Friday, December 18, 2020

Coming to terms with COVID-19

 by Ben Soton

Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic Ruined Britain's Health and Wealth and What to Do about It by John Ashton, Gibson Square Publishers 2020. Paperback: 256pp; £12.99. Hardback: 256pp; £40. Kindle: 256pp. file size: 461k; £5.99.

IN THE months and years ahead there will be numerous articles, books and even television dramas about COVID-19. With this in mind, John Aston’s book will be one amongst many critiques of how the pandemic was handled and for the most part mishandled.
    Prof Ashton’s book is without doubt a mine of useful information. The author, who is one of the world’s leading experts on public health, gives accounts of previous plagues starting with the Black Death, which hit Europe in the 14th Century. Cholera came in the 19th century; Spanish Flu after the First World War, and more recently the SARS and Swine Flu pandemics of the early 21st Century.
    The book lists the Tory Government’s litany of mistakes and failure to act. These include Boris Johnson’s failure to attend COBRA meetings in the early stages of the pandemic. At the same time David Halpern, the head of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, was stating that self-isolation would encourage people to take unnecessary time off work.
    A chapter is devoted to the infamous concept of ‘herd immunity’ as misappropriated and advocated by Dominic Cummings and upheld by the Trump administration and the Brazilian regime, to let the plague run uncontrollably through the population to devastating effect even though, as Prof Ashton explains, the best way to achieve herd immunity is through vaccination. But the Johnson Government’s greatest blunder was ordering the first lockdown too late and then easing it before even its own criteria had been met.
    In terms of which countries to follow in view of our Government’s disastrous response, there have been numerous alternative models. The real left has looked to Democratic Korea (DPRK), which has kept the plague completely out of the country, and Cuba, People’s China and Vietnam, who all acted promptly and have seen a low death toll.
    Cuba and China even sent medical aid to European Union member states such as Italy. The EU’s response was to fine pandemic-ridden Italy for infringements of EU Competition Law. Meanwhile anti-lockdown campaigners talked-up the ‘Swedish model’ – a Nordic version of ‘herd immunity’ that eventually led to the worst death toll in Scandinavia.
    For his part John Ashton prefers the Bahrain model and the effective way in which this oil-rich island kingdom beat back COVID-19. Not sure why he calls this feudal Arab Gulf state a “constitutional monarchy” but perhaps it’s because he’s the Advisor to Bahrain’s COVID Task Force...
    Prof Ashton makes several excellent observations but views the Governments failure largely in administrative terms.
    He cites the downgrading of the position of Public Health Officer in recent years; a position largely a product of Victorian municipalism. In the same vein he also speaks highly of the ground-breaking work of Dr John Snow in dealing with the terrible cholera outbreak in 19th Century London.
    The author, ably assisted by his wife, health specialist Maggi Morris, endorses the demands of the independent SAGE committee. These include strengthening the social safety net for vulnerable groups, the establishment of a sustainable health and social care infrastructure system rooted in the community, and an integrated Health and Social Care System. Sadly, he makes little obvious reference to the ongoing privatisation of the NHS that has been taking place under successive neo-liberal governments.
    This book is an easy read and well worth reading as a useful source of information on the Government’s epic mishandling of the pandemic. It’s available from all high street bookshops and online booksellers.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Light at the end of the tunnel?

The first doses of the coronavirus vaccine have arrived from the Belgian laboratories to kick-start a mass Covid vaccination programme that has raising hopes of a return to some sort of normality by the spring of next year. The Government has secured 40 million doses of the vaccine, enough to treat 20 million people in the coming months. The PfizerBioNTech jab is likely to be speedily followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine that may be approved for NHS use by Christmas.
Health Minister Matt Hancock tells us that a successful rollout would mean lockdown restrictions could end before March. He says he “can't wait” to scrap the three-tier system of coronavirus restrictions and “get back to living by mutual respect and personal responsibility, not laws set in parliament”.
    Well, we’ll wait and see. We’ve heard it all before from the Johnson government that gave us the shambolic “world-beating” track and trace system, the non-existent “oven-ready” Brexit deal with the European Union and the flawed “moon-shot” mass testing scheme that was supposed to reduce the need for social distancing.
    Johnson’s track and trace system failed because it was simply not fit for purpose. Outsourcing it to private contractors caused huge problems while its’ centralised design too often by-passed local public health teams. We cannot afford to repeat this folly with the new vaccines.
    The TUC is calling on the Government to take urgent steps to ensure the effective take up and delivery of the coronavirus vaccine. First of all local public health teams must be empowered to take the lead in co-ordination the vaccination programme. The supply chain must be improved through direct state intervention. The jabs must only be administered by trained health-care staff. National campaigns must be launched to encourage the public take up of the jab and build public confidence and trust in the anti-Covid operation.
    The TUC argues that a high level of engagement and compliance will be essential for the vaccination programme to be successful and that trust and confidence in the vaccination system is most likely to be maximised by a system designed and led by public health professionals.
    Meanwhile Richard Burgon, the secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, says: “After an incredibly bleak year, the coronavirus vaccines offer a ray of hope that 2021 can bring a return of something resembling normality. But it will be many months before the vaccines have been distributed widely. Until then, Labour needs to step up its opposition to force the government to adopt a new strategy. We can’t go on with months more of the government’s reckless approach. That has already led to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and one of the deepest downturns of any major economy”.
    Inoculating virtually the entire population will, in any case, take us well into next year. At the moment the only way we can drive down the rate of infection is through the lockdowns and other public health measures that we’ve lived through for the best part of this year. If we want to avoid a dreaded winter “third wave” the emergency must continue and the Government must maintain and expand the furlough and business support schemes to stave of mass unemployment.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tiers for Fears

