The English Question: Democracy or jingoism?

As was predicted the Scottish Referendum, despite not breaking the dam of the UK state has stirred the stagnant waters of British political life.

It has shocked the system and bounced the British political elite into making promises of further devolution that they may not be able to keep, and can only keep by seriously disturbing the constitutional balance of the UK.

This may sound like a dull subject, but a year ago most people south of the border (and there were few enough that had any opinions at all on this) were predicting the independence referendum would be a damp squib.

It would not be the first time that the question of the redistribution of constitutional power in the UK upset the applecart. Three times promises to grant Ireland Home Rule within the UK (devolution, not independence) up-ended the British political system. In 1883 it split the ruling Liberal Party, in 1912 it almost led to civil war in Ireland, and indeed a few years later the country did explode in violence.

Scotland is not Ireland, but as the sheer panic of our rulers in the last few weeks has made clear, it does represent a major problem for the system.

Tam Dalyell’s last laugh

The granting of extra powers will reopen for the Tories the West Lothian Question, raised in the 1970s by Tam Dalyell, the MP for the eponymous seat. The question asks why Scottish MPs can vote on English affairs but English MPs cannot vote on Scottish affairs (which incidentally makes them politically unaccountable for voting for policies that their electors do not have to suffer the consequences of, such as privatisation and deregulation which they loyally voted for under Blair).

The West Lothian question has been quietly ignored since devolution, not really much disturbing even most Tories. But it is being revived by a Tory party furious at Cameron’s panicked promises of Devo Max.

Its revival now is entirely instrumental, not having anything to do with the fairness or not of the current arrangements. It is being raised in order divert attention from the obvious democratic deficit in our society, and provide an alternative to real democratic reform

The referendum has shown up the decline of democracy in British society, and in particular the hyper-centralisation of power in Westminster, and the foisting on people of a whole series of neoliberal policies, effecting every aspect of life, that they never voted for.

It is also a reaction to the government’s austerity program: something which the Tories argued for in 2010, and was decisivedly rejected by the electorate, but is being implemented regardless. Another clear example of the undemocratic nature of our state and society.

Everybody in British society knows that there is a yawning democratic deficit: that decisions are made elsewhere, by people we can’t really influence. This is the basis of the appeal of Ukip, it’s just that they locate the shadowy elite that dominate our lives in Brussels. Obvious nonsense, but that is point, the object is to direct blame away from the corporate and financial interests who dominate our country.

An English Parliament – a Rump Parliament

The Tories know that it is now game on, that the edifice of the pseudo democracy that they have erected is wobbling, and they are coming out fighting.

Their battle cry for a new settlement for England is an English Parliament.

Of course no one is actually saying that England should have a new Parliament as Scotland has, or even an Assembly like Wales.

What they actually mean is that only English MPs voting on English affairs, which, given the balance of population in the UK (85% live in England), is most of the work of government.

A more undemocratic, jingoist lash-up can hardly be imagined.

An English parliament would serve the Tories four ways:

1) It is a way to whip up English nationalism, always the core the British nationalism, ethnically exclusive and tied to memories of Empire.

2) It would shift the balance of power in parliament towards the Tories. The question of the role of Scottish MPs in forming a UK government has been controversial on the left in the referendum campaign, for there is a difference between taking the Scots out of the equation and Wales and Northern Ireland out too. Even if in 2005 Labour would have had a majority of 43 in England, in the last General election the Tories would have had a majority of thirty in England, freeing their hand to do what they like. We are also now in a period when both Labour and the Tories have difficulty gaining a majority. Every seat matters.

3) An English Parliament would preserve the undemocratic nature of parliament and rule from Westminster. An English Parliament would be even more dominated by the big three parties than the current arrangement.

An English parliament would just be a rump House of Commons still elected by First Past the Post. It would still use an electoral system invented in the late Medieval period to elect a body which meets in a neo-Gothic palace presided over by men in tights in turn presided over by men in gowns. What a  step forward!

4) An English parliament would also preserve the balance of power in England, the most hyper-centralized country in the Western world. Local government would remain a shell, power concentrated in government departments and the quangos and big privatised services.

The calls from an ‘English Parliament” should be vehemently opposed, as an attempt to preserve the most undemocratic features of the status quo.

Democratise England

We should demand the opposite, the democratisation of our state.

For the referendum and the riot of democracy seen in Scotland has opened the question of the undemocratic nature of government in this country, the legacy of a monarchical-aristocratic state that absorbed the demands of the capitalist class, and then made concessions (if few) to the working class.

The latter have now been withdrawn and the political system has been reduced to a closed shop entirely dominated by corporate interests. All power has been drawn again to the top of the state, and the main parties, where they intersect with corporate world. All other levels of government have been deprived of power. Without the lifeblood of the struggle for power, the ability to change things, grassroots politics has withered and died. Much of the civil society activity that does go on is dominated by grant chasing from quangos and corporate cash, and civil society has to follow their agenda.

Devolution in England

Anther cry is going up in England: the call to restore local democracy, for devolution in England.

This is an idea that really frightens the Conservatives, who ridiculously warn about Balkanisation, or even the in Norman Tebbit’s case the threat of Sharia Law.

The shrillness of their denunciations is indicative of their worry. It has nothing to do with efficiency or sense, every other major European government has extensively devolved regional and local government. The United States, which they admire so much, gives most every day aspects of government to the states (which also shows that it is not a panacea in itself).

But most people in this country, even many Tories and Ukip voters, have views to the left of the three many parties

Outside the straightjacket of Westminster’s out of touch political machines, away from corporate lobbyists and the narrow options of First Past The Post, politics tends to plough a different furrow.

Neoliberalism has thrived in the decades or political torpor. It desires a population of passive consumers; a society of social actors is inimical to it.

Having real policies to discuss and debate, would revive local politics and political participation.  It would let people have control of their local education systems and health services again.

The lesson is that away from the centre, the political power of neoliberalism is reduced. This is why British governments have ruthlessly centralised for three decades. This is why Thatcher destroyed local government in the 1980s and New Labour centralised public services in the 2000s, and why today an austerity-driven offensive against devolution is being waged across Europe.

Democracy now

Three decades of neoliberalism have eaten away at democracy in every aspect of our society. Union power and the democracy that enabled in the workplace was destroyed. The state has become ever more centralised, more secretive and more of its functiones have been hived off to the corporate world.

We need to start taking that power back. The debate over power in the state has suddenly gone live again. We need to democratise the state in all its aspects, but for now the battle lines are clear: we want democracy restored not jingoism revived.

Breaking the spell: Scotland’s democratic revolt

The spell that has held official British politics as if frozen for thirty years is being broken. Like Narnia, a political winter has been upon us, the victims of neoliberalism turned to stone. But, in Scotland at least, people are again waking up and moving.

The Establishment’s shock at this palpable. People are on the streets, campaigning, challenging the status quo.

This is what general elections used to be like, but is clearly not to the taste of the political class. Accusations of intimidation are flying. Somebody shouted at a politician, another had a rough reception, the imperial emissaries of MPs, advisers, PR flaks and flunkies might not be welcomed on the streets and are mocked. That people might challenge our masters, that they may be impassioned angry – this is all treated as strange and unacceptable.

Cutting people’s wages, or taking their jobs and benefits away from them. That’s all fine. People are supposed to passively accept that.

The referendum has politically mobilized people who have been voiceless for decades and are now coming out to speak for themselves. The spell has been broken. The political winter is ending.

Crisis

The UK is about to enter a period of constitutional and political turmoil unseen since the “Edwardian Crisis” of a hundred years ago.

The precipitating factor has been the independence referendum, but the combustible material has been building up for years: discontent with austerity and ever-growing inequality, a declining faith in the political system and the parties that is turning to outright hostility and a broad feeling that we no longer live in a democracy.

In England, this discontent has so far been most successfully channeled by the right, and in particular Ukip. They have, of course, had the help of the media, and the right of the Tory party, who are happy to have a stick to beat their own leaders with for failing to be right-wing enough.

However the Scottish referendum has changed the script.

Given the opportunity to have a national discussion about the sort of society people want to live in, and being able to have it outside of the boundaries of the two-and-a-half-party system in Westminster, a large part of the Scottish people are demanding a different vision of society to that which dominates political discourse in England.

Scotland is not different

Not that this is because Scotland is inherently more left-wing than England, or that somehow Scots are more progressive or more collectivist. Historically this hasn’t been true, and Scottish society still has very conservative tendencies within it, often expressed through the Scottish Labour Party.

The things people want to defend, such as the NHS, and the changes people would like to see brought about are exactly the same across the UK. The difference in Scotland is only that these ideas have had a political expression.

There is UK-wide support for policies far, far to the left of the Westminster consensus. For example, a Yougov poll earlier this year found that 68% of the public say the energy companies should be run in the public sector, which includes 52% of Conservative voters and 74% of Ukip voters.

66% support nationalising the railway companies while only 23% think they should be run privately. Renationalisation is backed by 52% of Conservatives and 72% of Ukip supporters.

On the NHS, 84% of the public say the health service should be run in the public sector. Only 13% of Conservative voters say that it should be run by private companies

More surprisingly the public split 45%-43% in favour of rent controls and fully 35% of people think the government should be able to control food prices.

People’s views on inequality are also not what might be expected. Another poll by Yougov showed that 65% of people support introducing a mansion tax, more (49%) of Tory voters support this than oppose it (41 %) and half (50%) of Britons say they would support a wealth tax being introduced,

Given his party’s policies on tax Nigel Farage might also be surprised to learn that 57% of Ukip voters support a 50p tax rate top earners, almost the same as the national figure at 61%.80% of Ukip supporters saying tackling the gap between rich and poor should be more of a government priority than cutting taxes or the benefits bill an ICM poll found. In fact contrary to media myth the pay gap is now greater of greater concern to Ukip supporters than immigration, the benefits bill or the EU.

So on these issues Tory and Ukip voters are to the left of the Labour Party!

The reality is that on many of the most basic issues about the way the state should work, the way it should be financed, the political priorities of government and the distribution of wealth in society, the majority of people’s views are well out of kilter from the political parties.

