What the general election will mean for education

I recently attended the AGM of Wiltshire branch of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) at the Angel Hotel in Chippenham, which was an opportunity for a constructive dialogue about the Labour Party’s education policy. Education is a devolved matter, and my remarks refer to policy in England.

The basic facts behind Labour’s commitment to education are impressive. Between 1997 and 2010 there were 36000 more teachers, 172000 more teaching assistants, and 1100 new schools built. Results improved, with 12% more pupils achieving five good GCSE grades, and 20% more 11 year old achieving expected standards in English and maths. The further education sector saw £4.2 billion investment, and Education Maintenance Allowances (EMA) of up to £30 per week allowed tens of thousands of young people from poorer families to stay in education until 18.

Outside of schools, the last Labour government invested £50 million into the Union Learning Fund, supporting 490 projects in 3000 workplaces, helping 100000 workers improve their skills, and therefore benefiting both themselves and their employers. In addition, over 3000 new Childrens’ Centres were established, to support parents, on the understanding that early years’ intervention has a lasting benefit, particularly for children from disadvantaged families.

Under Labour, the education budget soared, rising 60% between 1998 and 2008. Total annual spending was £30 billion in 1997, and £64 billion in 2005, on top of which capital investment jumped from £680 million in 1997 to an estimated £5 billion in 2005.

These are powerful arguments in favour of a Labour vote in the coming general election.

In contrast, the Lib-Dem / Conservative coalition government has attacked the pensions and pay of teachers and school support staff. In 2010 they cut 700 planned “Schools for the Future” projects, and current school building programmes are at only 5% of the level under the last Labour government. They cut the EMA and have reduced standards in FE colleges, where lecturers no longer need teaching qualifications. In schools the government has allowed permanent contracts for unqualified teachers, this has led to a 16% rise in unqualified teachers in all schools and a 49% rise of unqualified teachers in Free Schools. The Free Schools themselves are often opened where there is no requirement for them, and a third have been judged inadequate, or in need of improvement.

Nevertheless, the record of the last Labour government remains controversial, and there was an unprecedented amount of legislative activity, including 9 separate education acts. These encountered sustained opposition both within the party, and from educationalists. Labour extended performance management, parent choice, competition, and the role of the private sector.

This stood in stark contrast to the position of John Smith, who as party leader had pledged to restore the powers of Local Education Authorities, and denounced the “false and inadequate theory of choice”.

It is worth saying that the driving motivation for the Blair government’s education agenda was to tackle educational inequality. Research by the Social Exclusion Unit showed that around 2.5% of the population – drawn from less than 1 in 20 families – is locked into deeply entrenched social exclusion; and it became perceived government wisdom that institutional conservatism and complacency in the education sector was a contributory factor, and schools needed shaking up.

The policies were not without some success. During the course of the Labour government, funding per pupil rose 50%, the schools were better funded and staffing levels and pay improved. In 1997 a third of pupils left primary schools without basic English and maths skills, by 2005 that had fallen to a quarter, and the improvement in deprived areas was better than the national average. A range of measures in pre-school education, such as Sure Start centres, made a real difference.

So the record in social exclusion was one of good progress. However this sat uneasily with the expansion of parent choice and diversity, which favoured the already advantaged families; academic studies showed that the “quasi-market” increased rather than decreased the concentration of pupils from lower income families in failing schools. The regime of metrics and inspection arguably distorted teaching towards what could be measured, and increased both teacher workloads and stress.

There is no doubt that the commitments from Labour for the next parliament will improve the lives of millions. The next Labour government will extend free childcare for parents with 3 and 4 year olds from 15 to 25 hours, and guarantee “wraparound” childcare for primary school children, allowing access to childcare from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, to help working parent. Labour will also reinvigorate Sure Start.

Labour will guarantee that all teachers in state schools are qualified, and ensure that schools are locally accountable. Labour will also increase the number and quality of apprenticeships.

However, it must be a priority for the party to place itself at the centre of a coalition of consensus about education policy, with meaningful engagement with the teaching and education unions. This requires addressing staffing problems, such as excessive workload; but it must also address the concerns that the last Labour government rolled out educational reforms without adequate consultation, and committed to them before evidence based evaluation had established their merits. We need a renewed commitment towards the comprehensive principle and the objective towards greater equality of educational outcomes, and that may require us to draw a line under some of the policies of the last Labour government.

Benefit sanctions and Jeremy Clarkson – the hell of Thatcher’s creation

Unite the Union have organised a national day of action against benefit sanctions on 19 March. They deserve great credit for doing so, though given the suffering and despair this particularly vile practice inflicts on some of the most vulnerable in society, it is disappointing that this is not considered important enough to warrant a TUC demonstration with the full participation of every trade union in the country.

I have written about this issue before and make no apologies for doing so again when it involves, on a daily basis in Jobcentres up and down the country, human beings having the paltry amount of money they receive to feed, clothe, and heat themselves taken away for often the flimsiest of reasons at the instigation of a man or woman sitting across the other side of a desk.

With foodbanks creaking at the seams, largely in response the spike in demand placed on them by the increased use of benefit sanctions – amounting to a brutal and callous attack on the poor by a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich – there is no conceivable reason or justification available to exculpate those sitting across the other side of that desk delivering people into a pit of despair for infractions that include being minutes late for an interview, or cancelling a scheduled meeting in order to attend a funeral. In life you have a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing. Either choice has consequences, both personal and social, and every Jobseekers Adviser who sanctions already desperate and poverty-stricken people, and can do so without being ripped apart with torment and anguish, is a person who has had their humanity surgically removed.

Making this choice even more inexplicable, in the context of the government’s brutal and punitive benefits regime, is the fact that many of those who are tasked with implementing it are members of a trade union, the PCS, which up to now has distinguished itself in wringing its hands, offering next to no resistance and thereby confounding the fundamental principle and ethos of solidarity that lies at the very heart of trade unionism.

An added layer of grotesque is added when we consider that this same union is currently campaigning for a wage rise for its members, including those who are engaged in delivering said benefit claimants into the arms of destitution on a regular basis. It is proof that Thatcher’s objective of turning working people against each other has been well and truly met. All that can be said, with this in mind, is that if the word ‘solidarity’ does appear on PCS campaign leaflets, it does so as parody rather than principle

One man who will never see the inside of a Jobcentre, despite his recent quip to the media to the contrary, is of course Jeremy Clarkson. The looks-to-be-former Top Gear presenter is on suspension by the BBC for allegedly assaulting a producer on the show over a peppercorn steak – or lack thereof.

Controversy follows Clarkson around like an old and faithful friend. When he isn’t bandying racist, homophobic, and sexist doggerel about the place, he’s being chased out of countries like Argentina for engaging in jingoistic acts of provocation. The four million people who’ve signed a petition calling for the presenter to be reinstated by the BBC, not to mention a Prime Minister who felt minded to voice his public support for his fellow Tory and friend, reveal a propensity for living vicariously through the exploits and schtick of an unreconstructed wanker in a Barbour jacket.

Clearly we are living in an age when being in possession of a reactionary worldview is enough to warrant fame and fortune. The image of Jeremy Clarkson spending his evenings working his way through the Life On Mars Box Set in a pair of Al Garnett underpants is hard to escape. He is the nation’s poster boy for Tory values, the hero of every white middle aged bloke with a paunch, a fake Rolex, and a year’s supply of moody viagra. What’s more, it is a position and status he quite obviously relishes.

Benefit sanctions and Jeremy Clarkson. What more evidence do we need that Britain in 2015 is the hell of Thatcher’s creation? As she lies a-mouldering in her grave, the Iron Lady can take satisfaction in the knowledge she did her job well.

Blacklisted – the secret war against trade unionists

blacklisted_fcThe new book “Blacklisted” by victimized trade unionist, Dave Smith, and investigative journalist, Phil Chamberlain, is an extraordinary achievement, both documenting in detail the sordid conspiracy by powerful corporations to deny ordinary working people the ability to earn a living; but also in giving those victims a voice: telling their own stories. The tales of skilled trades people, who even in the middle of a building boom, were unable to work, sometimes leading to them losing their homes, putting strain upon relationships, and deterioration of health.

As someone who has been around the activist left, and trade unions, for many years, I had always been aware of the folklore of blacklisting, which explained why some of our friends and comrades were struggling to find work. The Economic League closed down in 1993, following an investigation by the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment, and resulting exposure.

Smith and Chamberlain document how the Consulting Association arose as a Phoenix operation out of the ashes of the Economic League, as its Services Group which dealt with the construction sector, decided to continue a secretive existence as an unincorporated trade association, maintaining an unlawful database. Entries onto the database accumulated information from a variety of sources, not only the employers, but also from newspaper clippings, and gossip. Alarmingly, there is evidence of information from the police and security services, and some of the evidence is linked to trade union officials, although the circumstances are not fully known.

An example of the type of entry would be Syd Scroggie, a war hero, blinded and left with just one leg after stepping on a landmine during the liberation of Italy, and who remarkably overcame these obstacles to climb Mount Everest. He was placed on the blacklist for writing a letter to a newspaper supporting Edinburgh’s District Council’s decision to buy a portrait of Nelson Mandela.

Just being a trade union safety rep, or raising safety concerns on site, would be enough to be blacklisted, in an industry which still suffers a workplace death every week.

I first became acquainted with the blacklisting campaign due to the industrial dispute at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital, where supervisors working for Carillion were involved in shakedowns of staff, demanding gifts in exchange for holiday approvals, shift changes, or overtime. In the first instance, GMB conducted a consultative ballot over possible strike action, and at the same time submitted a collective grievance, at first from 109 staff, though later this grew to over 130.

The first investigation conducted by Carillion was frankly farcical, and following strike action, they held another investigation, which the employer eventually admitted did reveal evidence of malpractice.

However, at an early stage in the campaign, a meeting was held between GMB and Carillion bosses, where their senior HR manager, Liz Keates, said that there was “no evidence” of any wrong doing. In the meeting, GMB representatives challenged the idea that the testimony of 109 of their own staff could be considered “no evidence”. GMB has evidence that Carillion had conducted at least three previous investigations before then, that the allegations had been known to them at Director level several years previously, and that the management at the Swindon hospital had simply failed to carry out the recommendations resulting from those previous investigations.

Around this time, my colleague Carole Vallelly put the GMB press office in touch with Dave Smith, of the blacklist support group, as she was friends with Dave on Facebook. Dave revealed that it was the same Liz Keates whose initials were on the files of the Consulting Association as Carillion’s main contact, and who had personally been involved in blacklisting him.

Subsequently, Dave, Carole and I shared public meeting platforms on several occasions, and GMB pushed the issue of blacklisting up the national agenda. This was initially prompted by industrial considerations to pressurize Carillion, with whom we were in dispute, but quickly the GMB’s involvement in the blacklisting campaign took on a life and momentum of its own, just because it was the right thing to do. The General Secretary, Paul Kenny, sent a copy of a report about blacklisting to every Labour Councillor in the country, and GMB initiated a court case, later joined by Unite and UCATT, as a Group Litigation Order (equivalent to a Class Action in the USA) effectively putting the whole construction industry on trial for conspiracy.

The common denominator of the Swindon dispute with Carillion, and the victimization of people for raising health and safety complaints, is an attitude of untrammeled management entitlement that regards employees giving voice to concerns as vexatious, even where the complaints relate to management malpractices that are unlawful, dangerous or unethical.

Smith and Chamberlain present a very sophisticated argument, about how the rapacious construction industry bosses have sought to manage industrial relations, through utilizing their economic and political weight to secure the cooperation of the security services, through the victimization and marginalization of activists, and through the co-option and neutralization of some trade unions, and their officials.

It is this latter aspect that requires consideration by all trade union activists. Smith and Chamberlain argue that unions who adopt a servicing model are more susceptible to cooption than those who rely upon an organizing model, and who thus rely upon lay member activists to do much of the union’s front line work. This may be overstating the case, and lay members may be just as susceptible to cooption by a cunning employer. Unions following a service model, whatever the capacity difficulties it presents, may be as robustly committed to principled and assertive trade unionism as those following an organizing agenda, though I believe the service model is less effective.

Whatever model they adopt, trade unions can never be just a business: we always have to understand that we are engaged in the virtuous enterprise of building communities of solidarity to allow the collective strength of working people to act as a counterbalance to the bullying power of corporations.

The authors quote Gail Cartmail, of Unite, pointing out the dangers for a union of allowing an employer to effectively buy a union’s loyalty though inflated payments via check-off. I have in my possession the internal document from one union’s membership department [not my own union] saying “this is the payment we have received from [a building employer], can we make up some members to make the figures agree”. It is not hard to see how any union in that position would be hostage to that employer.

Interestingly, the book documents the collusion, revealed in an employment tribunal of how Liz Keates of Carillion had a meeting with various other employers, and Amicus official, Roger Furmedge, to discuss denying access to work for members of another union, TGWU/EPIU on the Manchester Piccadilly site.

At an early stage of our own Carillion dispute in Swindon, I was advised by the regional secretary of another union, someone who considers themselves on the left, that it was unwise to associate with the Blacklist Support Group, as this would lead Carillion to seeing GMB as “troublemakers”, and that their experience was that “the best way to deal with a company like Carillion, is for the union to make itself useful to the employer”.

This is an interesting proposition, because at one level it is true that effective trade union organisation can lead to improved industrial relations, greater employee engagement with the business aims of the employer, and through providing a mechanism for resolving disagreements it can lead to greater trust between staff and employer. Unionized workforces tend to be better motivated and less likely to seek other jobs. There is a win-win outcome from good, modern and professional, relations between a trade union and an employer.

However, not all employers seek to go down that virtuous route, and they sometimes need to be incentivized by a more robust attitude from the union. Trade unions need to recognize that at heart there is a potential conflict of interest between employers and employees, and that good industrial relations is predicated upon strong unions that are willing to prosecute their members’ interests in conflict with an employer if necessary, and are prepared and ready to do so. A trade union that continues to seek to make itself useful to an employer, even when their members are suffering from sharp management practices, is embarking on a precarious path.

It is also worth reflecting that in the modern, interconnected world of brand values and social media, trade unions can assert pressure in ways that employers may be more worried about than traditional strike action. The coalition government’s Carr Review, although it was deeply flawed, and rightly shunned by the unions, did show that trade unions simply using the normal lobbying and political campaigning tactics consistent with civil society engagement in a liberal democracy, can exercise considerable leverage on corporations. Simply exposing the scandal of blacklisting, and the involvement of household name corporations, many of whom secure contracts from the public purse, is a blow against the practice.

The scandal of blacklisting will never be fully resolved by court cases or legislation, because these employers have shown that they will ruthlessly do whatever it takes to assert their untrammeled right to manage autocratically. It would also be naïve to think that blacklisting no longer exists, despite the demise of the Consulting Association, nor is restricted to the construction industry.

I strongly recommend this book, its publication is a major contribution to the fight against the most serious civil liberties deficit in our society, and because it is a thoughtful and serious work, it will also contribute to the debate about how we protect our unions and fight against blacklisting.

ISBN-13: 978-1-78026-257-4

Dimensions: 216mm x 138mm
Format: Paperback
Page extent: 272
Publication date: March 2015

Unite day of action against benefit sanctions

From Unite the Union:

Day of action against sanctions“More and more people are facing benefit sanctions. Over 2 million people have had their money stopped in the past 2 years.

That’s 2 million people, many of whom have been plunged into poverty, unable to heat their homes or even eat. How is this meant to help prepare people for work?

Benefit sanctions must be fought against

These sanctions are cruel and handed out for ridiculous reasons such as:

Arriving minutes late to a meeting
Not applying for jobs when waiting to start a new job!
Missing an appointment on the day of the funeral of a close family member.

This has to stop

Up and down the country on Thursday 19 March we will be protesting against the cruel use of sanctions.”
Click to continue reading

With friends like these

So here we can watch the new Chief of Staff of the Scottish Labour Party, John McTernan, appointed by Scottish party leader, Jim Murphy, in January.

Speaking at a fringe meeting of 2014 Conservative conference. McTernan makes a gushing tribute to the free market, and then at 24:58 in the clip above, he gives his “advice to the Tory Party”.

He advises Cameron and Osborne to say that Labour “cannot manage an economy, they have shown that. Why trust them to deal with equality and inequality. We [the Conservative Party] are the only party who can deal with equality and inequality”

Even were this to be interpreted as McTernan playing Devil’s Advocate, merely arguing what he would say were he a Conservative supporter, the overall context of the talk he gives suggests a deep affinity with the economic policies and social philosophy of the coalition government, and the words “Labour cannot manage an economy, they have shown that” were hardly well chosen for someone aspiring to play a role in electing a Labour government.

McTernan gave very strong support to Murphy in the leadership election campaign, but very tellingly he posed Murphy’s proposition in divisive terms, not against the Conservatives, but against other parts of the Labour Party:

Murphy faces a challenge from the Left which will give a clarity to his policies and his positioning. Already Unite has set out its stall praising the “democratic socialist” (ie tried and failed leftist) credentials of the MSP Neil Findlay. Perhaps they have given too little thought to how many of their members work in the defence industries – on Faslane and the Clyde. These workers know Jim well as shadow defence secretary and supporter of Trident.

Can he win the 2016 election? Well, he won’t die wondering. What is for certain is that he is running to be First Minister and not to be the leader of the opposition. He will throw everything at it and in the process revolutionise the Scottish Labour Party. A new voice. New ideas. New ways of campaigning. New means of communication. It’s the prescription worldwide for renewal.

Some might think that it is inappropriate to draw attention to differences within Labour at this point, but McTernan himself made this speech AT THE CONSERVATIVE CONFERENCE, hardly a place where Ed Miliband’s opponents would not notice such criticism of the Labour Party.

There is no doubt in my mind that electing a Labour government on 7th May is the most pressing political task, and that the contest will decide whether our NHS even survives, and it will decide whether Britain takes a step towards being a fairer and better society under Labour, or whether we see economic stagnation and decline, and the fate of our public services fall off a cliff under the ideologically driven austerity of the Conservatives.

Winning in May requires that we understand that the political landscape has changed since 1997, especially in Scotland, and the prescription of triangulating for swing voters in marginal constituencies over slight differences of message from the Conservatives is no longer a recipe for success, even if it ever was.

Scottish Labour headed for electoral wipeout in May – is anybody surprised?

Jim Murphy is leading the Scottish Labour Party to an historic electoral pasting in the upcoming general election in May. Poll after poll in the wake of last September’s independence referendum leaves no doubt that the party that was once so dominant in Scotland it used to weigh its votes rather than count them, has finally and irrevocably been deserted by its core and natural constituency, people who feel that Labour abandoned them long before now.

Since winning the leadership election upon the resignation of the previous incumbent, Johann Lamont, in October 2014, Mr Murphy has lurched from one political stunt to another, demonstrating a talent for form over content in having himself pictured out jogging in a Scotland football shirt, adding his voice to a campaign to overturn the ban on alcohol at Scottish football grounds, and drafting a new Clause IV with the objective not of re-establishing public ownership as the sine qua non of Labour’s challenge to the unfettered power of the market, but to cement Scottish Labour’s credentials as a Scotland-first party.

This is a politician who came to prominence supping at Tony Blair’s table and who continues to embody Blairism long after both its author and his creed have been completely discredited. Being either pro-market, pro-business, pro-Trident, and pro-war would be enough to guarantee a political leader opprobrium in Scotland after the disaster of Iraq in 2003 followed by the disaster of the economic crisis in 2007/08. To be all four makes you about as popular as whooping cough. Jim Murphy is all four.

Making his and Scottish Labour’s position all the more difficult is an SNP which, under its new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, appears an unstoppable force. The new SNP leader’s decision to abandon her predecessor’s economic flagship policy of reducing corporation tax – recognising that its main effect would be to enter working people into a race to the bottom – allied to to her call for an alternative to austerity and the savage cuts to public spending that have battered the low paid, the poor, and some of the most vulnerable in society, while entrenching the wealth and privileges of a tiny minority, has been a breath of fresh air. Of course rhetoric is one thing concrete policies another – and here the SNP’s record in devolved government has not lived up to the perception of it as a champion of wealth redistribution – and, too, the revelation of a £444million budget underspend in the last financial year by the SNP Scottish Government in the midst of the very austerity Nicola Sturgeon has been railing invites a charge of hypocrisy. However that was then and this is now, and of the party leaders in Scotland it would certainly appear that she has drawn the correct conclusions going forward from last September’s referendum.

This should no surprise, however. The remarkable vigour and vibrancy of the Yes campaign, and the equally remarkable fact that 1.6million voted to fracture a union of over three centuries duration, was less about hollow nationalism or patriotism than about equality, social and economic justice, and a desperate desire to break the Westminster duopoly of slavish attachment to free market ideology and nostrums. The SNP, to be sure, are not a socialist party, but as the polls clearly indicate they are considered firmly to the left of Scottish Labour under Jim Murphy’s leadership.

In response to the latest Ashcroft poll indicating a monumental swing to the SNP from Labour all across the country in May, the mantra of the Scottish Labour leadership has been that this is good news for David Cameron – i.e. a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories. Thought this sort of scaremongering may have worked in years gone by now it merely smacks of desperation. The depiction of Labour as ‘Red Tories’ has gained huge traction in Scotland, to the point where it is considered more the case that a vote for Labour is a vote for the same old under a red rosette rather than a blue one. Clearly Ed Miliband is no Tory and much more progressive than either of the other two main party leaders south of the border. But he still has some way to go to repair the damage inflicted by years of Blairism both on the party and on the country – i.e. the normalisation of obscene levels of inequality, privatisation, poverty pay, welfare reform, deregulation of the banks, and the entrenchment of individualism by a party founded on the principle of collectivism and collectivist ideas.

The aforementioned is a measure of the extent to which Thatcherism and Thatcherite ideas have achieved hegemonic status in Britain. Given the venom with which Ed Miliband has been attacked by a large section of the mainstream media in recent months, the challenge facing any leader when it comes to standing up for even the most tepid departure from those ideas is consequently a significant one.

Jim Murphy is not such a leader, which in Scotland – a part of the UK that continues to bear deeper scars than most as a consequence of the Thatcher era – makes the Scottish Labour brand eminently toxic. With the recent revelation that Mr Murphy’s supporters are, presumably with his blessing, contemplating a move to de-couple Scottish Labour from UK Labour and run it as a separate party, the malaise shows no sign of abating any time soon.

The electorate in Scotland is set to deliver Jim Murphy a harsh message come May. Labour in Scotland doesn’t need to be more ‘Scottish’. It needs to be more ‘Labour’.

Who is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine?

john-mccain-oleh-tyahnybokA recent article in the heavyweight German magazine, Der Spiegel, reports growing German concern about the belligerent approach to Russia by the USA and NATO.

It was quiet in eastern Ukraine last Wednesday. Indeed, it was another quiet day in an extended stretch of relative calm. The battles between the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists had largely stopped and heavy weaponry was being withdrawn. The Minsk cease-fire wasn’t holding perfectly, but it was holding.

On that same day, General Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander in Europe, stepped before the press in Washington. Putin, the 59-year-old said, had once again “upped the ante” in eastern Ukraine — with “well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery” having been sent to the Donbass. “What is clear,” Breedlove said, “is that right now, it is not getting better. It is getting worse every day.”
German leaders in Berlin were stunned. They didn’t understand what Breedlove was talking about. And it wasn’t the first time. Once again, the German government, supported by intelligence gathered by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, did not share the view of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

The pattern has become a familiar one. For months, Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.

In any area of potential conflict it is worth considering the position of the other side, this is the mechanism by which trade offs and negotiations can defuse flash points, and can lead towards a mutually acceptable compromise. From the perspective of Moscow, NATO has continued to encircle the Russian Federation, including the incorporation of former republics of the USSR, who now discriminate against ethnic Russians within their own states. Indeed it could be argued that with the ending of the Warsaw Pact, the potential military threats that NATO faces are those created by its own continued existence and enlargement.

Putin certainly takes a robust approach in prosecuting what he sees as Russia’s national interest, and is prone to characterising those who challenge his own approach as treasonous. He is a figure in some ways reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher.

Let us consider though how the crisis in the Ukraine evolved. In 2014 the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych was overthown by unconstitutional means, which included the murder of police, the intimidation of members of parliament, and the open involvement of the neo-Nazi Svoboda Party, according to International Business Times:

The leader of Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok, who has appeared at the Kiev protests, has a long history of making inflammatory anti-Semitic statements, including the accusation during a 2004 speech before parliament that Ukraine is controlled by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” Miroshnychenko also called the Ukrainian-born American film actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess.”

Tyahnybok has also claimed that “organized Jewry” dominate Ukrainian media and government, have enriched themselves through criminal activities and plan to engineer a “genocide” upon the Christian Ukrainian population. Another top Svoboda member, Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn, a deputy in parliament, often quotes Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, as well as other Third Reich luminaries like Ernst Rohm and Gregor Strasser.

Notwithstanding these unpleasant participants in the Maidan protests, the revolution which has cloven Ukraine asunder has received confused but consistent support from British liberals, particularly from the Guardian. Indeed the Guardian took the unusual step of publishing a rather gushing portrait of women in a neo-Nazi terrorist militia on 5th March, including a photograph of a militia woman posing in front of a van decorated with the neo-Nazi slogan “1488” and a Waffen SS insignia. Only after complaints did the Guardian put an appropriate caption to the photograph online, which actually made their puff-piece for the Nazis even more incomprehensible.

At the start of the crisis in 2014, there is no doubt that the Yanukovych government was deeply unpopular, Ukraine was suffering corruption and graft, and was in danger of being pulled apart by differing sectional interests. As it stood at the crossroads, Ukraine would either resolve those issues constitutionally, and within the rule of law, or it would descend into the abyss.

The rule of law requires that a sufficiently robust shared framework of economic, ideological and political assumptions exists to allow, sometimes very deep, internal conflicts to be resolved constitutionally and without violence. It requires that the opposition limits its efforts to replace the government to constitutional means, and it requires that the government is prepared to surrender power to the opposition.

While it was proportionate for foreign states to urge caution upon Yanukovych, and pressurise the Ukrainian government towards compromise, unfortunately, several politicians from outside Ukraine, such as Senator John McCain, seemingly deliberately exacerbated the situation, visiting Maidan and pushing the trajectory further towards an extra-constitutional outcome. At the point where those states and international bodies ostensibly committed to the rule of law could have fought to keep the Ukrainian conflict away from violence, they encouraged the opposition to stand against compromise. The picture above shows John MCain with neo-Nazi, Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of Svoboda

Most remarkably, as Channel Four reported, a bugged conversation between the EU foreign affairs spokesperson, Baroness Ashton and a man believed to be Urmas Paet, the Estonian foreign minister, showed that Baron Ashton seemingly knew that snipers who shot opposition protesters were actually a false flag operation organised by the opposition itself, presumably to provide a pretext for the resulting coup d’etat.

Tragically, violence has its own autonomous logic. Now that civil war has been unleashed, then it will be extremely difficult to restore peace, this is of course especially true where Western governments act deliberately to impede peace. the deployment of British military advisors to Kiev would seem to be a provocation to Russia explicitly against the provisions of the Minsk agreement, that calls for the withdrawal of all foreign military forces.

As Seumus Milne notes, the increasingly grandstanding talk about a Russian military threat has the inherent danger of becomming a self fulfilling prophecy:

In the west, Ukraine – along with Isis – is being used to revive the doctrines of liberal interventionism and even neoconservatism, discredited on the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, Angela Merkel and François Hollande have resisted American pressure to arm Kiev. But when the latest Minsk ceasefire breaks down, as it surely will, there is a real risk that Ukraine’s proxy conflict could turn into full-scale international war.

The alternative is a negotiated settlement which guarantees Ukraine’s neutrality, pluralism and regional autonomy. It may well be too late for that. But there is certainly no military solution. Instead of escalating the war and fuelling nationalist extremism, western powers should be using their leverage to wind it down. If they don’t, the consequences could be disastrous – far beyond Ukraine.

Fidel greets the Cuban five

fidel and the five

Fidel Castro described himself as being “happy for hours” on Sunday 1 March, when he met with the Miami Five for the first time since all the men were finally freed form US jails in December. In a letter which was published in the Cuban media on 2 March, the former Cuban President described how they had talked about the many years of injustice they suffered and the “wonderful stories of heroism” he had heard.

The full text is reproduced here

Cuba Solidarity campaign has great pictures of the meeting on flickr: