Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Despite all indications..to the contrary ..May I wish you a Happy New Year!

PICKING APPLES. Camille Pissaro

IN spite of the bankers and speculators who have feasted and left us their bill,
in spite of the politicians playing pot-calling-the- kettle-black,
as they dither and don't know what to do,
in spite of the imperialist statespersons and hack attendants who,
having made such a bloody mess with one War,
and two occupations,
Would bid us support them in another.
In spite of the fascists and pogromchiks upholding
The glory of Rome and charm of Vienna,
By picking on gypsies, poor asylum seekers,
and any other target they can find.
And not forgetting the racists and religious fanatic settlers,
Who yesterday killed a shepherd boy in the land they call Holy,
then pipe-bombed a professor to show their love for His People;
But still, in spite of all these indications that
We live in interesting times,
May I wish you a guter neu yaar,
Shana Tova, Eid Mubarak,
and while I'm at it, Merry Michaelmas I suppose.
To all readers of my Blog,
Fellow-workers, comrades, and fighters against racism and oppression,
For the future of humanity,
Wherever you may be.
Tiocfaidh Ar La” – our day will come !


Monday, September 29, 2008

Their culture and ours

I'D hate to appear sympathetic to the words of a preposterous overweight Nazi, but from time to time I have been tempted to echo Herman Goering's remark that "When I hear the word 'culture' I finger the trigger of my revolver".

I don't own a revolver, but what I do say is that whenever I hear politicians talking about "culture", my nostrils start to twitch, as I detect a whiff of something uglier and more sordid. I'm not complaining if they want to spend money on libraries, or promote music in schools, but when I hear "culture" used as a cover for privilege and power, linked with patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel...

This week as the Tory party assembled in Birmingham, its shadow home secretary, Dominic Grieve declared that multiculturalism had left this country a "terrible" legacy, which allowed extremists to flourish. A type of "cultural despair" has led "long-term inhabitants" and newer arrivals to feel alienated and unsure of UK values, he told the Guardian.

So there you have it. You go setting up steel bands in schools, letting kids wear scarves, or celebrate Chanukah and Diwali and you are allowing extremists to flourish. It's down to you if jihadis explode bombs and if white racists turn over gravestones or set fire to mosques because they felt their "culture" threatened.

Because let's face it, whatever the sociological arguments about "multiculturalism" as an approach to problems, or its confusion with cultural relativism to excuse behaviour we would not tolerate otherwise,
when the politicians and the right-wing media attack multiculturalism, what they want to bring back in its place is cultural supremacism.

They will decide what is "British", which will usually involve celebrating Queen and Empire, and waving lots of flags, even as building societies are swallowed by foreign banks, multinationals take over utilities and our most jingoist media are owned by footlose gents who don't pay a penny tax in the United Kingdom. It will be up to you to conform and prove how British you are.

Still, maybe Grieve had a point when he feared people felt unsure of "UK values"? Only it isn't moral values that are worrying them.

As Birmingham Respect councillor Selma Yaqoob puts it in a letter in today's Guardian, "
But if it is odd to warn of the perils of multiculturalism while visiting one of the most multicultural cities in Europe, the timing is all too predictable. The financial system is in chaos, food and fuel prices are escalating, a looming recession leaves many people fearful of their future, and David Cameron's opinion poll lead is halved. What better time than now to raise fears about British identity?"

Top Tories like shadow chancellor George Osborne know the cultural diverrsion won't do, and have not only blamed Gordon Brown for the "age of irresponsibility" in the markets, but attacked "casino capitalism" and the "fat cat bankers" who paid themselves too much. Times really are desperate. Of course it was Tory Margaret Thatcher who released the building societies from mutuality, set about deregulation of the City, and derided the "nanny state" while proclaiming "there is no such thing as society". Then New Labour continued the Tory policies which have now been discredited, long enough to take the blame.

How far the Tories can shake off their share or change their "free enterprise" spots was questioned today by this
Daily Mirror story:

Tories' £3million booty from city sharks
By Graham Hiscott, additional reporting by Andrew Gregory and Krissy Storrar 29/09/2008

The shocking extent to which Tories are in the pockets of City speculators is today revealed.

Mega-rich traders have poured at least £3million into the party's coffers.

A Mirror investigation also details how individual members of the Tory front bench, including leader David Cameron, have enjoyed perks at the expense of high-flying dealers.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne, defence spokesman Liam Fox and ex-leader William Hague are among those to have accepted exotic trips, nights out and "personal donations".

Critics last night said it explained why the Tories have failed to join the attack on investment funds which helped drive markets into meltdown. Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of the Unite union, said: "The Tories are funding their party on the misery of British families."

Watchdogs had to clamp down on share dealing by hedge funds in the economic turmoil. Traders were accused of making a killing while helping drive down the price of banks such as HBOS and Bradford & Bingley. Both banks were crippled by financial gambles known as "short selling". The Financial Services Authority on September 18 put a temporary ban on short selling leading financial stocks.

Yet our probe reveals more than 20 hedge funds, investment firms and their founders have given millions to Tory Central Office since Mr Cameron became leader in 2005. At least 12 Tory MPs have taken money and perks which, though legal, ask questions about Tory and fat cats links.

The Tory Party is not the only fine old institution caught out, according to the
Financial Times on Friday

Church accused of hypocrisy after archbishops' attack on short selling
By James Mackintosh, Kate Burgess and Jimmy Burns in,London
Published: September 26 2008 03:00 Last updated: September 26 2008 03:00

The Church of England faced charges of hypocrisy yesterday over its leaders' attack on short selling and debt trading after hedge funds pointed out that it uses some of the same practices when investing its own assets.

