The UK general election part 3: sectarianism and democracy

SF 1 downloadIn the final post on the UK general election I want to look at the results from my own little polity and the political slum that is Northern Ireland.  Like all slums the blame for its condition lies with the landlord, the British state.  As usual all the tenants hope and expect that the landlord will clean it up. But it never does.

There the analogy should rest.  The most recent election was notable for what the front page of the Northern nationalist paper, ‘The Irish News’, described as ‘Nationalists turn away from the polls’.  Their parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, collected 38.4% of the vote while the DUP and Ulster Unionists captured 41.7%.  The latter figure does not include the various other unionist parties such as Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP which brings the unionist total to 46.6%. If we include the Alliance Party, which is a unionist party in all but name, the unionist vote was 55.2%.

The message?  There isn’t going to be a United Ireland any time soon.  The Sinn Fein vote went down slightly by 1% even while the SDLP vote declined by 2.6% and it lost the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat, not the way they wanted to enter into the historic hundredth anniversary of the 1916 rising.  ‘The Irish News’ explained that the nationalist vote had declined to its lowest level since the 1992 Westminster vote, which is before the ceasefires. That is, before the current peace process ‘strategy’ of republicans was/is supposed to deliver a united Ireland.

None of this fits with the accepted story of a rising Catholic population and a more and more demoralised Protestant one.  Sooner or later, the story goes, there will be a Catholic majority that will vote in a united Ireland. The truth of this is accepted by many and, I would hazard a guess, by many who would deny it vehemently in public.  I remember my aunt, a Shankill Road Protestant, remark about 25 years ago that there would eventually be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  And she was at least half right in that.

Socialists have always supported self-determination for the Irish people as a whole, as the only democratic response to the Irish national question.  Not of course universally.  The Militant Tendency/Socialist Party tradition with its notoriously statist view of socialism, which incidentally has nothing to do with Marxism, has always managed to get it wrong.  Its statist view has seen it join left nationalist formations in Britain such as NO2EU, and it led the rightward collapse of the left in Scotland into Scottish nationalism.  In the North of Ireland on the other hand, entirely consistent with its accommodation to whatever nationalism is strongest, it has capitulated time and time again to loyalism and the British State.

This general response of socialist to the national question remains correct but the growth of nationalism in the North of Ireland, which now appears halted, has demonstrated that democracy is not a classless construct.  Bourgeois democracy in a society which has always been characterised by sectarianism has definite limits.

These limits are demonstrated in the more and more sectarian expression of northern nationalism.  This means that the expression of democracy by the working class can only be of a non-sectarian character, or it would fail to be a particular expression of the working class.  In other words the expression of a democratic alternative to partition must come from the working class and not from any nationalist formation.  It must therefore be non-sectarian, not in an unconscious sense, in which to be anti-imperialist is somehow also to be ‘objectively’ anti-sectarian, but in a conscious sense that this is the key objective – of uniting the working class.  Just like Scotland so must this be the case in Ireland, that socialism cannot be derived from what happens to be bad for the UK state but from the political unity of workers.

The degeneration of Sinn Fein and Irish republicanism demonstrates that fidelity to the belief in a united Ireland is no guarantee of progressive politics.  It used to be said that Irish republicanism was largely confined to Catholics because of sectarianism and this also remains true but it is also now the case that the Irish republicanism of Sinn Fein is confined to Catholics because it is sectarian.

Once the Provisionals stopped fighting the British and decided to join in the governance of its system, and started asking the landlord to sort out the slum – the landlord responsible for its creation – it stopped having any claim to progressive status.  It then became the most militant and vocal champion of Catholic rights, not civil rights, but sectarian rights.  This has been exposed in the case of a prominent Sinn Fein Minister and also in the recent election.

In North Belfast Sinn Fein put out an election leaflet that included a graphic showing the Catholic and Protestant proportions of the constituency, the none too subtle message being that the majority Catholic constituency should be electing a Sinn Fein MP.  But of course that also means that Protestants must vote for the sitting Unionist MP.

The Sinn Fein excuses for it only bury it deeper in the sectarian mire.  First the excuses arrived only after it spent weeks defending the leaflet.  Then it wanted, it said, to use the terms nationalist and unionist but the Post Office said census figures had to be couched in terms of Catholic and Protestant.  So what it is saying, after trying to blame the Post Office, is that  instead of rejecting the graphic it decided that yes indeed substitution of Nationalist and Unionist by Catholic and Protestant was fine.  Now we know what it means when it uses the former terms in future.

Oh, and one more thing.  It regretted its decision to include the graphic – as Mr Gerry Kelly said “I think, in retrospect, the decision then should probably have been to withdraw the graph, because it did give an argument to our opponents, whether that was the SDLP or unionists.”  Yes Gerry, you’re right about that.

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The reactionary position of Sinn Fein was also demonstrated in another graphic used on its leaflet for their candidate in South Belfast.  Having misleadingly described the candidate as ‘the poll topper’ – in fact the sitting MP was from the SDLP – it then said he was the ‘only Progressive Candidate who can win’ – clearly not the case since the SDLP were not listed by the leaflet as one of the five parties ‘united for austerity.’

These five parties were the Conservatives, DUP, UUP, UKIP and Alliance Parties. One of these parties stood out from the others – the DUP.  Why? – because Sinn Fein is in permanent coalition with this party.  And at the time the leaflet was put through the doors the Tories looked like they might be relying on the DUP to get them into power.

Wouldn’t that have looked lovely – the so-called anti-austerity Sinn Fein in Government with the DUP who were keeping the austerity-inflicting Tories in Government.  Don’t bother to try to work out how Sinn Fein would have justified it, they have been justifying inflicting one of the most right wing parties in Europe on this part of the continent for years.

‘The Irish News’ front page has reflected the disorientation of Northern nationalism following the election.  It produced some commentator to explain what had gone wrong.

Apparently  there is a ‘growing number of nationalists who appear switched off from the electoral process (reflecting) a community more at ease with Northern Ireland.’

