As ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), following on from overrunning a third of Syria and Iraq, is now trying to encircle Baghdad which could make the survival in its present borders untenable, there are very few options left. Western airpower alone cannot halt ISIS except temporarily, and neither the US nor any of its European counterparts including the UK are going to risk Western boots on the ground on sufficient scale to halt and reverse the ISIS advance. Supplying Western arms to the utterly demoralised Iraqi army, which is by far the most likely option chosen by the West, carries a greater risk of advanced Western munitions falling into ISIS hands than stalling the ISIS conquest. The only force now that can break the demonic sectarian spiral that has been unleashed across the Middle East are the regional powers of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, sworn enemies but conceivably brought together by their mutual fear of unlicensed barbarity lapping dangerously close to their borders. If that breakthrough is not secured, and only utter desperation will pave the way for it, ISIS will carve out both the new borders and institutions for Iraq in a manner that could end up genocidal for the Shias. How then might this unholy alliance be achieved?
Read more “What is to be done in Iraq?” »
After Ed Miliband’s brave speech yesterday denouncing how photo-ops and obsession with image had usurped the infinitely more important issue of policy, ideology and what a politician actually stands for and if elected will actually intend to achieve in office, there were bound to be further complaints from this unprecedentedly hostile media, most of it taking its line direct from Tory Central Office. The latest is that the real gripe against Miliband is that ‘he can’t take hard decisions’. Really? Actually Ed Miliband has taken tougher decisions than any previous Leader of the Opposition, Thatcher and Blair included, let alone Cameron. Can you remember any of the latter three taking a really tough decision when they each in their time led the opposition but had no direct executive authority? No, nor can I. But Miliband has done exactly that, not once, but three times.
Read more “Miliband v. Cameron on taking hard decisions: bring it on” »
The Blairites never wanted Ed Miliband to win the leadership and when he unexpectedly did, they have never missed an opportunity to gossip against him from the sidelines. Some like Dan Hodges (son of Glenda Jackson) regularly spit out their vitriol and bile against Ed in the in the Tory press, others more insidiously give unattributed briefings to the media which Blairite journalists, like Nicholas Watt in the Guardian today, shamefully repeat without naming the source. The bitter irony in all this is that Ed has bent over backwards to placate Progress (the Blairite Tendency) in order to maintain party unity. They gladly swallow all the concessions he makes to them, but that never earns their loyalty- they always return to bait him at the next available opportunity. But what is particularly contemptible about this latest bad-mouthing of the Leader is that they are indulging their prejudices at the expense of seriously damaging the party’s prospects with the general election only 10 months away.
What is so galling about this latest febrile outbreak is that it is based on such trivia and wholly ignores the real underlying stature of Ed Miliband who is by any standards one of the most under-rated Leaders in modern times. He rightly took on Murdoch over his attempted takeover of BSkyB, which was a high-risk call, and triumphed. Cameron on the other hand was so much in hock to Murdoch that he did all he could to wave the deal through, and Blair (and let’s be honest, David Miliband) would certainly have done the same. Miliband deserves enormous credit for the courage he displayed then since a Murdock takeover would have delivered Britain to the kind of Berlusconi-style monopolisation of the media which no democracy should ever contemplate.
Read more “The rats have come out of the woodwork again” »
Two young women recently glued themselves to the door of one of the UK’s biggest PR firms, Bell Pottinger. They had good reason to protest. An undercover operation had recorded PR executives boasting, in response to a request to help the vile Uzbekistan dictatorship, that they had access to the PM and Foreign Secretary and that they could use their dark arts to swamp negative images of human rights violations and child labour. They also explained that they could manipulate Google searches, fix Wikipedia material, generate pretend-independent blogs, and put favourable articles in the mainstream press. This deliberate dissemination of lies, misrepresentation and deception, used in support of some of the nastiest persons, companies or governments around, is a typical part of the UK public relations industry which is the second largest in the world and worth £7.5bn. It is shocking that such a sordid and squalid operation can be so large, so influential and so profitable, and shows sadly just how amoral are some of the activities tolerated by our money-obsessed, anything-goes contemporary culture. It is no surprise that Tim Bell was knighted by Thatcher in 1990, presumably for services to the ‘dark arts’.
Read more “Time to bring the PR and lobbying industry – traffickers of the deception and the lie – under control” »
The extremes to which the Tory Right are prepared to go to vent their hatred both of the EU and immigrants are almost unbelievable, only matched by the supine readiness of Tory ministers to placate them. There were two key votes in the House today on the Immigration Bill, both of which took the wranglings within the Tory party against their pet hates to new and unprecedented levels. The first concerned the attempt of the Tory Right to deport foreign criminals. An amendment supported by more than 100 MPs (including Labour’s Hazel Blears) proposed to remove foreign criminals’ ability to resist deportation on the grounds of their right to a family life. Such action would run counter to current British and EU law. The Home Office was of course perfectly well aware of this, and tried one trick after another to smother the amendment.
Read more “Home Office ministers refuse to vote on immigration proposal though they know it’s illegal” »
The US-Iran agreement, albeit temporary, may well be the diplomatic coup of the decade, or indeed the biggest peaceful shifting of the tectonic plates since the last World War in the most dangerous area on the planet. But it is as well, for future reference, to identify the specific mechanisms which allowed this breakthrough to proceed. First, it came about because sanctions were applied to Iran which seriously threatened the political and economic stability of the country. These pressures had caused Iran’s currency to halve in value against the US dollar in the last 2 years, its foreign exchange holdings in excess of $50bn to be frozen, and crucially its oil revenues to be cut by more than half. Restrictions had been placed on Iran’s trade in gold, petrochemicals, car and plane parts which cumulatively took their toll.
Second, the lessons from the Bush era have been learnt and should continue to be borne in mind in future. Bush started two wars, neither of which the US won, whereas here war has been averted which could have consumed the whole of the Middle East in a regional conflagration. And it is worth noting that if Miliband hadn’t rejected the government’s determined intention to back a US missile strike against Syria, it would almost certainly have happened, which would have ended any rapprochement with Iran for at least a decade. Equally it has deflected Netanyahu’s trigger-happy readiness to launch a pre-emptive attack on any challenger in the region to Israel’s self-ascribed right to a nuclear monopoly. Dogged, lengthy, painstaking diplomacy has been given a chance and it has worked, warmongers should note.
Read more “There are big lessons to be learnt from the Iran deal” »
What exactly is the point of the bedroom tax? Its ostensible purpose is to free up accommodation from those who don’t need it to those who do. Just about everything is wrong with that argument. If that were really the rationale, the obvious way to solve the problem would be to build more social housing when the total build last year including all tenures was just 98,000 houses, the lowest level since 1923 and less than half the average annual house build over the last 40 years. And if that were the real motive, why confine it to social housing and exclude private tenancies, let alone owner-occupied housing where surplus rooms (to use the government’s phrase) are far more prevalent? So is it to save money? If so, the bedroom tax is particularly ill-suited because if tenants are forced to move, there is nowhere near enough one-bed social housing available to accommodate them and they will be forced into private tenancies at market rents which will cost the State more in local housing allowance than the saving in housing benefit.
Read more “Bedroom tax is emerging as the same hardline ideological punitive bludgeon as the poll tax” »
The US has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred over Syria. First, the Commons vote induced Obama to seek a vote in Congress to shore up his authority to take military action against the background that US public opinion shared UK public opinion in resisting any further intervention in the Middle East. Then as uncertainty grew about the vote in the House of Representatives, he grasped eagerly at the lifeline thrown him by the Russian proposal that the Syrian chemical weapons sites be placed under international control. Now he is caught on a dilemma: the fear that the Russian-Syrian bloc will spin out Syria’s compliance with this plan, with his credibility ebbing away the longer it is delayed, against the risk that threatening military action to speed up compliance risks Russian withdrawal from support for the plan. In addition the US Administration is clearly divided about objectives: Kerry’s “what we are talking about is an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” grates sharply against Obama’s “the US military doesn’t do pinpricks”. This has become as much about Obama’s authority as about Assad’s criminality.
Read more “Is Russia now in charge of Middle East policy?” »
The young woman who stood up to ask Ed Miliband a question at his after-speech Q&A hit the nail on the head. “We’re puzzled and uncertain”, she said; “Do you believe in austerity or not?” This prompted immediate acclaim, and she promptly got a standing ovation. “No”, replied Ed, “but we have to control spending”. So does he believe in austerity or not? No, if it means being aligned with the hateful Tories who’ve cut people’s living standards to ribbons over the last 5 years. Or yes, if it means securing a reputation for toughness on the economy. So uncertainty continues. This is smart if it keeps people more or less together, but bewildering and disillusioning in that nobody quite knows exactly what you stand for. There comes a point where having-it-both-ways begins seriously to undermine credibility, and some (obviously a great many in the TUC audience) are clearly starting to feel that way.
Read more “Is shutting down debate on what Labour stands for clever tactics of a self-inflicted wound?” »