At least this answers those politicians who were suggesting the archbishops didn't understand the workings of capitalism. But then we have long known that the Church as an investor must be distinguished from its preaching the gospel and comforting believers. People may not be so understanding or forgiving of political parties. Getting back to the
Mirror on Tory funding, it says:

"Among those to have given is Paul Ruddock, founder of Lansdowne Partners, whose own fortune is £350million. Records show he has donated more than £210,000 since the start of 2006. Lansdowne last week admitted its part in short selling before the ban which helped drive down Barclays and Anglo Irish Bank shares. The firm is said to have made £100 million betting Northern Rock would collapse.

"Fellow Lansdowne boss David Craigen donated £50,000 to the Tories in April last year. Mr Ruddock and Mr Craigen are members of a secretive dining club for top donors. Tonight's Dispatches programme on Channel 4 claims the Leaders Group - made up of City big wigs - get access to Mr Cameron in return for cash. Another donor entitled to membership of the club is Michael Hintze, 53, worth an estimated £275million, who has given £662,500 to the party since the start of 2006. His fund, CQS, took bets on stricken Bradford & Bingley.

"In March his firm provided a private plane to Mr Osborne for a domestic flight. Last year Mr Fox flew to Mauritania with the trip paid for by CQS. And the company footed the bill for two drinks receptions for ambassadors at a London hotel for shadow foreign secretary William Hague.

"Some money men bankrolling the Tories run hedge funds that have made fortunes betting on others industries. Among them is Alan Howard, 44, founder of Brevan Howard. Said to be worth £400million, he has given at least £73,000 to Conservative Central Office since the start of 2006.

"Mr Fox was given money for staff and his office by Mr Howard, Mr Hintze and investment fund millionaire, Stanley Fink, 51, who ran hedge fund giant Man Group until earlier this year. He has donated £226,500 since Mr Cameron was elected leader.

A Tory spokesman said: "All flights and expenses were for party business and fully declared. We have donors from a wide range of businesses. All donations are legal and comply with Electoral Commission rules."

London Mayor Boris Johnson yesterday told the Tory conference in Birmingham that over-regulation of banking could drive away jobs".

Not nearly as many as were destroyed so the finance sector could become so dominant, even before it started shedding people in the present crisis.

But take heart. I got home this evening to hear that the BBC, recalling the unemployment and repos of the Thatcher years, is promising to bring back '
Brideshead Revisited' to give us more escapism, with stately homes and young men with teddy bears. . I'm not against a bit of Class Waugh but I'd sooner watch Scoop, or Decline and Fall.

In all this there are really but two cultures, whatever the foods and flags and folklore. There are the lifestyles of big city 'fat cats' who paid themselves huge bonuses, and of the low-paid dogsbodies who cleaned their offices and did the work, struggled to make ends meet and are now losing jobs. There are people worried their mansions and property portfolios might lose value, and the families frightened they could lose their homes, and go from the Bradford and Bingley to a B&B.

A wise old Tory (though tainted I suppose with some multicural influences in his background) said it in a novel published back in 1845, the same year as Frederick Engels'
Conditions of the Working Class in England and three years before Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto. (Those troublemaking immigrants again!)

"Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets ...The rich and the poor".
Sybil, or the Two Nations, by Benjamin Disraeli.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hoist the Jolly Roger!

AMIDST the 'I-daren't-watch' cliffhanger financial news and the depressing season of party conferences, here's a story that lightened my gloom as much as today's sunshine:

Somali pirates capture Ukrainian cargo ship loaded with military hardware
• Whereabouts of hijacked freighter still unknown
• Armed gangs have already captured 30 ships this year

Somali pirates have captured a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying military hardware, including grenade launchers and 33 Russian-made tanks, in the latest brazen attack in the most dangerous waters in the world.

The MV Faina was hijacked on Thursday off the coast of Somalia, where Islamist insurgents are battling government and Ethiopian troops in some of the heaviest fighting in years.

The Ukrainian defence minister, Yury Yekhanurov, said the cargo also included "a substantial quantity of ammunition and spare parts".

Russia, which has three citizens among the 21 crew members, responded to the news yesterday by sending a warship to Somalia to address "the rise in pirate attacks, especially against Russian citizens".

It is not yet known where the freighter, which flies under a Belize flag but is managed by the Ukrainian company Tomax Team Inc, is being held.

The heavily armed Somali pirate gangs, who have captured at least 30 ships this year, are rarely interested in a ship's cargo, preferring to extract a ransom for the vessel and its crew that frequently amounts to millions of pounds.

But the presence of arms and ammunition on board the Faina make it an especially dangerous seizure in a country ruled only by the gun for 17 years.

The destination of the tanks also raised serious questions, especially given the current instability across the Horn of Africa.

Ukraine insisted the deal was "in accordance with international law", and said that the weapons had been sold to Kenya, which it said had already received 77 T-72 tanks from Ukraine in 2007. The Kenyan government later issued a statement confirming that it had purchased the cargo aboard the MV Faina for its military forces.



I was going to insert one of my little qualifying assurances that I don't share the pirates' ideology, as I might have done when referring to, say, the seagoing guerrillas who holed a US warship at Aden. But seems this may not be necessary, as the pirates are not so much ideologically-motivated as entrepeneurs, attempting to muscle in on world capitalism by taking a ship the way financiers take over companies and countries.

At least this time they have not attacked a food ship. People are starving in Somalia and in other parts of east Africa. But Kenya still exports agricultural produce, and the Kenyan government is legally entitled to spend its foreign currency on whatever hardware it thinks necessary.

Not that I am well up on this aspect of international law, mind. As I recall, when the Israeli navy seized an arms shipment going to the Palestinian authority it was the Palestinians who were supposed to be the bad guys. The real story was that after years of stopping fishermen at sea, students going to college, and women reaching maternity wards, the IDF finally hit an arms delivery. After that excitement it has been back to the usual.

