Category Archives: Britain

The lesson of European parliamentary elections: Tax the rich!


mason

The prominent left journalist Paul Mason has rightly been taken to task for his unprincipled attack on senior members of the Labour leadership after the party’s disappointing results in the European parliamentary elections.

But the content of his article deserves a more detailed analysis. He makes the panicky claim that “We have to begin from the facts: the struggle against rightwing authoritarianism and fascism is now the main priority.” Of course, it’s important to struggle against rightwing authoritarianism. But the only facts he references are the large vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. He conveniently forgets the utter humiliation of the extreme rightwing Islamophobe “Tommy Robinson” in the Northwest, who slunk off from the count rather than face the tiny vote for him in this working-class stronghold.

Prof. John Curtice assesses the vote as showing the country is equally divided for and against Brexit – so nothing much has changed materially since the referendum in 2016. What has changed is the complete disintegration of the Tory party’s vote: Farage was able to hoover up its disaffected voters as well as those of the dying UKIP he abandoned. The election result is not evidence of a sudden rise in xenophobia: the bulk of the Brexit party’s voters are the same people who always voted for the right.

It got support in Labour heartlands because the statements of a number of Labour MPs gave the impression that the referendum vote would be overturned, allowing Farage to present himself as defending a democratic decision. As Skwawkbox commented: “To working-class leave voters who voted leave because they were sick to death of feeling ignored and discounted – and who feel even more ignored and discounted by media and politicians looking to prevent the enactment of their vote – that message resonated.”

Labour also lost voters to the Liberal Democrats because they took a clear anti-Brexit position. However, it is not clear they would stick with the LibDems in a general election, given their association with the Tory coalition government. Their call for a second referendum obfuscates the fact that the social conditions that motivated people to vote Leave have not just persisted, they have gotten worse.

Theresa May’s tearful resignation as Tory leader marks the collapse of her party’s hegemony in the UK. Her indifference to her own dismal record is not a personal characteristic, but is shared by her entire party. Although the proximate cause is the failure of the government’s Brexit negotiations to arrive at a deal that both factions of the party could agree on, the roots of the crisis go back to the 2008 banking crash.

Austerity after 2010 began to dismantle the core of the welfare state that was the foundation of parliamentary legitimacy and national identity. Oblivious to the social effects of austerity policies, Cameron called the referendum when parts of the UK were already profoundly alienated from Westminster representation.

The referendum unleashed social forces that turned a Tory political project into a constitutional crisis. Cameron originally called it to counter the electoral threat from the anti-EU party UKIP, which was attracting support from the ultra-right of the Tories and its voters who were blaming immigration for welfare cuts. The narrow victory of the Leave vote, however, transformed his attempt to deflect the political cost of austerity into a crisis of governmental legitimacy, and Cameron immediately resigned. The vote cut across party lines, superseded the constitutional sovereignty of parliament, and threw its authority into disarray. The majority for Brexit was thus a signal of the disintegration of consensus, not an aberration or the result of a rise in racism.

Mason has imperiously written off Brexit voters as supporting a project of the “racist and xenophobic right.” But the referendum Leave vote gathered those who were signalling disaffection with the Westminster elite that had devastated their communities. The rhetoric of national sovereignty and “taking back control” had a resonance for many working-class voters who wanted a restoration of the 1950s economy and welfare state, symbolized by the Leave campaign’s cynical slogan of returning £350 million per week from the EU to the NHS.

Mason’s prescription for winning back “socially conservative” voters from ex-industrial towns is “to fight personal insecurity, crime, drugs, antisocial behaviour and organised crime as enthusiastically as it fights racism. It needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.” Essentially he holds that the antidote to pro-Brexit views is to return to the failed politics of New Labour, forgetting that New Labour’s record in these ex-industrial towns is as tarnished as the Tories’, since both encouraged the financialisation of the economy that drained resources away from these areas to the Southeast.

What was Corbyn’s mistake? In Mason’s opinion, it was “an attempt at triangulation between two wings of Corbynism: between the demands of an economic nationalist current from the old left, and the internationalist and progressive politics embedded in Labour’s new urban heartlands.” He is attempting to pit the sources of Corbynism against each other, as though nothing new was created out of the fusion of anti-austerity protesters with the legacy of Bennism that led to Corbyn’s election as party leader. One of the fruits of this fusion was the successful 2017 election manifesto. Since then Corbynism has developed creative policies that address how to deal with the power of transnational capital.

It is true that Labour’s position of uniting both leavers and remainers on the grounds of their shared experience of austerity is hard to explain on the doorstep, in the context of a political discourse that drowns out everything but Brexit. In the next general election, a simpler position needs to be developed that places the blame for the realities facing both sections of society more squarely on those responsible. I’m going to suggest: “Tax the rich!” In order to restore and rebuild communities in Britain, the economic elite must be made to pay back the social resources they have leached out of privatization of necessities and fraudulent contracts.

The way to win the war against the right is to campaign on the message: “Rebuild our towns! Rebuild the NHS! Tax the rich!”

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Against the McCarthyite Witchhunt of Chris Williamson


Labour party activists are coming out in support of Derby North MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended from the party pending investigation into expressions he used at a Sheffield Momentum meeting that rejected the accusations of institutional racism against the party. Sheffield Hallam CLP and Hackney North CLP have already passed resolutions strongly in his support.

The suspension has aggravated the divisions between the rank and file and the parliamentary party. According to the Guardian, 38 Labour MPs from the soft left Tribune group, including several frontbenchers, signed a letter to the party general secretary Jennie Formby calling for his immediate suspension. The Yorkshire Post had published footage of Williamson telling the meeting: “we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic” over the antisemitism allegations. He later issued a statement that said it “pains me greatly … that anyone should believe that it is my intention to minimise the cancerous and pernicious nature of antisemitism … I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour party has responded to the ongoing fight against antisemitism inside of our party. I was trying to stress how much the party has done to tackle antisemitism.”

Deputy party leader Tom Watson has led the campaign against Williamson. He criticised the apology as “long-winded and heavily caveated,” and told BBC Radio that “disciplinary action should be concluded swiftly. ‘It’s definitely weeks, not months, in my view,’ Watson said. Although he said Williamson should be allowed to present his case in a formal hearing, the deputy leader condemned his comments.” In a clear challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, Watson also claimed he was not acting as his deputy but had an independent mandate from 200,000 members that gave him a responsibility to speak out. Perhaps a new “people’s vote” on Watson’s position would give members a chance to reconsider his mandate.

Momentum seems to be confused on how to respond to the issue. The organization has backed an open letter apologizing further to the Jewish community for the party’s handling of antisemitism, although reiterating support for Corbyn’s leadership and the party’s anti-racist principles. But its Camden branch urged Momentum’s national leaders to argue for Williamson’s immediate reinstatement, condemning the “new McCarthyism” driving the disciplinary action. In a letter to the leadership it points out that “nothing about that speech deserves the suspension of the Labour whip, let alone suspension from the party. Jewish Voice for Labour have rightly pointed out that Williamson’s suspension is unjust and have called for it to be rescinded. Camden Momentum adds its voice to that call.”

However, Williamson’s defenders have mistaken the official reason for his suspension for the real one. It has little to do with antisemitism and a lot to do with him touring the constituencies presenting the case for compulsory reselection of MPs. Sections of the PLP are desperate to take back control of policy, know their constituency parties are critical of them, and are violently hostile to Corbyn’s radical democratic philosophy. Cultural and political theory professor Jeremy Gilbert  points out that the party rightwing would continue its campaign of vilification against Corbyn even if he were to “convert to Judaism, apply for Israeli citizenship and call for a People’s vote tomorrow: their attacks on him would not relent for one second unless he agreed to give up control of the party.”

He argues that the “independent group” of defecting MPs will attempt to build a centrist party that, like in Germany, would potentially hold the balance of power in parliament and become an obstacle to progressive government. However, first these MPs would have to be re-elected, and there is little evidence that their future party would fare any better than the Liberal Democrats, especially since the Labour rank and file will be vigorously campaigning against them. The Labour party, Gilbert says, needs to face questions about its future relations with the SNP, the Greens, even the Lib Dems. It should convene a national conference with all these parties as well as trade unionists and NGOs to build a mass progressive movement as an alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

But what has transformed the party has been the shift in the rank and file and the new members who have joined it since 2015 in order to fight austerity. Gilbert’s characterization of Corbynism as merely a left variant of Labourism – the assumption that socialism can only be achieved through a parliamentary majority – is way off the mark. Corbyn is not at all averse to building alliances with extra-parliamentary movements, and the experience of Tony Benn when a cabinet minister in the 1974 Labour government shows that the party’s parliamentary campaigns and government power can be important components of a transformational movement, giving it political legitimacy with the public.

Rather than holding a neo-popular front convention, Labour activists should immediately begin selecting new candidates to replace the “independent” parliamentary squatters, and campaign on local issues in such a way as to connect with social movements that already exist in their constituencies. This would help to clarify the public about Labour’s radical programme and the true politics of the defectors.

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Labour defectors and Watson challenge Corbyn’s leadership


On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show this Sunday, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party, threw down a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He described the defection of nine Labour MPs as a “crisis for the soul of the party” that requires the shadow cabinet to adopt social democratic policies as “the only way to keep the Labour party united.” He himself was prepared to convene a group of MPs that believe in the “social democratic tradition” so that their ideas could be given greater weight in the parliamentary party. Watson repeated the defectors’ rhetoric of “bullying” and “intolerance” to describe attempts by party members to hold MPs accountable for their votes in parliament and statements to the press.

In reality, Watson is advocating a resuscitation of the failed politics of New Labour, not a return to the social democratic tradition of the membership. New Labour broke from this tradition in many ways, including its pro-business and anti-union stance, making benefits conditional on US-style “workfare”, and introducing market relations into social welfare provision. Its limited increases in spending on welfare were perfectly compatible with its “light touch” avoidance of regulation of financial markets that ended in the banking crash of 2008.

Watson and the defectors’ blanket accusations of “antisemitism” are intended to shut down rank and file criticism of the MPs’ differences with Corbyn: their reluctance to raise taxes on the rich, their support for neoliberal austerity policies and opposition to re-nationalisation of public utilities. The “independent” group’s policy platform, such as it is, hankers for the days of the Blairite ascendancy, reviving the “third way” argument of encouraging business so as to fund social welfare. They know there is no political future for this platform, so will continue to occupy the seats in parliament won for them by the efforts of Labour members campaigning on the manifesto produced by the party leadership.

The not entirely unexpected defection of Ian Austin MP makes it clear that the earlier resignations were not primarily about Labour’s Brexit policy. Austin is aggressively pro-Brexit and voted with the Tory government for Theresa May’s deal, while the other eight MPs demand a second referendum to overturn the result of the first one. Austin’s professed reasons for leaving mirror those of the other quitters with his denunciation of a “culture of extremism, antisemitism and intolerance.” But why should party members tolerate behaviour like Austin’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn when the Chilcot report on the run-up to the Iraq war was being discussed in parliament? In very unparliamentary language he told the leader of his own party to “sit down and shut up” and shouted “you’re a disgrace” as Corbyn criticised the Iraq war.

The defecting MPs are especially hostile to Corbyn because his election as party leader has enhanced the influence and assertiveness of the party rank and file, which has brought them into conflict with the privileges of the parliamentary party. This is why the defectors describe the party as “broken.” What truly unites them is their belief in their right to debate how the country should be run while ignoring the opinions and needs of their own members and constituents.

Even the organizational methods of the group reflect corporate financial techniques – incorporating themselves as a company rather than as a political party, which means they do not have to disclose their funders. The “shared values” that the group claims to possess appear to be those of a sense of entitlement to ignore the views of the electorate. They all claim to be working in the “national interest” – that is, the interests of the bankers, landlords, and offshore industrialists who make up the establishment – and cynically demand “leadership” from Jeremy Corbyn. HIs strategy of respecting the referendum result while exposing Theresa May’s dependence on the Tory ultra-right is not regarded by the splinter group as leadership, even though his demand that May should take a no-deal Brexit off the table would have circumscribed her manoeuvring. They want a demagogue who would denounce the referendum and align the Labour party with Tory remainers who represent the affluent beneficiaries of a global economy. Doing so, however, would only strengthen the appeal of the extreme Tommy Robinson right. Labour needs to speak for leavers as well as remainers, making itself a party of all the dispossessed.

Corbyn fired back at the quitters at a rally in former Tory Anna Soubry’s constituency of Broxtowe. He restated the party’s policies such as raising corporation tax to fund free education, and to use the power of government purchasing to end the gender pay gap. “I’m disappointed that a small number of Labour MPs have decided to leave our party and join forces with disaffected Tories, who say they have no problem with austerity that has plunged thousands into desperate poverty and insecurity,” he said. The party’s 2017 manifesto promised an end to austerity, it offered “hope, instead of the same old establishment demand for cuts, privatisation and austerity. That’s why we now back public ownership of the utilities and railways, why we now oppose tuition fees and corporate giveaways, and why we’re no longer afraid to ask the rich to pay their fair share of tax.”

“What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future,” he told the rally. He had reached out to fellow socialist parties in Europe at their conference in Madrid to outline plans for cooperation after Brexit, and explained to them how anger in left-behind communities was behind the referendum result. “What’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Britain is exactly the same as what’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Germany, France, Spain, and many other countries across Europe,” he said. “The real problem is an economic system that discards industrial workers and allows whole communities to collapse and die and good jobs to be replaced by employers like Sports Direct.”

He warned about the growth of the far right across Europe when populist politicians would blame the nearest group of migrant workers for factory closures instead of the multinational companies who moved industries to the next low-wage economy, and called for closer relations with people in Europe. Climate change is a class issue, he said, and he backed the schoolchildren who had organized to protest climate change, adding that green energy would create jobs and protect the environment.

Unlike Watson, who was only concerned with the opinions of other MPs, Corbyn addressed the issues of homelessness, poverty and growing hospital waiting lists in his speech. His calm and successful leadership of the Labour party must be supported against the frantic efforts of the right wing and the corporate media to railroad through a desperate capitulation to Theresa May’s dogmatic plans.

UPDATE: The left-wing blog Counterfire responded to Watson’s challenge by calling for the party leadership to ditch Labour’s “broad church” model and recast the Corbyn project as a “left reformist socialist party. … A clear declaration that Labour wants to build a new socialist party would enthuse hundreds of thousands of activists, recapture the dynamism of the early Corbyn leadership campaigns, re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class, and open up the path to election victory.”

What a left reformist socialist party would mean in practice is unclear, but ditching the party’s centrists and making a declaration of socialism from above, so to speak, is not going to solve Labour’s problems and will not necessarily re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class. What is needed most of all is for Labour to strengthen its connections with the resistance to austerity in the communities and give it political expression. Moreover, the author’s contention that Corbynism is in danger of being killed off if the present regime continues assumes the right has much more power than it does. Counterfire is arguing from the particular standpoint of left activists rather than examining the actual movements of public opinion.

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No “People’s Vote” – fight for a general election now!


The British viewing public on Wednesday evening was treated to the sight of Tory prime minister Theresa May calling on other politicians to find a solution to the problems of her disastrous Brexit plan for the sake of the national interest. What she really meant was for the sake of the irretrievably fragmented Tory party. She appeared oblivious to the devastating parliamentary rejection of her plan the day before, which has further deepened the crisis of the British political class. Among this class are centrist Labour MPs calling for another referendum, or “People’s Vote,” which they hope would reverse the decision of the first one.

These Labour MPs ignore the fact that a new referendum could only be called by the Tory government, which would control the questions to be asked and would not include Labour’s position of a customs union and the preservation of workers’ and consumers’ rights. In addition, such a referendum would take at least seven months to organize, while European parliament elections are to be held in May. Since it would have no representation in the parliament, Britain is effectively out of the European Union already.

Gary Younge commented: “May has spent her premiership not trying to unite the country but her party. She has failed, but her party appreciates the effort. It wasn’t Westminster who backed her [in the no-confidence vote] on Wednesday but the Tories and the Democratic Unionist party, who were paid £1bn for their trouble. Last month a third of Tory MPs said they would rather have another party leader. But having failed in that bid, they would rather have May than Corbyn as leader of their country. So more than 100 Tories voted first to get rid of her, and then to keep her.”

The government is caught in a constitutional conundrum. While a majority of MPs would prefer to remain in the European Union, parliamentary sovereignty was superseded by the electorate’s participation in the referendum. As Chris Bickerton of Cambridge University pointed out, MPs have repeatedly voted to implement its result. “For the House of Commons to endorse a second referendum, it would have to repeal past Brexit legislation in a manner that flouts the position adopted by the main parties in the last general election. Were this to happen, it would tear up established relations between executive and legislature, pitting popular and parliamentary sovereignty against one another. Parliament would in effect be seeking, in a Brechtian fashion, to dissolve ‘the people’ and put another in place that will vote differently in a second referendum.”

May’s negotiations with Brussels have been protracted because of her “red lines” – her insistence on ending freedom of movement, leaving the customs union and single market to pursue an independent trade policy, and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  Her dogged insistence on these conditions stem from her need to balance between the Tory party’s ultra-right leavers and centrist remainers. Her fixed strategy is to run out the clock in order to force acceptance of her deal as the only alternative to the chaos of a no-deal Brexit. Moreover, the inflexibility and arrogance of her negotiating stance has alienated any possible allies within Europe. Tom Kibasi, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, remarked after it emerged she had misled business groups about her withdrawal agreement: “It was as if May sincerely believes that she alone is the arbiter of the national interest and that it should be self-evident that she is right.”

Only a change of government would be a sufficient cause for the EU to renegotiate a deal, which would make it possible to ditch Theresa May’s red lines. According to the Independent, the EU would reopen talks if the red lines were dropped. “Speaking the morning after MPs rejected the prime minister’s deal, Michel Barnier said that the European Council ‘unanimously’ agreed and had ‘always said that if the UK chooses to shift its red lines in the future, and if it makes that choice to be more ambitious and to go beyond a simple free trade agreement, then the EU will be immediately ready to go hand in hand with that development and give a favourable response’.” But there could be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, including the “backstop” hated by the DUP and the Tory ultra-right.

In a supreme historical irony, the Northern Ireland border has become a major stumbling block to any agreement. Partition was enforced in 1921 by the British imperial state to enable the protestant Unionists to stay dominant in the north, where they are a majority. Now the prospect of a hard border in Ireland is being vetoed by the independent Irish state, backed by the EU, while the DUP are implacably opposed to a border in the Irish Sea since it would mean Northern Ireland being treated differently from the UK.

The referendum itself exposed the erosion of parliamentary legitimacy in Britain. Many voters wanted to return to the more stable social-democratic society of the 1950s. For example, Burnley leisure worker Hazel Allen, explained to the Guardian that she voted Leave to protect the NHS, after the town’s A&E unit was closed with no plans to reopen it.  “I have not changed my mind and I don’t want another vote,” she said. “I am deeply disappointed with the government. They could have worked together to achieve what the people wanted, could have been stronger. What we have seen is just weakness and fighting. We voted for something but it doesn’t feel like we’re going to get it. What is the point?” In Glasgow, Lorne Bourhill said that she is against a second vote. “I didn’t want to leave the EU, but people have made their choice. The government should get on with it and find a deal that has enough support. How can I tell my children to vote in a general election if they see decisions being overturned like that?”

The Guardian’s deputy opinion editor, Joseph Harker, wrote a comment piece that was in marked contrast to the paper’s editorial line: “There’s been little attempt to acknowledge the widespread poverty, deprivation, insecurity and marginalisation of so many towns and cities that led them to seek such a drastic solution [as Brexit] to their problems. … I was born and raised in Hull, a medium-sized, solidly working-class city in east Yorkshire. I remember the Thatcher recession of the 1980s, and the hit the city took, along with the collapse of its fishing industry. I also remember feeling incredulous when the media, over the following years, reported the economic boom: the yuppies, the ‘big bang’ in the City of London, the ‘share-owning democracy’. None of that was felt anywhere near us.

“And little has changed. The only two regions of the UK that have recovered after the 2008 crash are London and the south-east. So, during the referendum campaign, to raise the economy as a reason for staying in Europe was always likely to fall on deaf ears – and it did. Yet since 2016, remarkably, most remainers seem to feel that if they keep repeating this message, somehow people will change their minds. It won’t work. … Certainly, few of them are likely to be persuaded by the leading voices in the people’s vote campaign – almost all wealthy and middle class, and most of them southerners. … ‘Why won’t Labour’s leader help us and make all this nightmare end?’ they say. It is of little importance to them that Labour, as a national political party, has to listen to the voices of its northern voters; nor that Corbyn has, so far, played a tactically astute game.

“They forget that in the general election of 2017, less than two years after becoming leader, he gained 3.5 million extra Labour votes (and 1.5 million more than David Cameron had for his majority government in 2015). Corbyn did this backing a soft Brexit. And he did this when there was a clear remain option on the ballot paper – in the form of the Lib Dems, whose vote bombed. Much as the Labour membership is clearly pro-EU, Corbyn’s stance helped Labour in large parts of the country beyond the south-east – it held on to all three seats in Hull, a city that voted 68% leave. He correctly judged that, above all, people wanted to be listened to, and for the misery of austerity to end.”

For Labour to win a general election, it needs the support of voters in swing northern constituencies like Hull as well as its voters in the cities. Corbyn’s strategy is to unite leavers and remainers by focusing on the social problems facing all of them. He told an audience today in Hastings: “While Brexit consumes all the government’s energy, the vital issues that affect people most directly – cash-starved schools, the NHS at breaking point, rising bills, unaffordable housing – have all gone to the back of the queue. Two and a half years of Brexit bungling and failure have left parliament in deadlock. Nothing can be decided. Nothing can get done. We believe that the best outcome for the country remains a general election to break the deadlock and find a solution that works for the whole country.”

The centrist Labour MPs’ call for a second vote should be ignored in favour of Corbyn’s strategy of fighting for a general election to elect a Labour government. There is no point in remaining in the EU if it means keeping a Tory government in power.

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The labour movement must carry out its own inquiry into the Grenfell fire disaster


The decision of the Metropolitan police to pursue charges of “corporate manslaughter” in the Grenfell tower fire is a victory for the survivors and their supporters. The Scotland Yard investigation has said there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect Kensington council and its tenants management organization (TMO) of guilt. This is a direct consequence of the survivors’ continuous struggle for answers and justice for the victims, but it is only a first step in achieving accountability.

The council has lost all credibility, and what the police and government fear is that the state as a whole will permanently lose legitimacy. All its agencies are therefore striving to restore some kind of confidence in the ruling elite. But even prosecutions for corporate manslaughter will not satisfy the demand for justice – only fines are allowable under the law – and while residents are calling for individuals to be jailed, the problem is much wider than the council’s responsibilities to its tenants.

According to the Guardian, “Anger among residents of North Kensington over the causes and consequences of the fire has been mounting in the past six weeks. Public meetings at which officials and politicians have attempted to respond to complaints and questions from members of the community have been conducted in an atmosphere of volatile fury and distress. Police representatives have been heckled and shouted down. Residents have demanded charges be laid against the council, the TMO and the suppliers of the cladding believed to be the cause of the fire’s rapid spread. They have repeatedly complained that the police are being too cautious in their investigation.”

Around 70 survivors were able to force their way into the first full meeting of the council on July 19 by entering through a fire escape, and constantly heckled its new Tory leader, Elizabeth Campbell, with calls for her to stand down, while Labour councillors called for the authority to be taken over by independent commissioners.  The Independent reported: “Eve Wedderburn, who presented a petition with more than 1,500 signatures calling on the council to resign, said the new leader ‘is discredited before she even begins’ and said she had a record of ‘dismantling children’s services’ in her previous role. ‘This village no longer recognises the legitimacy of your estate’, Ms Wedderburn said, turning on its head a comment that councillor Rock Feilding Mellen allegedly made in the aftermath of the fire that: ‘The village cannot dictate to the estate’.” Feilding Mellen is the council’s former deputy leader, who resigned under intense public hostility to the council leadership.

Residents at an earlier consultation meeting attacked local and national officials, politicians, and the council’s “damage limitation” exercise. “We don’t sleep, we don’t eat, we want change, and we want you to engage with us,” said one woman. Another resident said: “Everyone in this room has probably attended 50 meetings in the past four weeks. Every time people say they’re listening to us. But what we want is for you to do your job, and do it properly.”

Successive governments in Britain systematically scaled back building safety regulations, letting cost concerns outweigh the risks and allowing builders to wrap residential apartment towers in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the US and in Europe. The New York Times reported: “Business-friendly governments in Britain — first under Labor and then under the Conservatives — campaigned to pare back regulations. A 2005 law known as the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order ended a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings had met fire codes, and shifted instead to a system of self-policing. Governments adopted slogans calling for the elimination of at least one regulation for each new one that was imposed … ‘If you think more fire protection would be good for U.K. business, then you should be making the case to the business community, not the government,’ Brian Martin, the top civil servant in charge of drafting building-safety guidelines, told an industry conference in 2011, quoting the fire minister then, Bob Neill. (‘Should we be looking to regulate further? ‘No’ would be my answer,’ Mr. Neill added.)”

Even these pared-back regulations seem to have been ignored. A certificate issued by the building inspectors’ organization stating that on tall buildings the insulation used in the tower should only be used with fiber cement panels, which do not burn, was seen by The Guardian. Grenfell was fitted with cheaper combustible polyethylene-filled aluminium panels instead as part of a political drive to cut costs. “In June 2014, KCTMO [the tenants’ management organization] and Rydon [the contractor] reported: ‘We have been busy working with the council’s planning department on the type of cladding which will be used.’ The next month, samples of the cladding were erected ‘for the council’s planners to look at and approve’. But also in July, according to separate leaked internal emails, the council was looking for ‘good costs’ and cheaper cladding panels were substituted, saving almost £300,000.”

Council documents have revealed the contrast between the council’s wealth and its efforts to cut costs on the tower refurbishment. “The Conservative-controlled council raised £4.5m from the sale of two three-bedroom houses in affluent Chelsea. It spent just £3.5m on the whole of the cut-price cladding system for 120 homes, which burned with such ferocity last month … The two council houses on St Luke’s Street were close to the luxury shops of King’s Road in Chelsea and were originally priced at a combined £3.25m, but sold for £1.25m above that. One was bought by a multimillionaire property investor who has been granted permission to dig out a basement extension.”

The Kensington council is acting exclusively on behalf of its extremely affluent residents, which as well as billionaires include many government members and officials, and not on behalf of its poorer council tenants, who are treated as “subhuman”, in the words of one survivor. What was of more concern to the council officials was the aesthetic appearance of the cladding to the richer residents, not its fire-resistant properties.

The chair of the official government inquiry has not won any support from survivors and residents: he has made clear that his inquiry will be limited to the causes of the fire and why it spread so quickly, and will not investigate the wider issues. After an initial hearing, Jacqui Haynes, a resident, felt he was not responsive to the needs of the tenants. She said: “What a load of crap. We don’t want the [judge] who was handpicked by Theresa May.”

Jeremy Corbyn has called for a second inquiry into the national policy issues relating to the treatment of social housing residents. “It is vital that the voice of Grenfell residents and victims’ families are heard throughout the process and that they have full confidence,” he said. The survivors’ insistence on representation on the inquiry and exerting democratic pressure on its scope raises the issue of the state’s responsibility to all its citizens. But a wider inquiry means investigating not only the government’s successive cuts in social housing budgets, and its imperatives for privatization, but also the domination of all levels of the state by the interests of a narrow social elite.

This the government cannot do – it cannot investigate itself. The labour movement should therefore instigate its own inquiry, calling on tenants’ organizations, public sector unions, social activists, and all relevant experts on social policy and housing, to give a clear mandate for the next Labour government to tackle the housing problem on behalf of the many, not the few.

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Who’s to blame? Grenfell tower survivors clash with Theresa May


By insisting on new terms of reference and a new head of the inquiry into the tragic fire at Grenfell tower block in London, the residents and survivors are posing the question: is the state answerable to the people or to a small privileged elite?

Together with the election result, this marks a new stage in a growing revolt against economic hardship and the consequences of the parliamentary imposition of austerity.

The Tories are terrified that the wider implications of their ideology will be exposed, and so have limited the Grenfell inquiry to the technical reasons for the fire. But by fighting to widen the terms of the inquiry, the tenants are fighting for popular sovereignty and against the sovereignty of a parliamentary elite.

In a statement following a meeting in parliament last week, representatives of the residents said: “In order to have legitimacy, the Public Inquiry must undertake a full and proper consultation as to the terms of reference. The initial remarks by Sir Martin Moore-Bick on the first day of his appointment demonstrated an extremely narrow remit which may well have been imposed by him [sic] but which has been understood by many to demonstrate his approach. They also demonstrated a lack of awareness of the concerns of the Grenfell survivors, bereaved and the wider community. The Residents must be provided with a clear and unambiguous opportunity to contribute to setting the terms of references of the Public Inquiry and to remain involved in a meaningful manner.”

The Guardian reported that Ismet Rawat, the president of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, said it was clear to the entire community that the inquiry should address “the extremely important questions raised about our society as a whole and the manner in which those who hold power deal with discrimination and deprivation”.

The government is clearly concerned about the effect on state legitimacy of the Kensington and Chelsea council’s paralysis in the aftermath of the fire, and has forced out the leader and deputy leader of the council. But the issue goes beyond that. The Tories want a new leadership elected solely by the existing councillors – tenants are rightly furious that there will be no public vote on their representation.

The Kensington and Chelsea council is not just any local body. It encompasses the richest as well as the poorest part of London, and Tory council members are closely connected to the national Tory establishment. The details of what happened reflect directly on the elite. The deputy council leader and head of the housing department, who was in control of the refurbishment process, is Rock Feilding-Mellon, a property developer and a direct descendant of the Hapsburgs through the seventh Earl of Denbigh (he’s his great great great grandson) and his mother, the Countess of Wemyss and March, a scion of ancient Scottish aristocracy.

It’s not complicated. The refurbishment of the tower block was awarded to the lowest bidder, Rydon. Instead of conducting due diligence to establish why this company could do the same work for 22 percent less than Leadbitter, the original contractor, who said it could not do the work for less than £11.27 million – clearly, according to tenants, by skimping on the project – the council leadership put political pressure on Rydon to cut the cost even more. This changed the approved refurbishment design to use cheaper and more flammable materials.

According to the Guardian, an “urgent nudge email” was sent by the housing authority to Artelia, its cost consultant, about cladding prices. It said: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow at 8.45am!” The cost cuts brought the refurbishment budget down from £9.25m to £8.65million.  It was the housing authority who requested prices for the cheaper cladding.

This is a transparent indication of the ideological nature of austerity. Kensington and Chelsea council had no reason to push the cost down yet further – it has £300 million socked away in its bank account – except for the political choice to drive the cost down to the lowest possible amount that could be spent on council tenants.

Theresa May has become a symbol of the arrogance of the entire political class which, since Thatcher, has pushed for the privatization of all public assets, especially public housing. Labour’s election programme, “For the many, not the few,” had particular resonance for voters in Kensington who faced the market push to oust poorer tenants and gentrify their homes – leading to the surprise election of a Labour MP in the richest borough in the country. May has avoided meeting with survivors and her vehicle was chased along the street by residents when she visited the scene of the tragedy.

Not counting the £1.5 billion bung to the DUP, nowhere is the magic money tree more obvious than the privatization of council housing management that has enriched various company CEOs and their directors at the cost to council tenants of staggering incompetence, arrogant disrespect, and now their lives.

As well as insisting on investigating the whole context of the fire, including the role of privatized housing management and cost-cutting, the Grenfell survivors’ demands also include:

  • Ensuring a properly diverse expert panel sits alongside the inquiry judge to advise on a variety of issues, including housing need, fire and safety construction.
  • Response team to be available to survivors 24 hours a day.
  • Withdraw Sir Martin Moore-Bick from heading up the inquiry.
  • Centralise all donations into one charity and produce a full record of monies collected.
  • The home secretary to confirm in writing within 28 days that undocumented survivors are given full UK citizenship forthwith.
  • Guarantee that the interim findings will be made public within four months.

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The “Many” Shake Off Their Chains to Defy Britain’s Parliamentary Elites


The stunning result of the British elections last week heralds a sea-change in the country’s politics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn energized a new layer of younger voters to enter into the political process, pushing up Labour’s vote to 40 percent of a greatly increased participation rate and winning 30 seats away from the Tories. He was visibly transformed in the course of his 90 election rallies, becoming more and more assured in his delivery as the response to his message snowballed.

Conventional political wisdom, expounded by the Labour rightwing and the media, had expected May to win with a 100-seat majority. The result showed that this narrative was completely disconnected from the social changes that had propelled youth and students into the election – the damning impact of the Brexit referendum and 10 years of tightening austerity policies that particularly impacted youth.

May is now limping into Brexit negotiations in an unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. For American readers, this is like injecting a dose of fundamentalist Southern crazy into the staid corridors of Westminster: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, evolution-denying and global warming-denying. The DUP will demand more money to spend on schools and hospitals in Northern Ireland – something the Tories have denied to England and Wales – and the neoimperialist Tory hardliners will no doubt balk at that.

But the endemic corruption of the DUP and their past association with Protestant terror groups make them an untrustworthy partner. Their leader, Arlene Foster, is closely connected with the “cash for ash” scandal, a scheme to pay applicants for using renewable energy like wood pellets. The rate paid was more than the cost of heating, meaning that users made profits simply by heating their properties – one farmer is in line to receive £1m of public money over the next 20 years for heating an empty shed. Foster’s refusal to take responsibility for the lack of cost controls led to the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland (there is no government at all in the devolved Stormont parliament at the moment).

Corbyn is right to declare victory. He has consolidated his leadership of the Labour party and shattered the remnants of Blairite neoliberal philosophy with a dynamic campaign for an anti-austerity manifesto. Understandably, rightwing Labour MPs are angry. They had hoped for a massive Labour defeat they could have blamed on Corbyn and had plans to launch a new centrist party, now of course abandoned. While begrudgingly acknowledging his electoral success, they immediately began to badmouth his leadership, accusing him of missing an “open goal” by not winning an overall majority – even though the loss of Scottish seats to the SNP in 2015 made an outright Labour victory nearly impossible.

The result has also strengthened the hand of Momentum activists within the Labour party. While the Labour establishment channeled resources into defending the safe majorities of centrist MPs, Momentum mobilized its supporters for the hard work of campaigning in marginal constituencies, contributing to Labour wins in places like Bedford and Croydon. According to Skwawkbox, “Up in Bolton West, the Tories won the seat in 2015 by 801 votes. Labour’s Julie Hilling had an excellent chance of ousting Tory Chris Green. Ms Hilling received so little support that she had no funding even for Labour garden stakes. She did not even receive a campaign manager from Labour central – her campaign had to be run by volunteers with no experience. Ms Hilling fought a brave campaign but, on a night where Labour was making even astonishing gains like Canterbury, she lost by the narrow margin of 936 votes.”

Corbyn and Momentum have been vindicated, giving Momentum an advantage over Labour MPs who confined their election material to local issues and refused to even mention Corbyn or national Labour policies. However, the election was decided by the support generated around Labour’s manifesto, contrasting with Tory missteps over May’s “dementia tax” and her awkward U-turn. Even two terror attacks did not distract voters from the way austerity cuts had made citizens more vulnerable – Boris Johnson, former London mayor and bookies’ choice to replace May as Tory leader, famously removed barriers from London and Westminster bridges seven years ago because he didn’t like their aesthetic, which is why the terrorists were able to drive unhindered on the pavement to kill pedestrians.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones honourably made an admission that his assessment of Corbyn was wrong: “Labour is now permanently transformed. Its policy programme is unchallengeable. It is now the party’s consensus. It cannot and will not be taken away. Those who claimed it could not win the support of millions were simply wrong. No, Labour didn’t win, but from where it started, that was never going to happen. That policy programme enabled the party to achieve one of the biggest shifts in support in British history – yes, eclipsing Tony Blair’s swing in 1997. Social democracy is in crisis across the western world. British Labour is now one of the most successful centre-left parties, many of which have been reduced to pitiful rumps under rightwing leaderships. And indeed, other parties in Europe and the United States should learn lessons from this experience.”

The French Socialist party is a prime example. Once the ruling party, its turn to austerity policies under former leader Francois Hollande cut its vote share down to just 9.5% in Sunday’s elections, setting it on course to lose 200 seats. The Labour party would have followed it into oblivion if the Blairites had succeeded in ousting Corbyn and running the party their way. However, under Corbyn it gained 150,000 new members after the election, raising party membership to around 800,000.

As well as calling for free tuition for university students, building thousands of new homes, and a stronger National Health Service, Labour’s manifesto revives the idea of the democratization of the economy: “In government, Labour would give more people a stake – and a say – in our economy by doubling the size of the co-operative sector and introducing a ‘right to own,’ making employees the buyer of first refusal when the company they work for is up for sale. We will act to ‘insource’ our public and local council services as preferred providers,” the manifesto says.

The most significant part of the manifesto is its plan to finance these measures by increased taxes on the top five percent and corporations. This highlights the inequality created by the Tories through the entire period of austerity by tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poorest. It showed that there was a “magic money tree” but only for the extremely wealthy; Labour called for this wealth to be used for the benefit of the rest of society.

Corbyn’s message of hope – “For the Many, Not the Few” – inspired popular comedian Steve Coogan at an election rally in Birmingham to support him with the words of  Romantic poet Percy Shelley, written after the Peterloo massacre in 1819:

“Rise, like lions from the slumber
“In unvanquishable number!
“Shake loose your chains like morning dew
“Which in sleep were placed on you:
“Ye are many – they are few!”

Like Bernie Sanders in the US, politics have been impacted by the rise of a social movement opposed to neoliberal austerity and fighting for jobs, healthcare and education. The lions are rising to challenge the plutocratic few.

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