In fact, it would be fair to say these views have no expression in the political system at all.

It is little wonder that politicians would rather obsess about immigration and Europe. Ukip has turned concern about these issues into a political program that distracts from even their voters own major concerns.

They have in part been successful because they have been able to play on people’s disenchantment with the “political elite” and an obvious democratic deficit. Ukip has an explanation for this, and like all populist parties have an elite to blame: the EU and their local agents, an aloof cosmopolitan elite, of which Cameron and Osborne are meant to be prime examples.

Neoliberalism: incompatible with democracy

Ukip has moulded and shaped from the right a common feeling in our society: that democracy is disappearing, that ordinary people are being excluded and left voiceless. This is undoubtedly true: our democracy has been on the decline for three decades. This is unsurprising. Neoliberalism is incomparable with democracy.

The neoliberal assault on the economic system has been accompanied by an assault on democracy. Local government has been neutered and stripped of its powers, the state has been ruthlessly centralized, as have the parties that aspire to run it. Many areas of the state have been hived off and privatized, their workings hidden behind walls of commercial secrecy, and these same companies protect themselves from scrutiny by funding the major political parties.

As a result participation and interest in politics has withered; party grass roots activity has collapsed. In the past, when democracy became an unwanted encumbrance it has been liquidated with bayonets and jackboots. This time its murder has been quieter, slower, less noticeable. Rather than a death being brought about by a sudden lunge and a poisonous bite, democracy has had the life slowly squeezed out of as if by an anaconda.

Most political decisions are now taken at the summit of the state where government and the party leaderships (both those in power and those who wish to be) meet with corporate power and (in particular in this country), high finance. This process was been greatly facilitated in this country by our First Past The Post electoral system which effectively ossifies the party system and makes it near impossible for new parties to achieve representation.

Unions, once the most powerful institutions in civil society, have long been tamed, their power in the workplace, and their ability to project it into society and the political system greatly circumscribed. They have little influence even in Labour, the party they founded.

The vast majority of the population have found themselves excluded from politics by the decline of the state’s representative institutions and the lack of any party to represent their views. They have in large part reacted by political passivity, the perfect outcome for the continuation of neoliberalism.

Break in Scotland

This whole neoliberal system of power has in this country worked well for two decades. Since the Poll Tax revolt of 1989-1990, it has managed to avoid any major challenge to the status quo. There have been other outbursts, such as the anti-war movement, which though fantastically successful at delegitimising Britain’s imperial adventures, did not create a vehicle for broader domestic dissidence.

The Scottish referendum has blown a whole in the whole edifice of power, it has torn down at least a corner of its façade.

It has become a very direct and clear manifestation of the fact that most people want to live in very different kind of society to the one the political elite tells us we all want.

It has raised the question of democracy in society, challenging the highly centralised and oligarchic nature of rule from Westminster.

It has also revealed more clearly than ever, at least to the Scots, the network of vested interests that sustains the political establishment, and the way in which  they are wiling to mobilise their power in the most undemocratic way when challenged. Scottish Labour may win the referendum but will destroy itself in the process. It could become the second Social Democratic party in Europe to suffer the same fate as the Greek Pasok party – decimating its own base of support.

Democratic upsurge

It is significant that the break has come in Scotland, and as a result of one of the New Labour’s few democratising measures: devolution.

It must be remembered Scottish devolution was brought about not by the democratic tendencies of the Labour Party. That Party that has been one of the key forces for the centralisation of the British state since at least the 1930s. Rather devolution was brought about as a result of movement in Scotland for it, and the desire of Labour to divert this away from support the SNP.

Labour wanted to preserve the UK state as is, not democratise it. When it came to choosing an electoral system for the new Scottish Parliament, they rejected FPTP (a system they still advocated for Westminster) and introduced a proportional system, but only in order to prevent the SNP obtaining a majority and calling a referendum on independence. How the mighty of the Scotttish Labour Party must now be looking on their work and weeping!

Wales too has seen a shift to the left as a result of (even more limited) devolution of power. The third devolved area was London, which at first elected a mayor far to the left of Labour, Ken Livingstone, but the lack powers and undemocratic nature of the Mayor’s office and Assembly meant that there has been no democratic renaissance in London. Instead the last election turned into a ridiculous beauty contest in which a far-right Tory won in a Labour-voting city on the basis of bonhomie.

Devolution to succession?

It is impossible to imagine the referendum, and the forces it has unleashed in society, without the creation of the Scottish Parliament. The devolution of power downwards, away from the political-corporate apex of power in Whitehall to a level at which people might be able to influence things, joined with breaking of the two party monopoly, has led to a regeneration of politics north of the border, and an associated shift to left of mainstream political discourse unimaginable in England.

It is now coming to a crescendo. Revolt against austerity and the role of governments in shaping an increasingly unequal society has found its expression through the question of state power: whether Scotland becomes independent.  Independence has become a class demand. This is seen in the way in which Yes supporters repeatedly talk to reporters about “the working class” and a desire for “equality” and “social justice”. Opposition to independence is also clearly a class movement, the better-off and the upper classes at the forefront of the No campaign, which could not have looked more Establishment if it had been openly run by the Tory party.

And the Yes movement is clearly, in the main, working class in composition. The demands which it expresses or classic class demands for the defence of the NHS or against austerity, even if it is not based on, or driven by what we might consider to be the traditional bodies of the Labour movement. These have, we may note, almost all taken a Unionist line.

It has also created, in the Radical Independence Campaign, the germ of a rival leadership to the SNP, and an organizational structure with roots in the working class.

Whatever the result of the referendum the political landscaped has just been dramatically changed – certainly in Scotland.

The call for democracy

The call for democracy – that people might again influence government in order to bring about the sort of society they want, and not the sort they are told they should want – is central. This is the vector through which a class rebellion is being expressed, just as it has been in movements across Europe.

This should not surprise us. Just as neoliberalism and democracy are incompatible, democracy and socialism are essential to each other. Socialists should always fight for the maximum of democracy in the state and society, and have always been at the forefront of the fight for democratic change, from Marx to the Bolsheviks to the revolution in Egypt more recently. The working class needs the light and air of democracy to breath and live.

Democratic explosion in Scotland will have echoes in England. We must use it to end the spell of eternal winter here as well.

Ukraine: the West’s cynical role

The West support dictatorships around the world. Putin is no friend of democracy, but the campaign of demonisation against Russia is cynical propaganda that could lead to war

 

What started as a protest about an agreement between Ukraine and the EU has turned into the most serious threat to peace in Europe since the break-up of Yugoslavia, and possibly since the Second World War.

Western expansionism has been the main factor creating this crisis. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the western powers, led by the US, have been pushing towards the borders of Russia by expanding the EU and Nato. Twelve Eastern European countries have joined Nato since 1991. Russia, inevitably, is trying to maintain its influence in the region.

The motives of all sides are imperialistic, but the balance of power must be remembered: the US is creating an ally in the Ukraine; it’s not as if Russia is meddling in Mexico. This is not a power struggle between two global blocs, as witnessed during the Cold War era. The global hegemon is challenging a regional power, albeit a large one.

EU deal with strings attached

Interference by outside powers in the Ukraine is threatening to tear the country apart, as linguistic and cultural differences are turned into issues for which people are willing to die, and kill.

The spark was Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to suspend negotiations with the EU. This caused demonstrations in the capital against the government. Though considered pro-Russian in reality Yanukovich tried to balance between Russia and the west.

However, the country’s economic problems made this impossible in the long run: Ukraine is broke and needs cash to avoid default. The European deal came with little cash and many strings, and threatened ruin for the country’s heavily industrialised east.

Russia, on the other hand, offered $15 billion with no visible strings attached. Yanukovich plumped for Moscow. This infuriated the opposition and opened up a divide between the mainly Ukrainian-speaking west and centre and the mostly Russian-speaking east and south.

The nature of the demonstrations began to polarise the country as they took on an increasingly nationalistic and anti-Russian flavour. Attempted clamp downs led to radicalisation, mainly to the right, as the influence of the fascist Svoboda party grew and a violent street-fighting “Right Sector” emerged.

Escalation

Whilst the demonstrations had a high level of popular support in some parts of the country, they were politically dominated by the right-wing opposition, who were co-operating closely with the US State Department.

At the end of January, violence on the streets rapidly escalated. An EU brokered deal between Yanukovich and opposition leaders foundered as dozens were killed in the space of two days. The president fled the capital and a new government emerged, facilitated by the US, led by the right-wing opposition parties with negligible support in the east and south of the country.

The new interim government includes seven fascists and neo-Nazis. This is ignored by the Western powers whilst Putin is dubbed a ‘new Hitler’.

Putin’s strategy for the reassertion of Russia in what it considers its own backyard lies in tatters. The revolts not only brought to power parties hostile to Moscow, they also wrecked plans for a single market for the former Soviet states. It was inevitable that Putin’s regime would try and kick back. Crimea is easily detachable: its population is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, it is the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet and the peninsula is geographically distinct.

The main enemy is at home

Though strong voices on both sides want to avoid violence, fearful of further escalation, potentially destructive forces are now in play. A new phase in big power rivalry has opened up, making the world a much more dangerous place.

The losers of any further descent into nationalism and jingoism will be ordinary people in both Ukraine and Russia. Socialists in this situation must oppose their own ruling classes’ role, their expansionism and sabre rattling.

The West support dictatorships around the world. Putin is no friend of democracy, but the campaign of demonisation against Russia is cynical propaganda that could lead to war.

The other side of the Euro elections

Talking up the defeat of mainstream parties, the mainstream media justifies the move rightwards. But there is another side, writes Alastair Stephens

Much of the media seem to have made up their minds a long time ago about the story of the Euro elections: a right-wing landslide of Euroscepticism washing across the continent, sweeping all before it, and in particular besting the left.

The BBC’s comment that “Eurosceptic and far-right parties have seized ground in elections to the European parliament, in what France’s PM called a “political earthquake”’ was typical of this school of thought.

A detailed look at the results of the elections, however, does not necessarily bear this narrative out.

That is not to say that nothing happened, or that it’s all just business as usual. There has been wide-scale rejection of the establishment parties, and some electoral upheavals. But this has been uneven across the continent. In particular, it has more pronounced in the bailout countries than the northern core of Germany and Scandinavia.

The most immediate example of a right-wing Eurosceptic party winning is of course Britain. Even here, though, the narrative of the “right-wing tide” does not explain everything. The main losers were the Tories rather than Labour, who of course also won the contemporaneous local elections.

Still, the commentariat weren’t going to let that stop them from projecting the right-wing insurgency story onto the whole of Europe. That there is popular fear of European integration and a rise of public concern about immigration is a line they have been pushing for some time.

It is the same explanation they are now putting as mass rejection of establishment parties across Europe. A move to the left is not something they are about to report. You only have to imagine the headline “Left-wing backlash against austerity sweeps the continent” to realise how unlikely you are to come across reports like this in our current media landscape.

The French shock

The media figurehead for the right-wing backlash is Marine Le Pen.

The situation in France is very worrying. The National Front came first, but with just 10% of registered voters expressing their support. Their first place is, as such, a reflection of the decline of the establishment parties as it is of the success of fascism in France.

Virtually every other party lost out. The Socialists continued their abysmal set of results, but the right wing UMP also lost votes, as did the Greens. Those parties that have implemented government austerity were punished.

Melenchon’s Left Front managed to maintain its vote, whilst the far left continued their electoral decline.

The Italian anomaly

The other, less report, big shock of the night was the centre-left landslide in Italy.

The situation in Italy is odd. The Italian Prime Minister is just 39 and is not, and has never been, a member of parliament. But then the other two main party leaders are not in Parliament, either. One is Silvio Berlusconi, kicked out for corruption, and currently doing community service in an old people’s home. The other leader is Beppe Grillo, a ranting comedian. All unusual by any normal standards. The Italian crisis occurring against the background of the European economic crisis, but with features very peculiar to itself.

The Euro election and the concurrent local and regional elections were a landslide for the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which took 40% of the vote. They also came top of the poll in every region of the country including the strongholds of the right in the North East and North West (including the rich regions of Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto). These were their best ever results in the local and regional elections. The PD again conquered Piedmont and swept through areas they had not won for years.

The right did badly, and in particular Berlusconi’s relaunched Forza Italia slumped to just 16%.

Grillo’s Five Star Movement (5SM) suffered what La Repubblica described as “an unbelievable, unexpected and devastating flop”. Having predicted victory, 5SM finished 20 points behind the PD. Grillo is now probably regretting his prediction that they would win and saying that if they didn’t he would “go home”. The defeat it has created is a first class crisis for Five Star.

The radical left, however, had a success after years of bad results and infighting. An alliance was created in January following an appeal published in Il Manifesto by seven veteran leftists, calling for a joint list in support of the candidacy of Alexis Tsipras for the European Commission. (Each of the main groups in the European Parliament had put forward candidates for the post.)

Running as joint list entitled “Another Europe – with Tsipras”, it brought together most of the parties to the left of the PD, including Nicchi Vendola’s SEL and Rifondazione Comunista, along with social movements. It elected three MEPs, the radical left’s best result in years. The campaign reinvigorated the left, and there is now talk of an Italian Syriza.

Though a clear victory for the left in general, the Italian result was full of ambiguity. The Democrats are fiercely pro-European, and are carrying out austerity in government. But Renzi is a Blair-like figure (the early Blair rather than the later warmonger), and is also pushing liberal measures such as the promotion of younger people, women and ethnic minorities – a shock to the Italian body politic, still dominated by elderly white men.

Rejection of Austerity

Whilst the result in Italy may represent a clear, if ambiguous, victory for the left, elsewhere the message was quite obvious. Parties supporting and implementing austerity were punished.

The clearest example of this is Greece, where Syriza topped the poll beating the conservative New Democracy by four points. The poor showing for ND’s coalition partner, the formerly dominant social democratic party Pasok (now running as the “Olive Tree”), will weaken the government yet further. Pasok scraped 8% of the vote, down from 40% five years ago.

Syriza also won in the regional elections in Attica, which contains Athens and 30% of the population of Greece.

The result was an extraordinary victory considering the propaganda war which Greece’s and Europe’s ruling classes have mounted against the party. After the victory Alexis Tsipras said that “Tomorrow Europe will be talking about Syriza. The Europeans celebrate the defeat of austerity in the country that the European leadership chose as the guinea-pig of the crisis.”

He couldn’t have predicted that the British media would ignore Syriza’s victory to talk about the growth of the vote for Golden Dawn, up to 9%.  This is of course of great concern, but they are still far behind Syriza.

In Spain, rejection of austerity meant both that both the governing conservative Popular Party and the opposition Socialist Party lose votes. The Socialists were of course swept from power in 2011 after inflicting a massive program of austerity on the country that saw unemployment rise to Europe’s highest level at 25%. The two parties used to take 80% of the vote between them. On Sunday they took just 60%. The biggest winners were the radical left.

A new left party to emerge out of the Indigñados movement called Podemos (“We Can”) took 8%, despite only having existed for three months.  The United Left, based on the Communist Party, saw its vote go up six points to 10%, its best result since the 1990s. The far right had no impact in the election at all.

So in Spain the picture is of no far right, big losses for austerity parties and 18% for the anti-austerity left. Not the picture reported here. In neighbouring Portugal, the ruling conservative party lost votes to the Socialists.

In our neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, the ruling Fine Gael was beaten by Fianna Fail. Fine Gael, traditionally a liberal party of business was always going to be less affected by austerity than its smaller partner in coalition, the Labour Party. They slumped to just 6%, a tremendous reversal compared to the general election in 2011 when they took 20% and for the first time beat Fianna Fail into third place.

They achieved that historic peak in a backlash against austerity. Following this by implementing austerity and attacking their own voters has proved disastrous for them.

The space they have left has been filled by Sinn Fein, which sits with the radical left GUE-NGL group in the European Parliament. They took 17%, a big step up from the 7% of the vote in the 2011 general election.

Another success for the left was the victory in a parliamentary by-election for Dublin West of the Socialist Party candidate Ruth Coppinger who now joins the five other radical left members of the Dàil.

A right wing north?

In Germany, the conservative CDU had its worst ever result in European elections, and the Social Democrats made up some lost ground, but the surprise of the night was the Alternative for Germany, a conservative anti-single currency party which took 7%. The vote for Die Linke, the Left Party, fell marginally to 7.39%, but was otherwise consistent. The German Greens, who a significantly to the right of their UK counterparts, saw their vote fall by 1.4% to 10.7%.

Whilst the far right Danish People’s party topped the poll in Denmark, the Geert Wilder’s Islamophobic, far right Freedom Party in the Netherlands slipped compared to previous elections.

In Sweden, the Green Party beat the main conservative party, the Moderates, into third place with Socials Democrats coming top.

A different story in the East

The former Eastern bloc countries, having very different party systems as a result of their different history, have also in general continued in their own political cycles, not unrelated to the world economic crisis, but different from the rest of Europe. Here nationalism remains dominant.

The politics of Poland, by far the largest of the new EU members, have remained fairly stable partly as a result of its economic growth, which continued through the global slump.

The situation is different in Hungary where the ruling Fidesz have continued on an increasingly nationalist line. The fascist Jobbik have maintained their growth but without a major breakthrough.

The problem in both countries, as across much of Eastern Europe, is the lack of a genuine left. Where there should be one there is usually a former Communist Party mostly supported by elderly nostalgics.

Forecast: continued instability across the continent

As the Great Recession struck commentators were fond of telling us that this would mean defeat for the left as people turned to a selfish and hard-nosed right. Indeed, recent years have been hard. However, the discontent caused by years of hardship, and continuing demands for sacrifice with precious little reward, is now bubbling to the surface.

Different parties are channelling this in different places. But it is not true that this represents yet another step to the right. In many places it is the left that is again reviving. Across the board though it does represent a major crisis for the establishment parties, of both left and right, who have united for three decades in their pursuit of neoliberalism. They now face long term decline and increased political instability as a result.

New carriers, new wars

The new aircraft carriers are designed for large scale war – with Britain acting as the junior partner of the US argues Alastair Stephens

The recent launch of HMS Queen Elizabeth, by the eponymous monarch, is a very public expression of what was already an open secret: that the UK intends (most likely as the junior partner of the US) to attack other countries.

The ship, the first of two, is the largest ship ever built for the Royal Navy and is the first real aircraft carrier the Navy has had since the decommisioning of HMS Ark Royal in 1978,  a ship that’s construction had started during the Second World War.

Force Projection

The launch was accompanied by the usual chaff about its multi-purpose abilities; humanitarian relief operations came up a lot. This is of course what is technically referred to as “complete bollocks”.

Aircraft carriers are about one thing: force projection. This is how policy wonks refer to a state’s ability to conduct large scale military operations (i.e. launch attacks) in distant countries.

Even the world’s most powerful army is no use if it cannot be deployed. Aircraft carriers can do this. They give a state the ability to attack from the air, and support ground operations (troops), anywhere in the world.

Strike force

Carriers never travel alone. They are the central and essential element of a battle fleet which normally consist of a number of other warships, including missile cruisers, destroyers and submarines. These can then also be accompanied by the military forces needed for the ground war: troop ships, landing ships, supply ships, hospital ships etc.

The battle group protects the carrier against sea attack and the carrier’s planes, in addition to launching strikes against the land, protect the fleet from air attack. and all of them protect the ground forces.

A full strike amphibious strike force involves tens of thousands of personel and hundreds of planes. It is one of the most potent military forces ever deployed in the history of humanity

The carrier is the key element of a mobile army that can make war anywhere in the world irrespective of whether neighboring states will give support. Even if they do, a carrier group is still necessary. Land bases take time to build, and they and their supply lines are vulnerable to attack.

A carrier group is almost invulnerable. It is invulnerable because virtually no other countries in the world have the equivalent naval firepower.

The carrier club

Graph

Funnily enough the US has eleven such “Carrier Strike Groups” giving it the ability to conduct large scale operations (war) against multiple targets across the globe simultaneously.

At the centre of each group is a carrier such as the USS Admiral Nimitz, which with its crew of 5,000 is a floating city, entirely devoted to war (Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth looks puny in comparison, with its crew of just 1,600).

The only two other navies to possess the ability to strike outside their home region (or have a “blue water navy” in the jargon) are unsurprisingly Britain and France, the two global powers which the US replaced.

 At present only France has a carrier of the sort the US has.

The western foes du jour, Russia and China, come far behind in this league.

Russia effectively abandoned any pretension to a global naval presence with the end of the Soviet Union. It currently has one Soviet era carrier in service, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Its sister ship the Varyag was never completed. Its hull was sold to the Chinese and relaunched as the Liaoning two years ago.

A handful of other navies have carriers, mostly of the smaller type, just a third of the size of the American behemoths. Some are second hand carriers bought from old powers by Brazil and India, who wish to become regional powers. Two other European states to have carriers, Italy and Spain. These are just faded status symbols of third-rate powers.

Obscene cost

One of the reasons that we know that the new British carriers are not just for show is their obscene cost. Originally budgeted for £3 billion for the pair they are now expected to cost over £6.2 billion pounds. The two between them will carry 70 Lockheed F-35 warplanes planes, a snip at £90 million a piece. And that is all before their annual running costs.

The expenditure anytime would be obscene. That this money is so freely paid out in a time of austerity exposes the falsity of the need for austerity. The cutting is selective. It is also noticeable that this massive state project built by the private sector is twice over budget and is two years late, to very little comment.

Still, it is unlikely they would spend so much money out of a defence budget that already has a large number of commitments, unless they were planning to use these carriers.

Consensus for war

Map

The other reason we know that they intend to use these new weapons platforms is the political consensus for foreign intervention that has existed between the three main parties for some two decades now.

This is not something new, these carriers were ordered as a result of a Strategic Defence Review carried out by the new Labour government in 1998. This was to set defence procurement policy for the next two decades and declared that the British military must be prepared and able to carry out large scale military interventions on the scale of the first Iraq war in 1991, a war it had proved to be ill-prepared for. It shouldn’t be forgotten that this was three years before 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’.

The Secretary of State for Defence at the time, George Robertson, later went on to be head of Nato.

The recent back track on Syria is unlikely to be little more than a brief diversion. The Labour party remains dominated by the followers of Blair who backed the war in Iraq, and though some of them may now suffer form “buyer’s remorse”, this is for the most part expressed in terms of the way the war was fought, or the lack of WMD, rather than the principle of British Imperial power being used to invade other countries to sort them out. Others remain entirely unrepentant.

The doctrine of liberal interventionism remains alive and well in the upper echelons of the Labour establishment.

Loyal ally

The likelihood of the carriers being used is high. They will undoubtedly be used in medium scale actions such as the British intervention in Sierra Leone, or the French action in West Africa.

They are, it must be said, a little over-specced for such “police actions”, and not having super-carriers has not prevented Britain from conducting these types of operations.

What the new carriers are designed for is large scale war, and the only conceivable way that Britain will be doing this within the foreseeable future is as the junior partner of the US.

In our currently unstable world, it is only a matter of time before the new carriers are deployed in a war as the centres of two new Carrier Strike Groups, making war alongside their senior partner, the US Navy.

War or Peace in Ukraine?

This was written before the Ukrainian Presidential elections in May but I forgot to publish it. I think it is fairly close to what has actually happened since, especially in the light of recent events in eastern Ukraine.

NATO’s top commander in Europe General Breedlove’s recently stated that he though Vladimir Putin had obtained his objectives without invasion is probably correct.

Russia’s recent moves in the Ukraine were after were not part of a greater long term plan of military expansionism, but a short term reaction to a sudden and unexpected set back: the overthrow by force of the leader of key neighbouring state.

Now Putin wants to deescalate the situation and is looking to get out of a dangerous standoff.

Civil war is in practically no one’s interest. It would be many times bloodier than anything else to happen in Europe since the Second World War. It could destabilize the entire continent and suck in all the main powers. As the weakest of these his regime might be first to crack.

War is not in Putin’s interest.

The people with the most interest in the current war hysteria are  those currently ruling in Kiev. Tymoshenkos and her cronies, Turchynov and Yatseniuk, and the fascists of Svoboda and the Right Sector.

They need the Russian threat to justify their regime and drag politics further towards the nationalist right.

The unexpected rulers

Time is not on their side however. Presidential elections are scheduled to happen on 25 May, and if the polls are correct (and they so far have been fairly consistent) Ukraine’s current leaders are likely to be turfed out of office.

It must be remembered that the leaders of the Maidan movement are from the nationalist right of Ukrainian politics. Since independence in 1991 they have generally not held power, and when they have done it has tended to slip through their fingers quickly.

They were propelled into power in February on the back of a mass movement in Kiev, but one which enjoyed the political protection of Washington and Berlin. Without this it is likely that they would have been swept form the streets before it reached that stage.

Nowhere else in Europe has the occupation of a city centre that has gone on so long, or been this violent, been tolerated.

Even then their sudden rise to total power was unexpected and unplanned for. As the Nuland phone call shows they were willing to power-share with Yanukovich. It was the Right Sector, which precipitated (with the unwitting help of the brutal and inefficient Berkut) the uprising that ousted the President.

Nationalist Right face defeat

Ukrainian politics are set to return to its default setting: rule by a coterie of technocrats and oligarchs and their occasional front men.

All the polls suggest that the Presidential election on 25 May it will be a landslide for Petro Poroshenko, the “Chocolate King” Oligarch (and incidentally arch-rival  of Julia Tymoshenko).

Since the race began he has consistently polled over 30%. His closest contender is Tymoshenko who is trailing far behind on less than 10%.

The other leaders of EuroMaidan are nowhere.

The popular but vacuous Klitschko has sensibly withdrawn to run for Mayor of Kiev and thrown his weight behind Poroshenko (probably making an implacable foe of Tymoshenko in the process).

The leader of the fascist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok, is polling just 1.4% and Dmytro Yarosh of the Right Sector is running second to last on 0.7%.

These figures are considerable step backwards for them. Tymoshenko received 25% of the first round vote in the presidential elections of 2010.

The leader of the fascist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyagnybok, only got 1.4% in those polls. However his party took 10% in parliamentary elections in two years later. The latest polls suggest he is returning to the electoral margins.

The nationalist right have never managed to achieve an electoral majority in Ukraine, and are now doing worse than in previous elections.

Their upcoming electoral debacle may be a result of a public reaction against their politics now that they have had full exposure and the fact that since their accession to power (no matter who else might also be to blame the country has gone to the edge of civil war).

Return to default

Poroshenko is a return to the default of Ukrainian politics.

He as an oligarch who “made” his money in confectionaries but diversified into a whole host of other concerns.

Like most Ukrainian oligarchs, he also has a foot in politics, and right at the top. He is an establishment figure who has switched allegiances at various points.

He was one of the first oligarchs to back Yushchenko in the Orange Revolution of 2006 which prevented the protege of the incumbent president Kuchma from coming to power in a rigged election.

He then served in government under the resulting Orange Bloc administration (and became a deadly rival of Tymoshenko, who also quickly fell out with Yushchenko).

After the disintegration of the Orange Bloc in mutual recriminations Poroshchenko then moved to back backed Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions.

Yanukovich made a come back in the following election and beat his discredited Orange foes. Poroshchenko then served in his government also.

He is from the same technocratic/oligarchic centre of Ukrainian politics from which Kuchma, Yushenko and Yanukovich all spawned, and which has dominated politics, no matter what their label or despite their squabbles since independence in 1991.

Neither the Ukrainian nationalist right, with its base of support in the Ukrainian speaking West or the Soviet nostalgic left, with their base of support in the East, have ever been able to break out of their core vote, despite how divisive elections can seem.

It is the centre that is now asserting itself.

Wild cards

That does not mean that peace and stability are about to be restored

Both the mass demonstrations in Kiev and the rising in the east has been driven by the dire economic state of the country, the economic crisis and the mass disillusionment in the political system.

These multiple and interlocking crises have not gone away, and in fact have been deepened. The country in which identities have been more multiple and complicated, has been polarized to a much greater than ever into people who identify as Ukrainian speakers or Russian speakers, no matter what language use or ethnicity they may previously have claimed.

The wild cards in the immediate future are the right, and in particular the fascists and the movement in the East.

Further killing in the East by the far right, or another Odessa, could start a spiral of ethnic identification and conflict that could be difficult to stop.

The other wild card is the movement in the east.

This was not just pop-up movement directed from Moscow. It is a movement of rebellion which Moscow has sought to influence, as have other political forces, mainly influenced by Russian nationalist and Soviet nostalgic ideas, and not necessarily under Moscow’s control.

It has also started to encourage strike action, in what is still a highly industrialized area dominated by coal and steel, raising economic demands. These are bringing workers into conflict with the real authors of the Ukrainian crisis, and the people who have thus far dodged the bullet: the oligarchs.

Workers vs Oligarchs?

This movement if it grows can both start to really challenge the status quo in Ukraine, which is not about whether the country leans to the east, or the west, but whether its wealth and resources are controlled by a tiny group of people who are richer than Croesus lording it over the poor and exploited system, and whether these people also control the political system.

To do this though it will have to free itself politically from both Ukrainian and Russian extremists.

This is not just a pipe dream.

The 1989 – 1991 miners of the Donbass were at the forefront of both workers struggles and for democracy in the last years of the Soviet Union.

Despite not having no history of strike action in 1989 the Donbass miners, along with miners in Russia staged huge strikes for improvements in wages and conditions. They then set up the first independent unions. By 1991 they were leading mass strikes for democracy.

This nascent workers movement was  however destroyed by the economic disasters of the 1990s.

Far from over

Whether the situation can be stabilised is open to question. It the short term it is likely as both Ukrainian oligarchs and Russia’s rulers want stability. However Ukraine has now become a new fault line in an increasingly unstable world situation.

 

 

 

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