The Americans have stopped ships on the high seas going to Cuba, even boarding British ships I believe, but it's centuries since we dared call them pirates. Any way the Royal Navy was given the same task in the Adriatic to reassure Douglas Hurd that Bosnians would not have a "level killing field" when defending themselves.

Like the Ukrainian government says, this shipment to Kenya was "in accord with international law". It really is dreadful that pirates with no respect for law or the flag of Belize can use violence to intercept a peaceful traffic in tanks and grenade launchers.

Ukraine is a bastion of the free world, and like the other bastions that have sprung up around Russia's borders, a candidate for NATO membership. Already, as NATO's website says, "NATO and Ukraine actively cooperate in international peace-support operations and have developed practical cooperation in a wide range of other areas, ".

That co-operation could extend to supplying tanks to Kenya, another shining example of freedom, at least until recently when its security forces and pro-government gangs were seen battering oppositionists and people from the wrong tribe with the sort of enthusiasm we'd expect from Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Unless they are called in to assist intervention in Somalia the way Ethiopian forces have been, Kenya's military are unlikely to invade anybody, but they may be needed to stop Somali refugees and those tanks may be employed against their own people, in areas of unrest or shanty-towns around Nairobi.

As with the Israelis re-exporting American arms to Guatemala and similar countries in the 1970s, it is much less embarrassing for nice liberals in the West if the job of shipping out hardware has been contracted out to the obliging Ukrainians.

It is very sporting of Russia to send out a warship to defend its seafaring citizens, takes me back to the things we learned in school about when Britannia Ruled the Waves, before America assumed that role.

I don't know what the pirates will be able to do with this ship, where they can berth, or whether they could land its cargo. I do feel sorry for the crew, for whom it was just another voyage and the chance to earn some money for themselves and their families. I doubt they were paid or insured for enough.

But having learned as a child about the exploits of Drake and others whose raids and plunder did so much for England's glory, and having enjoyed so many swashbuckling pirate films, I was thrilled and delighted to be taken back to those days, Somehow I have never grown up to accept as modern heroes the Wall Street and City of London buccaneers. Though I see Shell has captured Iraq's natural gas field deal.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

So successful in finance, they want to run schools

IF City bankers and speculators have brought the world economy near collapse, wrecking people's homes, jobs, and lives, while George W.Bush and Gordon Brown are trying to bail out private financial institutions with public money, why do New Labour -and its Tory and Liberal Democrat opponents -persist in pretending that big business interests (along with religious outfits) are just the people to be entrusted with education?

Or, as the Anti-Academies Alliance, backed by teaching and public service unions and parents, puts it in a press statement this week:
"With the global financial system currently in meltdown, and the homes and livelihoods of millions of people under threat as a result, is it not now time to stop handing our schools over to the people largely responsible for the disaster?".

Over 100 academies - "independent" of democratic local control but favoured with public resources - have been set up. Local authorities have been given a "free choice" - either do without government help for new and improved schools or do as you are told and accept the academies scheme. Unfortunately too many local councils have accepted this, allowing the private business interests and religious organisations to step in and run schools, just as they have surrendered their housing powers, and allowed council work to be privatised.. They then wonder why people can't see the point of voting in local elections.

Despite privileged funding and facilities, and freedom to be selective, academies have had adverse reports from Ofsted, the schools inspection authority, and from the Parliamentary Accounts Committee, even from accountants Price Waterhouse. Despite this and the growing opposition, from the teaching unions and others, there are plans for another 270 academies to be set up in the next few years.

Among the organisations keen on moving into education is ARK . It sounds like a nice nursery toy, and stands for Absolute Return for Kids, but this "philanthropic co-operative", with three academies now and another 12 to come, is run by a team of trustees including merchant bankers, hedge-fund managers and "fiancial risk managers". As the Anti-Academies Alliance comments: "Apparently, these individuals have 'a wealth of experience' to bring to our schools. In reality, all they possess is an experience of wealth".

Reporting on an ARK fundraising dinner being held at Greenwich maritime academy in June, the Times noted
"Although many of Ark’s hedge fund backers seem to be doing just fine, it is also supported by some large financial institutions that are having a tough time. Sponsors of this year’s dinner include UBS and Merrill Lynch".

The charity was involved in a variety of schemes, abroad as well as in Britain.

“Philanthropy is alive and well in the City,” said Ian Wace, co-founder of Marshall Wace Asset Management, a $15 billion hedge fund and one of Ark’s founding trustees. “We are symbolic of a generation. There is a group of people, very much the new City, who are keen to make a difference.” Mr Wace and Paul Marshall, his business partner, have big ambitions for Ark. “I think our projects could be five to ten times the scale that they are today; and I think that we could be funding them at five to ten times that scale,” Mr Wace, who like Mr Marshall, is worth about £280 million according to The Sunday Times Rich List, said.

If City financiers and big business bosses just want to contribute more to education and other services why don't they pay more tax? They could still have a say in how the money was spent by voting, like the rest of us.
But that's not how bourgeois democracy works. Some while ago I reported in this blog about the struggle in the London Borough of Brent over plans to build a second city academy on a sports ground in Wembley.

Protesters noted that a Labour council was handing this to billionaire property developer Andrew Rosenfeld, a tax exile in Switzerland, who had lent big money to Labour. Rosenfeld backed off in the wake of the Labour cash-for-honours affaire, and the Lib Dems who had opposed the academy scheme gained control of Brent council - only to reverse their opposition, and decide the Wembley project should go to ARK.

Teachers and parents in Brent have continued protesting, and local people in Wembley oppose the loss of a public sports facility and what they say is a school in the wrong place, but the council is pushing ahead. A "Tent City" occupation of the site resumed when Ark proposed setting up temporary classrooms, but the bailiffs have cleared the site.

