Benn was enthusiastic about the potential political role of the ‘new social movements’ (women’s liberation, anti-racism, etc); but he seems to have wanted them incorporated into the official structures of the Labour Party, rather than being very interested in the proposals for wider democratic reform which had sometimes emerged from the New Left.

All this, combined with the attitudes of the hard left which I just described, produced a situation in which the hard left were for the most part militantly uninterested in any kind of proposals for democratic reform of the British state, for proportional representation, or for democratic coalitions of different political groups and forces. Proportional representation for the House of Commons was rejected in favour of the fantasy that a) Labour might be magically transformed into the revolutionary workers party that it had never been b) once that was achieved, first-past-the-post and the absolute sovereignty of parliament would be useful vehicles for the implementation of socialism from the centre. The Charter 88 campaign for constitutional reform, despite being partly inspired by the Marxist analysis of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn (who pointed out that Britain had never had the kind of proper bourgeois revolution that results in, at least, a proper liberal-democratic constitution), got almost no support from the hard left.

These were the conditions which pushed most of the soft left into the arms of the emergent Blair project in the early 90s. The Blairites at least seemed to understand that the world was changing, and many of them voiced open support for PR, devolution, and other democratic reforms. In private, Blair and Campbell even whispered of ending party tribalism, working with the Liberal Democrats to create a permanent anti-Tory majority. Those of us who were committed to radical democracy, pluralistic politics and to the idea that the left must adapt to a changing world, could at least talk to the Blairites without being accused of class treachery, even if we didn’t much like what they said, when we actually listened to it.

The false promises of electoralism 

However, these were not the terms on which the Labour mainstream actually made its explicit break with the hard left after 1983/4. Although these issues were all there in the background, the key argument that motivated most Labour members, MPs, and supporters was a much simpler one. In 1983 Labour had gone to the country on a radical manifesto and it had been a total disaster: Labour support fell to 28% of the vote. There was simply no point in carrying on like this. As Kinnock put it so persuasively - the greatest concession to Thatcherism was to let her win. We had to support a ‘moderate’ programme, to tone down our critiques of capitalism, because otherwise we would never be able to win an election and then start tilting the political balance back in our favour. We would condemn generations of children to poverty just because we couldn’t bring ourselves to stop saying that we wanted to nationalise the banks. It was both a strategic necessity and a moral duty to adopt a less confrontational stance. Only by doing so could we finally start winning elections.

And it is on this point that I feel that most legatees of the soft left have still not faced up to our own historical mistakes. For the fact is, as I said to Jack: it didn’t work. Endlessly rowing back from a socialist agenda did not enable Labour to win elections in 1987 or in 19992. Victory in 1997 came only once Blair and Brown had convinced Murdoch and the City that they would pursue an ameliorative social programme  - reducing child poverty a bit, spending more on schools and hospitals - only to the extent that it offered no challenge whatsoever to their power and prestige.

The leaders of New Labour deferred absolutely to the social authority of the wealthy elites, doing nothing to challenge either their wealth or their values; so schools and other public services would be better funded, but would be forced to conform increasingly to a neoliberal agenda, and there would be no significant redistribution of wealth or power at all. Ultimately, 13 years of New Labour government left a country which was better in some ways than the one the Tories had been left in charge of, but in which the collective power of its citizens and workers was if anything even further reduced than it had been under the Tories. No wonder electoral turnouts, and the Labour vote, were already at an all-time low when Blair won his last election in 2005.

This, incidentally, is something the Blairites really cannot seem to get their heads around. Blair won some elections and he won the support of the City, of certain key strategic constituencies in Middle England, and with them the Murdoch press. But in the process he lost 5 million votes (many of which have now gone to UKIP), left the UK income distribution less equal than he found it, and prosecuted an unpopular illegal war. His government did nothing to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on debt, over-consumption, property bubbles and unproductive financial services.  At the same time it did nothing to alter the media ecology or the electoral system which hands such disproportionate power to the Tory press and to the middle-income swing voters in small towns who are the only people over whom the press exercise any real influence (such voters are a tiny proportion of the overall electorate, but are more or less able to decide every election result under our first-past-the-post system).

Anyone claiming the legacy of social democracy, as Blair still does today, can reasonably regard this record as one of abject failure. This fact simply does not seem to register at all with the Blairites. They comfort themselves with the insistence that anyone who thinks differently from them must only be nostalgic for the past. Point out to them that there are lots of exciting new digital-age, 21st century methods that could have been tried for promoting equality, rebalancing the economy or democratising the media and the state, and you will be met with a blank stare. Believe me - I’ve tried it.

The meaning of aspiration

Liz Kendall. Flickr/labour_party_uk. Some rights reserved.

Of course, the point about Blairism was that it never had any real interest in achieving any of those goals. Blairism was a political project predicated on one unchallengeable fact: the hegemony of finance capital. This is a fact so sacred and so taken for granted by the Blairites that it is not allowed to be referred to. A bit like the way some religions forbid the naming of God - one is not allowed within Blairite discourse ever explicitly to acknowledge the presence and authority of the masters of the universe, except in allusive and reverential terms.

This is how hegemony works, of course: the power of the hegemonic group becomes so taken for granted as to become invisible, to the point where actually naming it comes to be understood as a pathological gesture; their values and ways of acting in the world are accepted as mere ‘common sense’, any deviation from which must be a form of mental disorder. So of course the vast majority of Blairites are not conscious that their entire world-view is handed down to them by the financial elites, or that deference to the authority of those elites is the single thread linking together an otherwise quite incoherent set of policies and preferences. But it is.

A great example here is the language of ‘aspiration’ which was circulating among the leadership contenders before it started to become apparent that it wasn’t working for them. This was the Blairite keyword in the weeks following the general election defeat, with Blairite candidate Liz Kendall not only condemning Labour’s general election campaign for having failed to connect with voters’ ‘aspirations’ and with aspirational voters, but actually arguing at one point that what was wrong with white working class children was that they lacked ‘aspiration’ and that governments ought to take it upon themselves to force them to have some.

What does ‘aspiration’ really mean, in this context? It seems to refer to a very narrow set of values and to express the idea that they are the ones that everyone naturally shares. Now, I don’t think that anyone really believes that the narrow, consumerist, individualist, competitive values of commercial culture are the only ones which really motivate human behaviour. But everyone knows that those are the values of the City, the bankers and the sections of the corporate and media world which are closest to them; and this is what ‘aspiration’ is really a code-word for. Think about a phrase like ‘aspirational fashion’. What does it mean? It means people wearing clothes that consciously ape the clothes that rich people might be assumed to wear.

When someone like Kendall says ‘we must respect and encourage aspiration’, she doesn’t really just mean ‘we must respect and encourage people wanting to improve their lot and that of their families’. What she really means is ‘we must signal to finance capital that we will continue to defer to its social authority by enforcing its values as the only acceptable norms in our culture’. Her saying this is predicated on the understanding that the balance of forces in the UK and globally is such that there is simply no point proposing any political project which even minimally challenges the hegemony of finance capital. I don’t mean she necessarily consciously thinks any of this. She probably thinks that ‘aspiration’ as she defines it is just normal, everyday human behaviour and that encouraging it is simple common sense. Well, that’s hegemony for you.

So what now?

Under all these circumstances, it’s clear enough that there is very little motivation for the Labour membership to return to supporting a Blairite project any time soon. Even if it means we lose elections, there comes a point at which constantly deferring to the authority of our historic enemies just becomes more demoralising than losing elections does. At the same time, there is no practical reason for most Labour members to return to support for a project which was such an abject failure. Even if it is not being explicitly articulated in these terms, I suspect what is motivating support for Corbyn, especially among the young, is a conscious or unconscious realisation that we’d be better off losing the next four elections, if it meant that eventually we could build a movement which could challenge the hegemony of finance capital, than simply carrying on as we have been doing for another three decades. If the Blairites really want to take Corbyn on, then it’s this proposition that they will have to answer. Bleating on about how we won’t win the next election with Corbyn as leader really isn’t going to cut it any more.

It is quite clear that the Blairite commentariat really doesn’t understand what’s going on here. In the past week Jonathan Freedland and Helen Lewis amongst other commentators have made exactly the same argument: that Corbyn’s supporters are motivated by their longing for a secure sense of shared identity, by the desire to impress their friends with their virtuousness, by congenital immaturity and narcissism, rather than by any real desire for meaningful political change. Well, this is an argument I’m quite familiar with. I published a rather long book a few years ago (it can be downloaded legally here) whose concluding chapter was a detailed critique of what I called ‘the activist imaginary’: the mindset of those who prefer the comfort of knowing how radical they are to the prospect of possibly changing anything real. So I think I can recognise this mentality when I encounter it. And I can say now, with some pretension to authority, that this is not what’s going on with many of Corbyn’s supporters.

The people I know who have become enthused by Corbyn’s campaign are mostly people with no particular political identity, no historic record of militancy, no sense of themselves as outsiders or rebels. Their enthusiasm is motivated entirely by the fact that Corbyn - as desperately unexciting an individual as he is - is the only politician they can remember offering a coherent account of what has actually happened to Britain in recent years that in any way correlates with their experience or their values. In this debate, I suggest, it is not they whose judgements are being clouded by self-regard and self-interest. Those mainstream commentators who have made careers out of claiming to know how an unchangeable system works have every reason to fear a threat to that system’s continuation, even if they have tended to be critical of some of its effects.

And so?

The bigger issue is what all this means for the wider left. Can we finally overcome to the divisions of the 1980s? Can the legatees of the soft left finally overcome our desperate desire to win something soon, and recognise that without the kind of radical, imaginative movement that the best of the Bennites always argued for, then all we can ever hope for is Blair mark II? Can the legatees of Bennism finally get over their historic addiction to sectarianism and their indifference to the question of democracy, contributing to the formation of a broad-based radical coalition?

I hope so: we’ll see. The lesson of history, as I initially remarked to Jack, is that there are no short-cuts to progress. Ultimately the issue is not whether or not Corbyn can win an election. The issue is whether enough of us can find the energy, the patience, the imagination and the openness to build a movement which can open up a new historical phase. Without one, it will make no difference who the Labour leader or the next Prime Minister is: we will all still be the slaves of the City.


Thanks to Anthony Barnett and Tom Mills for editorial input.

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The Cyprus solution: gas, guarantees and grassroots

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 16:17

For the first time since 2004 there seems to be hope for a solution to the Cyprus problem. What are the impediments for the negotiations and how can they be overcome now?

Mustafa Akinci, president of Northern Cyprus. Wikimedia/public domain.The mood is full of hope on the island of Cyprus: for the first time since the failed 2004 Annan Plan there seems to be genuine enthusiasm for a comprehensive settlement to the decades long Cyprus problem.

A mix of favourable international and domestic developments seem to be laying the ground for a lasting solution in Cyprus. Significantly, after the election of pro-settlement Mustafa Akinci to the presidency in the north, momentum has been steadily building with a new emphasis on pursuing confidence building measures (CBM) alongside negotiations between the two communities being translated into a number of solid developments.

With Akinci barely beginning his term in office, Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades presented the first CBM package. This included ground maps for 28 minefields laid down by retreating Greek Cypriot forces in 1974, the granting of management to Evkaf of the various religious Muslim sites located in the south and the hiring of Turkish speaking professionals at citizens service centres in Nicosia to help Turkish Cypriots pursue business activities in the south. Akinci responded by eliminating the need for visitors entering the north to fill in a visa slip. There has also been willingness by Akinci to discuss the opening of the ghost town of Varosha as a CBM, which has been under Turkish military occupation since 1974. These retaliatory offerings culminated in the leaders agreeing on a further 5 concrete steps signifying their mutual commitment to the peace process.

There is a reason why, after so long, a solution seems within grasp: unlike previous negotiations, this time the talks are leader-led and homegrown. It must be made clear that the simple signing of an agreement or a 'yes' vote in a referendum will not magically solve the intractable Cyprus problem. A lasting and workable 'solution' must come through a process of social reconciliation enabling the two communities to form a common purpose and a shared vision. The political leaderships, civil society and the island’s inhabitants as a whole must each do their part in laying the foundations for a United Federal Cyprus. In other words, a comprehensive settlement must be politically accountable and the people must bear the ultimate responsibility for the type of settlement they create.

Only by addressing the root causes of the Cyprus problem can there be a successful solution. The London-Zurich Agreements, which led to the establishment of the failed Republic of Cyprus (ROC), were constructed by the political elite of the two communities along with the representatives of Turkey, Greece and the UK. Thus, the resulting constitution lacked the political legitimacy necessary for a workable solution. Similarly, the Annan plan failed because the inhabitants of the island were not meaningfully involved in the process. In fact, remaining gaps in the negotiations between the two teams were filled in by the United Nations. How are the people, who have had no say in the construction of solution, expected to make whatever settlement functional and durable?

Anastastiades and Akinci appear to be the two leaders who are finally beginning to understand the importance of this question. At an event organised by the Turkish and Greek Cypriot chambers of commerce, the two leaders outlined their common vision for a united future. By highlighting the aim of ensuring the prosperity of all Cypriots, the leaders are setting out a future that Cypriots have a very strong stake in. Understanding the necessity to build a new type of economy, not reliant on financial assistance from Turkey or the EU, is a factor catalysing the peace process. According to Anastasiades, a settlement could lead to a doubling of the entire island’s GDP in 20 years time.

Civil society 

More importantly, this vision is not exclusive to the political elite. Bi-communal contacts at the grassroots level are also shaping the future direction of the process. The Cyprus Academic Dialogue and University of Kent co-organised an event in Ankara, where academics, politicians and civil society members involved in the Cyprus problem shared their views on overcoming the difficulties regarding a settlement. Also, a bi-communal panel, including eminent scholars and practitioners from both sides, debated whether a Truth Commission would hinder or benefit the reunification efforts.

The Turkish and Greek Cypriot chambers of commerce have introduced a joint internship programme named ‘Leading by Example’ for Greek and Turkish Cypriot university graduates currently unemployed. In support of the leaders announcement for the opening of new border crossings, members of Greek Cypriot Famagusta, our City and Turkish Cypriot Famagusta Initiative gathered on both sides of the Dherynia crossing to voice their demand for the opening of the border-point. Shopkeepers from both sides got together to set up a committee for business cooperation between them. Moreover, high-level religious leaders have met up in recent days to share their prayers for dialogue, peace and unity.


Whilst political developments within Cyprus are promising, what can be said of the political environment across the Eastern Mediterranean sea? Although the rejectionist opposition parties in the Greek Cypriot south portray Turkey as the main obstacle to a settlement, nothing could be further from the truth. It would be naïve to assume that Turkey wants a solution at all costs, but Turkey’s behaviour over the last 13 years, with regards to its policy on Cyprus, firmly puts it in the pro-settlement camp. Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish Republic has drastically changed its Cyprus policy and demonstrated this by giving its strong backing to the failed Annan Plan in 2004.