The second national lockdown has ended with the news of a dramatic fall in the Covid-19 infection rate throughout the country and the start of a vaccination programme that will, hopefully, turn the tide in the battle against the coronavirus plague.
     But hundreds of people are still dying every day and lockdowns supported by the Government’s third-rate track and trace service will remain the only way to combat the plague until the vaccine gets out to the vast majority of the population
     The Health Minister, Matt Hancock, somewhat optimistically says Britain will be through Covid-19 "by spring" after the first people are given vaccines from Monday while Boris Johnson, with uncharacteristic caution warns us not to get our hopes up for getting the new coronavirus vaccine soon.
     The roll-out will start with the vulnerable care home staff and residents and then cover the rest of the population in stages starting with the over 80s. There’s talk within the corridors of power of a return to normality by next spring. That clearly depends on the efficacy of the vaccine.
     Whatever happens the “normality” of the post-coronavirus environment will largely depend on the strength of the labour movement. The unions have shown their willingness to work with the Government to protect health and jobs during the emergency. Whether this will continue clearly depends on the Johnson government’s willingness to continue the consultation process with organised labour.

tackling unemployment

Young workers have been hit hard by the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis. They have experienced the highest rates of redundancy, largest falls in employment, highest rates of furlough with reduced pay, largest falls in weekly pay, and the largest falls in hours worked. The lockdowns have also led to significant job losses in sectors like hospitality and leisure which employ many young workers.
     The Government’s Kickstart employment scheme has got off to a shaky start. Though supported, at least in principle, by the TUC, the scheme is just a rehash of old cheap labour work schemes like Labour’s Youth Opportunities Programme that began in the Wilson-Callaghan era of the 1970s and its successors like the Tory Youth Training Scheme in 1983 and the Blair’s New Deal “workfare” programme that began in 1998.
     The problem hasn’t been totally ignored by Labour. Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary recently said that: ““…latest figures show the Government’s Kickstart scheme is failing to deliver for young people, creating opportunities for just 3 per cent of the 600,000 young people unemployed. The Government must be much more ambitious if we are to prevent a generation scarred by long term unemployment. It is worrying that months into this jobs crisis we still have no plan from this Government to tackle rising unemployment and get Britain back to work”.
     But these days Labour’s alternative amounts to little more than claiming that they can run the economy on its existing lines more efficiently than the Conservatives. This was the mantra of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during a boom that Brown thought would last forever. It’s a mantra that has been repeated by every successive leader of the Labour Party, apart from Jeremy Corbyn, despite the fact that we have not even recovered from the slump of 2007.
    But we are not, as the Tories and Blairites claim, all in it together nor do we have a stake in ensuring that capitalism survives. There’s no trickle‑down effect. All that workers get from the capitalist table is the crumbs, so while capitalism survives there will always be a fight to increase and defend the share that workers get from capitalism. But in the long term the only way to ensure that this share is maintained and improved, and not to have to defend it time and time again, is by fighting for working class state power, the dictatorship of the proletariat.
    It’s either them or us; the workers or the bosses. The alternative to working class state power is increasing exploitation, racial and communal strife, rapid growth in crime, drug trafficking, violence and conflict from local to international levels. The capitalists must not be allowed to destroy society. It is they who must be supplanted.

Axes to grind

by Ben Soton

Small Axe (2020). TV mini-series of five 60-minute episodes on BBC1, Sundays at 9pm; currently also available on BBC iPlayer. Series Director: Steve McQueen.

Small Axe, BBC1’s latest Sunday night drama, is a series of feature-length stories covering the struggles of the West Indian community in Britain. Obviously, a response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, I can already hear those of a racist persuasion crying about the BBC getting on the bandwagon. This should be seen in a positive light however, namely would these programmes have been made had it not been for this year’s wave of protest?
The work of director Steve McQueen, the drama covers issues from police harassment to the West Indian music scene. The series successfully depicts the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, which is gradually fading from memory. The drama does not pull any punches about the West Indian community, in particular the issue of domestic violence towards women and the use of soft drugs.
    Episode I, Mangrove, covers the issue of police harassment of the black community. This episode centred around the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, which was subject to continuous police harassment by the Metropolitan Police. The restaurant was regularly raided on spurious grounds and issued with fines for minor infractions. Fed up with continuous harassment, members of Notting Hill’s black community marched on Notting Hill police station to protest. Those later arrested with riot and affray later became known as the Mangrove Nine.
     Episode II, Lovers Rock, depicts the story of a young black woman caught between white racists and over amorous men from her own community. This episode largely focusses on the West Indian music scene. With an almost entirely black cast, it depicts the tensions within as well as the customs of that community.
    Episode III, Red, White and Blue, on the other hand, covers the experience of a young black man who joins the Metropolitan Police.
     This series of films, along with the BLM protests, comes at a time when many of the gains made by the anti-racist campaigners are, albeit indirectly, coming under attack. This includes the Windrush scandal as well as the hostile environment created toward migrants with its inevitable effect on more established ethnic communities. It was not so long ago however, when the UK was the only state in Europe where an Interior Minister, in the name of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, was forced to resign for racist behaviour. Meanwhile, when far-right activists descended on London to defend (boarded up) statues one of their number was caught urinating on a memorial to a dead police officer. It’s not all doom and gloom but time to remain vigilant.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Blowing in the wind

Boris Johnson has clearly turned indecision into a fine art. He refuses to sack Priti Patel over the “bullying” scandal whilst at the same time letting his minions brief the media of his intention to downgrade her at the next Government reshuffle in the New Year. The Home Office scandal has already led to the resignation of the Government’s independent adviser, Sir Alex Allen, a retired civil service mandarin whose report concluded that Ms Patel's approach “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying”.
There’s no doubt that Priti Patel did breach ministerial standards. She’s got form on this. Three years ago a former aide received a £25,000 pay-out from the government after claiming she was bullied by Priti Patel who was then employment minister. In February, Sir Philip Rutnam, the Home Office's most senior official, resigned alleging that Ms Patel's conduct towards staff included “swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”.
Far from being an exclusively fascist virtue bullying is, in fact, a vital part of capitalist culture. Until the late 1960s it was the basis of discipline at school from the teachers down to the prefects and their class-room toadies. It remains the principle behind order in the armed forces throughout the bourgeois world. In factories and offices it’s called “Management’s right to manage”, which can only be mitigated by strong union organisation.
Whilst Johnson needs as many friends as he can get at the top table as his Government faces an uncertain future now that Trump’s gone, the question of bullying goes right to the heart of the psyche of the ruling class.

counting the days

 What has Sir Keir Starmer achieved since he won the Labour leadership contest in April? Absolutely nothing apart from getting away with the continued persecution of former leader Jeremy Corbyn and encouraging a wave of Blairite purges in the constituencies.
    Starmer said he would continue along Corbyn’s path. He said he would fight austerity and “unify” the party. Instead, he’s taken the bogus “anti-Semitism” campaign to new ludicrous heights to drive the Corbynistas out of the Labour party.     His “ten pledge” programme has long been forgotten. The only “unity” Starmer wants is with the ageing Blairites who still sit in the House of Commons, and the only fight Starmer’s led is against Jeremy Corbyn and those who backed him when he was at the helm.
    Though the Johnson government is useless and incompetent it still tops Labour in the opinion polls and barring a miracle Labour looks set for disaster at the local and regional elections next year.
    How long can Starmer last as Labour’s leader? Whilst the answer is clearly for as long as the membership is prepared to put up with him, his days must surely be numbered.

America’s back

US President-elect Joe Biden tells the world that “America is back, ready to lead the world”, but sadly it never went away in the first place. Sure Trump talked about “America First” and made some token troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but the great “deal-maker” achieved nothing on the international arena apart from strengthening the position of Zionist Israel in the Middle East.
    Nor can we expect much from Biden. The popular vote that swept Biden into the White House may develop into a mass movement to halt American aggression in the future. We’ll see. Hopefully the new Biden team will put aside old dreams of regime change and world domination and focus on tackling the coronavirus plague that is sweeping through America unchecked at the moment. We can well do without the leadership of US imperialism, Trump-style or otherwise.

Monday, November 23, 2020

So long Dominic Cummings

As the Trump era ends in acrimony in Washington the waves of discontent ripple across the Atlantic. None of us will shed a tear at the departure of Dominic Cummings or his shadowy side-kick Lee Cain from the corridors of power. The loathsome Rasputin-like adviser who seemed pull all the strings in the Johnson government has now gone. Some say that this is largely down to disagreements with Boris Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds. Others suspect that the ousting of two of the most prominent Leavers in the Tory camp has more to do with Johnson’s need to appease the new Biden administration.
    Boris Johnson knows that Joe Biden’s victory means the end of his dream of trans-Atlantic free-trade deal to replace the Treaty of Rome. The Brexit transitional period ends at the end of the year and without an agreement with Brussels Johnson’s options, within the parameters set by the ruling class, are limited.
    A “no deal” Brexit would clear the decks for free trade agreements with People’s China, India and Russia that would easily off-set any losses sustained from departing from the European Union. But there’s little enthusiasm within the Establishment for anything that could jeopardise British imperialism’s existing relationships with American and Franco-German imperialism.
    Cummings, whose departure was welcomed by the Tory grandees, stood in the way of any reset of the British position toward the European Union. Now he can write his book…

Corbyn’s reinstatement

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party membership has been restored in return for an appeasing statement following efforts by Unite and some left social-democratic MPs to end the crisis. The Corbynistas say this is a climb-down by Sir Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s ineffectual successor, and a victory for the Labour left. But this “victory” came at a price and it was hardly decisive.
     Instead of challenging the reactionary nonsense of the Zionists and Blairites Corbyn plays into his enemies’ hands when he says that “concerns about anti-semitism [within the Labour Party] are neither ‘exaggerated’ nor ‘overstated’”. But even that isn’t enough for the Blairite bloc that want him and all his followers out of the Labour Party. Corbyn remains excluded from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the hate campaign will continue reaction unabated.
    At every step of the way, the left around Jeremy Corbyn have refused to challenge the basis of the accusations or defend the right to speak out for Palestine. Instead they have made concession after concession, and apology after apology.
    Rank and file opposition to the Blairites and Zionists inside the labour movement is the only way we can combat the lies and filth of the bourgeois media.
    Marxists have always repudiated the theory and practice of Zionism. In1903, Lenin himself said that the concept itself of a Jewish nation had become a “Zionist idea absolutely false and essentially reactionary”.
     The Bolshevik leader exposed the reactionary essence of Zionism, emphasising that its dogmas are reactionary, false and contrary to the interests of the Jewish proletariat. He criticised the Zionists’ theses concerning the unique nature of the Jewish people, the alleged absence of class differences amongst the Jews and the imaginary communality of their interests, explaining that such assertions aimed to distract the Jewish toiling masses from the proletariat’s common class struggle. Lenin was right then and he is right now!

Friday, November 20, 2020

A labour of love

 by Ben Soton

Love and Labour: Red-Button Years: Volume 1 by Ken Fuller. Independently published, 2020. Paperback: 580 pages; £15. ISBN-10: 1699092788, ISBN-13: 978-1699092781.Kindle: 930 pages; £5.99.

When this rather large novel (almost 600 pages in total) arrived on my doorstep I was admittedly not looking forward to reading it. As I read it, however, I was pleasantly surprised. What could be described as Ragged Trousered Philanthropists meets On the Buses, it begins in 1913 and takes us through the First World War, ending in 1917.
    Within the first few pages the author brings Late Edwardian England back to life. This was the world of Lyons’ Coffee Houses, stratified dress codes, a time when someone’s social position could be established by what they wore around their neck, and of course growing industrial militancy, which is a major feature of Love and Labour.
    The activities of the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, also known as the Red Button Union, is the central to the novel. Although considerable space is taken up by accounts of union meetings, a lot can be learnt from the novel. For instance, bus drivers and conductors were licensed by the police at the time.
    A major feature of the book is the romance between Dorothy Bridgeman, a middle-class left-wing activist, and Mickey Rice, a bus driver also involved in socialist politics and trade unionism. Several historical figures appear in the novel, such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Theodore Rothstein. Older readers may remember the late Andrew Rothstein – a prominent Marxist theoretician and Theodore’s son, who briefly appears in the novel.
    As World War I approaches, the novel covers the differences within the Labour movement over the conflict. Both Rothstein, a leading member of British Socialist Party, and Sylvia Pankhurst, a leader of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, took an anti-war position. The main characters in the novel adhere to this line. Bridgeman, a supporter of female suffrage, becomes a close collaborator of Sylvia Pankhurst, who was expelled by her mother Emeline from the more reactionary Women’s Social and Political Union for taking a socialist direction.
    The author was a London bus driver for 11 years, following which he was a full-time officer in the old TGWU transport union for a further 20 years before retiring in 2003. Although rather long, Love and Labour is an easy read and a pleasant way to learn socialist history through the medium of a novel. It is Ken Fuller’s first historical novel and I hope it is not the last. With the festive season approaching, it could be a good stocking filler.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Ugly American

Donald Trump sits in the White House refusing to face reality as power ebbs away to Joe Biden, the victor in last week’s US presidential elections. Biden’s victory may not be a great advance for the American people – he is after-all a trusted pair of hands who can be relied on to do the bidding of the American establishment – but it certainly was a defeat for Trump.
    Implausibly depicting the Democrats as dangerous “reds” and playing the race card Trump pulled out all the stops in the last days of his campaign to get the Republican vote out. And though he succeeded in mobilising record numbers of supporters throughout the country the Republicans were overwhelmed by even larger numbers who hate Trump and all that he stands for.
    Trump’s apologists in Europe are mainly found amongst the ranks of the far-right along those deluded “left” poseurs who defend him on the grounds that he, unlike his predecessors, didn’t start any new wars during his four years in the White House. This is, in fact, true. What is equally true is that Trump did nothing to halt the conflicts he inherited from the Obama administration.
    American troops still occupy parts of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Trump tightened the blockade against the Islamic Republic of Iran and restored many of the sanctions that Barack Obama lifted when he established diplomatic relations with Cuba. His summit talks with Democratic Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have slightly reduced tension on the Korean peninsula but in the long term that achieved nothing because Trump was unwilling or unable to deliver on any of the steps towards normalisation that he promised to take at these high-level meetings.
     Trump sanctioned the assassination of General Soleimani, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander killed in a targeted US drone strike in January and threw his weight behind a bogus Middle East peace plan to allow Israel to illegally annex Arab Jerusalem and other parts of the occupied West Bank coveted by the Zionists.
     While no-one expects much from Biden we can expect some change of direction next year. Some fear that Biden will continue where Obama left off in Syria and Ukraine. But though the shadowy figures within the US that the Americans call the “deep state” will undoubtedly be clamouring for more “regime change” Biden’s first priority must be to tackle the coronavirus plague that is sweeping unchecked throughout the USA.
    The president-elect says another of his priorities will be to revive the Iran nuclear deal
and return to the other international treaties that Trump recklessly tore up during his term of office. If he does that will go some way to easing tension in the Middle East.
    No one is going to miss Trump in the region apart from Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader who was backed to the hilt by the Trump administration, and a handful of feudal Arab oil princes who will in any case do the bidding of US imperialism regardless of who sits in the Oval Office at any given time.
    But there may be trouble ahead for Boris Johnson. Biden’s already warned Johnson that he can kiss goodbye to his “Treaty of Washington” trade deal if Brexit undermines the Northern Ireland peace process and the Remainers are hoping to exploit the new situation to prolong the Brexit transition period or even replace Johnson with a more Europhile leader.
It doesn’t augur well for Johnson in the next few months.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Reinstate Jeremy Corbyn

Last week Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the party he once led after claiming that his political opponents had dramatically overstated the scale of antisemitism inside the Labour party for factional reasons. The move by Labour’s Blairite general secretary, David Evans, was endorsed by Sir Kier Starmer, and indeed it could hardly have taken place without the covert blessing of the new Labour leader in the first place.
    Starmer won the Labour leadership election after Corbyn stood down earlier in the year, on a platform based on “ten pledges” that were projected as broadly complimenting the line of the old Corbyn leadership. The Starmer camp told us that their man would continue the fight against austerity while standing for “unity” within the party. That was then. This is now.
     The “ten pledges” have long been forgotten. The only “unity” Starmer wants is with the ageing Blairites who still sit in the House of Commons and the only fight Starmer’s led is against the Jeremy Corbyn and those who backed him when he was at the helm.
    The mealy-mouthed response from some of Corbyn’s former comrades should not surprise us. They did next to nothing when other prominent supporters of the Palestinian cause like Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker and Chris Williamson were hounded out of the Labour party for daring to speak out against the Zionist lobby.
    But some MPs and union leaders have taken the principled stand and resistance is growing at the grass-roots level. The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs has pledged to work tirelessly for Corbyn’s reinstatement while seven major union leaders have signed a statement backing the former Labour party leader.
    Over 28,000 people have signed a petition calling for the suspension to be lifted and the call has been taken up in the broad movement with Labour CND, the People’s Assembly and the Stop the War Coalition along with other campaigning groups calling for Corbyn’s reinstatement.
    Meanwhile the usual suspects are predictably calling on the unions to either dump Labour in favour of the obscure left social-democratic alternatives that have long failed to make any impact on the electoral scene or use their political funds to set up a new union-based social-democratic party in its stead.
    Needless to say this is going nowhere, not least because Corbyn and the union leaders who support him, are calling on their supporters to stand their ground inside Labour. It’s undoubtedly true that the unions, who provide over 90 per cent of Labour’s funds, could cripple the party if that support was cut off. But is equally true to say that diverting that money to existing lost causes or attempting to set up new ones would be an equally futile gesture.
     Arthur Scargill, the militant miners’ leader tried and failed with his Socialist Labour Party (SLP) while even the RMT’s money wasn’t enough to get their Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) off the ground.
    We reject the “parliamentary road” and electoral politics. The old Communist Party of Great Britain abandoned the revolutionary road when it adopted the British Road to Socialism. Other left electoral platforms like Respect, the SLP and TUSC all express essentially the same theory.
    The paltry votes of all these parties reflect the futility of trying to compete with Labour in bourgeois elections. They show the futility of platforms that argue that the only way to defeat social democracy is in fact to imitate it.
    Our Party’s strategy is the only way to fight for the communist alternative within the working class of England, Scotland and Wales. We want day‑to‑day reforms and they can only be achieved by the main reformist, social democratic party in Britain. We want revolution and that can only be achieved through the leadership of the communist party.

Enemies at the Gate


The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden; Penguin Michael Joseph, London 2020,
ISBN: 9780241351239, 464 pp,Hbk RRP £20.00

by Ben Soton

The ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory; the struggle between Asiatic ‘despotism’ and Western ‘democracy’, originates in the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century BC. It sees Greece, which at that time consisted of a loose confederation of fractious city states governed by free men versus the vast Achaemenid Persian Empire, which ranged from northern Greece to India; with its armies of slaves ruled over by a single despot. Supporters of this thesis give the example of Ancient Athens, which after the reforms of Cleisthenes, established an early form of democracy. This view is propagated in Conn Iggulden’s new novel, The Gates of Athens.
    The thesis was devised by a neo-con Harvard academic, Samuel Huntingdon, who served as an adviser in the US Carter administration in the 1970s and the apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1980s. It was used as a justification for imperialist interventions in the post-Cold War era but it now lies in tatters. In the Middle East conflict imperialism boasts about its alliance with what the Zionists claim is the “only democracy in the Middle East” while at the same time supporting Saudi Arabia and the other feudal Arab oil princes – all ‘Asiatic despotisms’. The imperialist powers are equally happy to support jihadist fanatics against the National Progressive Front Government of Syria, probably the most democratic state in the region.
     But is there any truth in saying that Ancient Greece had the moral high ground over Achaemenid Persia.
    Slavery existed in both Persia and Greece. The armies of Persia were not simply slave levies. Their legions consisted of warriors from many nations; Persians, Medes, Babylonians, Egyptians, Ethiopians as well as Greek mercenaries. Almost as many Greeks fought for the Persian Empire as against it. However, it was Ancient Athens that first introduced democracy, however limited.
     Women, slaves and those born outside the city had no rights. Nonetheless this was still a positive development and the basis of enlightened government. However, according to Herodotus, the Persian nobleman Otanes considered introducing democracy into Persia only to be overruled. Ultimately democracy came from Athens and subsequently we should be grateful for the Greek victory.
     The Gates of Athens starts in 490 BC with the first Persian Invasion and the Greek victory at Marathon. The novel ends ten years later in 480 BC with the Athenian naval victory at Salamis whilst their rivals the Spartans held off the Persians at Thermopylae. Most of the novel covers the period in between the two Persian invasions. Iggulden uses this period to delve into the complexities of Athenian politics.
     The main character Xanthippus, a veteran of Marathon is ostracised to the nearby city of Corinth in a ploy by his rival Themistocles to remove potential rivals. However, with the threat of Persian invasion Xanthippus is allowed to return to the city. The author presents a picture of political rivals putting aside difference for the good of their city; thus, showing the superiority of Athens.
    We see little of the Persian ruler Xerxes; only brief snippets of Persian court life where he is surrounded by sycophants. Even his general Mardonius is afraid of him. Hence, we see Athens as a city state ruled by consent, as well as an element of intrigue whilst the Persian Empire is based on fear. Although this is not the whole picture there may be some truth in it. For example, at the naval battle of Salamis the Greek ships were rowed by freemen and Persians by slaves.
    These days the Greco-Persian Wars have been used to justify Western imperialism’s superiority over the east. But they took place two thousand years before the emergence of European imperialism and in the struggle against absolutism that swept through Europe ancient Greece became a symbol of freedom.
    During the French revolution the ancient ‘Phrygian cap’ was worn as a symbol of liberty and the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae together with Horatius and his two friends who held the bridge against another tyrant were seen as heroic examples of the defence of liberty against tyranny.
    “When boyhood’s fire was in my blood I read of ancient freemen, For Greece and Rome who bravely stood, Three hundred men and three men”. These words from the 19th century Irish rebel song A Nation Once Again recall their sacrifice to compare their fight for freedom to that of the national liberation struggle in Ireland. It is still sung today.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Nationalisation and Socialism

The welcome news that the Welsh railways are to return to public ownership has fired demands for similar action in the rest of the UK to secure passenger services and protect jobs in an industry badly hit by the coronavirus crisis.
    The Labour-led Welsh government has used its powers to appoint a public “operator of last resort” to run rail services as a result of the private contractor’s failure to meet its obligations due to the massive drop in passenger numbers during the lockdown.
    The move was welcomed by the rail unions and the We Own It campaign that was launched in 2013 to make the case for public ownership. Campaigns officer Pascale Robinson said the Welsh move was “a great step forward”.
     She said: “Privatisation just means you pay more for your rail service in profits and today shows you can only keep that up for so long. Publicly owned rail networks have been shown to work. The East Coast Line, after being brought into public ownership, is the most efficient service in the UK. We hope that the rest of the UK follows”.
     But bail-outs can never be the only argument for nationalisation. The Tories nationalised Rolls-Royce engineering to save it from going bust in the early 1970s. They supported the steps the Labour government took in 2008 to prevent the collapse of the financial system that included nationalising banks, like Northern Rock, that were on the edge of collapse. But once they became profitable the Tories sold them off again.
    While the railways are clearly a public service that should naturally be kept in public hands we have to campaign for the renationalisation the entire public sector that existed in this country until 1979 to use their profits to restore the NHS and the welfare state that we once enjoyed.
     Though public ownership can fund much needed public services it cannot, in itself, lead to socialist advance. Fascist Italy’s public sector was, for instance, second only to that of the
Soviet Union before the Second World War. Some even called it “state socialism”. Stalin disagreed.
    The Soviet leader told an American journalist in 1936 that “Many people take this term to mean the system under which a certain part of wealth, sometimes a fairly considerable part, passes into the hands of the state, or under its control, while in the overwhelming majority of cases the works, factories and the land remain the property of private persons. This is what many people take ‘state socialism’ to mean. Sometimes this term covers a system under which the capitalist state, in order to prepare for, or wage war, runs a certain number of private enterprises at its own expense.
    “The society which we have built cannot possibly be called ‘state socialism’. Our Soviet society is socialist society, because the private ownership of the factories, works, the land, the banks and the transport system has been abolished and public ownership put in its place”.
    What does socialism mean? First of all it means that the ownership of the means of production – the factories, mines, the transport industry and the land – are taken from the hands of the capitalists into state and collective ownership on behalf of the working class. A dictatorship of the working class will be established that will suppress the capitalists economically and politically through the workers’ government, trade unions and councils and generally in the sphere of ideology and culture.
    The energy, vitality and creative power of the working class will be unleashed, providing a freer and fuller life for everyone. The people will own the banks, insurance companies and finance houses. The age of classes and exploitation will be over. The greed, speculation and corruption of the bourgeoisie will end and a new era will dawn.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

A Tory drama for today

by Ben Soton

 Roadkill: 4-part mini-series (2020) on BBC1 and currently also available on BBC iPlayer. Written and created by David Hare. Director: Michael Keillor. Stars: Hugh Laurie, Millie Brady, Helen McCrory, Saskia Reeves, Patricia Hodge, Olivia Vinall, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Sarah Greene, Iain De Caestecker, Danny Ashok.

In few political dramas does the Prime Minister state their allegiance. Roadkill, the BBC’s latest Sunday Night political drama, is an exception, where Prime Minister Dawn Ellison (played by Helen McCrory) openly states she is a Conservative. This is perhaps not surprising because its creator, the veteran playwright David Hare, has never shied away from the theme of contemporary politics in his dramas.
Hugh Laurie plays the up and coming Cabinet Minister Peter Lawrence. Laurie has come a long way since the nineties, where he was typecast as playing well-off thick people; notably Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster and the Prince Regent in Blackadder. Recently Laurie has successfully played a number of serious multifaceted characters, such as the arms dealer Richard Roper in John Le Carre’s The Night Manager.
   Television drama reflects reality. Also, politicians, and for that matter ordinary mortals, have skeletons in their cupboards. This includes having had sex with people they were not married to – tell me something I don’t know! In Roadkill, however, Dawn Ellison takes a very high-handed view. Against Lawrence at least, who has some very big, as yet undecomposed, skeletons in several cupboards.
  The Great Offices of State, in this country are Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary. Which is why Lawrence is disappointed when offered the post of Justice Secretary. Like all politicians Lawrence wants to be Foreign Secretary when in fact he’s after the premiership. As a result, the Prime Minister sees him as a threat and uses his skeletons against him.
  Roadkill also plays into myths the establishment would like us to believe. Lawrence is a ‘man of the people’, who allegedly worked his way up from humble origins. Due the warped right-wing narrative however, being a ‘man of the people’ goes hand in hand with being an NHS-privatising, Trump supporting neo-con.
  Being left-wing, on the other hand, means coming from Hampstead, frequenting dinner parties and supporting the European Union , a narrative with its origins in the Brexit debate. A debate from which the real left, who have no time for NHS privatisation or the EU’s neo-liberal, imperialist trading bloc were largely excluded. Lawrence also has a slot on “AlltalkRadio”, intended to be a parody of the far-right radio station TalkRadio that regularly parrots nonsense about the upper-class being an oppressed minority. They also delve into comedy however, when they call the fake-left dilettante Owen Jones a Stalinist.
  The drama also touches on some of the contradictions within conservatism. There has always been a conflict between those who simply want to preserve the status quo and whose mindset is based on nostalgia, whilst on the other hand there are those who believe in the marketisation of every possible area of society including the Health Service. Peter Lawrence is very much of the later persuasion. A few years ago, Tories in Winchester were divided over the sale of the local bus station; the discussion, which I understand may have involved an element of corruption, resulted in a local Tory finding himself in a mental health facility. Will Lawrence experience the same fate – it couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Northern Lights

 Andy Burnham has chosen the right time to challenge the Johnson government. The Mayor of Greater Manchester is being asked to support the Government’s Tier 3 lockdown without the financial support that’s vitally needed to make it viable. Accusing the Tories of “playing poker with people's lives” the Labour mayor spoke for the millions in his region who need financial support to stave off unemployment and poverty that will otherwise follow the new local lockdown regime.

Greater Manchester is calling for between £65m and £75m to support businesses that would be forced to close during a Tier 3 lockdown and he’s won across-the-board support from other local government leaders in the region who have joined him in dismissing the Government’s current business support packages as woefully inadequate.
     According to a Daily Telegraph journalist “Politics is crazy right now. One Tory MP just told me: ‘We are on the cusp of having Andy Burnham carried shoulder-high through the streets of Manchester. He has demonstrated courage and principle, hope and determination and a spirit that the British people can be proud of’”.
     Meanwhile Sir Keir Starmer is calling on Northern Tory MPs to support Labour’s demand for furloughed workers to continue to receive 80 per cent of their wages after the current scheme ends at the end of the month and better financial support for areas in the top tier of restrictions. “The Prime Minister and the Chancellor need to make good on their commitment to the British people to do whatever it takes to help us through this pandemic,” the Labour leader said. “We need a fair one nation deal that can help us through the second wave”.
    This could mean trouble for the Tories particularly in the “red wall” Northern constituencies that they took from Labour in last year’s general election. The Government has put £60 million on the table and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, clearly hopes that will be enough to buy off trouble in the run-up to next year’s regional elections. Sunak clearly doesn’t want to maintain the current national business and furlough support at the current levels. This is probably because Sunak fears that a national lockdown of a much longer duration than the currently touted two-week “circuit breaker” is inevitable and he doesn’t want to raise taxes or, indeed, cut the defence budget, to pay for it.
    This could also mean trouble for Starmer himself. Back in 2017 Tony Blair told us that Labour would be 20 points ahead of the Tories if it wasn’t for Corbyn. This year the Remainers said Labour’s fortunes would dramatically change once Starmer was at the helm.
    But that hasn’t happened has it? Starmer claimed to be a “unity” candidate who would continue along the trajectory charted by Corbyn. But he didn’t did he?
    Continuing with the bogus “anti-semitic” campaign and hounding out prominent left supporters of the old regime may have won him the plaudits of the Zionists and the ageing Blairites who still sit in the House of Commons. But it’s cut no ice with working people battling against austerity and the coronavirus plague. There’s been little sign of a breakthrough in England and Labour remains in the doldrums in Scotland.
    If Starmer stumbles in the regional polls next year there’ll be plenty of other “centre-left” Labour wannabees more than ready to take his place. Andy Burnham is one of them. Sadiq Khan is another.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Still Towering over London

beefeaters' lonely vigil
By Carole Barclay

The Tower of London has dominated the London scene for almost a thousand years. It began in 1066 when William the Conqueror ordered its construction to make his mark on the capital of his new kingdom. Since then the Tower has served as a fortress, palace, prison and even a royal zoo for those who sat on the throne of England.
    This is where the two young “Princes in the Tower”, who stood in the way of their uncle Richard III, were held before they conveniently “disappeared” in 1483. Ann Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives, spent her last days awaiting execution in the Tower. Many others, including Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes, passed through ‘Traitors Gate’ down the ages.
    During the Second World War Germany’s Deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, became the last state prisoner of the Tower when he was held here after he parachuted into Scotland to try and negotiate an armistice in May 1941 while the last man to be executed behind its grim walls was a German spy shot by firing squad in August 1941.
    Though this massive fortress may seems impregnable to the modern visitor the only time it ever fell was when sympathetic guards opened the gates to Wat Tyler’s rebel army during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. A rebel detachment led by John Starling seized the architects of the hated poll tax who were cowering behind its walls. The Lord High Treasurer Robert Hales along with the Chancellor of England Archbishop Simon Sudbury and John Legge, the king’s tax collector for Kent, were dragged out and beheaded on nearby Tower Hill.
    Though there is modest display dedicated to the Peasants Revolt in one of the bastions along the eastern ramparts walkway little or nothing is said about the turbulent times of the English Civil War.
    London was the staunchly Puritan capital of the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War which began in 1642 and ended in 1649 with the trial and execution of Charles Stuart and the abolition of the monarchy. The Republic of England, or Commonwealth as it was commonly styled in English, was proclaimed soon after.
    In 1653 Oliver Cromwell, the great commander of the New Model Army, became head of state, the Lord Protector. He established the Tower’s first permanent garrison and ordered the original crown jewels to be melted down to meet the needs of the new republic – a fact coyly mentioned in the current Crown Jewels exhibition.
    Cromwell never lived in the Tower but the fortress did provide a roof for some of his less than welcome “guests”. Most were Royalist prisoners. Others had once fought by his side.
    One was John Lilburne, a parliamentary army officer who had become a leader of the radical “Leveller” movement that campaigned for justice and equality during the conflict. “Freeborn John” denounced MPs who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died in poverty. He ended up in the Tower for denouncing his former commander, the Earl of Manchester, as a traitor and a Royalist sympathiser and campaigning against the “grandee” army leaders who led the new republican government that the Levellers claimed were no better than the Cavaliers they had just ousted,
    Lilburne was accused of working with the Royalists to bring down the Commonwealth. Though a London jury acquitted him of treason charges his continuing opposition activities led to his exile soon after. Lilburn was sent back to the Tower when he returned to London without permission. He was finally freed in 1656. By that time he had abandoned his radical beliefs to become a pacifist and a Quaker and he died the following year.
    Lilburne told the Puritan preacher Hugh Peters, one of Cromwell’s inner circle, that he would rather have had seven years under the late king's rule than one under the present regime.
     Whether Lilburne had actually became a turn-coat, however, is still debatable.
But there’s no doubt about Edward Sexby, a prominent Leveller “agitator” who was arrested for plotting to kill Cromwell and distributing a pamphlet that incited the murder of the Protector.
    Sexby was an ambitious man. When the Levellers turned against the grandees he joined Cromwell’s camp and was rapidly promoted. He was elevated to the rank of Colonel and worked in France for the fledgling republic’s intelligence service. But he made many enemies along the way and by 1654 his military career had come to a halt. An increasingly bitter man, he returned to his radical past and the now underground Leveller movement.
In 1655 he fled to the Netherlands after being implicated in a new Leveller conspiracy. There he joined Royalist exiles plotting to assassinate Cromwell.
    Sexby helped produce, and may have actually written, an appalling pamphlet called Killing No Murder that called for Cromwell’s death. But he was speedily arrested after secretly returning to England in 1657. He died in the Tower the following year. The Commonwealth’s semi-official bulletin, the Mercurius Politicus, said he was ‘stark mad’.
    There’s plenty to see and this is the best time to do it. Before the coronavirus crisis the Tower of London was one of London’s most visited tourist attractions and one of the leading visitor attractions in the United Kingdom.
    Over 15,000 visitors, many from overseas, passed through its gates every day. In these troubled days London’s tourist industry has all but collapsed while the Covid-19 restrictions strictly ration the numbers allowed into the fortress at any given time. It’s around 800 on a good day. But when it rains visitors are almost outnumbered by the Beefeaters and the soldiers of the garrison. The long queues to see the Crown Jewels have vanished and you can really explore the nooks and crannies of this fascinating relic of London’s past.

The Tower of London is currently open from Wednesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 18.00. Tickets cost £25.00 (half-price for children) and visitors must book entry-slots with their tickets.