Now the protest is being taken to ARK's headquarters. Anti-Academy campaigners -"some of them dressed as
spivs (there's a word that's made a comeback!) and fat cats" - will be assembling on Friday afternoon, September 26, from 4.30 to 5.30pm outside 15 Adam Street, London WC2 6AH.
(nearest tubes Charing Cross, Embankment).



Monday, September 22, 2008

When Labour was Labour, and Willesden welcomed back its heroes

NOT only has Labour's annual conference become largely a combination of ministerial photo op and trade fair, but it seems the media have chosen the "up and coming" man whom they think might be next Party leader. We did get a brief soundbite tonight of Tony Woodley, my union leader, suggesting renationalisation of utilities like water, gas, and electricity, as distinct from failing banks; but before viewers started getting the idea politics could be interesting and relevant, there was some hack shrugging off what the unions were saying, and introducing us to the supposedly lovable David Miliband mouthing vacuous phrases about "change".

No wonder Labour veteran Tony Benn has told us he is giving the party conference a miss this year to attend the rival Convention of the Left, also being held in Manchester. I dare say some more devout -or careerist - Labour types will tell us the Convention cannot take any decisions or change government policy. And the Party conference...?

I'm not at either, because I'm attending the Oval cricket ground this week, not for the thwack of leather on willow by flanneled fools, but the opening of the inquest on Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead on a tube train at nearby Stockwell Underground. On Wednesday, members of the Metropolitan Police are expected to start giving their evidence. It might seem an open and shut case, as Coroner Sir Michael Wright has told the jury their task is to ascertain facts, and we know the cause of death, seven bullets in the head. But Sir Michael also told them not to make any plans between now and Christmas.

On Wednesday evening however I will be thinking about some other shootings, and recalling the days when Labour, and the labour movement, was very different, as Brent Trades Union Council in north-west London has invited Dave Chapple, from Bridgwater, to come and speak to us about Kilburn-born Howard Andrews, who died aged 101 in Taunton in May this year. A lifelong trade unionist and socialist, Howard - known to friends as 'Andy' - was one of the first to go from Willesden area (now part of Brent) to help the fight against fascism in Spain. He served in a frontline medical unit.

Hearing that Dave was interviewing and writing about Andy, someone anonymously sent him a photocopy of a little programme produced for the event which Willesden Borough Labour Party, Trades Council, and Spanish Aid Committee held in Pound Lane School on Saturday, March 18, 1939. to welcome home local members of the British Battalion in the International Brigade.

Howard is listed as Keith Andrews - he had used his brother's name - and there were also George Cornwallis, John Ducksbury, Morgan Havard, Harold Horne, Charlie Hunt, J.Russel, Alec Unthank, Danny Doyle and A.Moulton - who was to reply on the Brigaders' behalf to the welcome from deputy mayor Alderrman WH Ryde, in the chair. The Hendon Left Singers were to perform, and also billed were MP Sydney Silverman, nurse Lillian Urmston, and Maurice Orbach, then a London County Councillor, later MP for Willesden East.
The event was to finish with the Spanish national anthem and the Internationale (when did you last hear that sung at a Labour Party gathering?)

The programme also had a roll of honour, remembering Ben Murray, trade unionist, killed on the Aragon front; Sam Pearson, a Cambridge graduate, mentioned in despatches, who fell on the Ebro; John Unthank, killed in the battle of Jarama; John Stevens, a young trade unionist captured by Moorish troops at Jarama and shot; and Robert Blair, also mentioned in despatches, whose fate was not known since he had been cut off behind enemy lines on the Aragon front.

Those were desperate times, and they were courageous men, and whatever we might think of the kind of political leadership to whose banner they were tied, we can only hope that a fraction of their spirit lives on, especially in these days of economic crisis and fascism again rearing its head.

Thanks to whoever sent the copy of that programme, and hopefully we may yet meet, and see the original, and see if we can get a better reproduction than I've been able to use

Meanwhile if anyone wants to meet Dave Chapple and hear about Howard Andrews, and you are in London on Wednesday evening, September 24, the Brent TUC meeting is at the Trades Hall (under the Apollo Club) , 375 Willesden High Road, NW10, near Willesden bus garage, the nearest tube is Dollis Hill, and the meeting starts 7.30pm.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Seeking fair play for the Miami Five

Below, OLGA SALANUEVO and daughter IVETTE, who would like to see her dad, RENE GONZALEZ, again.

NEXT year it will be half a century since we saw the pictures of a bearded man in fatigues riding into Havana and wondered what sort of revolution this was. I don't think Fidel Castro and his compadres knew themselves, until US hostility pushed them into the path they took.

For those concerned with Marxist theory, the Cuban example is still hard to categorise. Attempts to follow it by pitting small guerrilla bands against imperialism's goons proved disastrous, the best-known turning the martyred Che Guevera into a harmless icon for the manufacturers of tee shirts.

But Cuba's revolution has survived the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis, and outlasted the Soviet Union. Whatever the problems of Cuban society and whether or not its workers, writers and artists enjoy freedom, or our idea of socialism, they have achieved standards of health care, literacy and education that shine like a light for impoverished Latin America and the Caribbean. All this in the face of a US-imposed embargo. Indeed, when it comes to providing services for all, Cuba does arguably better than its rich, big bullying neighbour to the north.

Fidel Castro himself survived several CIA-backed assassination plots, which is more than Bay of Pigs patron John F.Kennedy did. But since 1959, some 3,500 Cubans have been killed as a result of violent actions organised by counter-revolutionaries, right-wing Cuban emigres based in the United States.

Perhaps the most notorious attack was the bombing of a Cuban airliner on October 6, 1976, in which 73 people were killed.