The commentator said that “I think unionism is more highly strung about identity issues.  Nationalism is more happy in general with the status quo and there is a lack of competition between the parties.  Nationalism is suffering a retreat.”

Almost all of this is rubbish.

Yes, nationalism is suffering a retreat, it’s been retreating for years, and now endorses the legitimacy of partition and its institutions, the British nationality of Irish Protestants and the unionist veto on a united Ireland.

Contrary to its assertion, there is no lack of competition among nationalist parties and unlike unionism there was no electoral pact between the SDLP and Sinn Fein during the election.

Relatively high unionist participation in the election is not because they are more highly strung about identity; in fact the lack of unionist voter participation has been remarked upon for years.  Did they suddenly get a fit of the nerves just recently?  Newspapers have recently reported increasing numbers of parents from what is called ‘a Protestant background’ refusing to designate their children as Protestant at school.

The fall in the nationalist vote is not because nationalists are happy with the status quo but exactly the opposite.  The stench of nepotism, cronyism and corruption from Stormont is all the more repelling on the nationalist side given the claims to radical politics and progressive change from the nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Fein.

Instead the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition Government has been beset by crisis, incapacity, incompetence, secrecy, arrogance, lack of accountability, lack of transparency and financial scandal.  The simplest of questions don’t get answered for years (perhaps never) by Government departments with dozens of communications staff.

The latest such offerings are the revelation of the extent of the employment of Special Advisors (SPADS) employed by all the parties in office without any public recruitment process.  These SPADS are supposed to bring special skills to their political masters, the most prominent of which appears to be their close connection to the parties and their ability to hide any special skills.

freedom of information request revealed that in one financial year the Stormont Executive spent almost £2m on these SPADS, more than the Scottish and Welsh governments combined.  In 2013/2014, the pay bands and grades for these special advisers varied across the UK, going from £36,000 up to £91,000.  In Scotland, three of them were in the top pay band while at Stormont all 21 posts were.

The second is the scandal around a contractor to the Housing Executive which we reported on before here and here.  The SPAD at the centre of the controversy, far from being dumped has been promoted while it is reported that the DUP member who took a more principled stand is being subject to disciplinary action by the party.  At the end of an editorial dripping with scorn ‘The Irish News’ declared of the Stormont regime that “it is increasingly doubtful if the institutions are worth preserving in the first place.”

When the main voice of constitutional nationalism expresses exasperation with the peace process institutions it really does mean a lot of nationalists are thoroughly disillusioned.  This is one of the main results of the election.  In itself it is not a positive but it is certainly a prerequisite for one to develop.

 

The UK general election part 2: DIY austerity

8841963_origDuring the election, instead of selling themselves as a vote for independence the SNP presented themselves as the leaders of Scotland’s opposition to austerity who would make the new Labour Government keep true to its word of opposing austerity.  As I have and others have said, this was a lie.  The SNP opposed a vote for Labour in England and Wales since they supported the Greens and Plaid Cymru.  So where was this Labour Government to come from?

The SNP vote cannot therefore be characterised as any sort of left vote except in the sense I mentioned earlier: that workers often express their interests in very distorted form.  In this case in the form of nationalism that put forward the idea that Scots are uniquely opposed to austerity and the English not.  The SNP vote can also be said to be a nationalist one because a nationalist solution to austerity was proposed, even if it was supported by some who would not want to go as far as independence.

If the Scots were uniquely opposed to austerity they would also have demonstrated opposition to the cuts transmitted by their own Scottish parliament led by the SNP.

This party has slipped seamlessly from standing in order to put a backbone into a new Labour Government to the election being “a vote to make Scotland’s voice heard loudly” in Westminster.  Those who think there isn’t really any difference should read the last sentence again.  They should also consider if the SNP in any way contributed to getting the Tories out.  As I have also said before the only Tories they wanted out was the ‘red’ variety.

The absence of Labour in Government, which they said would be reliant on them, now means their real reliance on those in power in London is exposed.  Like the nationalists that they are the SNP demands privileges that they would not even consider for others.  So the new Tory Government has to listen to the ‘voice of Scotland’ even though they are 50 per cent of Scottish voices with 1.45 million votes.  UKIP on the other hand won 3.88 million votes, over two and half times the SNP vote. Should their voice not be louder?

However, now that the Conservatives are in Government the SNP will be seeking to cut a deal with them to increase devolved powers – so much for excoriating Labour and their promises not to do deals with the hated Tories.  The Guardian on Saturday reported an SNP advisor saying that Sturgeon will now negotiate with the Tories and that all the repeated promises that the party would never work with the Tories were based on the Conservatives forming a minority coalition government – not an outright majority.

Perhaps this approach seems obvious to SNP supporters but it isn’t at all obvious to anyone else.  If, as it claimed, it stood in this election against austerity why isn’t it trying to cut a deal on reducing austerity instead of more constitutional powers?

The election demonstrated that the SNP and Conservative Party were good for each other.  The inherently anti-English message of independence produced an anti-Scottish response led by the Tories and UKIP who were able to argue that a Labour Government in hock to a party bent on destruction of their nation was a mortal danger.  Both the Tories and SNP knew what they were doing in this mutual loathing.

Now, as the mutually beneficial conflict between the rival nationalisms continues to play itself out, it will become clear that English nationalism is bigger and uglier – because England is bigger and nationalism throwing its weight about is always ugly.

Boris Johnson has advocated giving the SNP greater devolved powers for the Scottish parliament – “some kind of federal offer”.  This is not such a novel departure since the Tories were already more radical than Labour before the referendum in what they promised as devolution in place of separation.

An offer by the Tories of full fiscal autonomy would call the SNP’s bluff since they know full well that Scotland could not afford such an arrangement given the fall in oil prices.  In effect it would be DIY austerity.

The SNP will argue that it wants any new arrangement to maintain current levels of financing.  In other words a settlement that allows Scotland the benefit of higher oil prices should they return but no down side when they don’t.  The English oppressors in the meantime will have to subsidise higher levels of public expenditure in Scotland.

When the Tories make mincemeat of these demands the SNP can then make the case that the dastardly anti-Scottish Tories are at it again and only independence will allow them to borrow more, make savings on Trident and make the independence sums add up again irrespective of the oil price.  Something they haven’t been very convincing at doing so far.

In the meantime increased tax and spending powers may allow the SNP led Scottish parliament to cut corporation tax, as will the Stormont administration in Belfast with the new tax varying powers that the Tories have already promised.  They can then unite with their Celtic cousins in the Irish State in a joint project of cutting each other’s throat.

The debate has begun on what the lessons are for Labour with the Blairites already dominating the media agenda that Ed Miliband was too left wing.

Such an argument hardly squares with the Labour rout in Scotland and nor with Labour gains in London.  It was obvious when Miliband became leader that he had to distance himself from the Blair legacy of the Iraq war and the obsequious defence to the city of London and the financial interests behind the crash.  We’re now asked to believe that a return to this politics is the way back.

Such a policy would have led the Labour Party into an even more confused message than it already had and would have left it with little or nothing to distinguish itself from a Tory Party promising deficit reduction, tax cuts and more money for the health service.

Even the rise of UKIP and the part of its vote that was taken from Labour cannot be seen as an endorsement of a move right.  In this case just how far right would you have to move to rival the xenophobic policies of that lot?

I remember two weeks ago listening to a vox pop on radio 4 from a constituency in the North of England.  A young man was saying he was voting UKIP as a protest against Labour even though he did not at all agree with UKIP policies because he wanted Labour to be more left wing!  I’m not for a moment suggesting that the working class UKIP vote is a left wing protest but some of it is a working class vote that is Labour’s to win.  These voters are not all irredeemably reactionary.  It is rather another example of some workers expressing their class interests as they see them, in a very distorted and disfigured way.

They are demoralised workers who blame immigrants, foreigners or Europe, or simply the establishment understood in some vague way, for the precarious position they find themselves in.

These people did not vote Tory and they did not do so because demoralised or not they don’t confuse their interest with those of the Tory classes and their smarmy representatives.  They just can’t identify their position with an uninhibited and robust defence of their class interests from a socialist perspective.  Perhaps because they haven’t been presented with it or because they have grown cynical with promises of it in the past that haven’t been delivered on.

There is no Blairite answer to workers who blame immigrants for lack of affordable housing, low wages, unemployment and failing health and education services.  There is a left wing answer and however weak it may be from a Marxist perspective it certainly makes more sense than voting UKIP.

The parliamentary arithmetic looks very bad for Labour, behind the Tories by almost 100 seats and suffering almost complete wipe-out in Scotland.  But that is only half the story.

Their vote increased by more than the Tories, and that despite the losses in Scotland.  They may trail by 99 seats but they lag only by 6.5 percentage points of the vote.  The Tories are not in as strong a position as they appear.

First they have a small majority and second they are about to go through a debate about Europe that has the potential to split them extremely badly.  This will take place most likely against the backdrop of gloomy economic news and growing unpopularity as the reality of their election promises come home to roost.  Cameron may seek to provide raw meat to the most Thatcherite elements of his party in order to provide himself with some room to keep the UK inside the EU.

Right now the opportunity exists to have a debate in front of working people about the wide range of policies that they need to advance their interests.  This arises from the debate on who will be the replacement leadership of the Labour Party.  It will not of course be a debate pitting a pure revolutionary programme (however understood) against a cowardly watered down Keynesianism.  But what could ever lead anyone to expect that?  This is where the working class is at and no amount of wishful thinking will make it otherwise.

Will those organisations claiming to be Marxist be able to place themselves in the middle of this debate?  Will they even want to? The debate will happen anyway and many will look to it for a new way forward beyond the despair that the new Tory regime will inevitably create.

The UK general election – part 1: ‘they’re all the same’

images (9)“Were you watching the election last night?” the doorman asked me when I walked into work on Friday morning.

“Yeah, five more years of Tory cuts”, I answered disconsolately.

“They’re all the same”, he said.

A common enough view.  Certainly the view of the left who stood for election, hoping for a vote while realistically knowing that they had no chance of being elected and discounting the effect of taking votes away from the Labour Party.

But not the view of others.

‘The Guardian’ reported that once the result became clear bank shares went up as the threat of more restrictive regulation receded and higher taxes on bankers’ bonuses loomed less large.

Around £1billion was added to the value of the energy company Centrica with the disappearance of the prospect of tougher rules in the energy sector.  The share value of companies that provide outsourced services (privatisation to you and me) also rose, as did those of Sports Direct, whose shares rose by £95m without a Labour threat to their use of zero hours contracts.

“Enquiries came in just after midnight” said one London estate agent, from prospective clients who no longer had to ‘worry’ about Labour’s ghastly mansion tax.  Even bookmakers did well, with Ladbrokes share value rising as the plan to crack down on fixed odds betting terminals, the ‘crack cocaine’ of the industry, disappeared, as Labour’s promise of a crackdown became a ripped up betting slip.

But the report in the ‘Financial Times’ on Saturday put it best, beginning its article like this. .

“. . as the surprise exit poll results came in shortly after 10pm on Thursday night, the mood in the Cavalry and Guards club on Piccadilly turned from funereal to one of incredulous celebration.”

“Earlier in the evening , diners at the Mayfair gentlemen’s club had wallowed in gallows humour as they declared that the election result could mark a fin d’époque for the wealthy in London. . . This stiff upper lip turned to genuine joy as it transpired that the fortunes of the Conservative party had exceeded both the opinion polls and the party’s wildest dreams.”

“This could turn into the biggest celebration ever”, said one Tory supporter. . “We can cancel the removal vans. Non-doms watching the exit polls are unpacking their bags”, said his friend.”

All overstated of course, but those who won’t acknowledge any truth in the report are blowing out of the wrong end.

In some ways I find such reports reassuring.  The super-rich, the real capitalist class, are daily invisible and even the reports of their reaction to the result are through their minions who sell their shares for them or sell them houses or advise them and the rest of us that higher taxes for the rich are a jolly bad thing.

These reports reveal the existence and power of those behind the system, who benefit most from its inequality, and provide glimpses of the class structure within the capitalist mode of production.

While the thought of champagne-popping celebrations in London gentlemen’s’ clubs are valuable because they provide an instinctive and visceral view of what the election victory means it really is no more than that.  The existence and power of the capitalist class, which can appear rather abstract and esoteric in Marxist analysis, is impersonal and largely invisible not only because we don’t run across the mega-rich every day but because it is the system itself which is the problem.  The super-rich are just the personalised expression of the social relations of the system, just as the rich hangers-on of these people such as the estate agents, city dealers and tax advisors represent themselves as the appearance of their mega-rich clients.

Understanding the system and how it works and what the alternative to it is are therefore fundamental.  Understanding the class nature of society and what side you’re on is what’s called class consciousness and it is oddly reassuring that at least one section of society understands theirs.

However the impersonal and systematic nature of capitalism makes this difficult for workers and in so far as they do recognise their own interests this is often expressed in distorted ways. Sometimes very distorted ways, as shown in the election results.

So a lot of the explaining of the election result takes off from the appearance that, for example, Miliband was a bit of a geek and Cameron much more Prime Ministerial.  While Sturgeon, a career politician in the Scottish parliament since 1999, is genuine and sincere and not like the other career politicians; one who could be trusted not so much despite the record of the SNP in Government but sometimes in more or less total ignorance of it.

At only a slightly more sophisticated level of analysis it is claimed that the election was lost because Labour did not have a coherent narrative.  They allowed the Tories to get away with lying that the recession was a ‘Labour recession’ caused by excessive Government spending instead of a financial crisis that affected the world.  They had a confused message that promised to reduce the deficit but also to protect public services and they appeared to both stand for and not stand for robust social-democratic politics.  All very true of course but hardly convincing by itself.

After all, if Labour sent mixed messages the Tory story was beyond belief. They waved the big scary deficit monster in everyone’s faces while promising to pass a law that appeared to prevent them from putting up taxes.

They were going to cut welfare, and not in a nice way either, but nobody would really get hurt, or rather they refused to say who would get hurt.  They had done it before they said and therefore could be relied upon to do it again.  Their record spoke for itself they said, except their record on welfare cuts didn’t at all support their claims.

While the deficit was their number one priority and hard choices had to be made they were still going to cut taxes and give the NHS an increase of £8 billion!  Was anyone supposed to believe this rubbish?

If they looked like they were confident of winning, while almost no one believed they would, it had to be because Eton and all the other posh schools they go to teach smarmy self-confidence and born to rule self-belief, while their management of the economy would appear to reflect that PPE at Oxford now means a piss poor education.

At a more persuasive level it has been argued that the improving economy allowed the Tories to claim that their austerity policies were working, and Labour appeared to have no convincing rebuttal to such claims.  In some respects therefore the Tories got lucky.  The recent upturn is very likely to be very temporary as the most recent figures for economic growth herald the downturn to come.  The recent upturn has therefore been based on short-term cyclical movements and one-off factors.

To really be able to rebut the Tories on this point would therefore have required a more advanced understanding of economic development than Labour was ever going to argue for, and frankly a more advanced understanding than many workers show themselves ready for at the moment.

It is nevertheless true, that despite these problems, the fact is that for many austerity has not ‘worked’ and has still led to the longest period of falling living standards for a very long time regardless of the latest limited improvement.

Finally it has been argued that the Labour party was caught between competing nationalisms in Scotland and England.  This would appear obvious but if you really believed the claims of the SNP it’s not.  This is because the SNP stated that the general election was not about independence.  They stated this because despite all the hype, the SNP lost the referendum, they might lose it again if they tried to have another one soon and they know they have perhaps only one more chance.  The sharp drop in the price of oil since the last one means the independence sums don’t add up.

Getting the ‘Red Tories’ out?

Sun Scotland England Tory SNP divide and conquerI was walking down Buchanan Street in Glasgow on Saturday afternoon when I came across a group that all had large red stickers on them saying ‘Red Tories Out’, which is Scottish nationalist-speak for the Labour Party.  The leaflets they were giving out called for a vote for the Scottish National Party so that it could ensure that a new Labour Government was socially just.  What on earth is going on?

‘Red Tories Out’?? The Labour Party is not in office in Holyrood in Edinburgh and equally obviously not in office in Westminster in London, so what exactly do this group of nationalists want Labour out of?  Since they assume (for the sake of their argument) that they are utterly opposed to the real Tories being in power and the only real alternative is the Labour Party, the only answer consistent with their proclaimed strategy is that of no Labour MPs in Scotland but a majority in England and Wales, one big enough to allow their favoured scenario of a Labour Government dependent (or so they want) on SNP support.

No matter how they dress it up the reactionary nationalist logic of division surfaces each time the left in Scotland trumpets its supposedly radical political credentials.  The Labour Party is shit; Scots need an alternative but Labour’s good enough for English workers, and we’ll just ignore the fact that we need it as well in order to defeat the hated Tories.  But just to show how this isn’t really our strategy we’ll support other parties in England and Wales standing against Labour.

‘Red Tories Out’ turns out to be not just out of Scotland but everywhere.  Except if successful this would let the real Tories in as Labour voters supported the Greens and Plaid Cymru, assisting the Conservative Party to capture marginal seats where Labour is the only conceivable alternative.

Of course this would mean that these nationalists wouldn’t be open to the charge of hoping to foist Labour on the English while it wasn’t good enough for them, but then they would have to explain to everyone what’s left of their supposed overriding priority in this election of getting rid of the Tories.

Something in their argument has to give and what gives is their proclaimed support for a Labour Government supported by the SNP.  What you see is what you get and when you see ‘Red Tories Out’ stickers it means what it says, no more and no less.  When you see aggressive heckling of Labour in a Glasgow street you’re seeing the real vitriolic hatred of the Labour Party.

It is the Labour Party that has stood in the way of the SNP objective of ‘speaking for Scotland’; the SNP having some time ago captured swathes of Scottish Tory support.  It is a Tory Government in Britain that strengthens their claims that only independence can rid Scotland of the Tories and it just such a Government that would provide the grounds upon which another tilt at separation might be launched.

So the ‘Scottish Sun’ newspaper calls for a vote for the SNP while the English version supports the Tories.  The Tories demonise the SNP, making their nationalism more attractive in Scotland in the process, and the SNP ride the wave of increased nationalist division by decrying opposition to their participation in government in England as anti-Scots while basing their whole rationale for existence on the baleful influence of the English.

So it turns out that it is the position of the Sun that is the most consistent of the publicly proclaimed stances – Tories in England and Wales and the Tartan variety dressed in ‘anti-austerity’ clothing in Scotland.

Both on the face of it (‘Red Tories Out’) and looking at underlying political calculation, it is clear that Tory little-Englandism and SNP nationalism is seeking to exploit nationalist division to their own benefit while undermining the causes they say they aspire to – unity of the UK in the case of the Conservative Party and anti-austerity in the case of the SNP.

Reading ‘The Herald’ newspaper on Saturday it reported from focus groups that voters have stopped listening to the political arguments and have bought into the narrative of empowerment, derived from the independence referendum, and the perceived possibility of standing up for Scotland in the General election. ‘No’ referendum voters are therefore voting SNP.

This doesn’t look like a simple unthinking or emotional vote to me but a buying into nationalist assumptions that don’t withstand political analysis and argument.  And the most fundamental of these is that there is a ‘Scottish’ interest oppose to that of ‘London’.  The conflation of nationalism with the interests of workers allows promotion of nationalism to appear as the promotion of workers’ interests even while it does exactly the opposite.

The double standards and scarcely conscious hypocrisy of the Scottish left are symptoms of this nationalism and an apparent disengagement from political argument an expression of the soporific effect of nationalist illusions.

But it would be wrong to blame the nationalists alone.  The Labour Party, that object of nationalist hatred, deserves its own fair share of blame.  For a long time it has channelled Scottish workers opposition to what is now called austerity into nationalist and constitutional demands in order to avoid a response based on workers’ own struggles and socialist policies.  In this way it could pioneer the conflation of workers’ interests with Scottish interests, when the latter might be seen to be reflected in their own political dominance in the country.

This could be seen in their impotent opposition to Thatcher and support for devolution and now in the appointment of Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour Leader and his proclaiming of the Labour Party as the party best based to fight for Scottish national interests.  When it comes to fighting for national interests it’s hard to out-do nationalism.  It has taken Ed Miliband to make the most prominent case for workers interests irrespective of nationality.

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While over in Glasgow I took in the Celtic match and logged on to a fans blog.  One poster derided concerns over the barracking of Jim Murphy while canvassing in Glasgow city centre, saying the guy was a Blairite and had responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had blood on his hands and deserved no sympathy.

Fair enough point you might think. As far as it goes. But where is it supposed to go?  A bit of shouting and obstruction hardly seems sufficient punishment for mass murder, does it?  But what would be appropriate punishment if that was the purpose of the barracking?

Well, for a socialist it is not this or that particular bourgeois politician that is the problem (and certainly not the answer).   So the SNP is opposed to ‘illegal’ wars?  Is legal mass murder any more acceptable?  Does a UN mandate legitimise imperialist murder? Just what sort of alternative is the SNP that the protestors against Murphy support? Just what sort of political mobilisation is it that rallies round a nationalist party whose fiscal manifesto is not essentially different from Labour’s yet considers itself self-righteously anti-austerity?

What matters for the future is building an alternative not only to bourgeois politicians but to the system itself that creates the social basis for these politicians, one which relies precisely on workers lack of engagement in political argument and analysis.

Right now such an alternative requires opposition to nationalist division.  It therefore means voting for the best option, given the choices available.  A vote for the Labour Party can be justified as one that will provide the best circumstances for fighting austerity, both by virtue of rejecting Scottish nationalist illusions and facing a reduced austerity offensive.

Nationalist separation on the other hand is a counsel of despair, one that asserts that British workers can never fight for an alternative.

  1. A friend has alerted me to an interview in Jacobin magazine with Neil Davidson, a supporter of Scottish separation, and I will take up the arguments raised by him in a future post.

Does capitalism still have a civilising mission? Marx’s alternative – part 4

huajian-shoe-factoryIn the last post on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I noted that he extolled the achievements of capitalism, without which socialism could not be built.  In the Grundrisse he noted “the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.”

This is very far from the attitude of most Marxists today, who have a tendency to see crisis and decline everywhere.

Perhaps, as might be implied from the quote above, the progressiveness of capitalism is only in relation to previous society, and that today it is a wholly reactionary system from which no development is possible or at least none with any progressive features.  Its replacement must therefore arise from its contradictions and crisis and not from any progressive element within it.

The days of the progressive development of capitalism are over.

The Communist Manifesto is famous for its paean of praise to the wonders of capitalist achievements, and this at a time when capitalism hardy existed on most of the globe – “It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades . . . The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. ”

But perhaps again this praise is purely relative to earlier epochs.  Capitalism has exhausted any progressive content it once may have had.  After all, didn’t Lenin refer to the highest stage of capitalism and did Trotsky not say that:

“the economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth . . . The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”

That catastrophe did of course arrive in the shape of the Second World War and the potential for catastrophe undoubtedly continues to exist within capitalism today.  The decline of the United States and the rise of new powers once again raise the spectre of economic competition that may drive rival nation states into war.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the Guardian review of books and a review of a book by the BBC correspondent Mark Urban, who argued that new powers are developing conventional forces that can begin to rival those of the US. This means that in any conventional conflict the US may be tempted or driven to use nuclear weapons.  It’s not as if they haven’t used them before.

“Now, says Urban, Russia, China and India have such strong conventional forces, and America has cut its forces so much, that in the event of a conflict “the US would be left with the choice of nuclear escalation or backing down”.  He adds: “Against a full-scale invasion of South Korea, the US would have little choice but to go nuclear.” Russia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and some other countries could “mount a credible conventional defence that would leave the United States having to think the unthinkable, with profound implications for the world”.”

While there is a lot more to say about such a scenario the point is that under capitalism humanity has no rational control of its own development and no guarantee against the most irrational acts leading to its destruction.

However the view noted above – that capitalism can no longer be viewed in fundamentally the same way as Marx did in the 19th century is mistaken.

Straight after noting capitalism’s wonders far surpassing the Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals Marx states that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”

So the development of society continues under capitalism and the imperative to accumulate unpaid labour means the continued development of the forces and relations of production and growth of the working class.  As I will show in the next post this continues to require the phenomenon of the ‘great civilising influence of capital’ because if it did not, the development of capitalism would be away from a possible socialism and not towards it.

A working class more and more exploited and oppressed, more and more demoralised, despite the massively increased social division of labour and the cooperation required for it to function; and despite the undreamed of development of technology, would patently be unable to put itself forward as the new rulers of an even more advanced society.

A purely reactionary system without fundamental contradictions out of which a new society could emerge would not be that investigated by Marx.  A contradiction-ridden system on the other hand will combine development with retrogression, the potential for the new within the embrace of the old.

Crises will occur and must occur in some way if a new society is to be given birth out of the old but the nature of this crisis must be one that allows a new society to fully develop and not simply represent a process of decline of the old.  Under capitalism it is not crisis that create the contradictions of capitalism but crises which are the means of expressing these contradictions and resolving them in whatever way and for whatever period of time.

The importance of acknowledging this is apparent when we consider the ‘new’ phenomenon of anti-capitalism, as if being anti-capitalist is inherently progressive.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx was able to analyse various types of reactionary socialism, and various types of this exist today.  Much of the left is keen to retreat into nationalism and older forms of capitalist development in response to capitalist crises in their latest form, buttressed by the idea that there can be nothing progressive in its current development.

We see this today in much of the left’s opposition to the Euro for example, as if the drachma or punt were some sort of positive alternative.  In Ireland the nationalist and republican tradition has allowed many leftists to seek progress through assertion of a ‘national sovereignty’ that is simply impossible to achieve even if were desirable.

All seem to have forgotten that socialism is not the resistance of the working class to capitalism, which can continue ‘forever’ if it does not involve an alternative, and this alternative is a higher form of society, not a retreat into the past.

In the next post on Marx’s alternative I will look at the evidence that the development of capitalism that Marx thought provides the grounds for socialism continues to exist.

The UK General election, the Labour Party and the SNP. Who’s calling the shots?

snpWhen the Independence referendum was lost by the nationalists I noted that this created something of a problem for left supporters of Scottish separation.  Their claim not to be nationalist looked threadbare when set aside rallies festooned with Saltires but now they had questions to answer.  Today the questions are even harder.

If the pro-independence campaign that they hailed as a genuine left-wing grass roots movement was not nationalist how do they explain that it is the nationalist Scottish National Party that has reportedly grown enormously since the referendum?  How do they explain that even within their ranks large chunks of their supporters are now members of the SNP?  How are they to explain that figures like Tommy Sheridan are calling for a vote for the SNP in the UK General election?  He wants to wipe out the ‘Blue, Yellow and Red Tories’ but not of course the Tartan ones.

The SNP are now regularly reported to be in position to wipe out the Labour Party in Scotland which would be quite a reversal.  In fact such a reversal that it overturns one of the claimed grounds for Scotland’s independence – that Scotland is more progressive because it elects predominantly Labour MPs.  Shortly it may predominantly elect a party that has gotten to this point by first taking over and assimilating a large part of the Scottish Tory vote, and it will be England and Wales upon which a Labour Government may be elected.

This is excused by the claim that the Labour Party of today is not the Labour Party of yesterday and indeed with the advent of new Labour this is to an extent true.  However, it is also true that the Labour Party of 2015 is not essentially different to that of 1975 or even 1945 and the view that it somehow is exhibits a flawed understanding of that party.

And there is another problem.  The SNP is making the claim, on the face of it ridiculous, that it will ensure that Ed MIliband becomes Prime Minister through Scottish voters voting not for the Labour Party but for the SNP.  How is Tommy Sheridan to justify opposition to the Labour Party, or ‘Red Tories’ as he prefers to call them, by voting SNP?  Perhaps it is because depriving the Labour Party of a majority might allow the real Tories into Government again, through some sort of new coalition with what’s left of the Liberal Democrats and support from the Democratic Unionist Party?

The SNP are making this type of claim because on their own they are incapable of offering any alternative effective opposition to the austerity that is the main issue in the campaign.  This has already been made clear by their imposition of austerity as the party of Government at Holyrood. Their projections for the financial position of an independent Scotland have already been blown out of the water by the collapse of the price of oil.   Their call for full fiscal autonomy is similarly exposed.  As I pointed out after the referendum result the only effective opposition to austerity can come from an all-British alternative but the ‘non-nationalist’ ‘left’ has seemed oblivious to this.

The SNP however being a serious bourgeois party is not.  That is why Nicola Sturgeon has moved the SNP to take up a UK-wide approach, at least rhetorically, projecting the SNP as a necessary part of a united front against austerity, for example in a possible alliance with the Greens and Plaid Cymru.

Knowing equally that this is not any sort of real alternative has forced her to make a virtue out of necessity and claim the need for the Labour Party to rely on SNP support.  It is backhanded recognition that only the Labour Party can blunt the Tory inspired austerity offensive and its intensification should they lead the next Government again.

So the SNP must claim opposition to Tory austerity as its priority when its real goal is to destroy the Labour Party in Scotland, so making continuation of Tory austerity that more likely.   That other serious bourgeois party, the red, white and blue Tories, also know this, which is why they have been bigging up the SNP and Labour’ so-called dependence on it, in order to undermine Labour.  They do this even while it also undermines the union they support; yet one more illustration of their incompetent character.  At least Thatcher’s strengthening of the forces of Scottish nationalism can claim it was unintended.

The two parties feed on each other, illustrating the divisive role of nationalism for the British working class. As this excellent post here points out, a plurality of SNP voters would rather have a Tory Government than a Labour one if it meant more SNP MPs.

The nationalist left’s opposition to ‘Blue, Yellow and Red Tories’ reduces to opposition to Labour since in Scotland the first has only one MP, the second is stuffed across Britain and the third is the single existing disproof of their claim that only nationalist separation offers an alternative to the Tories.  It is mightily embarrassing when an election comes long in which it is clear that this is patently untrue.  Except of course, as the post recommended above describes, the SNP is on such a roll that nothing will embarrass it, at least not at the minute.

The left nationalist case is that separation is necessary to defeat the Tories and that the UK state is unreformable, in the sense that it will never be social-democratic again.  Their enemy is therefore not the Tories, whose existence seems only to confirm this.  On the other hand, as even the mildly left approach of Ed Miliband threatens such claims, we can glimpse the fundamentally weak foundations upon which the great surge of Scottish nationalism currently rests and the totally spurious grounds on which left nationalism sits.

The actions of Sturgeon and the SNP demonstrate that in this General election the only alternative to Tory austerity, however weak and limited it is, is the Labour Party.

Screwing the unemployed in the North of Ireland

Belfast Plebian

work-fare211

One development in the North of Ireland that has come into existence largely unmentioned is Stormont’s new welfare to work programme. There have been quite a few of these in the past, New Deal, Steps to Work, but this one is more than just a hand me down modification, it fits with the now.

It emerged from out of the thinkery of the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) as recently as 2012. The protocols were first aired in a draft published in April 2012 (feasibility study; DEL web site). Tenders were then put out to the private sector for attention at the beginning of 2013 and the Stormont Executive approved the full regulations in June 1914. Implementation of the programme started in October 2014 and it is still being rolled out. The Alliance party man in the Executive, Minister Farry declared that this was ‘a major change in the way we help people, focusing on providing more flexible support for individual’s needs and their barriers to work.’

It is certainly a major change all right; it is the semi- privatisation of Stormont’s unemployment responsibility. The job of getting the north’s unemployed reserve army into work has just been handed over to three ‘lead contractors’ i.e. to profit seeking private companies.

  • Belfast Ingeus UK Ltd, supported by Armstrong Learning NI, People 1st, Springvale Learning, SES Consortium and Addiction NI.
  • Northern Region – EOS (Trading) Northern Ireland Ltd, supported by Elle Enterprises, Customised Training Services, Network Personnel, Ulster Supported Employment Limited, North City Business, Roe Valley Enterprise Ltd and Roe Valley Community Education Forum.
  • Southern Region Reed in Partnership, supported by Global Education Ltd, Network Personnel, Rutledge Recruitment and Training and South Eastern Regional College.

From now on the private sector will be gifted an opportunity to make a profit out of the unemployed with contracts worth £35 million. The only objection raised by those MLA’s who were there for the Committee stage was that DEL had unkindly overlooked some locally run training organisations in favour of the bigger outsider businesses -Pat Ramsey of the SDLP worried that 400 jobs could be lost to local training organisations in the transition period.

Ingenus, for example is a welfare to work international business founded in 1989 by the wife of the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  Therese Rein sold the business to Providence Service Corporation of Arizona in April 2014 in a deal said to be worth £65 million in cash and another £25 million in stock options, and she agreed to stay on as the Chief Executive.

Although present in several countries, Ingenus makes seventy percent of its declared profit from the British Government’s welfare to work contracts. The Australian government has been pretty ruthless in the slashing of the social entitlements of workers and this gradgrind model is being imposed in Britain via companies like Ingenus.

Another lead contractor is Reed Partnership a division of the Reed Group that includes Reed Specialist Recruitment and Reed Online. The Reed Partnership boasts on its web site that it was the first welfare to work contractor to be trusted by New Labour to deliver the service under the New Deal Programme – “We launched as one of the first private welfare to work providers in the UK. Our first contract started in Hackney in 1998.”

News journalists in Britain frequently claim that the welfare to work programme has been an unmitigated disaster, on the basis that it has been shown to be not good value for the taxpayer’s money lavished on it.  It has been reported that less than 5 percent of those forced under its iron wheels find any permanent work. These sorts of ‘I feel sorry for the taxpayer’ type of political analyses has become the norm for almost all news media criticism of government policy.

When asked about the work programmes’ lamentable failure reported by the news media in England, the DEL civil servants simply told the Assembly Committee that civil servants were under no legislative obligation to take the poor results into consideration when inventing their own scheme specially tailored for the North of Ireland. The DEL officials told the Assembly Committee they were aiming at a better programme and at a higher achieving rate of 29%. Success is defined as finding a job for anyone on the programme for at least three or six months.

The ‘getting good value for taxpayers money’ model of social criticism is an absolutely hopeless one in dealing with the private welfare to work model as it is to be applied in the North of Ireland. The only model of political analysis useful here is the one that relates important government policy decisions directly to the aims of the Good Friday Agreement and fulfilling the mandate of the peace process.

The managerial side of the Stormont regime is certainly not dedicated to ‘helping’ the unemployed section of the working class into some new era of private sector prosperity – that much is obvious.  Rather it is preparing and training them for a future based on low expectations, frequent changes to part time working and acceptance of a long life on the minimum wage.

One of the most significant new protocols attached to the steps to success programme is that the new providers are not obligated by their DEL contract to offer training and education to their unemployed clients. All of the previous work programmes at least contained such a proviso, stipulating some skills training.  This new iteration does not.  It was no doubt thought to be an added expense that the private contractors could well do without.

There is no expectation that the jobs the private sector currently has on offer will be anything but part time, temporary, low skilled and low waged. The fact that the private contractors will receive a payment from the Department on the basis of any three or six months job take-up speaks volumes.

It should be said that participation on the new work programme is mandatory. Even the 60 to 65 age group are forced to take part, something that did not previously apply.

There are to be five client groups – Jobseekers 18-24, Jobseekers early entry, ESA’s (employment support allowance) voluntary ESA’s and Returners. The ‘client’s’ routine is to change from visiting the job centre once a fortnight, to show sufficient evidence of really seeking work, to carrying on with this plus an added second routine of meeting with the ‘provider’ at least three or four times per week for sessions lasting either one or two hours – supervised job searching to really really show they are seeking work.

The larger client group must do a minimum of five hours supervised searching spread out over the week.  This routine includes cold calling of employers who may not have even adverted any vacancies. This is obviously an enhanced surveilling of the lives of the unemployed. The ‘clients’ even have to hand over their mobile phone details and email addresses for random contacts about job offers. They also have to sign wavers allowing the providers to retain and make use of their personal details.

You are asked to inform them of any health problems you may have and to let them know if you are a ‘substance abuser.’  Some of the client groups have to agree to do work placements without pay. The client can in theory claim travelling expenses if they are especially diligent.  I had to delve deep into the DEL protocols documents to discover this.

Claims for travel expenses will be submitted at participant level and can be claimed on a four weekly basis. The Department will make payments within 30 working days of receipt provided receipts are offered.’ The least expensive way to travel in Belfast is to buy a bus day ticket costing £3.40 or £3.90. So the typical travel expense for participants is likely to be between 10 and 15 pounds per week. A single person under 25 on JSA receives £57.35 and the over 25 person gets £72.40. Obviously one training tip you are going to get on this programme is a vital lesson on keeping receipts.

Any unemployed person who is deemed not to be ‘performing’ to the protocols will be sanctioned with a withholding of benefit. The rules state that:

‘Your benefits will be stopped for two weeks for the first time you

  1. Give up, or fail to attend the required S2S attendance without good reason or are asked to leave for non-compliant behaviour.
  2. Your benefits will be stopped for four weeks for a second breach of the rules.
  3. It will be stopped for 26 weeks if the client breaks the rules for a third time.’

There is as yet no evidence available for current sanction rates in the North of Ireland. The rates of sanction penalisation in GB are amazingly high.  On 12 February, DWP published an important Freedom of Information response 2014-4972 showing the proportion of JSA claimants sanctioned and the numbers of repeat JSA sanctions.

Almost one-fifth (18.4%) of the 3,097,630 individuals who claimed JSA during 2013/14 were sanctioned: 568,430 people.  During 2013/14 the maximum number of JSA claimants at any one time was 1,474,428. This gives some idea of the amount of turnover in the claimant count.

We know from Stat-Xplore that there were 888,936 JSA sanctions in 2013/14, so that the average number of sanctions imposed on sanctioned claimants in 2013/14 was 1.56. It should be remembered that these figures show the proportion of claimants sanctioned after reviews/reconsiderations and appeals. The proportion sanctioned before these challenges in 2013/14 must have been about 20%.

Incredibly the Work Programme continues to deliver far more JSA sanctions than successful JSA job outcomes. The official statistics show that up to 30 September 2014 there had been 345,640 JSA Work Programme job outcomes and 575,399 JSA Work Programme sanctions.

This new policing regime for the unemployed is already in situ while the controversial welfare reform changes that have provoked so much comment are yet to be rolled out. One intention of the welfare reform plan in waiting is to push as many of the more costly benefit claimants into the cheaper Steps to Success programme.  This anticipated change is the reason why the bigger private sector welfare to work contractors from Britain are anticipating an increasing client base. The other is to harry as many people off the benefits system as is possible within the law.

The early signs are that it is working – the last three months have seen the biggest fall in live jobseeking claims ever recorded, 1,700 per month. Many are drifting on to other benefits like claiming sickness benefit but the the economically inactive count is also rising rapidly and last month it reached 28%, the highest by far in comparison with Britain. It is the high numbers of economically inactive that is now attracting the gradgrind attention of the neo- liberal economists.

How quickly the promises of the Good Firday Agreement have turned to dust for the working class. The peace process promised a better life for all and there was much talk of a lasting peace dividend. For a few years there was all the appearance of incresasing prosperity, but it was based on bank lending, rising house prices and some increased public spending.  In retrospect the material cause of the peace process can be said to be precisely this raised State spending.

A recent study carried out by the Nevin Economic Research Institute provided data showing how the cuts may impact.  According to the report three parliamentary constituencies, Foyle, West Tyrone and West Belfast have above-average public sector employment, with West Belfast the most vulnerable to job losses with over 45% of total employment being in the public sector.

A proposed public sector redundancy scheme was announced as part of the Stormont House Agreement. The scheme is intended to “re-balance” the local economy, which is said to be disproportionately dependent on the public sector, which accounts for 31% of total local employment.

The exact number of job losses in the scheme remains the subject of speculation. The DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has announced an initial “closure” of 2,410 civil service posts over the next year but trade unions have estimated an eventual figure of 20,000 job losses. The report also highlighted that the retail and hospitality sectors, which make up the second and third highest sources of employment in West Belfast for example, and which are areas where those made redundant might find alternative employment, are also the sectors with the lowest wages. (NERI Research no 20 by Paul Mac Flynn)

If so many of our people, the ‘oppressed nationalists’ are being employed in secure long term jobs by the State why are we concentrating all our efforts on destroying it? This was the objective condition faced by the revolutionary movement organised by the republican movement pre-peace process.  The long war was never targeted at the private sector just the State. We know how that story turned out.

The republican movement disarmed and then married into the State to become senior board members in a logical exercise in political thinking. Things are now changing – the British government strategy of supressing the insurgency with above-normal levels of public spending is coming to an end. You could argue that the proposed rebalancing to a private sector based economy is simply the logical extension of neoliberal austerity economics. Yet a more precise argument would have to factor in a change in the political conditions and climate of opinion.

The republican organised insurgency is finished and the peace process leverage once thought to be with Sinn Fein has all but been used up. Martin McGuiness said recently that the Tories just don’t get it like Labour did.  This was a plea for special economic clemency for the North of Ireland.  But it is Sinn Fein that doesn’t get it.  We are no more special than the Greeks.  We surely are in new times.