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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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Fighting for Their Lives vs. Parliamentary Fictions: Members Reclaim the Labour Party for the People


Rank and file Labour party members in Britain, whether or not they support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, are acutely aware of the implications of major Tory cuts in benefits that affect thousands of people. This awareness has spurred sections of the membership into a new democratic activism that sets them against the parliamentary wing of the party.

Much of the Tory legislation was smuggled in by stealth, with some Labour MPs voting in favour, and is only now being put into effect. As a result, many families don’t realize the extent of the assault on their living standards about to take place – not even counting the Brexit effect on food prices due to hit them in the new year.

Liverpool city councillor Jane Corbett writes in the Guardian that 840 households in her city alone could soon face eviction. “They will all be affected by the new, lower benefit cap of £20,000 being introduced from 7 November. This follows a tsunami of regressive changes to the benefits system since 2010, including the bedroom tax, the freezing of benefit rates and cuts to equivalent working tax credits for those on universal credit. … Aside from the devastating social consequences and stress, in financial terms all this policy is doing is shifting the cost from the government over to the council, housing associations and our other local partners. This at the same time as we’re facing huge cuts to our budgets: £90m alone in the case of Liverpool city council over the next three years.”

These issues are literally life and death for many people: after losing their homes or being refused benefits, there has been a rise in incidents of suicide. Even Conservative councils have protested the loss of £600 millions of educational services grants despite being given a new legal requirement to run support services for local schools.

Ex-front bencher Angela Eagle recently showed just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is from the issues confronting poorer communities. She called on fellow MPs to develop Labour policy by answering “the questions that face people in their everyday lives” such as the abstractions of “growing automation and the loss of jobs,” rather than the immediate attacks on housing benefits or the withdrawal of support for the disabled. Her assumption that only MPs can determine policy is countered by party members’ beginning to assert their right to democracy within the party.

Likewise, at a time when the government plans to rapidly decimate social entitlements, Labour’s  soft left is obsessed with the electoral implications of Brexit and has decided to recover a lost political centre by restoring a native English collectivism. Jonathan Rutherford of “Labour Together” writes that Brexit “was a vote against globalisation and a reassertion of an English and British common national inheritance over the progressive cosmopolitan culture of the elites.” Jeremy Corbyn, he says, represents this elite, but the party needs instead “a new Labour political philosophy and political economy which draws on values that are widely shared amongst voters: family, work, decency, fairness and responsibility.”

Apart from the Tory assault on the social safety net, what Rutherford also omits to mention is the role of the Blairite years in fostering cynicism among working class communities about Labour politicians and the massive increase in inequality the Blair government helped to sustain. His celebration of “patriotic socialism” and traditional English values is essentially an ideological framing of the Brexit vote. Britain’s national inheritance, heavily fashioned by imperial privilege, also includes a mean-spirited and vindictive ruling elite that built its wealth on slavery and colonial exploitation, and is skilled in manipulating voters with propaganda masquerading as news.

It’s hard to disagree with Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s campaign director, when he told the Huffington Post: “there are a huge amount of people in the PLP who … have no skills in terms of community organising. No skills in terms of building a movement. No strategy for winning a general election and are kind of quite intellectually bankrupt.” “I think really this sort of new left that has been born in the Labour Party, that really is the only sort of strategy we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got to make it work,” he added. “That’s actually building a far bigger project than just Corbyn himself. He is a lightning rod, he’s a conductor, he’s that person who symbolises a more just, a more equal and more sustainable society.”

Corbyn’s supporters are determined to campaign against Tory cuts, and at the recent Labour Assembly Against Austerity in London made clear that they viewed it as their responsibility to decide Labour’s policies for the next election. That brings them into conflict with party’s MPs and right wing, which is mounting a rearguard action by suspending leading members of Momentum from the party.

Momentum’s next step is to fight for positions in the Labour party apparatus, not the issue of deselection of MPs. In London, the party’s regional board elections will take place in November, and Momentum’s candidates will face competition from the soft left as well as the right. The board is important not only because it will play an important role in councillor selections and dealing with the constituency boundary review, but also because it will hear appeals from people unfairly barred from voting in the leadership election.

Outside of London, Momentum activists have already won some victories in changing the leadership of some constituency parties. They have done so because of their readiness to fight on issues of inequality and social justice. Within Momentum itself there are frustrating issues of democratic structure, but it has enabled like-minded activists to find a network for political expression for the first time.

As Hilary Wainwright explains about her local Momentum group in Hackney, “we try to ensure that our meetings always include a discussion with local campaigns – like the occupation of empty council houses by Sisters Uncut, seeking to create and get council support for a centre for women facing domestic violence. We discuss with them how Momentum can support them, build their social base, their alliances and their political impact. We focus on this promotion of grassroots solutions alongside political education aimed at the young people enthused by the new politics and canvassing for the Labour Party and opening up local party structures to the creative initiatives around them. Our own institutions are being built to facilitate this dual strategy of reaching outside the Labour Party as well as working inside it.”

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Heckuva Job, David! Is Flooding in Northern England Cameron’s Katrina?


British Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to cover the government’s tracks as disastrous flooding in the north of England makes a mockery of his claims to be taking responsibility for citizens’ safety. The press and parliament have so far not made an effective challenge to his public relations spin, but victims of the floods have shown their contempt. In a rare sighting of the prime minister by a member of the public, a woman shouted: “No more cuts to public services.”

During a photo-opportunity visit to emergency workers in York on Monday (so avoiding working-class Leeds), Cameron called the disaster unprecedented, rhetorically disconnecting it from his government’s defunding of state agencies. In reality it is a disaster of refusing to act on documented warnings by state officials and a willingness to take risks with people’s lives and property for the sake of advancing a destructive agenda of austerity.

After the flooding of three major British cities – York, Leeds, and Manchester – Cameron claimed that a lot of money was already being spent on flood defences and thousands of homes had been protected, pledging that the government would “help people in their hour of need and respond to unprecedented levels of rainfall.” As the Independent pointed out, “the implication here is that the freakish weather is so outlandishly unreal, so Old Testament, that no amount of government preparation, no flood defences, no civil contingency planning could possibly have mitigated its effects.”

However, the Guardian reported, as late as October this year the government decided not to develop a strategy to address the risk of increased flooding even after being warned by its official climate change advisers that it urgently needed to take action. And the cautions were specific: “Yorkshire’s regional flood and coastal committee (RFCC) warned about the potential impact of the region’s revenue funding gap just weeks before floods overran towns and cities in the region.” The actual state of the defences was brought into sharp relief after pumping equipment in York was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of water.

The conservative Yorkshire Post said Cameron “was left on the back foot after Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds Council, claimed the disaster was ‘preventable’ and would not have been allowed to occur in the South. … [he] is facing a tide of public anger after it emerged that the Government dug deep last December to finance a £300m scheme to protect the Thames Valley after previously rejecting a £180m scheme to safeguard 4,500 homes in Leeds city centre, one of the areas worst affected by the Christmas deluge.”

The same paper commented in an editorial: “The prime minister repeatedly used the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe this winter’s storms. Yet every fortnight brings ‘unprecedented’ levels of new flooding and the same pious platitudes from politicians, such as the environment secretary, Liz Truss, whose rhetoric is increasingly economical with the truth.” While claiming her department is spending more on flood prevention, “she chooses to overlook the fact that many schemes are subject to partnership funding from councils and other agencies whose budgets have been decimated by spending cuts.”

Earlier, in 2012, “the government’s own research showed increased flooding is the greatest threat posed by climate change in England. But when heavy flooding hit in the summer of 2012, the Guardian revealed that almost 300 proposed flood defences had not gone ahead as planned following the cuts. A £58m scheme in Leeds – one of the cities hit in the latest round of flooding – was one affected project, which would have saved many times its cost in avoided damages.”

In Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, residents attacked the government’s inaction. The town was devastated by floods in 2012, but the latest flooding was worse, they said. “The government has done nothing to help us,” said local shop owner Janet Chew-Tetlaw. “They come round and say what they are going to do and make big promises, but nothing ever comes out of it. … All this is because culverts do not get cleared by the Environment Agency, the water is running off the moors because the trees are being cut down – destroying natural flood defences – and planning permission has been given for big housing developments on the hillsides, so there is no earth to soak up the water.”

What the situation demands is a bold political intervention to change land usage and to rebuild flood defences for future storms, like the Dutch, who have spent the past decade “deepening and widening rivers, creating new side canals that provide extra capacity, and setting aside land as dedicated flood plains. … All this so that when the water does come, the swollen rivers can expand without flooding homes and causing misery.” However, the British government’s role is one of cutting infrastructure spending and succumbing to business interests like farming and real estate that put short-term profit over longer-term safety.

Cameron’s social base is the financiers of the City of London who want negligible taxation on their wealth to avoid contributing to the common good. While in the last election he was successful in convincing enough of the property-owning middle class that austerity would secure their fortunes, it is now clear that defunding the state destroys essential conditions for normal life.

The only politician who has consistently spoken out for higher spending on public assets is Jeremy Corbyn. His social base is people who have already been affected by government cuts, for example in social services and public housing. Instead of repeatedly trying to undermine Corbyn, Labour MPs like the right-wing Simon Danczuk should forget about sending a few jets to Syria and get more helicopters to northern Britain. The biggest danger facing the British is not the threat of terrorism, but the Cameron government’s readiness to risk the lives of its own citizens in order to hang on to its support in the City of London.

Vying with UKIP leader Nigel Farage to be Britain’s answer to Donald Trump, Danczuk now calls for diverting the whole of foreign aid into shoring up the country’s aging infrastructure. This demagogic posturing accepts there is no alternative to austerity budgets by assuming no more money can be forthcoming for essential public projects from taxing the rich.

Will Cameron’s dishonest platitudes generate enough pushback from the electorate for this to be his Katrina moment? It certainly should. Heckuva job, David!

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Corbyn’s Energized Supporters Counter Blairite Rhetoric


The British Labour party is today divided into two camps. There is the newly-enlarged membership that overwhelmingly elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader; then there is the parliamentary Labour party that is mortified by having Corbyn as leader.

They are oriented to different demographics. Corbyn’s campaign energized party members who had been excluded from decision-making, together with young people who had no previous party affiliation but who are closely connected with the real life problems of housing, jobs and benefits, as Corbyn was able to articulate in his questions to Cameron in parliament.

A grassroots network formed from Corbyn’s leadership campaign organization, Momentum, seeks to extend Labour’s support by launching a mass voter registration drive aimed at reaching people currently not politically active. The phasing out of household voter registration and redrawing of constituency boundaries bids to further gerrymander the archaic electoral system that disenfranchised many of the voters in the last election. Momentum organizer Emma Rees said Corbyn’s campaign promised “a politics that engaged with those shut out from the political system.”

His election victory has also energized a significant slice of the public outside the Labour party – membership of the anti-nuclear movement CND has soared, for example. Corbyn himself is a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, much to the discomfort of many Labour MPs, including the shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle.

Most of the parliamentary party is oriented to the political “middle ground” beloved of New Labour and so did not anticipate Corbyn’s grassroots support. The political middle ground is code for an “aspirational” middle class that may express its concern about the problems of the poor or of refugees but is more concerned about its own lifestyle. It was comparatively easy therefore for David Cameron to appropriate Blairite rhetoric in his speech to the Tory party conference, since he was targeting the same demographic. Early in his address he spoke of how “social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world’s poorest” were now “at the centre of the Conservative Party’s mission.”

Despite the speech’s blatant contradiction with the government’s actions, and its Flashman-like bullying attack on Corbyn, the Blairite Martin Kettle was taken in by its rhetorical similarities. He commented: “both the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and perhaps even the 2015 Tory government … have also been concerned about fairness and social justice, which Thatcherism always disdained. So it might be more useful to think of the Cameron governments … more as alternative successors to new Labour rather than to Thatcher.”

His ideological orientation to the theoretical political centre is shared by most Labour MPs and has led to a destabilizing tension within the parliamentary party. So far, 20 of them have rebelled by ignoring the party whip and refusing to vote against Tory austerity plans. In addition, 50 threatened to vote in favour of bombing Syria in defiance of popular sentiment, joining with Tory MPs in an all-parliamentary group devoted to pushing for military action.

While the British may still believe in “fair play”, the belief in symbols of imperial ascendancy lives on – at least in the minds of the political class. There is a self-deceptive shouldering of British responsibility to police the moral conduct of the rest of the world, which by sheer chance coincides with supporting US foreign policy, requiring military intervention abroad to make sure unrest there does not interfere with the business of making money at home. So, predictably, in their search for an “ethical” solution to the civil war in Syria that does not rule out bombing, Labour MP Jo Cox joined with Tory MP Andrew Mitchell to call for “a military component that protects civilians as a necessary prerequisite to any future UN or internationally provided safe havens.”

The ongoing civil war between Assad and increasingly radicalized fundamentalist fighters is rhetorically solved in this formulation by the creation of imaginary “safe havens” for refugees. Since no troops are going to make sure these areas of the map remain safe, they remain a political fiction for the purpose of justifying a symbolic bombing of Syrian targets, at the same time appeasing the conscience of the liberal elite and avoiding the need to abandon its occupation of the moral high ground.

Middle East expert Juan Cole, who in contrast to the politicians actually knows something about Syria, objects to Hillary Clinton’s use of the same empty rhetoric. He points out: “these ‘safe zones’ would attract rebels who would use them as bases from which to attack the regime, inviting regime attacks. They would only remain safe zones if some military force guarded their perimeters. But which military force would undertake that task?” He describes the pretence that there is a big group of “moderates” with which the West could ally as a “frankly dishonest discourse.”

If the experts on dishonest discourse in the British parliament take the issue to a vote (after signally failing in 2013), and enough Labour MPs vote against the popular mood, they will dig the party’s grave in England as they did in Scotland. With more members campaigning on the doorsteps and engaging with issues like housing and benefit cuts, MPs’ indifference would increase the momentum for the restoration of the right of constituency organizations to select their own candidates without interference from the party establishment.

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Britain’s Anti-Austerity Revolt: Labour Gives Overwhelming Victory to Jeremy Corbyn


Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory in the election for Labour party leader in Britain represented a spontaneous upsurge from both inside and outside the party, despite the open hostility of most Labour MPs. It restored political agency to Labour supporters who had been disenfranchised by the Blairite leadership and who fused with an anti-austerity movement that had been building outside the party for some years.

The party’s membership soared to over 400,000 as enthusiasm for the leadership election grew, making it the largest political party in Britain. Significantly, the members include a huge influx of a new generation of activists, alienated up until now from the political system and radicalized by the gutting of British society by a Tory government attuned only to the needs of the City. Many ex-party members and left activists rejoined in order to support Corbyn’s campaign.

For example, Rebecca Prentice, a doctor from Crouch End in North London, told reporters she joined the Labour party immediately after this year’s general election “because she was so angry at the result and because she was seeing every day what Tory policy was doing to the NHS.” When Corbyn was nominated, for the first time in her life “someone was up there saying what I believed in.” Laura Parker, who leads a children’s charity, said she had “lost faith” in Labour years ago, but was inspired by Corbyn to rejoin. “This is a man who is absolutely principled, who is interested in debate about ideas and who doesn’t care what color tie you wear,” she said.

A groundswell of enthusiasm built from Corbyn’s last-minute nomination, as people began to volunteer for his campaign. According to The Guardian, he attracted over 16,000 volunteers in three months. Seumas Milne commented: “By any reckoning, Corbyn’s election and the movement that delivered it represent a political eruption of historic proportions. Whatever now happens, such a fundamental shift cannot simply be reversed. Eight years after economic crisis took hold of the western world, the anti-austerity revolt has found its voice in Britain in an entirely unexpected way.”

Corbyn has given this revolt a focus and direction, challenging Tory austerity ideology when Labour’s official response was to abstain on welfare cuts. Gary Younge pointed out: “For the past couple of decades the Labour leadership has looked upon the various nascent social movements that have emerged – against war, austerity, tuition fees, racism and inequality – with at best indifference and at times contempt. They saw its participants, many of whom were or had been committed Labour voters, not as potential allies but constant irritants.” These movements included a massive anti-austerity protest earlier this year that mobilized tens of thousands in major cities.

Corbyn’s opposition to the dominant political narrative appears to reiterate ideas from the 1970s. But in today’s context, where the political class has shifted to the far right, his commitment to public investment has a popular appeal. Renationalization of the railways has overwhelming public support from rail passengers who now pay the highest fares in Europe to travel on services that are all too often unreliable and overcrowded. Scrapping tuition fees, resetting rent controls on landlords, increasing the top tax rate and a mandatory living wage all have general support; even scrapping the Trident nuclear system is favored by 64 percent of the public.

The newly-elected leader also pledged to end cuts and privatization of the cash strapped National Health Service. Its dire situation is reflected by an organization representing doctors in general practice which recently reported that, despite their efforts to meet rising demand, “unprecedented rises in patient demand” means that “the saturation point has been hit even by the most competently working practices in London” as doctors attempt to deal with the knock-on effect from cuts to hospital services.

Corbyn’s rhetoric in his victory speech mixed biblical imagery with a collectivist sentiment that resonates with the ethical sensibility of Labour voters: “I want us, as a movement, to be proud, strong and able to stand up and say, ‘We want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system; instead, we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’.”

At his first opportunity to question Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, Corbyn noted that many people he had spoken to wanted above all for their voices to be heard in parliament. So he began with a question from Marie in Putney, who asked about the UK’s housing crisis after Corbyn had appealed for ideas from the public. According to the Independent, she joined the Labour party after his campaign caught her eye. “All around where I live we are surrounded by buildings going up … completely surrounded by massive new flat developments … those are flats for rich people. No ordinary working person on an average wage could even begin to contemplate buying one of those, and social housing itself is being completely demolished by this completely stupid policy of selling off the housing stock.”

But Corbyn’s performance in parliament is hardly crucial, notwithstanding the parliamentary fetishism of many journalists. The rejection of his leadership campaign by so many Blairite MPs has exposed their hand and his overwhelming majority weakens their ability to undermine his authority. Gary Younge pointed to “an elemental clash between MPs, many of whom made it to Westminster courtesy of a centralised vetting operation, and a vastly expanded membership who want to take control of their own party.”

Corbyn has encouraged a movement that continues to grow, transforming the Labour party in the process. Left commentator Richard Seymour argues: “Corbyn has said that his campaign is about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. That’s the only chance he and his supporters have.” But this is something that has already happened. A grassroots movement against austerity has flooded into the Labour party. As these members assert sovereignty over their constituencies, they will clash with the centralized party bureaucracy in Transport House over policy and selection (or possibly deselection) of parliamentary candidates.

The Guardian, interviewing Labour voters about their reaction to Corbyn’s win, noted their sense of relief that the parliamentary party can no longer ignore the views of its membership. “Finally I feel I have a choice,” said Sam Brazier. “We, the people, have given the party a very clear mandate. They are there to represent us, not dictate how we should think, feel or vote.”

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