I thought about this when I read today that the US government is concerned that the Yemeni authorities are not hard enough on "terrorists". "American officials were also alarmed when Yemeni courts commuted a death sentence for Jamal al Badawi, convicted of masterminding the USS Cole attack, giving him instead 15 years in prison".
(Ian Black, Guardian, September 18)

The USS Cole was a naval vessel, a missile carrier, that had put into Aden. Seventeen sailors were killed in the attack. That is regrettable, but they were not in the Middle east for a holiday cruise. The US authorities are holding a Saudi national in Guantanamo whom they also accuse of planning the USS Cole attack, and US courts even blamed the Sudanese government. Whoever did it, it was an act of war. British heroes (played by John Mills et al), did the same thing to German battleships, and with much better equipment.

The men who planted a bomb that blew a Cuban civilian airliner up off the coast of Barbados were not suicide bombers. They lived to carry on further actions in the employ of the American CIA which looked after them. Theirs was what Washington regards as a legitimate act of war, even as it proclaims itself leader of the "war on terror".

In the late 1990s there were a spate of bombings against Cuba, and evidence that emigres in the United States, including one of the men responsible for the 1976 airliner attack were behind them.

Five Cubans went to Miami to try and infiltrate the right-wing emigre circles and gain information about their plans, and what backing they had from US forces. As well as communicating back warnings to the Cuban authorities so that attacks could be thwarted, they passed what evidence they had gathered over to the US government.

The FBI acted promptly. In 1998 it arrested the five Cubans. They were held until brought to trial in 2001, when they were accused of spying, passing secrets to a foreign power, even plotting killings. They have been jailed for long sentences, and the US authorities refused visas to wives and family members to visit the men. Amnesty International has expressed concern over the case, and over the way the men have been treated.

Ten years after the 'Cubans were seized, for trying to defend their people against terrorism, and one day after the anniversary of the bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455, there is to be a vigil outside the US embassy in London for the Miami Five and their families. It has been called by the Cuban Solidarity Campaign, with support from some trade unions, including my own, Unite.

That's on Tuesday, October 7, from 6.-7.30pm, outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, W1, (nearest tube Bond Street), if one can get near the embassy with all the concrete fortifications outside these days. I see that Olga Salanueva and Adriana Perez, whose husbands are among the five, are expected to join us for this protest, so I hope there's a decent turn-out..


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Their crisis, but we all pay

WALL STREET had its worst fall in share prices in nearly seven years yesterday, as US authorities tried to arrange a $40 billion rescue package for American International Group (AIG), the country's largest insurance company, after it went to the Federal Reserve warning it was facing bankruptcy.

Earlier bankers Lehman Brothers, the fourth biggest investment banker, collapsed with $613 billion in debts, said to be the biggest bankruptcy in US history. Merril Lynch, a global investment banker offering "financial management and advisory services", and active in more than 40 countries, was rescued from collapse by a hurried $50bn takeover by Bank of America.

By the close of trading in New York, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 504 points to 10,917 - its steepest points decline since the day markets reopened after the September 11 2001 attacks.

This was not just America's crisis. Shares fell in Tokyo, Paris and London, where the FTSE 100 index, at one stage down 291 points, ended 190.70 points lower at 5,204.20.
HBOS, owner of the Halifax and Bank of Scotland, fell as much as 40 per cent at one stage, 102.4p, to 179.6p before recovering to close down 49½p at 232½p. As the Times noted: "HBOS is the British institution with the biggest exposure to mortgage-backed assets, the toxic instruments that proved fatal for Lehman".

"Royal Bank of Scotland slipped 29¼p to 210½p and Barclays fell 34½p to 316p. Alex Potter, a Collins Stewart analyst, said that, with banks unwilling to lend to each other after Lehman’s collapse, Barclays was more exposed than RBS because 13 per cent of its loan book was not covered by deposits and securitisations, compared with 7.7 per cent for RBS".

Having failed in a bid to take over Lehmans, Barclays had been hoping to snap up some of its subsidiary assets, but its own incoming capital is looking shakier. Insurance companies are also being hit following AIG. Friends Provident was the London index’s worst performer, down 17.6p at 81p. A large part of its business is insuring people’s mortgage payments and it was AIG insuring mortgage assets that led to its massive losses.

"Insurers have also bought unquantified billions of dollars of derivatives from Lehman Brothers to help them to guarantee customers’ pensions. This worry hit Prudential, down 51p at 500p, and Aviva, off 44p at 489½p".

With the rising tide of repossessions in Britain following America's way, estate agents crying hardship and closing branches because buyers can't get mortgages, and the CBI saying Britain is entering recession, one does not have to be a jeremiad preacher of doom to acknowledge that yesterday's stock falls were no temporary blip in an otherwise booming success story. As for any schadenfreude at the thought that fat cats might feel financial worries like the rest of us, and show a bit less cockiness, this is far outweighed by the sure knowledge that it will be working people who lose their jobs, pensions and, if they haven't already, homes and mortgages. The big boys will survive with the help of government, the same government whose "interference" they often decry, in other words, of the taxpayer, even as our public services are cut.

People already had a rude shock awakening to the nature of the system this month when an estimated 85,000 holidaymakers found themselves stranded abroad by the collapse of XL Leisure Group, following on that of Zoom budget airline. The Civil Aviation Authority said 10,000 of these would have to pay for their own flight home. A further 200,000 people who had made advance bookings learned that these were now worthless. With £143 million in debt, XL must have known it was in trouble, yet it had carried on taking bookings, only to end up with flight staff hearing in mid-air that they no longer had a job, and airport staff having to tell bewildered passengers that the company they had trusted had gone bust.

It is no good blaming the travel operators alone for this debacle. As an editorial in the Morning Star explains, banks which moved into the oil trading business a few years ago to profit from soaring prices have then pulled the rug from under XL so far a finance goes to meet rising fuel costs, then moved in to buy up its still-profitable French and German subsidiaries. (Madness of the Market, MS September 12).

It's not just new names hitting headlines. Alitalia, Italy's flag airline was next.
An estimated 15,000 people could be stranded, and a further 100,000 left with worthless tickets. A million travellers would have to make new bookings. A union leader predicted that 30,000 people would directly or indirectly lose their jobs if Alitalia went under. Berlusconi's government - dedicated to free-enterprise, union bashing, and flying the flag -is intervening to try and rescue the airline, and seeking help from foreign airline companies and union support.

Lehman Bros wa not a new kid on the block. Dating back to 1850 when the brothers, immigrants from Germany (whose family name long disappeared from its board), made their money trading slave-produced cotton, it survived the civil war, and more recently losing its head offices in 9/11, only to flounder when it invested too heavily in sub-prime mortgages, that is, in other people's debts.

BBC travel correspondent Simon Calder surprised news programme presenters the other evening by arguing that the headlined travel firm collapses were not bad news for the travel industry as such, because where one firm collapsed another would expand. There's surely a more general truth hidden in this, that whatever happens to one firm or even an industry - particularly one catering for ordinary consumers' wants, whether holidays or homes - others will survive and even do well. The best way to weather the recession, as a Conservative paper candidly remarked, is to have plenty of money to begin with. Some will even get richer during the depression.
(see Seth Freeman in the Guardian -

Even if some capitalists go down, capitalism will go on, so long as the burdens of suffering can be passed down to ordinary working people. As we saw after the 1930s depression, if the worst comes to the worst, there is always fascism and war.

On TV the other night I watched Tory Michael Howard sneeringly asking what had happened to Gordon Brown's promise to end "boom and bust". Of course, no amount of clever management and prudence by Brown could prevent Britain feeling the global recession, or experiencing once again the problems we had under the Tories (so much of whose policies have been continued) And Michael Howard didn't even pretend to have any answer. Brown's Chancellor Alastair Darling has promised hard times ahead. With people who were led to expect classless affluence beginning to feel the pinch, and racialists shouting the odds, these could be dangerous times. When democratic politicians shrug that they can do nothing, while the public says something must be done...

One of my Facebook friends, a young Labour Party member but decidedly on the Left, remarked yesterday that "capitalism is doing a good job of overthrowing itself". It was an amusing remark, and I applaud his wit. But as we know, capitalism will do its best to destroy us, and even the planet, rather than destroy itself. It can only be destroyed by its opposite, the working class. And whereas the system can carry on unconsciously, we its opponents need our unity of purpose and consciousness.


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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Charity and Generosity that begins and ends in the boardroom

The Tory Daily Mail is not my normal preferred reading but a friend, an old age pensioner who keeps asking me to join him down the British Legion, has drawn my attention to this item. It's a change from the Mail's usual targeting of immigrants, welfare claimants, and trade unionists.

The housing chief who earns

£1,000a day from the taxpayer

By Steve Doughty and Daniel Bates

A public sector housing boss has secured an earnings package worth almost £1,000 a day.

John Belcher, whose organisation runs subsidised homes for the elderly, received taxpayer-funded salary and perks worth more than £360,000 last year.

This is nearly twice the £189,994 earned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and dwarfs the earnings of the public servants who are traditionally the best paid.

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, who as Lord Chief Justice is head of the judiciary in England and Wales, earns £236,300, while Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, is paid £290,000.

Dr Belcher, 61, chief executive of the Anchor Trust, has more than doubled the value of his pay package over seven years. He is thought to be the first public servant outside industries such as the Royal Mail, the railways and the BBC to earn more than £300,000.

Canadian-born Dr Belcher also serves on the Audit Commission, the public spending watchdog.

Last year he earned £327,000, including a £72,000 bonus and a car allowance of £15,000. He also received £1,000 in medical insurance and £32,880 in pension contributions, bringing the total to £360,880.

The package was condemned by critics of public spending waste.

The TaxPayers' Alliance said it was 'outrageous', while the Housing Corporation, which regulates housing associations, warned that 'salary increases should be proportionate'.

The pay of housing association chiefs shot up after the organisations expanded when councils hived off their housing estates to independent associations, which are often run by former town hall officials.

Many associations like to style themselves as businesses but a High Court judgment this summer ruled they were public bodies.

They are due for a further boost of £400million over the next few months under Gordon Brown's plans to build more social housing to ease the impact of the credit crunch.

Anchor Trust, once a small Oxford association, provides housing for 50,000 elderly people. It runs care homes and sells sheltered housing but its biggest operation is as a landlord of subsidised housing. It receives £600 million in housing grants from the Treasury.



What is not unusual about this story is the headline, focusing exclusively on how money is coming from the taxpayer. Papers like the Mail assume all their readers are middle-class home owners whose only concern is with the value of their homes and how much tax they are paying. Judging from such comments as the Mail has published their conditioned regulars can't tell the difference between a charity boss and a public servant anyway, and are most excised that a "foreigner" has got the job.

The reason this item interested my friend is that he is an Anchor Housing tenant, living in "sheltered accommodation" for the elderly, and has seen his rent go up each year. Many of his neighbours could not afford these rents without council housing benefit, which is of course means tested.
Each year Anchor provides information about its costs and the budget for his scheme, but he cannot remember it mentioning the chief executive's salary.

Lower down the scale, Anchor staff who look after the schemes, seeing to anything from dealing with contractors, repairs and security, to calling doctors and ambulances for tenants who take ill, are not so well-paid. Not all have accommodation provided, and we hear of a woman asked to travel some distance attending more than one site but not allowed to claim for petrol or fares.