From Turkey's perspective, solving the Cyprus problem would clear a massive obstacle in the way of its EU membership; Cyprus has blocked 8 negotiating chapters since 2006, which have effectively frozen Turkey's chances of entering the EU. An eventual deal would also signal an end to the heavy burden of financial aid Turkey channels into northern Cyprus each year to prop up its internationally isolated and unsustainable economy.

With the June 7th parliamentary elections in Turkey unable to produce a simple majority, the trajectory of Turkish politics will remain uncertain for the short-term at least as parties attempt to negotiate a workable coalition government. On the other hand, with Greece almost entirely consumed by its bail-out conditions, the government there will be incapable of concentrating on much else for the foreseeable future. These circumstances present the two leaders in Cyprus a fantastic window of opportunity to race ahead with negotiations free of unnecessary interference from Ankara or Athens.


In an article I wrote last year, I stressed that the discoveries of Hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean must act as a catalyst for a solution. And it appears, at least on the surface, that this is precisely what is happening. Although at first the hydrocarbons seemed to be getting in the way of a settlement; Anastasiades broke off talks with the Turkish Cypriots after a Turkish seismic vessel entered the Greek Cypriot controlled ROC's designated licensing blocks. The necessity of utilising the discoveries as an impetus for a settlement seems to have dawned on the previously uncompromising Greek Cypriot government. Anastasiades announced in January that the hydrocarbons issue could be discussed at the tail-end of negotiations. With the election of Akinci, it is now becoming the norm for both leaders to stress the peace potential of the resources.

The stakes are high: any profitable exploitation of the natural gas reserves of Cyprus lie through a pipeline to Turkey. Although there has been much hype and discussion about selling the gas to Egypt, the inherent instability in the country renders that option practically unfeasible. On the other hand, an LNG terminal doesn't make financial sense.

The most viable option is a pipeline connecting Cyprus, Turkey and Israel. With Israel also having significant amounts of natural gas to export, an underwater pipeline that runs to mainland Turkey and on to the European market is particularly desirable for the EU, given its willingness to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and create an Energy Union. For this scenario to work, it is crucial for there to be a comprehensive settlement.

Consequently, the strategic interests of the Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Turkey, Israel, the EU, the US and energy companies have begun to converge, increasing the likelihood of success at the negotiation table.


It is clear that both at the domestic level and the international level conditions are becoming ripe for a lasting solution to the decades long impasse. However, despite announced progress on issues such as property, territory, and governance the next few months are bound to be met with significant obstacles. The thorny issue of guarantees is one such barrier, and one that goes to the root of the conflict. Under the 1960 constitution, Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom are legally the guarantors of independence for the Republic of Cyprus. It is this legal clause that Turkey sights as its pretext for its military intervention in Cyprus in 1974.

For the Turkish Cypriots, if Turkey had not used its right of Guarantee in 1974, they would have been massacred at the hands of the Greek Cypriot enotists. For the Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, Turkey's right of guarantee looms over them like a dark cloud threatening to condemn them once again to the type of immense suffering they went through in 1974. Because both communities look at the issue from a perspective of security and survival, their positions regarding the matter are deemed a red-line. In short, the Turkish Cypriots want Turkey to guarantee their security, while the Greek Cypriots do not want Turkey to have a guarantee right, ironically, to guarantee their own survival.

To surpass this hurdle, what is required is a move away from the hard-positions of the parties towards an understanding of the underlying interests that make up these positions. Because the interests that construct these positions are first and foremost to do with security and survival, the guarantees issue could be overcome with gradual, but concrete steps that meet these interests.

Coupled with a measured removal of Turkish troops from Cyprus, the right of guarantee from Turkey could be linked to Turkey's ascension to the EU, where Turkey would be able to guarantee the rights and security of the Turkish Cypriots from within the EU. This would, at the same time, act as a pull factor for the EU to speed up the ascension process for Turkey, while providing for the Greek Cypriots a concrete process for the abolishment of Turkey's guarantee rights. This would, however, require that EU give Turkey the necessary incentives to really plough through with its ascension requirements. In the event of non-ascension, Turkey could be integrated into the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy in which it could also have a formal say in any issue directly linked to the security of Turkish Cypriots.


Another potential roadblock in the way of solving the Cyprus problem is the referendum issue. By pinning an entire process on the requirement for a simultaneous 'yes' vote, the risks of failure are immense and potentially final. A repeat of the 2004 referendum result would effectively translate into the permanent partition of the island. But this scenario can be avoided. As mentioned above, the Cyprus problem will not inherently be solved simply by achieving two 'yes' votes. The 'day after', so to speak, is important too for the durability of any form of agreement. Thus, any agreement package must be owned and cultivated by the potential 'yes' voters.

Fortunately, this is the direction the peace talks are heading towards. In the spirit of the negotiations, with the process moving away from the simple signing of an agreement, the risk of a 'no' vote in the referendum could be overcome by holding a mandate referendum. In his article on openDemocracy, Neophytos Loizides argues that by engaging the public early on in the consultation process, future negotiations effectively gain the legitimacy of the people.

Mandate referenda work by asking the public to endorse the guiding principles of a process rather than having a vote on a final agreement. This transforms the ownership of a particular process to the public at large, thereby blessing the future direction and priorities of the negotiations.


It does not take a political scientist to see that the ongoing talks will hit formidable challenges. The spirit of the negotiations are, however, shifting away from the zero-sum approach that marred previous settlement attempts. With hydrocarbons finally being discussed by both leaders as a peace-catalysing factor, a shared vision for an independent, strong economy is arising. Difficult roadblocks, such as the guarantees issue, can be overcome with innovative arrangements. Furthermore, the international dynamic is also promising, giving the leaders the necessary space and support that they desperately need. With Cypriots beginning to take ownership of the process, a truly workable future is on the horizon. 

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You call this a Rechtsstaat?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 16:13

Legal improvisation marks European policy-making in the Eurozone crisis. This crisis damages the rule of law so essential to the European model and without which Europe will not last.

European Union flag. Håkan Dahlström. Flickr/some rights reserved.I have always been of the opinion that, in politics, hypocrisy is as much an exercise of power as it is a moral flaw. It is a loud declaration that the rules apply to thee, and not to me. It shows that one does not fear accountability. Indeed, in a way, it is a declaration of sovereignty if we define sovereignty simply as “the power to make binding rules.”

In his book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, Philip Mirowski discussed sovereignty and economic crises. Specifically, he cited Carl Schmitt, one of the 20th century’s most influential conservative legal theorists. Schmitt turned the idea of sovereignty around, saying that it wasn’t so much the right to make law as the right to decide when it does not apply: the right to “decide the exception.” Mirowski was specifically describing the role of capital in the neoliberal system during the banking crisis. Normally, capitalism would dictate that capitalists who were improvident with their money go to the wall; but during the banking crisis they “decided the exception”, demanded and got bailouts, and forced the state to pay for their mistakes. In that sense, sovereignty is closely tied to declaring and managing states of emergency or siege – which are indeed sometimes called “states of exception.”

This came back to me a number of times watching the Eurozone’s leadership deal with the crisis over the third Greek bailout. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, recently made clear in the New Statesman that he thought Germany had control over the Eurozone, and Wolfgang Schäuble control over the Eurozone council of finance ministers. This is not legally true, but Schäuble’s actions throughout the most recent stages of this crisis suggest the attitude of someone who takes no exception to deciding the exception.

Grexit and temporal Grexit under European Union law

Let us take Schäuble’s attitude on two issues: The question of relieving or forgiving some of Greece’s debt, and the central question of “Grexit” itself. The Syriza-led Greek government of Alexis Tsipras has sought debt relief from its creditors since assuming office last January. The German government has stated that this is impossible under European Union law, specifically a clause in the Treaty of Lisbon (Article 125, Section 1), which states that “The Union shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of any Member State, …”. Steve Peers, author of a blog on European Union law, makes this point as well.

But what was Schäuble’s headline proposal during the make-or-break negotiations in Brussels on July 12-13? That Greece “temporarily leave the Eurozone,” and then undergo debt restructuring. Is this provided for by the Treaty of Lisbon? No European Union law provides for the expulsion of a member from membership of the Union or its institutions. Again, citing Peers:

It’s not legally possible simply because a permanent Grexit isn’t legally possible, and so a temporary one isn’t either. I’ll briefly recap the reasons why, based on my recent blog post. There’s no reference in the Treaties to any power of a Member State to leave EMU once it joins, or of the EU institutions to remove that Member State from EMU, whether it agrees to that or not. A Member State can leave EMU by leaving the EU, but there’s no Treaty power to throw a Member State out of the EU, or to suggest that any Member State might ever be under the obligation to leave.

Peers has stated, in the blog post he refers to in the quote, that there may be some legal ways to exclude Greece from the Eurozone, including annulling Greece’s initial entry on grounds of fraud. Andrew Duff suggests another way to temporarily exclude Greece. But the German finance ministry's proposal doesn’t mention any legal mechanism whatsoever for accomplishing Grexit. One could argue that this was merely a bluff on Germany’s part, but even making the bluff implies a cavalier attitude on Germany’s part to EU law.

Varoufakis himself pointed out the arbitrary nature of Eurozone policy making after negotiations broke down with his fellow finance ministers at the end of June. After he left, the other 18 ministers left and issues a communique without him. When he asked whether this was lawful, he was told that the meeting of finance ministers, the Eurogroup, “does not exist in law, there is no treaty which has convened this group.”

A degree of legal improvisation has always marked European policy-making during the Eurozone crisis. Draghi’s “outright monetary transactions” plan, which Wolfgang Streeck calls an almost blatant violation of EU law, is one example. That, too, was a sort of state of exception. But as Pears noted, that at least had as its goal the preservation of the EMU. The German finance ministry was proposing to break it apart.

Admittedly, one can argue that Alexis Tsipras himself has also played fast and loose with the rule of law. The Syriza government’s referendum on the bailout terms, held on July 5th, was widely condemned for being biased, unclear and possibly unconstitutional, though the Supreme Administrative Court of Greece permitted it. However, it is the EU’s proclaimed mission to encourage the development of the rule of law in its member states; if there is little excuse for Tsipras to bend the law, there is even less for Brussels to do so.

This analysis does not, of course, conflict with Mirowski’s analysis. Greece’s debts were mostly socialized with earlier bailouts, so the creditors – the power of capital, in this instance – lies with state creditors, led by the IMF, the European Central Bank and the EU (the troika). Among the latter, the group of states with lower debt ratios, who are the Union’s main net creditors, are led by Germany, making Berlin, at least in part, the capital deciding the state of exception in this case. And Streeck points out that these states are also reliant on the capital markets both for their own spending and for economic growth more generally, and so cooperate to enforce market discipline on EU members to ensure the continued cooperation of the markets.

It is hard to overstate how important the rule of law is to the European project. It’s one of the reasons southern Europeans are so committed to the EU and the euro. When Ukrainians occupied the “Euromaidan” in the winter of 2013-14, demanding that their country ratify an association agreement with Europe, they were appealing to the EU to bring the rule of law to a nation ruled by the singularly lawless and corrupt clique surrounding President Viktor Yanukovych. Throughout the Greek debt crisis, attention has rightly focused on the damage austerity has done to Greece’s economy and society, and on the undemocratic, imperious and self-interested nature of European decision-making.

There has been less focus on how the crisis has damaged the rule of law and also damaged the sense that European institutions should act according to that rule rather than follow the whims of powerful members. The European Union has always cast itself as a model for a new human politics, founded on law and cooperation rather than conflict. Without the rule of law, that model cannot last long.

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Ukraine is ripe for the shock doctrine

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 14:39

Like many states in crisis before it, Ukraine serves as a perfect opportunity for neoliberal transformation.

While a crisis of faith, of sorts, has resounded in western discourse on the economic effectiveness of austerity, this scepticism, rather ironically, dissipates when you cross over into the remnants of the Iron Curtain.

Neoliberalism’s flagellants reside east of the Elbe. There, ideological purity remains, if not redoubled. Former patients of shock therapy are now its most devoted converts. This was not only demonstrated by Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Slovak, and Polish officials’ unyielding support for ‘tough reforms’ in Greece, but the general lack of sympathy among their populations for the Greek people. Past shock therapies have left them numb, docile, and inured to the calamities of neoliberal logics.

The neoliberal faith is expanding further eastward as well. The Ukrainian leadership have shown their unbridled readiness to exchange one master, Russia, for another: western finance and corporate capital. Even in light of the Troika’s ‘fiscal waterboarding’ of Greece and the utter failure of austerity as economic policy, the Ukrainian government is willing, even enthusiastic, to implement reforms prescribed by the IMF not only with the blind faith that they will stimulate economic recovery, but also in the name of ‘European values’, which are now subject to much scrutiny.

'The ungrateful Greeks'

Still, the Greek crisis has given neoliberal converts in Ukraine the opportunity to declare their devotion by admonishing the Greeks for their lack of faith.

In the Financial Times, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk groaned about the attention which the ungrateful Greeks were getting, while Ukraine ‘is not on radars’. He added that the whole Greek debacle was a ‘political disaster,’ not for the Greeks mind you, but because it ‘disincentivises other governments in terms of making tough reforms.’

February 2014: the office of Credit Agricole Bank in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine. (c) Igor Golovniov / Demotix.

Similarly, in an interview with CNBC, Yatsenyuk cautioned against comparisons between Ukraine and Greece because, unlike the Greeks, ‘we do not blackmail anyone.’

Yatsenyuk’s ministerial colleagues followed suit. ‘There is a big difference between us and Greece,’ Dmitryo Shymkiv, Poroshenko’s top staffer on economic and political reforms, told BuzzFeed. ‘Greece has been “persuaded” into reforms recently, [over the last] few days, while Ukraine has a plan. And we’re going after the plan.’

Unlike the Greeks, ‘we [Ukraine] do not blackmail anyone.’

Ukraine’s boosters chimed in as well. In the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl pleaded, ‘Unlike Greece, [Ukraine] has taken every painful austerity step required by the International Monetary Fund, even while fighting a war. Yet the European Union, which has committed $222 billion to bailing out Greece, has offered Ukraine $5.5 billion.’

Ievgen Vorobiov echoed in Foreign Policy: ‘In studied contrast to the current government in Athens, Kiev is bending over backwards to emphasize its desire to reform its way back to financial health.’ Ukraine’s booster-in-chief, Anders Aslund repeated the mantra: ‘Ukraine's first serious, able government in years has quickly adopted vital reforms the West had called for… Kiev is doing exactly what it's supposed to do, but what is the EU doing? It has committed merely €5 billion in loans to Ukraine, compared with €200 billion for Greece. This makes no sense.’

True, much of the Ukrainian government’s dedication to ‘staying the course’ has been rewarded with little more than rhetorical fanfare in Washington. After meeting with Yatsenyuk, President Obama and Vice President Biden praised Ukraine’s ‘strong stand against populist measures that could undermine Ukraine’s financial stability.’ U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker added: ‘these are hard choices. The prime minister feels the pressure. But as long as they’re moving forward, they’re not alone.’

Yet, when you really think about it, it all makes sense. Ukraine has little choice but to ‘move forward’ because it has no power to do otherwise. Returning to Russia’s embrace would be nothing less than suicide.

Much of Ukraine’s economic calamity, after all, is the direct result of Russia’s war in the east. The embrace of the neoliberal faith is as much an expression of true belief, as it is an act of geopolitical survival.

Neoliberal transformation

Like many crisis states before it, Ukraine serves as a perfect opportunity for neo-liberal transformation. Milton Friedman once wrote that: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’

Ukraine’s reformers know this dictum well. As Aivaras Abromavičius, investment banker, austerity devotee, and now Ukraine’s Minister of Economy and Trade, put it: ‘We shouldn't waste this crisis. It's a unique chance for reforms.’

Ukraine was one of the countries hit hardest by the 2008 financial crisis. (c) Maks Levin / Demotix.

‘We shouldn't waste this crisis. It's a unique chance for reforms.’

Ukraine is ripe for the shock doctrine. The population is economically disoriented and anaesthetised by patriotism. The Russian threat, however real, serves as a means to harden the population for sustained economic sacrifice.

Since 2012, Ukraine’s GDP has contracted 23%. The IMF predicts it will shrink an additional 9% in 2015. The government has instituted capital controls to stabilise the hryvnia.

Ukraine’s debt to GDP ratio has inflated to 158 %. Unofficial estimates of unemployment range from 15 to 18%. Under employment proliferates as do wage arrears. Employers owe workers in Dnipropetrovsk 131 million hryvnia, 136 million in Kiev, and 142 million in Kharkiv. Inflation is at 57%, and, according to April figures, prices for sugar are up 39%, dairy products – 32%, bread – 21%. Poverty hovers around 33%. But poverty by the UN’s measurement is even worse: 80% of Ukrainians live on less than $5 a day, and below $150 a month.

While support for Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk’s government has dropped in the polls, signs of popular resistance to austerity are few. The anti-austerity left is feeble and right-wing populist attempts at rollback verge on mendacity.

All the while, the erosion of daily economic security persists. As Yulia Burda, the head of a non-profit for children in need of speech therapy, told the BBC: ‘We can't afford medicines that we need because if we buy medicine, then for a period of time we can't buy food. Whenever you go into a store or to the market, you can't believe your eyes. Because what you paid for sausage or cheese for one kilogram before, now buys 100 grams.’


In an effort to stop the economic bloodletting, the IMF has cobbled together a $40 billion bailout, with $17.5 billion a direct IMF loan, distributed over four years.

The largest portion, $10 billion, will be given throughout 2015. Moreover, the IMF has backed Ukraine’s efforts to restructure $23 billion debt owed to four principle investment and hedge funds. The hope is Ukraine’s creditors will agree to a 40% haircut.

April 2015: Vuhlehirska power station, Donetsk region. (c) Nazar Furyk / Demotix.

So far, the creditors have proved intransigent, arguing a haircut ‘sends the wrong signal to global capital markets when Ukraine can least afford to be shunned.’ On 24 July, Ukraine made a $120m interest payment on its $70 billion debt pile in order to stave off default. Despite the roadblocks to debt restructuring, the IMF has agreed to release the next tranche of $1.7 billion at the end of July, giving Ukraine another much needed fiscal hit.

Yet, the IMF’s approach to Ukraine’s economic catastrophe is a replay of austerity in exchange for bailouts—a Ukrainian version of the EU’s ‘extend and pretend’ solution for Greece.

It is amazing, really, that such a bankrupt policy would be applied again. Yet here it is. The reforms, among others, demand the freezing of minimum wage, cuts in pension payments, the monetarisation of all social benefits, transforming medical care to a financing for services model, the reduction of institutions of higher education from 802 to 317. 

In addition, the IMF reforms call for ‘significant fiscal consolidation’, amounting to cuts in budget deficits by 6.3% of GDP. Comparable measures were tried in the PIGS countries with 5-7% contractions in 2011-2013, and for the worst years of the Greek crisis, 8-9% of GDP—all to no avail. 

The only saving grace is that unlike the EU’s periphery, Ukraine can devalue its currency. Nevertheless, these measures, argues Yuriy Gorodnichenko, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, ‘in weak economic conditions could be a kiss of death.’

It is amazing, really, that such a bankrupt policy would be applied again. 

Over the last few weeks, pundits and politicians have repeatedly stressed that Ukraine is not another Greece.

And, true, it’s not. The economic situation isn’t wholly comparable, despite some convergences. Nor is there any Ukrainian version of Syriza, which, though it ultimately capitulated, at least resisted. 

No, like most converts, those countries in the post-communist space are in the vanguard of the neoliberal faith. Unfortunately for Ukraine, its crisis is not so much a problem as an opportunity for increasing the flock.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The struggle for progressive politics in Ukraine Economics of disintegration in Ukraine Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Electioneering games in Siberia

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 14:38

Ahead of local elections later this year, Russia’s newly united opposition is trying its hand in Siberia. But their latest travails in Novosibirsk show what they are up against.

Russia’s Democratic Coalition, an opposition alliance formed in April 2015, for the elections to the regional legislature, due to take place in September 2015 (which precede the Duma elections in 2016), decided to target three regions, Kaluga, Kostroma and Novosibirsk. But the Coalition have been left with minimal chances for participation after stalling at the registration stage. 

The city’s election commission is currently deciding whether to register RPR-PARNAS, an opposition party and member of Democratic Coalition. Meanwhile, although the city and regional authorities do not see eye to eye, they have openly accused the opposition of buying votes and, in a reference to the events of 2004 in Ukraine, ‘planning an Orange Revolution’. 


On 24 June, a special election commission working group met to investigate the 11,000 signatures collected to register RPR-PARNAS, an acronym used to designate the alliance of the Republican Party of Russia with another opposition group, the People’s Freedom Party, for the local elections.

But though this may have seemed a routine event at first, it later ended in scandal. The working group declared roughly 1,500 signatures unreliable, most of them on the basis of Federal Migration Service (FMS) documents. The working group thus made their recommendation to the election commission: refuse to register RPR-PARNAS.

The opposition has tried to galvanise itself after the murder of Boris Nemtsov. Dhārmikatva / WikiCommons. Some rights reserved.

RPR-PARNAS is practically the only party, which, in the past month, has actually gone out to collect signatures (a key part of the process) from people on the street and at their homes. Most other parliamentary parties submitted signatures, which, judging by the documents, were collected in a single day.

For the Democratic Coalition’s legal advisers, this is evidence of falsification. Leonid Volkov, the Coalition’s co-ordinator in Novosibirsk, says: ‘All these “inconsistencies” with the FMS database are based on either intentional forgery or technical issues – the low quality of the database’s information and mistakes made on input.’

Leonid Volkov at a 2013 concert in support of Alexei Navalny. putnik / WikiCommons. Some rights reserved.

Volkov stated that, at the final meeting of the commission, the Coalition’s lawyers are planning to request that every ‘inconsistent’ signature is checked.

The unseen hand

It’s unclear whether the election commission is acting under pressure from the authorities.

According to one source, Yury Petukhov, head of the election commission, received a call from the Central Election Commission immediately after the working commission’s decision. The request was simple: present the full reasoning behind this decision to Moscow tout suite.

That said, one can sense the hand of the local authorities here, with likely interference from the office of Anatoly Lokot, the city’s communist mayor, and Vladimir Gorodetsky, head of the regional government and a member of United Russia.

Anatoly Lokot was elected mayor of Novosibirsk in April 2015 with 44% of the vote. (c) Aleksandr Kriazhev / VisualRIAN.

One can sense the hand of the local authorities here

In Novosibirsk, United Russia politicians have forged an alliance with the local authorities in a targeted campaign to discredit the Democratic Coalition.

Local media has published ‘exposé’ articles based on stories of people, who, having collected signatures, allegedly did not receive payment for their services. Official meetings held at the mayor’s office have been accompanied by references to a possible ‘Orange Revolution’, the ‘threat of a Maidan’ and a global conspiracy.

Speaking before a meeting of Novosibirsk’s civic council in July, Lokot hinted, on tape, at the threats faced by the city: ‘People say that an “Orange Revolution” situation in Novosibirsk is developing. I’ve been informed that the US Congress has assigned $20 million to register the electoral bloc [Democratic Coalition].

‘This means that if they register, a financial channel will open up, and this will shut down the capabilities not just for KPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation] and United Russia everyone together.’ Even the Communist Party’s regional committee was confused by Lokot’s statement—and he chairs it.

Former mayor of Novosibirsk, Vladimir Gorodetsky was elected governor in September 2014. (c) Aleksandr Kriazhev / VisualRIAN.

In response, members of the Democratic Coalition and Alexei Navalny immediately filed for defamation. At the initial court hearing, however, Lokot’s representatives argued that his statement was not a reference to RPR-PARNAS and, despite the fact that dozens of people heard Lokot, requested a speech analysis of the recording.

While the mayor’s office has been racked with scandal and infighting, the regional government, relatively safe in United Russia hands, has preferred to avoid public statements.

And now, having placed Lokot in the firing line, the local branch of United Russia seems to have killed two birds with one stone: raising the Coalition’s negative profile and depriving the communists of the protest vote, on the back of which Lokot became mayor in 2014. In this respect, the Democratic Coalition is being used to attract increased interest from the press.

Novosibirsk politics

Novosibirsk is Russia’s third largest city, and one of the most likely to protest.

Novosibirsk is Russia’s third largest city, and one of the most likely to protest.

The communists are strong here, traditionally, and for five years United Russia has been suffering the cruellest defeats here. The governing party receives twice as less votes here than it does on average across Russia.

For United Russia’s federal leadership, defeat at Novosibirsk’s 2014 mayoral election came as yet another damaging blow, when the opposition, local business elites and influential ‘system’ politicians (including Viktor Tolokonsky, former governor of Novosibirsk region and Presidential Representative to Siberia) united under Lokot’s banner.

May 2012: Novosibirsk's Monstration march. Anton Unitsin / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Following this defeat, United Russia changed the entire local party leadership, and put some of Moscow’s best ‘political technologists’ in charge of the campaigns for the regional and city councils. Sergei Neverov, head of United Russia’s General Council, is reportedly ‘curating’ the current campaign, and is being groomed as a replacement for the ageing Vladimir Gorodetsky.

With this in mind, the Kremlin should be most concerned by the confrontation with KPRF, rather than the ‘non-system’ opposition.

But Lokot prefers not to take any notice (of anybody), and at the KPRF’s final plenum of the candidate selection process, he again referred to the ‘Orange threat’ (another allusion to the ‘Colour Revolutions’) and US State Department funds. The young communists sitting in the room just raised their eyebrows, and shook their heads.

Whither independence?

Notwithstanding Lokot, thanks to Governor Gorodetsky, Novosibirsk has all but lost its financial and political independence.

In autumn 2014, the regional authorities, with the support of the city’s legislature (where United Russia have a majority), took for themselves an additional 10% slice of the city’s income tax revenues (citing the developing economic crisis as the reason). This led the mayor’s office to close several of its programmes, including road repair and kindergartens, which didn’t leave people happy. Now the regional authorities are returning this money to the city budget in subsidies, thus keeping Lokot on a short leash.

Politically speaking, then, the governor and United Russia have thus deftly managed to turn Lokot, leader of the communists and the 2014 protest movement, into a symbol of repression.

The governor and United Russia have managed to turn Lokot into a symbol of repression.

After all, though the orders came ‘from the top’, Lokot is seen to be responsible for banning Novosibirsk’s annual ‘Monstration’ and the persecution of its founder, Artem Loskutov, who is second in RPR-PARNAS’s candidate list.

At the same time, however, Lokot has become a symbol of mayoral weakness – as expressed in his total lack of political willpower when facing down the regional authorities over the city’s budget.

An unmanageable region

As one source in the regional government suggests, Moscow is worried by the region’s potential for protest, and considers it ‘unmanageable’.

Prior to this year’s Monstration, 5,000 people gathered in the centre of Novosibirsk to protest against the Orthodox Church’s interference in the staging of the opera Tannhäuser. This meeting was the largest since December 2011, when meetings in support of free and fair elections were held after suspicions of vote tampering in the parliamentary elections.

Following the efforts of United Russia, Governor Gorodetsky, and Lokot himself, protest voters will find themselves split ahead of the coming elections. Some people will vote for RPR-PARNAS (if they succeed in registering), others will support Yabloko, and the rest will just ignore the election.

Ilya Ponomarev, Duma deputy for Novosibirsk (and in exile since August 2014), believes that ‘without a doubt, United Russia will take first place, KPRF – second. That said, the communists have all the chances to come first in the city. Of course, the overall picture isn’t yet clear. I think United Russia will receive 40-50% of the vote, and the communists in the region of 30-35%.’

The Liberal Democratic Party, Just Russia, Yabloko and Rodina (who are also strong in Novosibirsk) are likely to scoop up the remaining votes. ‘In any case,’ says Ponomarev, ‘I think the regional government will retain control over the legislature, and the mayor’s office will increase its influence in the city council.’

Democratic Coalition

The likely defeat of RPR-PARNAS at the registration hearing will lead to another wave of protests in Novosibirisk, but they likely won’t be well attended—in June, no more than 500 people came to a demonstration led by Alexei Navalny.

Although Democratic Coalition will appeal against the election commission’s decision in court and through the Central Election Commission, these deliberations will last well beyond the elections due to take place on 13 September. On 27 July, the city’s election commission met again to discuss the fate of the registration signatures, deciding to postpone their decision further.

At the same time, according to Alexei Mazur, a political commentator, the federal centre, which really doesn’t want to see RPR-PARNAS in this race, still has its eyes fixed firmly on Novosibirsk.

‘On purpose, people were picked and sent to collect signatures on behalf of Democratic Coalition, in order to sabotage the campaign from inside. It seems there are concerns that RPR-PARNAS might shake up the structure of the local opposition. For example, they might be able to dislodge the “system” opposition.’

Democratic Coalition is testing the ground ahead of Duma elections in 2016, in which it can participate without collecting signatures (thanks to RPR-PARNAS’ representation in the Yaroslavl’s regional legislature). The more representation RPR-PARNAS gains in the regions, the less likely the Kremlin is to find a reason to refuse to register the party for next year’s Duma campaign.

Nevertheless, these events have laid down a marker in Novosibirsk for how the non-system opposition can build legitimacy.

This has become possible thanks to the protest moods in the city, and its emerging civil society. Residents are simply fed up: the building of new apartment blocks in green areas is out of control, the process of land allocation is corrupt, the local bureaucracy has ballooned, and the church has started interfering in people’s personal lives.

‘Many of the voters who can be called supporters of a “civil society” in Russia have simply no representatives in power in either Novosibirsk, or the State Duma,’ says Alexei Mazur.

‘If these elections can be seen as a chance for civil society, then RPR-PARNAS probably won’t be allowed to take part, but, sooner or later, those voters who aren’t indifferent to what is happening the city, and across the country, will, all the same, get their representatives in power, and particularly in Novosibirsk.’

Sideboxes Related stories:  Novosibirsk's cultural history of loss Unpaid wages halt progress at Russia’s flagship space project Will the patriotic stop list kill Russia’s NGOs? Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Women post-recession: moving towards insecurity

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 9:58

After the recession, the rise in casual and precarious contracts is entrenching gender inequality in the UK.


A woman walks past an anti-austerity placard on the Southbank.

In the second quarter of 2008, the UK economy followed the US into recession and remained there for six successive quarters. By early 2010 UK GDP contracted by 6.2%, the worst loss of output and the longest recession since World War II. The associated loss in employment was worse for men than for women in the initial stages of the recession. The impact of any economic downturn tends to be borne mostly by men because there is a greater concentration of male workers in cyclically sensitive industries, such as construction and manufacturing. Other industries, particularly within the public sector, such as health and education, are not as vulnerable to the effects of the economic cycle. Women’s employment increased in both health and education sectors in the initial phases of the UK recession and increased overall within the public sector. So, to some extent women workers were sheltered from the recession due to the role of the public sector and women’s higher rates of participation in that sector. However, female employment in the public sector has been far from immune from the UK government’s response to the ‘Great Recession’ which focuses on fiscal consolidation in the form of public sector spending cuts underpinned by deficit reduction ‘fetishism’. 

Analysis of labour market statistics suggests that since recovery took hold in 2010 the UK labour market has shifted towards increased underemployment and wider use of insecure forms of employment, particularly for women. Public sector spending cuts have drastically weakened the public sector ‘safety-net’ for low paid workers on the margins of the labour market, who are most likely to be women. Similarly, it is likely that reductions in the public provision of care services has increased the burden of unpaid work for women, further jeopardising their economic security.  

Gender Dimension of Employment Recovery in the UK

Total employment is now higher than pre-recession levels, with female employment currently at the highest since comparable records began. Since economic recovery took hold in 2010, total employment has increased by 2.1 million; men increased their employment by 1.2 million compared to 910,000 for women. The male employment rate therefore rose slightly faster than the female employment rate, increasing by 3.5% compared to 3.1% for women.

One significant feature of the recovery is that the gender gap in employment has narrowed from 12.1% to 9.8%, explained somewhat by the synchronisation of male and female state pension ages from 2010 onwards. fThe UK Government policy of equalising male and female retirement ages to 65 by 2018 has resulted in an increased labour supply over the medium term, with more women in the labour market now working past the age of 60.

Women accounted for 80% of the fall in levels of economic inactivity (defined as not working or actively seeking work) in the recovery period. The fall in economic inactivity therefore has been much more significant for women than that experienced by men, with their inactivity decreasing by 399,000 compared to 104,000 for men. One possible reason for this is the changes implemented to lone parent conditionality, effective from October 2011, which has seen increasing numbers of women being classified as unemployed due to changes in benefit conditions for single parents, the overwhelming majority of whom are female. To ensure continued eligibility for, and receipt of, welfare payments, once their youngest child reaches the age of 5, lone parents are required to seek employment therefore moving from receipt of benefit payments in the form of income support to job seekers allowance. This embodies a significant change in the way these individuals are captured in the labour force survey as payments of income support signify economic inactivity whereas individuals in receipt of job seekers allowance are classified as unemployed.  The gender gap in economic inactivity therefore has narrowed since the start of the recession from 13.4% to 10.7% in 2015, driven by falling female economic inactivity.

Women are still more likely to be economically inactive than men (currently 27% of women and 17% of men of working age are economically inactive). Women are five times more likely to be classified as economically inactive as a result of ‘looking after the family/home’ compared to men, the proportion of which has not significantly changed over the recessionary period. Clearly individuals who are caring for their family and the home are working, they just are not getting paid for it. Their contribution to the economy is largely invisible in official statistics. 

 Labour Market Structure: Moving towards insecurity

Historically women have a greater tendency to work part-time, mainly as a means to juggling paid employment with caring responsibilities. Since 2010 part-time employment has increased by over half a million, which has been evenly shared by both men and women, with men filling 280,000 part-time jobs compared to 310,000 for women. Of all the part-time jobs created during the recovery period, two in every five were in what the Office for National Statistics classifies as lower skilled jobs such as in elementary occupations or caring, leisure and other service roles, of which two thirds were attributed to increases in female part-time employment in these occupations.

Since 2010 there has been an increase of 207,000 temporary forms of employment. Over half the temporary jobs created in the recovery were through agency temping. In terms of part-time temporary employment, increases came predominantly from causal work, increasing by 40,000. Men and women have shared increases in all of these forms of temporary/insecure work relatively equally. Interestingly, since 2010 the number of women employed on part-time fixed term contracts has reduced by 27,000 compared to an increase of 4,000 for men.  

Increased incidence of other forms of precarious and insecure working practices have become more prevalent in a post-recession UK labour market, particularly through the use of zero-hours and short-hours contracts. Zero-hours are contracts offering no assurance of minimum working hours per week and have increased by 114,000 since 2013 to 700,000 in 2014. This amounts to approximately 2.3% of those in employment. Individuals employed on these contracts are more likely to be women (55%), more likely work part-time (66%) than full-time and nearly half (45%) are employed in accommodation and food as well as admin and support service sectors.  

Furthermore the Trade Unions Congress estimated that in 2014 there were 820,000 workers in the UK employed on short-hours contracts, which guarantee as little as 1 working hour per week. These contracts have gained popularity amongst employers as a means of avoiding paying national insurance contributions for individuals if working less than 18 hours per week.  Individuals employed on these contracts are predominately women (72%) and the majority (71%) are used in retail; education; accommodation and food services and health and social care sectors. 

In addition to increasingly insecure and/or hours constrained waged employment, evidence also suggests that self-employment has risen by just over half a million since 2010. Despite the fact that the majority of self-employed individuals are men, female self-employment has risen at twice the pace of male self-employment since the onset of the recovery, increasing by 22% compared to 11% for their male counterparts. 

Individuals may be entering self-employment out of economic necessity; rather than an increase in entrepreneurial spirit, self-employment could therefore be more of a survival strategy for many. This is reflected in the occupations and sectors in which the number of the self-employed are increasing. For example, the service sector has seen the largest increase in female part-time self-employment, rising by 209,000 since 2010.  In terms of self-employment by occupation, nearly one in three (31%) self-employed women took up self-employment in low paid occupations such as caring, leisure and other service; elementary occupations or as process, plant and machine operatives. This compares with one in every twenty self-employed men taking up self-employment in these occupations. Women therefore are doing the work they have always done but now on a contractual, and hence less secure, basis. The largest increase in male self-employment since 2010 was for self-employed managers, directors and senior officials, increasing by 133,000 compared to rise of 70,000 for women. It can be concluded then that the increase in female self-employment for women has been in low paid, low status sectors reinforcing gender inequalities in self-employment including a gendered pay gap in self-employment which in 2012 stood at 40%.  

Underemployment in the UK increased to 9.9% in 2014. This amounts to nearly 3 million individuals in the UK who would have liked to work more hours, rising by 220,000 since economic recovery. Sales and customer services, with an underemployment rate of 19%, as well as caring, leisure and other service workers, with an underemployment rate of 14% have seen significantly higher experiences of underemployment since the start of the recession. This would suggest that despite increases in employment opportunities in these occupational groups, through part-time and temporary employment, there are a growing number of individuals working in these jobs who are unsatisfied with their current hours of work, majority of whom are likely to be women. 

Women are more likely than men to work in the public sector making up two thirds of the workforce and public sector employment now stands lower than at any point in the last four decades. Employment in the private sector has increased by 2.4 million, whilst public sector employment has fallen by 420,000 since 2010. This can be explained in some degree by public bodies increasingly outsourcing the delivery of public services to private sector organisations in an effort to reduce costs. This has resulted in local government staff being transferred into the private sector signifying that as the size of the public sector changes, women will be disproportionately affected as public sector employees.  

It is not unreasonable to assume that in times of recession, as jobs are lost in the formal paid labor market, the demand for market substitutes for domestic work such as cleaning will contract. At the same time, job losses will have a negative impact on the demand for market-based childcare. Under such circumstances, the burden of unpaid work in the household could increase as paid employment decreases and as public services are withdrawn, especially in care, signifying a transfer of public responsibility to private responsibility.

It is clear then that, despite economic growth, recovery has been largely fuelled by increasingly precarious and casual forms of employment as well as insecure self-employment which has impacted more on women. As evidenced above, these forms of employment are increasing often in lower skilled, female dominated and subsequently low paid sectors of the economy. The question therefore remains as to whether these precarious and casual forms of employment are becoming the norm in a post-recession UK labour market, reinforcing low paid and insecure forms of employment, predominantly undertaken by women. Evidence so far suggests that they are entrenching gender inequality within the formal paid labour market in the UK.

Sideboxes Related stories:  "Can I help?" Emotional labour and precarity When austerity sounds like backlash: gender and the economic crisis Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? Women and work post-crash Towards Plan F: planning for a feminist economy in the UK Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

A 24/7, transparent NHS – or the rise of the planet of the apps?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 9:30

Is the English government's enthusiasm for health ‘apps’ and ‘data transparency’, for the benefit of patients – or markets? Or even a trojan horse for a pay-NHS?

This month Jeremy Hunt MP gave what he told us was his “most important speech as health secretary".

The speech – delivered at the Kings Fund, and entitled “"Making healthcare more human-centred not system-centred" - fulfilled its function of generating blockbuster headlines, mostly focused on the ‘7 day NHS’ and consultant pay.

But there's been relatively little comment on his new 'big idea' - a patient-centric transformation in a post-bureaucratic age, which he calls "intelligent transparency".

Hunt was keen to tell NHS staff that the beneficiaries of this 'intelligent transparency' are NHS patients and staff. But who else stands to profit?

"The future is here", Hunt told us in his speech. "40,000 health apps now on iTunes, these innovations are coming sooner than most people realise."

But how useful are these apps? How safe are they? Will they be effectively regulated? Who will get their hands on the data they generate? Who will be providing them?

You will perhaps remember Ali Parsa, who promised us his private firm Circle could run a full service NHS hospital at Hinchingbrooke.  It collapsed after corner-cutting on staff led to severe patient care failings. Parsa’s new initiative is the 'Babylon app', which promises to put "a doctor in your pocket" – for a fee. The energetic ex-Goldman Sachs banker has managed to get this new ‘health service’ accredited by the official NHS regulator, the Care Quality Commission – as have others, such as Dr Now (which seems to be targeted at employers).

Are apps preferable to healthcare professionals because they provide "better care" - or because they are easier to commodify and outsource?

Will Cameron and Hunt's promises of "24/7 NHS access" turn out to mean, not 24/7 access face-to-face with a trained and regulated healthcare professional, but 24/7 access to an app? After all, the internet never sleeps.

Will paid-for ‘app’ access to NHS-accredited primary care professionals turn out to be a Trojan horse to normalise a ‘two tier NHS’, where you get an enhanced service if you can pay for it? Might a ‘pay-to-use’ NHS be easier to introduce, culturally, in 'new' areas like apps? Intriguingly, not even in reference to apps, is the word 'free' mentioned once in Hunt's speech.

This matters enormously, because of the perception that the NHS is heading gradually, in a totally undemocratic way, towards a 'pay-for' service; as reported elsewhere on this site.

Hunt's speech offers very valuable glimpses into his vision for the future of the NHS. The analysis which he presents on ‘apps’ bears remarkable similarity to a recent paper by global management consultants Oliver Wyman called “The Patient-Consumer Revolution”, authored by Tom Main and Adrian Slywotzky. Its subtitle is “How high tech, transparent marketplaces and consumer power are transforming US healthcare.”

Hunt’s version of Wyman is less brash, of course. Hunt does not talk about 'consumers' or 'markets'. But otherwise the Hunt and Wyman versions are essentially the same.

So where Hunt says:

“If intelligent transparency is Patient Power 1.0, this is Patient Power 2.0. We have the chance to make NHS patients the most powerful patients in the world – and we should leap at the opportunity.”

The Wyman report says

“But in fact the tech attack is far more. It is both the symptom and driver of a much larger and more significant change sweeping through U.S. healthcare…a fundamental redrawing of industry lines that puts the consumer in charge and sets the foundation for Health Market 2.0. The tech entrepreneur developing a new app may not realize it, but he is helping to create the infrastructure of a new, more powerful way of delivering healthcare.”

The Wyman report tells us this new approach to delivery is a way of overcoming

"The cornerstone of traditional medicine - the idea that all healthcare is local."

A 24/7 NHS is easier (or at least cheaper) to deliver if bits of it can be outsourced to other jurisdictions in different time zone. But how well regulated will this be? In the U.S. the anti-regulation forces appear to be winning the battle to make sure apps (and the data they generate) are only lightly regulated, if at all. And such deregulation could be headed our way under the US-EU TTIP trade agreement, heavily influenced by the pharma, apps and ‘medical devices’ lobby who want to “rebuild America’s battered economy by selling the country’s ‘health ecosystem internationally”.

Not just apps, of course, but that’s a big part of it. And note that George Osborne's one big idea for the UK economy seems to be based on a similar 'internet of things' including 'interconnected technologies in healthcare'.

Meanwhile Hunt talks in glowing terms about the "honest diagnosis". But "honest" compared to what? A NHS GP's duty of care is to his or her patient, but an app is likely to have been developed with expectations from shareholders.

Information about your blood sugar, blood pressure or exercise regime could be amassed non-invasively, say from a "smart watch", and such data uploaded onto a huge reservoir of "Big Data". Presumably an 'honest broker' could, albeit at a fee, compute the risk of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular diseases in the population. Such data would be hugely useful to health insurers, of course.

Wyman enthuses:

“Could a company like Apple persuade a substantial number of consumers to open up their medical records, share their biometric data, and treat their iPhones as their main point of contact with care, then it persuade them it’s fun and cool? In many ways that sounds like Health Market 2.0 in a nutshell.” 

Meanwhile you yourself might be the recipient of an app that makes a positive difference to your health and wellbeing – or one that feeds you a lot of mumbo jumbo and produces a new gullible market of ‘worried well’ to create wealth for shareholders.

Of course, it’s very hard to disagree with Hunt on the notion that transparency is desirable.

But real transparency means better information on how diagnoses are made – particularly where this is contentious and has life-changing implications. Dementia is a classic example where misdiagnosis is common, and yet seems to have been formally encouraged through financial incentives to doctors. In dementia, diabetes and other common conditions, there is also a controversial shift towards ‘pre-diagnosis’ (and treatment that may be of dubious value to patients, though useful to big pharma) in dementia, diabetes and other conditions. This creation of new markets is far from transparent.

Real transparency might also mean knowing about the current and previous activities of private providers of health and social care. But private providers are exempt from many of the reporting requirements that apply to the NHS - and also from freedom of information laws. The government’s solution to improve transparency here? Significantly weaken those freedom of information laws for the state, too. Well, that’s one way of ‘levelling the playing field’.

But ultimately, for all the neoliberal theory, lack of transparency is fundamental to how domestic and international markets operate.

Markets are notorious for having hidden sources of division, such as taxes and tariffs. The veil of ‘commercial confidentiality’ private firms can hide behind, means we cannot properly get at information on their failings, or the causes behind them (such as low numbers of properly skilled staff). Their duties to investors mean they have an inbuilt incentive to externalise their costs onto patients in as un-transparent a way as possible.

It’s hard to oppose violently “Intelligent Transparency”, any more than it is to oppose “Intelligent Kindness”.

That is, unless of course the marketing gloss behind “intelligent transparency” can be removed, to reveal something which is inherently unintelligent and opaque.

Like this piece? Please donate to OurNHS here to help keep us producing the NHS stories that matter. Thank you.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Your medical data in their hands - concerns mount over new NHS IT project Why does Downing Street want details of all your appointments with your doctor? Osborne mostly 'forgets' to mention NHS - but the devil's in the detail Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

How the Turkish elections changed the foreign policy of Turkey

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 8:43

Governments with declining electoral success may use adventurous foreign policy choices or make radical shifts in their foreign policies to gain re-election.

Police detain protesters at Turkey's decision to end PKK peace process, Istanbul. Demotix/Erhan Demirtas. All rights reserved.The elections Turkey held on June 7, 2015 have not changed the government yet, but it is a game changer in terms of Turkey’s foreign policies in the Middle East.  

The AKP government has long been accused of active collaboration with ISIS allowing fighters, money, and munitions to move from one side of the border to the other. Even those analysts who consider such active collaboration anecdotal are clear that Turkey has been very reluctant to take direct action against the organization. In October 2014, when ISIS fighters surrounded the small Kurdish town of Kobane in Syria, the Turkish government refused to allow the Iraqi Peshmerga forces to cross through Turkish territory and denied Washington permission to fly offensive operations out of the US Air Force base at İncirlik in Southern Turkey.[1] Turkey has never been considered particularly supportive of the international coalition fighting ISIS. This policy changed on June 24, 2015, when Turkish fighter jets attacked ISIS targets in Syria.

The AKP government has also been in a negotiation process with the PKK since 2009. The first round of negotiations collapsed around 2010, and the second round of negotiations started in the beginning of the 2013. Right before the June 7 elections, in February 2015, the AKP government and Kurdish politicians came together in Dolmabahce Palace. After the closed meeting, PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan’s statement was read to the media calling on the PKK to convene a congress, take a decision “on ending the armed struggle” and take up democratic politics. Although President Erdoğan would explain his dissatisfaction with the meeting soon after, Prime Minister Davutoğlu described it as the beginning of a new phase in the peace process. However, just months after this historic meeting, the same day that the Turkish jets bombed ISIL targets in Syria, they also bombed camps of the PKK in Northern Iraq. This bombing, which happened for the first time in four years, effectively ended the ceasefire and the peace process. 

Elections without a “winner”

Domestic politics is typically an important part of the explanation of states' foreign policies. It has been well-documented by theorists of international relations how governments with declining electoral success may use adventurous foreign policy choices or make radical shifts in their foreign policies to gain re-election. [2] Known as diversionary wars, conflicts of this sort arise from the efforts of leaders whose grip on power is at risk. They may help these declining leaders retain their power.[3] 

The last general elections in Turkey were a turning point for many of its citizens. For many, it was the last exit from a road leading into an abyss of increasingly authoritarian rule by the AKP government, claims about sky-high corruption, and constant violations of the existing constitution. In fact, despite a powerful opposition that further increased in strength after the Gezi Park protests, the AKP government had considered itself virtually invincible at the polls. After the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the AKP even saw gains in the local elections as well as in the presidential elections, which Erdoğan had entered as AKP candidate.

As expected, in the 2015 general elections, the AKP once more took first place, bringing in 40.9 percent of the vote. But this percentage—which under normal circumstances would have been celebrated as triumph—became the party’s first “defeat”, due to a loss of 9 percent resulting in its inability to form a single government based on their lowered number of seats in parliament. The AKP’s inability to secure enough of the vote to form a single party government this time around has now also made it impossible to introduce a presidential system, as had been suggested by the AKP government and specifically by President Erdoğan.

This “first defeat” of the AKP has largely been perceived as a success of the HDP, the People’s Democracy Party. The HDP was established in 2012 as an umbrella party for various groups with feminist, green, and socialist agendas. Among them, the largest was certainly the BDP, an extension of the Kurdish parties, which since the 1990s had constantly been closed down and re-established. When HDP declared it would enter these elections as a party (not with independent candidates as small parties do to surpass the 10 percent threshold), many believed that the Party could not cross the threshold. However, as a relatively new party, the HDP received 13.1 percent of the overall vote, sending 80 opposition MPs into parliament and gaining support not only in Kurdish-dominated areas, but also a significant percentage of the votes in the country’s western region.

The electoral “success” of the HDP was mainly based on the electoral support of the Kurds. Many Kurds who had previously voted for the AKP retracted their support in the June 7 elections. In fact, for the last decade or so, the AKP and Kurdish political parties had shared the Kurdish vote almost equally; however, in this instance the balance radically tipped towards the HDP. In the Kurdish provinces, the HDP ranked first virtually everywhere. There were two factors that contributed to the tipping of the balance: HDP’s inclusive and peaceful politics and the AKP’s attitude throughout the protracted Kurdish peace process, which has appeared indecisive, ambivalent and condescending to many Kurds.

However, the most critical moment for the Kurdish voters’ decisions and preferences came when the government refused to assist the Syrian town of Kobane while it was besieged by ISIS, when claims that the government even supported ISIS against the Kurds found wide reception. The Kobane protests on 6 and 7 October 2014, which resulted in protests against the government’s attitude towards the Syrian Kurds and ended in the death of 42 people, would become crucial in shifting votes from the AKP to the HDP. The AKP’s stance concerning the Kobane protests, which the Kurds perceived as hostile, and its lack of response to ISIS led to this turn towards voting for the HDP.

An impossible coalition

Turkish politics once again faces the return to coalitional politics, a predominant feature of the Turkish politics during the infamous 1990s. The AKP, and specifically President Erdoğan, have often stated their distaste for coalitions. In fact, AKP party politics throughout their rule have greatly emphasized the importance of political stability which, it was argued, is directly linked to single-party executives. AKP cadres have constantly explained the political chaos of the 1990s with reference to its coalitionary politics.

What complicated the whole affair was the position of President Erdoğan. All parties in the parliament other than the AKP (that is HDP, CHP and MHP) have stated that their first coalition principle is the  restriction of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's use of his presidential powers. All three parties have been extremely critical of Erdoğan’s meddling in governmental affairs, authoritarian tendencies, and his aspiration to shift to the presidential system. All of them have also accused the AKP (and specifically President Erdoğan) of corruption and illegal deeds; stressing the need to bring these corruption cases to justice. Thus, any coalition would mean significant limitations to the power of Erdoğan and even the bringing to trial, if not of Erdoğan himself, then of some of his close allies. 

Furthermore, all the parties within the Parliament share this reluctance to form a coalition with the AKP because it could cause them to lose votes at the next election. When President Erdoğan gave the mandate almost a month after the elections, on July 9, to the prime minister and AKP leader, Ahmet Davutoğlu, chances for coalition were already slim. Ahmet Davutoğlu then had 45 days to form a government; a failure to do so would result in new elections. Everyone seemed to agree this was the likely outcome.

A new election? 

But if there are new elections, will the preferences of the voters change? Polls and experts suggest that there won’t be major shifts in the electoral alignment of the voters in any early elections. Why would voters change their preferences? As suggested above, foreign policy and specifically policies involving war can have a sudden and major impact (perhaps alongside economic crises) on the preferences of voters. “Rallying around the flag” has often been used to explain increased popular support for executives going into an international crisis or into wars.

Politicians may not act upon theories, but they do know how to shape politics. By targeting ISIS and the PKK at the same time, the AKP has tried to affect the preferences of nationalist voters who have been in opposition to the negotiation process with the Kurdish movement. Given that the AKP lost almost all its pro-negotiation Kurdish votes to the HDP, the most significant votes that the party could appeal to in any upcoming early election will be Turkish nationalists. Furthermore, by fighting with the PKK, the AKP government is trying to push the PKK into continuing its fighting in Turkey, which would alienate some of the HDP voters who assume that there is a close connection between the party and the PKK. So the real target of the AKP’s recent operations is domestic public opinion, and specifically the nationalist/conservative voters. 

Why target both PKK and ISIS at the same time, given that targeting only the PKK would be enough to appeal to the nationalist/conservative votes? Not everything can be explained by domestic politics. Targeting either the PKK or the ISIS alone would not be possible, given the regional balance of power. ISIS and the PKK/Kurds are major adversaries in Syria and Iraq. Targeting ISIS alone would have strengthened the Kurds—which was Turkey’s major reason for its “alleged” support to the ISIS and also its reluctance to fight effectively against it. Furthermore, targeting only ISIS alone would not have brought more votes (and would even cost some votes to the party). It is a risky route domestically.

Targeting the PKK alone was also not possible, and would be a risky move internationally. The PKK/ Kurds have become allies of the US in the fight against ISIS, especially after the Kobane battle in 2014. Had Turkey only targeted the PKK, it would have alienated its major western allies and become isolated. Turkey has been under strong pressure to join the anti-ISIS coalition and toughen its stance against the organization. Furthermore, the Suruç bombing of last week, committed by ISIS, that killed 32 young activists, made it more difficult not to take a stance against ISIS and served as a useful pretext for the operation.

So the AKP government has decided to revive Turkey’s conservative/nationalist voters’ longstanding animosity towards the Kurds alongside responding to the international distaste for ISIS to guarantee a short-term electoral success. This, AKP hopes will please Turkey’s international allies and help the AKP increase its votes in any possible early election. As the AKP government commenced this risky operation, pro-government media have begun to direct their propaganda against the HDP, accusing the party of promoting a terrorist agenda. In just two days, alongside the operations against the PKK and ISIS, 590 people across Turkey have been detained. Most of the detainees are not ISIS members but leftist and Kurdish activists. Many left and Kurdish websites are also under a ban.

The theory on competitive authoritarian regimes suggests that competitive authoritarian governments, using all available means, always win the elections.[4] In the short term, this move may guarantee electoral success for the AKP government. In both the short and the long term, however, it will mean another sharp increase in violence and authoritarianism, both inside Turkey and in the Middle East. 

[1] Barkey, H. (2014). How the Islamic State Took Turkey Hostage. Foreign Policy,21(09), 2014.

[2] For a discussion of such policies see Smith, A. (1996). “Diversionary Foreign Policy in Democratic Systems”.International Studies Quarterly, 133-153.

[3] Russett, B. (2003). “Reintegrating the Subdisciplines of International and Comparative Politics.” International Studies Review5(4), 9-12.

[4] Magaloni, B. (2006). Voting for autocracy: Hegemonic party survival and its demise in Mexico. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Country or region:  Turkey Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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HIV and AIDS: language and the blame game

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 8:43

The negative and dehumanizing language used by scientists discussing global HIV policy is sapping the soul of those on the receiving end. The call for an alternative language of nature and nurture must be heard. 

Volunteers at the International AIDS Conference, Vancouver, 2015. Photo: ICW Global, all rights reserved.While attending the International AIDS Society Pathogenesis Conference  in Vancouver last week I posted on my facebook page:

"Have retreated from IAS2015 for a breather. Too much negative language about "loss to follow up", "defaulters", "failure to achieve viral suppression", "shock and kill" strategies against HIV reservoirs is damaging to this soul..."

 One of many kind responses came from Martha Tholanah:

"Mindfulness in use of language is important. Am I "lost to follow-up" or have I been "bullied out of care"? #ComplexitiesInDealingWithHumanBeings."

Global HIV policy is full of dehumanizing, aggressive, militaristic and combative phrases which are deeply depressive, not soothing for the soul. For instance, we people with HIV are often just called “PLHIV” or “WLHIV” short for “people/women living with HIV”. This reduction of an individual to a bunch of letters feels very dehumanizing and I can’t think of any other health condition where the individual is so reduced to an acronym.  Similarly we are widely said to have been “infected” or to potentially “infect” others. In a word document thesaurus this translates as “impure, contaminated, perverted, infested….”. That doesn’t feel great. I have written before on openDemocracy 50.50 of the euphemism of “Option” B+, a strategy which starts pregnant women on HIV treatment for life the day they are diagnosed, which is not an option for them -  only their governments.

Some UN documents, such as the 2013 WHO HIV treatment Guidelines, seek for us to “achieve viral suppression” and if we don’t, health staff –  even some male activists with HIV - brand us as “defaulters”, “failures” “wasting resources” and worse, with their targets and goals unmet. Susan Sontag wrote of this “blame the victim” mode long ago and nothing has changed. Even the phrase “lost to follow up” and “treatment-naïve patients” also make us sound somehow – well – naïve, careless and thoughtless, as if there might not be key intentional reasons for our “failure” to return to a clinic. In a recent trial in South Africa, where it was discovered that young women participants had not in fact made use of a tablet and gel that were being trialed when they said they had, they were deemed by the researchers to have ruined the trial by “lying”.  As Professor Ida Susser explains: “when a study fails, we must be careful not to imply that the subjects are at fault. My analysis of the study suggests, rather, that research design was to blame.”

Other language that depresses includes the on-going reference to “HIV/AIDS” as if they are one and the same. Ever since HIV medication was introduced in the mid-1990s, HIV has no longer been a death sentence for those of us privileged enough to access treatment when we need it. Yet this phrase is still used repeatedly by those who should know better.

Last week at the Vancouver International AIDS Conference, one plenary presentation on a cure even talked of the virtues of “shock and kill” tactics of using an “aggressive” regime of early treatment to suppress the HIV reservoir which builds up in our bodies after we first acquire HIV. Why do we have to use such combative, militaristic language when we could talk about “reduction” or management” of the reservoir instead?

In response to our frustration over negative language, including that of the “Global Plan Towards The Elimination Of New HIV Infections Among Children By 2015 And Keeping Their Mothers Alive”, known widely just as the “elimination plan”, a number of us women living with HIV wrote an article for the Journal of the International AIDS Society, to explain why we found such language so debilitating and harmful and to offer alternative, blame-free, woman-positive, language instead. This has slowly gained traction in some corners. But it is yet to be adopted by mainstream HIV scientists, for whom perhaps numbers rather than language are more their comfort zone. Yet, many of us on the receiving end of such language feel battered and bruised by how it saps our souls.

The Global Plan above has as its four strategies four “prongs”. As I explained in a speech in 2013, prongs remind me of pitch-forks and botched abortions rather than of a global strategy to care and support for women living with HIV as they prepare for motherhood. The potential ramifications of the use of such language should be considered carefully before its us ein global policies. Whilst published as global level as voluntary guidelines, it often has dire knock-on effects at the country level.  In that speech I offered alternative language also.

Another concept which is curiously negative is the idea of “ending gender-based violence”, which is closely connected to HIV for women. In a West African regional workshop in Dakar in 2013, we asked UN staff, government staff and NGO staff alike what kind of world they dreamt of beyond the end of gender-based violence (GBV). Their common or unified response was “if we have a world without gender-based violence, then we will be out of a job…” I found that response immensely revealing about the self-limiting nature of using negative language since they were sub-consciously unable to work towards a world beyond GBV, firstly because such a positive concept had never even been considered and secondly because realising such a vision would herald their redundancies.

Language, as Lakoff and Johnson have explained at length, frames the way we think about and shape our worlds. If we use negative, combative, problem-focused, competitive militaristic language, we think and act accordingly. By contrast if we use the language of nature, nurture and growth our thoughts and actions respond creatively – and also turn to positive solutions.

Militaristic, combative language is widely used in relation to cancer too – “beating” cancer, “fighting” it and, when someone dies, declaring that s/he has “lost her/his battle with it.” But such language, I believe, is both unnecessary and damaging to our souls. I am a great believer in organic gardening, in finding balance in my plot and in not zapping weeds or slugs with toxic chemicals but with living alongside them, accepting them as part of nature’s rich tapestry, using physical barriers such as gravel, copper strips and old carpet to contain them instead, so that I can also grow nourishing vegetables safely. If I were to use any spray I would only use it with extreme caution and in very small quantity. Bugs were here before us and will outlive us. To imagine otherwise is folly indeed.

Similarly, I look at my HIV as a part of me which I accept rather than reject. I live alongside it and around it in my body, with modest HIV medication, rather than trying to reject or defeat it. It is not a wholly negative experience. I and many colleagues thank our HIV for giving us many insights into the purpose of our lives and into the injustices which it has brought so many others around the world. I have had many good conversations over the past year with my sister, who has pancreatic cancer. She points out that when people die in the normal course of events, we do not say that they have lost the ‘battle' to stay alive, but accept it as normal.  Though challenged by her cancer, my sister is not fighting it: rather she is doing all she can to support her immune system so that it can best perform its normal function (cancer has been described as a breakdown of the immune system - the body is hard wired to heal). Recognising better the impermanence of life, the quality of her life is actually enhanced - this does not sound like ‘a battle’.

A more gentle, holistic response to the containment of disease is needed rather than the aggressively-charged metaphors which bombard us all. The one certainty that joins us all as living human beings is our impermanence - that we will die. Atul Gawande and Deepak Chopra have eloquently argued how our attempts to assume otherwise are hubristic and there is often more sense in our seeking to heal rather than to cure ourselves, to find balance in ourselves as our bodies deal with our ailments.

The language of nature, nurture, roots, shoots, branches, warmth, rain, growth and creation is something that makes me feel good about myself and others around me.  In my garden I need a toolshed, not an arsenal.

With our tools, we can join together to create a better world for us all, with greater equity of income, of social, gender and environmental justice, greater involvement in political decision-making in all policies that affect our lives. What will help us along the way is a sense that we have scientists, donors and policy makers working with us, not against us, seeking a shared vision rather than chasing their targets, offering us respect, dignity and appreciation of the trials we face along the way in initiating – and continuing with – our self-care. We all need to work together in this garden and we need to respect the workings of the slugs, bugs and weeds also in our lives.

The forces of nature are bigger than us all and to assume we can overcome them – and to blame people with HIV if we don’t - is folly on a grand scale indeed.

Read more articles on the long running 50.50 platform AIDS, Gender and Human Rights


Sideboxes Related stories:  No experts, saviours or victims: women living with HIV Against coerced sterilisation: a resounding victory in Namibia Positive and pregnant in Asia - How dare you Sterilisation: the fight for bodily integrity Sterilized: against our will Compulsion versus compassion: HIV treatment for women and children AIDS targets: the fear factor HIV: the fight for trade related intellectual property regulations HIV disclosure: changing ourselves, changing others HIV and the Global Plan: turning the tide or a wash-out for women? HIV: a call for solidarity with the transgender community HIV: nothing about us, without us HIV: what kind of evidence counts ? HIV: of bombs and banks and transformation... Is evidence all it will take? Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence Exploring violence as a consequence of HIV AIDS 2014 Conference: stepping up the pace and still on the wrong path AIDS and adolescents: denying access to health Indonesia: facing life with HIV An end to AIDS?: Not through medication alone Bio-insecurity and HIV/AIDS No test, no arrest: criminal laws to fuel another HIV epidemic Is there a future for women living with HIV? HIV in Italy: the epidemic continues growing among women HIV: nothing about us, without us HIV and the Global Plan: turning the tide or a wash-out for women? Positive women human rights defenders "More than just a pound of flesh"? An HIV-free generation: human sciences vs plumbing Topics:  Science Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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AIDS targets: the fear factor

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 8:39

HIV is not just a health issue but a multi-sectoral issue that requires many different players. Is the UNAIDS HIV '90-90-90' fast-track initiative in Uganda achievable?

ICW Global Chair Martha Tholanah (l) and Deputy Marama Pala (r) at the International AIDS Conference. Photo (c) Alice WelbournUNAIDS has announced that by 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV should know their HIV status, 90% of all people diagnosed with HIV should receive sustained antiretroviral therapy (ART), and 90% of all people receiving anti-retroviral therapy should have achieved viral suppression. By 2030, these targets are all raised to 95%. This is goal of the Fast Track initiative.

Many countries have welcomed and embraced this ambitious target, but the question is whether it is possible to do so.  This is a target that everyone wants to achieve if we are to reduce HIV prevalence, but are we ready as countries to achieve this? In order to do so, people have to be tested, have to start treatment at some stage, and have to adhere to treatment, once started, for life. There are many serious hurdles they can meet along the way.

Testing is the first area of concern. We all know that early treatment can reduce rates of onward transmission by 90% in theory, because if people with HIV are able to adhere to their treatment our ‘viral load’ should drop to an undetectable level, meaning that we cannot pass on our HIV to anyone else – as if we should ever wish to. But how many countries have been successful in putting all people in need of ART on treatment? In Uganda, for example, over 1.5 million people are living with HIV but only 564,453 were on anti-retroviral therapy, as indicated in a 2013 HIV and AIDS Uganda country progress report. This same report revealed that only 71.7% of the total number of pregnant women tested for HIV were given ARVs during their ante-natal care. Thus we can see that some children will have been born with HIV, which will in turn create a bigger gap between the targets and reality.

In many health facilities with a huge number of pregnant women and very few health workers, group pre-counselling and testing is practised as opposed to individual counselling followed by testing - which is what is meant to happen. One-to-one counselling is only offered just before handing over the test results. Group-counseling is in the form of a health talk. This is not adequate enough for someone who is testing for the first time. Because of the impersonal nature of group - as opposed to one-to-one-counselling - women are often not prepared for what may be ahead of them. This has created an environment where many women run away before receiving their test results, and others do not carry on taking their drugs after being found to be HIV-positive.

Violence in the form of stigma and discrimination is also becoming a chronic characteristic in many settings. It stands as another serious barrier to achievement of this ambitious target, both in healthcare facilities and in families and homes.

The fear of testing is very real. Both men and women fear taking the HIV test because they do not want to be seen and gossiped about. Those who already know their status are afraid to start their medication and often hide while swallowing the drugs. This kind of fear has hindered adherence to treatment and leads to the failure to suppress the virus in their bodies. Violence and the fear of violence also marginalises people living with HIV and undermines the national prevention and treatment efforts.  Until society understands that HIV is like any other disease, that it can be manageable and no longer a death sentence as it was previously referred to, the threat or reality of violence can also mean that this ambitious target may instead become a nightmare to haunt us.

In addition, donors are reducing their funding, and in Uganda we have failed to increase our domestic funding for health. In the 2015/2016 financial year, only 7% of the national budget was allocated to health, which is less than the Abuja target which proposed that countries allocate 15% of their national budget to health. We are very concerned that this will not be sufficient to achieve the Fast Track target if donors continue to reduce their funding while at the same time Uganda is not increasing the domestic funding. 

Uganda is also still reporting cases of a lack of supplies. There are stock-outs of ARVs, despite the 2013 WHO treatment guidelines that recommend starting all people living with HIV whose CD4 counts are below 500 on ART. In addition, there are regular stock-outs of testing kits even though they are obviously essential as an entry point to HIV treatment.

Viral load testing in most of the low-income countries is still a dream. People are not even aware of what a viral load is, and are not in a position to pay for the test anyway. The test is widely charged for in Uganda although it is supposed to be free if donated by PEPFAR. There are just a few men - and even fewer women - in Uganda who are able to pay an amount of $50 to have their viral load tested. Until this service is made free for even the poorest people to access it, people won’t check their viral load, and it will be hard to understand whether the virus is being suppressed and whether the global target is being achieved or not.

So even though we know that about 550,000 of us so far have started HIV treatment, without routine viral load screening we have no idea how many of us have been able to adhere to treatment and thus have an undetectable viral load. Even the phrase "achieving viral suppression" - the one normally used by donors and policy makers - puts the blame on our shoulders if we don’t achieve it.

 How fair is this allocation of blame?

Criminalisation also plays a part here. Countries have passed laws that criminalise intentional HIV transmission and attempted HIV transmission, despite the fact that we are still advocating for voluntary HIV testing. Such punitive laws are more likely to deter people further from accessing health services, including HIV testing. People work out quickly that no one needs to leave a trail that will be used by the law to count him or her out - and this includes pregnant women. People in these environments are therefore now more likely not to test, and are also likely not to go for treatment because according to our new law in Uganda, you can be convicted if you know your HIV status.

It is vital that people understand that HIV is not just a health issue but a multi-sectoral issue that requires many different players. The more people tag it to individuals, the more we need to talk not just about overcoming HIV and AIDS as a non-curable disease, but about overcoming violence against people with HIV in the form of stigma and discrimination.

Read more articles on the long running 50.50 platform AIDS, Gender and Human Rights







Sideboxes Related stories:  HIV, homophobia and historical regression: where next for Uganda? Uganda: the social impact of HIV criminal law Compulsion versus compassion: HIV treatment for women and children Bio-insecurity and HIV/AIDS HIV disclosure: changing ourselves, changing others No test, no arrest: criminal laws to fuel another HIV epidemic HIV in Italy: the epidemic continues growing among women Sterilisation: the fight for bodily integrity Accepted mishaps? Faith healing, HIV and AIDS responses Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence Is evidence all it will take? Positive and pregnant in Asia - How dare you Global mechanism, regional solution: ending forced sterilisation An end to AIDS?: Not through medication alone Positive women human rights defenders A microbicide success: feminism is essential to good science HIV: the fight for trade related intellectual property regulations Country or region:  Uganda Topics:  Civil society Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Gaza's dark night

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 8:37

Palestinians want to leave. Nothing else. All Palestinians. Because there is not even drinking water anymore in Gaza. Even the Hamas guys in charge just want to leave.

Three Hamas leaders killed in the Gaza Strip. Ibrahim Khader/Demotix. All rights reserved.

No use telling him I'm not Muslim. I'm not even Palestinian. And that I've got thyphoid fever again anyway, I am sick, and so the Qur'an says I am allowed to break the Ramadan fast. And it's no use, actually, telling him anything, because the Hamas policeman I am stopped by for three hours, charged with carrying a bottle of water in my bag, wears neither a uniform nor a badge. 

I realise he is a member of Hamas only because I am in Gaza, and it's no use trying to talk to him, to explain my reasons: he doesn't talk. He dictates. And in the end, he pockets a hundred dollars and forgives my sins.

This is Hamas today. They run checkpoints just to shine a flashlight in your face and make sure the man driving is your father or your husband. They go on patrol to verify that you don't light up a cigarette, don't drink a beer while watching football on TV. They keep an eye on what you write.

In the meantime, all around, a year after the last war, it's hunger and despair. Out of 146,000 destroyed or damaged homes, not a single one has been rebuilt. There are still 100,000 displaced. At this pace, the UN estimates that it will take thirty years for Gaza to be as it was before. That is, for seventy percent of its population to be under the breadline once again.

Over 51 days, Israel dropped an amount of explosive equivalent to the Hiroshima atomic bomb on the Gaza Strip, 141 square miles each containing about 5,000 people, with an average age of fifteen. The remains of Shejaiya, the most heavily targeted area, are patched up with rags, metal sheets, cardboard. Jute. Wood planks. Or with nothing.

Palestinians continue to live in these homes broken up by artillery fire. You walk, and instead of windows, of doors, you see tables, couches, fridges: you see the inside of flats, the families with glasses of tea. They live like that, on these sloping floors, the cracked pillars, amid rubble mixed with unexploded devices and slivers of asbestos, under these ceilings that are about to collapse over their heads.

Abu Nidal, like countless others, sits on a carpet laid out on sand and dust, barefoot, his shoes tidily lined up next to the missing door, and looks out of a mortar hole, at a kid who is striving to no avail to turn a piece of paper into a kite. Abu Mohamed lived here with his wife and sons—ten people in all—and after paying 2,000 dollars to rent a new house for one year, he's now broke. He doesn't have a single penny, and lives on handouts, "not on solidarity," he specifies, "I've met more journalists than NGOs."

His sons are mechanics. Their workshop was on the ground floor, and its leftovers hang from the trees, a mudguard, two tires. A battery stuck in the branches. He sits here all day, next to this flight of stairs that goes nowhere. "Should the UN come and find nobody."

And yet you walk, and some of the buildings' plaster looks instead freshly painted. Because the only vibrant sector of the economy here is the black market in cement. Palestinians are entitled to one tonne each, for 20 shekels, or 5 euros. But it's not enough for fixing it all up, and it gets quickly sold on, for about 50 euros, depending on quality.

Just over one million tonnes entered from Israel, but most valued are the 8,000 tonnes that entered from Egypt, because they are good for tunnels. There are no tunnels anymore, though. They have been destroyed mostly by Egypt, not by Israel, by General Sisi, a staunch enemy of Islamists, before the war. Ninety percent of the tunnels.

And now Hamas is in trouble: smuggling was its main source of revenue. It's somehow unfair to call it 'smuggling'. It was regulated by a supervision commission, with a complex system of fees and hundreds of tunnels, sometimes run directly by Hamas, sometimes by contractors. Each of them was worth an average of 100,000 euros per month.

Smuggling covered seventy percent of the budget of Gaza. And now Hamas has also lost many of its generous friends in the Gulf, all focused on other hot spots. On Syria, Iraq. And it has tense relations with Iran, its major backer, because of its cautious stance on Bashar al-Assad. And so it is scraping together whatever it can by imposing taxes. Because Gaza, truthfully, is now under siege only on paper. If we speak of goods movement, nearly everything is available. Even Nutella. And everything enters from Israel.

This means, however, that not only is everything purchased at high prices—at Israel's prices, rather than Turkey's, or India's—but also that everything is subject to a triple layer of taxes: Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. Since last year, in theory there has been only one government here, but, as usual, Hamas rules Gaza and Fatah the West Bank. But Hamas couldn't pay its 40,000 civil servants any longer. The result is that prices are on the rise. Hamas charges about ten percent on food, 25 percent on cars, 100 percent on cigarettes. In the end a Fiat Panda in Gaza costs almost 20,000 euros.

Even though unemployment peaked at 43 percent, and the average salary is 300 euros, even though two thirds of Palestinians live on humanitarian aid. There are jeeps with tinted windows here, or donkeys.

The true strength of Hamas has always been the weakness of Fatah. Since the West Bank opted for the UN, for negotiations with Israel, Hamas, with its rockets, turned into the hallmark of resistance. Of dignity. But it has achieved nothing but death and rubble. And three wars later, nobody here has any doubt any more: Hamas is Israel's best ally. It plays into its hands.

Aya works as field researcher for a leading human rights organization. She says,

"Hamas doesn't govern. It's neither Islamic nor anything. If you are found drinking wine, you end up in jail for one month, or maybe six: there's no certainty, because there isn't the Shari'a law here, there's no law whatsoever, there's only the will of Hamas. There is only a gang that makes money with the siege—yesterday with tunnels, today with trade. Hamas claims to be broke, without a penny for its civil servants. For reconstruction. But it's no secret: the only reconstruction it cares about is that of tunnels. And of its arsenal. And for Israel this is perfect. One, two years, and it will bomb it all again. It will destroy it all again,"

"And it will all start again," she says. The last war ended with the same agreement of the previous war.

Because in the end, while the world's attention is on Gaza, Israel's attention seems to be elsewhere. "Israel aims at the land of the West Bank, not of Gaza. Quite the opposite. By getting rid of Gaza, it would get rid of 1.8 million Arabs. And it could annex the West Bank without endangering its Jewish majority. In time, we, the Palestinians, will be the settlers of an Israeli West Bank," says one of the top negotiators.

In the last years, however, Mustafa Barghouti hasn't been busy with Israel. His main task has been to mediate between Hamas and Fatah. The Legislative Council hasn't convened since 2007 and Mahmoud Abbas governs basically alone from his presidential palace. His mandate expired in 2010. And everybody agrees: only new elections can overcome this standstill.

But everybody is afraid, afraid of civil strife between Hamas and Fatah. While this is the only topic of discussion, while Fatah rounds up Hamas militants, and Hamas rounds up Fatah militants, the former security chief of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Dahlan, now a businessman with an estimated net worth of 120 million dollars, hands out rolls of bills. Gulf-based charities he is close to gift 5,000 dollars to newly married couples, 5,000 dollars to the war victims' families. Whoever you are, whatever you need—5,000 dollars.

And in some way, it's true, Mohammed Dahlan is new compared to Hamas and Fatah: he is the first Palestinian leader with his own militia. "Nobody here supports Hamas. But there is no political activism anymore," says M. M., one of the masterminds of the March 15 movement, that in 2011, in the footsteps of Tunisia and Egypt, filled the streets of Palestine asking for democracy. And that in a rare instance of national unity, was swept away by Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in Ramallah. 

"All our energy is dried up by survival. Also because any struggle is doomed to fail without the West Bank. And from the West Bank the only show of solidarity, during the war, was a donation of coffins." 

You won't read all this in newspapers, though. And not only because Hamas follows journalists' every step. Prevents us from moving freely, talking freely.

"You all write about the same things. The parkour kids, the surf school. Those who painted their homes with bright colours, those who carved a swimming pool out of the rubble. The best coffee of Gaza. Bullshit. You sell this idea that to exist is to resist. But it's not, at all," says Ahmed, 28, documentary maker.

"An entire generation now doesn't know anything but Gaza, but these four streets. Violence, destitution. Kids who say: I am five years and three wars old. How will they face Israel, its sophisticated means of domination?" he says. "They will fry falafel all their life, nothing more."

One of those typical stories we love is for example Tamara Abu Ramadan. She is 19, and she is studying violin via youtube tutorials. The little Paganini of Gaza, bypassing the siege. Yet she is the first to admit bluntly, "On youtube you don't really understand anything." Her story is not one of resilience. It is a story of misery.

"You come here just once, but we know each other, and we know how deeply we have changed. How we have given up. Because we see no future whatsoever. You spend your nights in the four cafés on the beach and you write that Gaza is vibrant and full of life. Here there's no life. We are empty shells. Your readers don't like sad stories, but not to ruin your readers' dinner, you keep silent, while we starve."

Palestinians want to leave. Nothing else. All Palestinians. Because there is not even drinking water anymore in Gaza, only salt water, sea water, you feel sticky all day, every days—for years. Sometimes, in reply to a rocket, Israel bombs. But amid the blood of Syria, of Yemen, it makes no headlines. It makes nothing, just a couple of tweets.

Even the Hamas guys who are in charge just want to leave. They beg for a visa to Italy. And in the evening, to forget, they get a pill of Tramadol, a painkiller for dogs used as a sort of ecstasy. And that is officially prohibited. They would arrest you.

Karim is 36 and has four children. He once owned a small auto parts retail. But he was subject to extortions of all sorts, because he's close to Fatah. He's been jailed three times. Three times he's tried to reach Europe with a fake visa, and he's been exposed and sent back. Even though the main obstacle for Palestinians is not the visa. It's Egypt, reaching Cairo airport. In 2015, the Rafah border opened for twelve days total. There is a waiting list: the sick go first (30 percent of essential drugs in Gaza are out of stock), and so only 3,000 Palestinians out of 15,000 could cross. The solution is to pay. 3,000 euro, and a policeman calls you by name.

I ask Karim what he dreams of Europe, he says: taking a shower.

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UNAIDS: Bold human rights targets need better monitoring

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 8:30

If UN agencies set bold targets for human rights reform, they must commit to reporting rigorously on progress to achieve them. EspañolFrançais

Take a trip back to the fabulous summer of 2010, when thousands of activists marched in Vienna at the International AIDS Conference. We waved our beer steins in Stephansplatz to the sweet songs of Annie Lennox, and demanded “Human Rights and HIV/AIDS, Now More Than Ever”. That year, UNAIDS added ambitious human rights targets to its 2011-15 “Getting to Zero” strategy.

Now fast forward to 2015. The UNAIDS-Lancet Commission has once again called for ambitious human rights action to help bring an end to AIDS by 2030. As the UNAIDS and The Global Fund craft new strategies and new indicators, it seems like a good time to ask – how are we doing?

In fact, it’s hard to say, given the unfortunately vague reporting by UNAIDS on its last human rights indicators. For example, one of those human rights targets from 2010 was to reduce by half the number of countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality that block effective responses.

Flickr/United Nations Development Programme (Some rights reserved)

UNAIDS workers address beneficiaries at an AIDS/HIV clinic in Timbuktu, Mali.

 That was a bold goal: to cut in four years the number of countries with punitive laws that have been shown, over and over again, to make it impossible to reach the “key populations” most vulnerable to HIV (sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who inject drugs). Specifically, UNAIDS demanded that we cut the number of countries with laws that criminalize HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or same-sex sexual relations.

These are four clear and easily measurable targets. But they were never actually measured. Why? Because UNAIDS annual reports never set a clear baseline (cut half of how many?), and often used narrative description instead of numbers. Moreover, the reports changed what they measured each year, and did not consistently report comparative data (i.e., whether the numbers of laws increased or decreased from year to year).

Briefly, digging through the text of UNAIDS annual reports reveals the following:

  1. From 2011-15, the number of countries criminalizing HIV transmission rises briefly from 60 countries to 63 countries (in 2013) and then dips back to 60 countries in 2015 (the change is not explained but probably reflects a change in how countries were categorized);
  2. The number of countries criminalizing same-sex relationships increases from 78 countries in 2011 to 79 by 2015;
  3. On sex work and drug use, UNAIDS annual reports gives no number and says only that “most countries” criminalized both. (Twice, UNAIDS reported data on the number of countries that use compulsory drug detention for drug users. That is a great thing to track, but it is not the original target.)

Overall, no matter how you count it, there was almost no change on these four targets in five years. That’s depressing.

Was the original target (“reduce by half the number of countries with punitive laws”) an achievable goal? Probably not; law reform is slow work and it would have been a massive job to overhaul this many laws in this many countries. Certainly, it would have required a whole lot more financial and political investment in pushing for law and policy change: the hard work of reviewing laws and policies, litigation, human rights advocacy, community mobilization and more.

But even if the goal was overambitious, having more rigorous and reliable reporting on the indicator would have generated data for use by governments, UN treaty bodies, UN country offices, and civil society. That would make it easier to press for change. 

What were originally pretty good targets got buried in ambiguous text. Instead, what were originally pretty good targets got buried in ambiguous text. Instead of sticking to the original clear targets, the UNAIDS report chapter on this human rights indicator lumped in lots of other issues, and muddied the waters.

For example, the original strategy from 2011 says that “…[n]early two thirds of countries reported policies or laws that impede access to HIV services by certain populations.” There’s a clear baseline. What happened next?

The next year, in 2012, UNAIDS reported that 60% of countries had laws or policies that impeded access to services (so about two thirds?). But there was good news, as the report noted: “Although these figures are clearly cause for concern, they are promising in another respect, since acknowledging the existence of such laws is a critical first step towards reforming them.” Or perhaps not, since the 2013 and 2015 reports had the same 60% statistic, without comment.

Human rights indicators don’t fix problems. They often bring bad news. But they do focus the mind on action. A good human rights indicator is an advocacy tool that promotes transparency, accountability and action – globally, regionally, and nationally.

A weak human rights indicator—or a good one that is under-resourced and buried in noise—is actually a barrier to accountability. This is something to think about for the next strategy.

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared in June 2015 at “Meg Davis”.

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The Conservative assault on industrial relations

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 8:17

While offering a higher new minimum wage, the Tories are trying to destroy the means by which workers across the spectrum bargain for decent wages. This is no route to a high wage economy.

Flickr/Roger Blackwell. Some rights reserved.

After the first reading of the Trade Union Bill last Wednesday, more is now known about its form and potential impact. The reforms that it proposes to industrial relations and organised labour are significant – not since Margaret Thatcher have trade unions faced such drastic changes.

The Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, plans to introduce turnout and support thresholds for strikes; criminalise unlawful or intimidatory picketing; allow employers to hire strike-breaking agency staff; and require unions to ask members whether they wish to pay the political levy to the Labour party. Other changes include granting government certification officers powers to fine unions for breaching reporting rules.

At a time when strikes cause considerably less disruption than in the recent past (704,000 days were lost to strike action in the 12 months to April 2015, versus 13m days on average in the 70s), why are reforms needed? Javid’s reforms are part motivated by ideology and part by a post-election Conservative strategy to weaken the Labour party whilst at its most vulnerable.

The number of union members that will proactively support paying the political levy rather than pay through inertia will be tiny. Commentators have suggested that the Labour party could be bankrupted by major cuts to its £25m per year fighting fund (the Conservatives resisted cross-party attempts lead by Nick Clegg during the last parliament to lower the individual donation cap).

The idea that the public are sick of strikes is being used as an excuse to enact wide-ranging reforms to the already shaky foundations of industrial relations in Britain. Proposals to outlaw strikes in key public services unless 50% of those balloted have voted and 40% have voted in favour, set a very high threshold for industrial action.

Javid’s argument that people and businesses need a counterbalance to protect them from the ability of unions to strike is nonsense.

Recent strikes on the London Underground would have gone ahead under these rules, although strikes in less well organised sectors with weaker unions would not. Figures released by the TUC show that a number of strikes held this year in local government and education would not have passed the ‘double threshold’ test.

This assault upon industrial democracy is particularly Janus-faced given Conservative polling at the general election. Overall turnout is estimated at 66.1% of the electorate, of which only 36.9% voted for the Conservatives. This is thrown into even sharper relief when results in individual constituencies are considered; Assistant Whip Jackie Doyle-Price was elected with a vote share of 33.7%.

Attempting to appeal to logic is perhaps to miss the deeper truth of the debate. Unlike in most western European states, the Conservatives see no role for trade unions in the administration of democracy. If ever there had been an attempt at partnership under the previous government, in terms of tackling problems together, it will not be extended under this government.

As backwards looking as unions can be, suggestions have been made for voting procedures to be made more transparent. Adopting the electronic system the Conservatives will use for selecting their London mayoral candidate was rejected.

The move towards criminalising trade union activity is altogether more worrying. Images of white collar workers on picket lines being hauled off by the police have worrying connotations with 1930s Germany. Last week, Mick Whelan, head of the train drivers’ union Aslef, drew comparisons with fascism. The Trade Union Bill may very well herald a slippery slide backwards.

From the industrial revolution onwards, trade union rights have progressed from state repression, to toleration, to acceptance. The last period of criminalisation in British industrial relations was in the 1800s. Limited state intervention under the legal and economic doctrine of collective laissez faire has been a characteristic since.

Allowing employers to hire strike-breaking agency staff would neuter trade unions. The ability of workers to withdraw their labour provides the only real incentive for employers to engage in negotiations with unions (in light of the absence of state compulsion for agreements to be reached). Rules around timing are also important, unions will have to give employers 14 days notice of any potential strike action; enough time for the employment of blacklegs.

It is not difficult to envisage a scenario were employees are made to jump through the hoops of the new bill only for substitute labour to be arranged in the meantime.

Placed into the context of George Osborne’s post-budget vision for the economy, restricting the actions of unions is naive. The success of a low welfare, high wage economy is dependent upon structures other than the state to provide support. Reducing in-work benefits and shifting responsibility to society to pick up the tab requires the existence of strong civic institutions. Weakening trade unions will hinder the chances of a balanced economic recovery.

Also worth consideration is how the recent success of ‘blue collar’ Conservatism, which appeals to aspirational, working class voters, can be sustained when the very institutions of which many blue collar workers are members are being attacked?

The Conservative idea of what unions do, is to their detriment, long out of date. Modern unions provide the education and training Osborne has highlighted as being desperately needed to improve productivity. In order for all to reap the benefits of a higher national minimum wage i.e. the new national living wage, strong trade unions are required to ensure ‘spillover effects’ are felt further up the wage distribution. Those states with statutory minimum wages and high levels of trade union density have higher average wages and less inequality.

It is important though that the Trade Union Bill is taken as a spur for internal reform. Reform of voting procedures is welcome and should be complemented by a renewed focus on representing those who are traditionally overlooked by unions e.g. precarious workers, women and immigrants. With stronger, more representative, mandates unions will be able to counter the Conservative narrative more effectively, with their actions having greater legitimacy.

The immediate concern of the unions must be to build a broad coalition of support, including the traditional factions of the left but also the progressive parties that are now a feature of politics in Westminster. All the help that can be mustered is needed, the future of industrial relations is at stake.

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Without realism Labour will achieve nothing but opposition

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 8:01

Unromantic as it may be, without a feasible alternative to capitalism it is capitalism we have to work with. At this time, a reformed and civilised capitalism is the best Labour can do, and it is what the public want.

Flickr/Centre for American Progress. Some rights reserved.

An article on infantile leftism and the future of the Labour Party could start with a smart line from Lenin or Marx but instead I turn to Lennon and McCartney in the 1968 song, Revolution:

'But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow'

Think Hugo Chavez or Hamas and Hezbollah and you're bang up to date. Think of the consequences if Jeremy Corbyn were to win.

But Gramsci is also apt: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

He was referring to capitalism but I apply it to parts of the left. Those who sport t-shirts proclaiming they have never kissed a Tory. Wearing images of Stalinists like Che Guevara. The smug certainty that the Tories are venal, self-serving and that there is no justification or rationale apart from class interest for their policies. The dismissal of the need to win 'Tory voters' as if they are from another planet rather than people who voted differently on this occasion and are likely to do so again if they are not engaged with. Those who dismiss Liz Kendall as just Tory-lite may satisfy themselves but are stuck in an ugly echo chamber.

There's a rich seam of material to demonstrate that parts of the left are delusional. For me, the constitutional role of the Guardian letters page is to remind us of this. There's a rich seam of material to demonstrate that parts of the left are delusional. For me, the constitutional role of the Guardian letters page is to remind us of this. Jack Halinski-Fitzpatrick, for instance, recently rounded on Polly Toynbee, who had had the temerity to criticise Jeremy Corbyn, and argued that [Labour] "lost votes to Ukip, which, as well as whipping up some racist jingoistic sentiments, ran on an anti-establishment platform and won support among the white working class. With over 70% of Ukip voters supporting nationalisation of the railways and energy companies, a clear socialist programme could win back vast swaths of support to Labour." But softly accepting one item on a left-wing wish list does not translate into openness to a wider socialist programme.

Every movement has logic-choppers who believe their own propaganda and kid themselves that more radical policies can do the trick. And every now and then, a normally conservative society can be open to offers that have been well-prepared and can capture the popular imagination. Think of childcare, the NHS, the national minimum wage.

Anyone who differs from the delusional left is often deemed to have ulterior motives. As one who has long been on the right of the left - and some sneer I am just half-right on that - I often met people who detected devious intent when, for instance, I opposed the Provisional IRA.

Many of us feel a strong connection with those who proclaimed socialism in tough times. We seek inspiration from past Labour leaders. But that doesn't mean we import every part of their programme, which suited contemporary conditions but are no longer appropriate. For instance, we can take heart from how Keir Hardie broke the mould of the then Conservative/Liberal duopoly but we would not now support temperance reform, at least as he conceived it. We can celebrate Tony Blair's rebuilding the public realm but we would no longer tolerate the Faustian deal with finance capital and light touch regulation. We can salute Gordon Brown's herculean efforts to save the banks and avert another Great Depression but we should reject his damaging stress on tactics over strategy.

Left-wing parties everywhere face major crises as the old mechanisms that sustained their support have disappeared with the collapse of the old Fordist economy and the onset of globalisation. Take a look at Donald Sassoon's magisterial Century of Socialism to see how, for instance, the German and Swedish left once provided a cradle to grave alternative society with youth movements, summer camps and strong unions. The German SPD and the Swedish Social Democrats are either in power in coalition or have lost to the right.

And we also need to talk about that word, socialist. I know that we put the term in the party constitution in 1995 although we sensibly added the adjective democratic to the front. But I no longer use the term because it is weighed down by so much bloody baggage and has little descriptive power.

Socialism once meant an entirely new system of production, based on need and planning rather than profit, but Labour Party members were divided on the means and the timescale. Revolutionaries within and outside the party - the two were once indistinguishable in the form of my own first political berth, the Revolutionary Socialist League more often known as the Militant Tendency - scorned reformism. Reformists scorned the anti-democratic and anti-parliamentary perspectives of revolutionaries who if they were prepared to pack meetings and pass motions that had no base would have been equally capable of taking short cuts with the public and ending up with coercion.

What helped and enable both strands to stay together was the old Clause 4 of the party constitution devised by the Webbs to distinguish Labour from the Communists. The famous statement is ambiguous. It says that the aim of the party is 'To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.' Some will focus on common ownership and others will emphasise the caveat of what is possible upon the basis of common ownership. Anyway, we scrapped that and the new party aim is in line with what is often described as ethical socialism, which is that contemporary society can be veined through with our ethical values, regardless of ownership. The party is part of a mission to civilise rather than overthrow capitalism.

Marxists argue that capitalism is inherently unstable and they have a point. But short of a feasible alternative, let alone the chance of winning support for radical change in a society with long established and broadly small-c conservative values, we are stuck with some form of capitalism. The real question is what sort.

I am most attracted by the Blue Labour thesis. I understand this to be that there needs to be an historic compromise between labour and capital. In return for accepting capitalist relations of production, capital has to accept Labour as a partner. Having workers on the board, together with strong unions and not the hard-left dominated husks we often see now, means we are all in it together. Conflicts of interest do not evaporate but are managed.

The Rhineland capitalist model, from which workers on the boards is drawn, offers decentralisation, manufacturing, apprenticeships, valuing vocational work and education and more, with a hefty dose of Catholic social thought on the value of labour. How we get there is another matter. Blue Labour should not be seen as having a monopoly. What is called Blairism also needs to be mixed with it to emphasise, for instance, the need for public sector reform and ways of making use of private management and provision in the public sector.

That also means losing the incredible notion that the Tory danger is the privatisation of the NHS. Yes, they increased the size of the private sector in the NHS by 20% between 2010-2015 but that was from about 5% to 6%. Private residential children's homes, mostly small businesses, have largely worked well for looked after children. With suitable regulation, there is nothing wrong with private enterprise and profit in health and social care. Where there is, we should expect the state to wield a big stick.

And let's discuss Iraq, the great four letter word in British politics. I backed Blair in the overthrow of a fascist and genocidal regime. Having visited Iraq 20 times since 2006, I know that most Iraqis also welcomed the demise of the despot. The Kurds, who called for intervention, believe that it was a liberation. Iraqis also know that the occupation was a disaster and failed to tackle the remnants of Saddam's power base or the descent into ethnic cleansing and civil war. It would always have been difficult but the Americans failed to cope with complexity. I also know that most people here do not agree with me and never will.

Iraq has become a cancer at the heart of British politics. There was an alternative in our agreed policy on Iraq which was passed by a 9 to 1 margin at the Labour conference in 2004 and which I helped draft. It acknowledged that those who honourably supported and those who honourably opposed military action in Iraq have united in support of the emerging civil society in Iraq, including various parties, women's groups and the new, secular and independent Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) which strongly supported the process endorsed by United Nations Security Council for a federal, democratic, pluralist, and unified Iraq, in which there is full respect for political and human rights.

It is a great shame that united campaigns on this basis petered out, that the hard-left anti-war coalition has dominated debates on intervention and that Ed Miliband shamefully refused to support punishing President Assad for his use of chemical weapons. I know from my visits to Iraq that political, economic and military intervention is sought by people there who cannot by themselves overcome many decades of division.

Labour is at a crossroads. Just after the last election a Conservative MP kindly cautioned me not to be too downcast as Labour lost in 1992 but secured a landslide in 1997. But the difference is that Labour gained seats in 1992 and made the next heave easier. This time we have fallen far behind. Scotland may be lost for a generation or possibly forever. Ukip is second in about fifty northern seats, without making much effort. We are way behind in the midlands and in the south where there are fewer Labour MPs than men who have walked on the moon.

The Conservatives have a spring in their step and a steely determination to make structural changes that can undermine our already weak roots in the north by becoming a Workers' Party. We may mock this and rightly highlight measures such as increasing the inheritance tax threshold that undermine fairness but consolidate the Conservative electoral base. We can also take some comfort in the narrow Tory majority and the expectation that it could be riven by division on Europe, the Union and other issues. But Labour has a massive mountain to climb and the crucial thing is credibility.

Party activists will always be more radical than voters, who get the final say. Understanding the limits of the feasible is not the same as simply seeking office. The reason why the worst Labour government will always be better than the best Conservative government is because we have superior values and that shows in making choices often when there are limited resources.

But parts of the left need to shake off the illusion that they are an enlightened vanguard that can lead workers away from their false consciousness. We need to build a more rooted movement that engages with people's legitimate concerns about those who take the proverbial - whether, for example, that is people who fiddle welfare, those who provide poor services to the public, or companies that fail to honour their moral contracts with them by providing good customer services.

A radical rupture is neither likely nor desirable, in the absence of a feasible alternative to civilising capitalism in an echo of Eduard Bernstein's formula that the goal is nothing, the movement is everything. If a capitalism will remain the dominant mode of production, we will have our work cut out seeking to reconcile its cyclical nature and channel its animal spirits. We have to fashion a movement that works with the grain of human nature, makes the market work as best as possible and encourages an ethic of co-operation and compassion. We best crack on with this. Time and tide waits for no man, or woman, and Labour's future is not sacrosanct. The process of rebuilding a movement will not finish with the result of the Labour leadership election, whoever wins, but is long-term and urgent to ensure that Britain has a left that can make a difference and that is much needed for the common good.


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Who owns the wind?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 27. July 2015 - 8:01

As nature's greatest commons powers ever more of our economy, is it time to start asking who owns it?

Drumderg wind farm - over the hill from my parents'

If you head out of the back door of my parents’ house, trudge up the dirt drive and past the crumbling farm steading and hop over a gate then you soon find yourself on open hill. Keep climbing and sheep field green becomes steep heather purple. Drag burning thighs and pounding heart upwards, only a couple of hundred more feet, and turn around, and the first thing you usually notice is the wind.

The farm I grew up on straddles the Highland Line and although Balduff, the hill, is only 1394 feet high, it’s among the first that the wind hits as it sweeps across Scotland. At the top is a whirring anemometer, marking a failed application for a wind farm which would have joined its neighbour at Drumderg, dancing on the horizon for those travelling North into Highland Perthshire or up to Glenshee: gates to the Highlands.

Stood at that spot, it’s easy to understand that Scotland’s greatest natural resource is not that which lies beneath the North Sea, but that which soars over it; not that which may be buried beneath the beds of the North Atlantic, but that which makes exploring there quite so perilous. It’s that which ensures an umbrella is useless in Edinburgh; that standing on the cairn on the top of any Munro with your arms outspread feels like you’re flying; and that the mighty Forth Road Bridge can be shut for hours on end. It can take your breath away, sweep you off your feet, and turn rain drops into stinging weapons.

The prevailing Westlin Winds have always played a pivotal role in shaping Scotland, from its landscape to its songs to its prayers. But since the invention of the steamboat - in large part developed in Scotland - nature’s greatest force has had little role in the economy.

That’s starting to change. In 2001, renewables only provided slightly over 10% of Scotland’s electricity, most of which was hydro-power. By 2012, that figure was 39.9% and in 2013, it hit 46.4%. The Scottish government believes it is on target for 100% by 2020. A huge portion of that growth has been, and will be, wind power.

All of this poses a question which goes back to the dawn of human civilisation. By whom is the bounty of the earth owned? To whom should income derived from it be returned?

This is a conundrum most famously faced by oil rich states. Norway has its sovereign wealth fund, paid for from the revenues from its oil: a fund which invests in the broader global economy and which is intended to be kept aside for future generations of Norwegians, once the oil is gone. Alaska similarly has a sovereign wealth fund which invests in stocks and shares, the returns on which are paid equally to all Alaskan citizens as a Basic Income.

There are negative examples too. In much of the Middle East, arguably, rentier states have formed, where governments can survive on the revenues of the oil they sell rather than depending on taxing their people. Because there’s rarely representation without taxation, the region of the world with the most oil is the region of the world with the most dictators.

When our economies depended largely on land, political and literal battles were over chunks of the map. From the Enclosure Acts and the Charter of the Forest in England to imperial conquests and wars across the planet, the arc of history was dominated by who controlled which physical areas. Such debates will, of course, always apply. But their dominance has slipped.

Today, in a global economy which runs on fossil fuels, battles over their control and ownership predominate. From the oil shocks of the early 1970s when OPEC asserted its power in the post-imperial age to the coal miners’ strikes; from the invasion of Iraq to gas in Ukraine; from ISIS’ dependence on black-market-black-gold to sanctions against Iran; from the fight for public control in Venezuela to battles over land in Alberta. One way or another, these must become the struggles of the past. The carbon in the lithosphere cannot be allowed into the atmosphere. The oil rigs must go silent; the coal mines must grow over. Civilisation depends upon it.

In the future, if we are to have a future, our communities will be powered by those things which are more abstract: computer codes, online space, the rays of the sun, the crashing of waves, and gusts of wind.

And in such a context, isn’t it important to ask another question: who owns the wind? Ownership, of course, is a complex concept over which philosophers have wrestled for centuries. But there is another way to ask the question: who has a right to use? Do large companies have a right to erect turbines and allow the force of moving air to turn them?

In some ways, this question seems silly. After all, isn’t wind essentially superabundant? It’s not like using it to turn a turbine stops someone else doing the same, apart perhaps from a near neighbour. Certainly there’s more of the stuff than land to build turbines on. But looked at another way there’s an important principle at stake. What right has anyone to profit from a resource which is the property of everyone and no one? An infinite number of copies of “All You Need Is Love” can be downloaded on iTunes. That doesn’t mean that we get it for free. Why should that principle only apply when businesses provide us with something, but not when they take something? And are they not using their magnificent contraptions to capture something which is perhaps already ours, and certainly not theirs, and sell it back to us?

To make profits, capitalism relies on being given, for free, a huge number of social and natural resources: a labour force of human beings that someone has given birth to, cared for, fed, and educated; languages to communicate which we have all produced together over generations; social conventions developed over centuries.

These things are all commons - just like the atmosphere we are filling with carbon, the woodlands we have chopped down and the seas we have turned from flourishing aquatic forests to greyed out underwater carparks; the rain which feeds the crops we eat and the sunshine they photosynthesise; like the scientific process; the writings of Socrates; Wikipedia; OpenOffice and, we like to think, openDemocracy. Without free access to commons of some sort or another, almost every private company on earth would collapse. Those who claim to create our wealth almost all depend first on being gifted access to the bounty of the earth and of civilisation.

In the past and all over the world to this day, as the Nobel winning economist Eleanor Ostrom catalogued, different types of commons have been and are managed, successfully, in a vast plethora of ways. And in the future, as photographs of Pluto perhaps demonstrate, we are going always to have plenty of new debates about the management of new kinds of commons. And one of those is the wind: a force of nature which we must tap if civilisation is to endure.

I would prefer that, as in the countries who are most successful in powering themselves with the rush of air across their land, the firms which capture the UK’s wind and use it to turn the magnets which create our electricity be democratically owned. But however we arrange control of the machinery, it is important for our understanding of the true operation of our society that we recognise that the electricity flowing from the turbines is the product of a collision between technology which grows from hundreds of years of labour and the learning of scientists and engineers; workers who were once raised and cared for applying that knowledge, and a force of nature over which only someone with extraordinary delusions of grandeur can truly claim ownership.

Sometimes, privatisation is a process of turning things which are in the public sector over to shareholders or individuals. But often in history, it has involved the enclosure of commons - people taking something which belonged to everyone and no one, putting fences round it, and stopping others from using it.

The shape of our future will therefore depend in part on how we deal with the new commons which emerge; which start to become more and more vital to our lives. The wind is but one example. But it’s one which helps blow away some of the extraordinary lies we are told about wealth creation in our society - and, standing at the top of Balduff, it’s the one which hits you in the face.

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