The reason I'm citing the case of Dr.Belcher and his dosh is that for many years now, housing associations and trusts have been extolled as the happy answer to housing problems, and as the Mail story says, local authorities, prevented from building new council houses, have been encouraged to pass on responsibility for existing housing to them. But it is also part of the bigger picture of public service provision being either privatised or passed on to the so-called voluntary sector, sections of which have increasingly become like
competing businesses, with overpaid bosses and lower paid staff. This kind of charity is a byword for generosity - to some.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Cable Street to Umm el Fahm

CABLE STREET MURAL. The uniforms and flags may change but the same struggle continues.

IT'S many years now since I sat with friends in the town hall at Umm el Fahm, listening to two young local councillors debate how much co-operation they could afford the State of Israel without surrendering their principles, and how little co-operation the State was prepared to give them when they tried to gather resources and improve the conditions for local people.

By the misfortunes of war and the 1949 Armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan, Umm el Fahm found itself separated from neighbouring Jenin and incorporated into the Zionist state, The inhabitants would have preferred not to have been swallowed up by Israel, the Israeli government would have been happier if it had been able to drive them out. Instead the state found itself with reluctant citizens and the people found themselves under alien rule - indeed, Umm el Fahm and the adjoining "Arab Triangle" were kept under military rule for two decades.

By the time I visited n 1985 however Umm el Fahm had grown as a major town, and just gained city status. The militants of Abna al-Balad and Ansar had become councillors arguing under the state's Menorah crest and a portrait of President Herzog. But they were frustrated by the State blocking funds sent from overseas, which it dubbed "terrorist", and a street cleaning machine which it maybe thought could be converted to a tank.

Umm el Fahm has developed, but its people have also suffered. In 1999 hundreds were injured opposing land appropriations, and the following year three Umm el Fahm residents were killed and more wounded when Israeli forces opened fire on demonstrators at the start of the second Intifada. Israel's separation wall now separates Umm el fahm from Jenin.

In recent years Umm el Fahm has been a centre of the northern Islamic movement, from which it had a mayor, possibly elected to upset the Israeli authorities as much as for any fundamentalism. To confound stereotypes, it also has an art gallery which offers classes to both Arab and Jewish children, and a group called Green Carpet to promote tourism and care for the environment.

I was outside another art gallery, Whitechapel, the other weekend, to join a walk around the East End entitled "From Gardiners Corner to Cable Street". The significance of those two locations relates to what became known as the "Battle of Cable Street", on October 4, 1936, when thousands of people blocked the streets to stop Sir Oswald Mosley and his fascists marching through the Jewish neighbourhood. Police tried to force a way through the crowds at Gardiners Corner, and charged the barricades erected on Cable Street, but Mosley's march was stopped. The slogan of the day, adopted from the Spanish republicans, was 'No Pasaran -They Shall Not Pass".

We finished up under a piece of art, the Cable Street commemorative mural.
If you are wondering what that has to do with Umm el Fahm, here's an item a friend has sent me, from the Jerusalem Post.

Right-wing Umm-el-Fahm march okayed


Sep. 4, 2008

The High Court of Justice on Thursday ordered the police to find a "creative" way to allow a group of right-wing extremists to march through Umm El-Fahm waving Israeli flags even though the police warned that the event would "almost certainly" threaten public security and order.

During the hearing, Justice Edmond Levy said the group, headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel, who were senior activists in the Kach movement before it was declared a terrorist organization, should be allowed to march in the city and called on the police to find a "creative" way in coordination with the petitioners to let them do so.

The Internet news site Ynet quoted acting Umm el-Fahm Mayor Mustafa Sohel as saying, "On the day of the march, there will be a human blockade of 50,000 people. Itamar Ben-Gvir is not wanted in Umm el-Fahm."
Ben-Gvir and Marzel said they had originally requested to set up a kiosk in the Israeli Arab city on Independence Day to sell Israeli flags to "emphasize the obligation of the residents of Umm el-Fahm to be loyal to the State of Israel and its symbols."

They asked the police to hold a march after the Umm el-Fahm municipality refused to grant them a license for the kiosk.

The police rejected their request but proposed that the march be held on a highway that skirts Umm el-Fahm and has a road from inside the city leading to it. However, the petitioners insisted that the march be held inside the city, adding that although they had asked that the route go through the center of town, they were willing to compromise on that matter.

At the end of the hearing, the panel of three justices, including Levy, Hanan Meltzer and Edna Arbel, gave the state and the petitioners 15 days to find a solution acceptable to both sides.

Ben-Gvir said afterwards, "We are satisfied with the court's decision, even if not one hundred percent. It is important that the state prosecution internalize the message that freedom of speech and the right to march does not belong only to the Arabs and the leftists."

He was referring to an agreement reached several weeks ago by the state prosecution and the left-wing Breaking the Silence organization, allowing the human rights group to hold tours in the Israeli occupied part of Hebron despite the opposition of the settlers living in the area.
(Breaking the Silence is a group formed by Israeli soldiers to tell what they have seen. A tour group they organised, including British MPs, was violently attacked by right-wing settlers - Charlie Pottins).

In its arguments against holding the march inside Umm el-Fahm, the state's representative, Attorney Michal Tzuk-Shafir, said the state was "seriously concerned, based on past experience, assessments by the police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and on information in their possession, that holding the march will lead, with almost total certainty, to a threat to public safety and order."

Sohel said he had received another phone call every minute after news of the High Court decision became known. He accused the court of living in an ivory tower and not being aware that for many years the city has been living in co-existence with the Jewish community.

"Dozens of Jews visit our city each Sabbath, we employ Jewish teachers, Jewish doctors work here and we have close cooperation with neighboring Jewish authorities," he said. "And then along comes a crazy man who wants to spoil the atmosphere and ruin the existing situation."


How familiar it is, that cry of the hatemonger that his freedom of speech and to march where he likes must be respected, though his aim is to crush everyone else, and his thugs will use violence as they already have against us.

The uniforms and flags have changed, the slogans are in Hebrew, and the thugs may wear a skullcap ...but if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck; or steps like a goose...

If this march goes ahead I hope there are more than 50,000 to stop it. I hope that left-wing Israelis join Palestinians at Umm el Fahm just as dockers and other joined Jewish workers against Mosley's fascists. (and I for one would not insist peaceniks have to remain peaceful). I hope also we won't be slow to raise our voices here in support of them.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Long quest for truth, let alone justice

AN inquest is due to open on September 22 into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician killed in a police operation at Stockwell station in south London on July 22, 2005. This year on the third anniversary of his death, family and friends of Jean Charles unveiled a paper wreath in the shape and colours of the Brazilian flag, across the road from the Houses of Parliament, to show this innocent man is not forgotten, and nor is their quest for justice.

What happened to Jean Charles is well-known. That morning he received a call to go to premises in Kilburn and fix the fire alarm. He left his flat in Tulse Hill, south London, unaware that, in the wake of the London bombings, the block was under surveillance by a security team including at least one under-cover soldier. They were meant to be watching for a suspect called Hussain Osman, but apparently decided Jean-Charles resembled him enough. Followed by police officers, Jean Charles boarded a no.2 bus. When he got to Brixton he saw that the station was closed, so stayed on the bus to Stockwell. There he paused to pick up a Metro newspaper, then paid his fare by Oyster card and went down to board a train. He had taken a seat when, guided by the surveillance team, a Special Operations unit entered the carriage, and after Jean-Charles had been restrained, they shot him eight times, seven in the head, as he lay on the floor.

What will also be well-remembered are the lies fed an obliging media in the first days after this killing. We were told that Jean-Charles was wearing an unseasonably bulky garment such as a quilted or puffa jacket, or big overcoat, so that they feared he could be carrying explosives. In fact he only had on a thin denim jacket. It was said he had vaulted the ticket barrier in his haste to escape pursuers. As we know, he had paid by Oyster. He had supposedly raced down the escalator and ignored police calling on him to stop. But the evidence indicates he had no idea he was being followed, and only raced across the platform to get a seat on the train, possibly because he was late for work.

The CCTV footage that could have shown what happened was initially "missing". It was said the cameras were not working, or they had not been reloaded after police took away tapes the previous day because of the bombings. But London Transport denied there were problems with the cameras. And the "missing" tapes mysteriously turned up again after a health and safety(!) hearing cleared police.

In the hours immediately after the shooting, Commissioner Sir Ian Blair telephoned the Chairman of the Independent Police Ccmplaints Commission(IPCC) and wrote a letter to the Home Office stating that "the shooting that has just occurred at Stockwell is not to be referred to the IPCC and that they will be given no access to the scene at the present time." Sir Ian also told a press conference that officers had shouted a warning before they opened fire.

Labour mayor Ken Livingstone dismayed civil rights supporters and seriously dented his standing on the Left by defending the police action as understandable in the circumstances, and continuing to stand by Sir Ian Blair. Tory Brian Coleman sought to smear the campaign for justice for Jean Charles by association, on the meagre basis that Assad Rehman, who is working with the family, had been an adviser to George Galloway MP, and therefore the campaign was "politically motivated". Anybody who knows anything about anti-racism and opposition to police brutality in London will know that Assad Rehman has been a dedicated worker in the Newham Monitoring Project since well before Galloway set foot in the East End, and will probably be still there after the Respect MP goes. Besides, does Coleman think poor Brazilians are docile folk who, unless politically got at, will take off their caps and mumble a prayer when they hear their brother has had his head blown off on the way to work?

The tributes that have continued to be laid to Jean Charles de Menezes outside Stockwell station reflect the feelings of ordinary people, unlike the politicians and press, of shock at the brutal slaying, sympathy for Jean Charles de Menezes' family, and the frightening thought that this could happen to almost any of us. There is also anger at the way the police and people in authority whom we are supposed to trust lied to us, rather than admit the truth.

This was not the first innocent man killed by the police. The inquest opens on September 22, by coincidence nine years after Harry Stanley, a man going home with a table leg which his brother had repaired, wrapped in a plastic bag, was shot dead by police officers, because someone had reported an Irishman carrying a gun had left the pub.

But the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes marked an escalation, and raised questions which remain unanswered. The hit team used hollow-tipped bullets which cause maximum injury, and are not standard police issue. Professor Michael Clarke, Professor of Defence Studies at King's College London, suggested that the manner of the killing looked like the work of special forces, rather than police.

On 4 August 2005, The Guardian reported that the newly-created Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), a special forces unit specialising in covert surveillance, were involved in the operation that led to the shooting. Anonymous Whitehall sources stressed that the SRR were involved only in intelligence-gathering, and that Jean Charles was shot by armed police not by members of the SRR or other soldiers. Others say the squaddies were on the train. In the past Parliament would have had to be told if army units were participating in actions within Britain.

Jean Charles family and friends in the Justice4Jean campaign are looking forward to the
long-awaited inquest on September 22. But they are wondering about the way it is being set up. The coroner has agreed to allow almost 50 police officers to give evidence at the inquest anonymously, behind screens and with code names. Justice4Jean says this is a real disgrace - "the public should be able to see the police officers involved so they can face responsibility for their actions and find it hard to believe that all of these officers need such a high level of protection. We fear this will affect the quality of evidence they will give and goes against the spirit of an open, public investigation".

It strikes me that this fuss about shielding police officers could indicate there is something about their identity which will be pertinent to the questions; or it could simply be another attempt to hoodwink the public, by replanting the myth that this case has something to do with "terror", and pretending the police - or whatever other state forces were involved - have genuine grounds for fear. It is we who need security and protection from the state.

Justice For Jean website:

The campaign is starting a blog to follow the inquest: