The lessons of the general election

The recently published Beckett Report on the reasons for Labour’s defeat in the 2015 general election is both useful and persuasively argued.

It debunks some of the folkloric explanations:

As the new leadership plan for 2020, they should approach with caution a number of theories for our defeat that sound plausible but need to be nuanced and substantiated:

• “We had the wrong policies.” In fact our individual polices polled well, the issue was the difficulty in creating a cohesive, consistent narrative and communicating this clearly and simply

•“We were out of tune with the public on deficit reduction.” While trust on the economy and blame for the deficit were major factors, (British Electoral Survey (BES) analysis suggests that the majority of people thought that the cuts were going too far and preferred higher taxes to further cuts as the route to deficit reduction

• “We were too left wing.” This is not a simple discussion. Many of our most “left wing” polices were the most popular. These were the kind of policies the public expected from Labour. An analysis by BES suggests that some of those who supported us would have been less likely to had they seen us as less left wing. Both the SNP and Greens gained votes in this election and arguably they were seen as to the left of Labour. However, we did fail to convert voters in demographic groups who are traditionally seen as in the centre, we lost voters to UKIP, failed to win back Liberal Democrat voters in sufficient numbers in the right places, and lost a small number of voters to the Tories.

• “We were too anti-business.” We are, of course, wholehearted supporters of a strong and responsible private sector. As in previous elections, the Tories worked hard to mobilise their big business supporters to attack us. And when people are insecure about jobs and wages, such propaganda fosters uncertainty. However, polls showed a wish, from voters, for us to be tougher on big business, and policies that were unpopular with many senior business people, such as the energy price freeze and the Mansion Tax, were popular with voters. Moreover, we had a strong and positive agenda for small and medium-sized businesses.

• “We were seen as anti–aspiration.” Few thought this was the case specifically. However we need to be clearer that we are concerned for the prosperity of all and have a clearly articulated strategy for growth.

In general, we believe that these commonly held reasons for defeat should be treated with caution and require deeper analysis.

I was a parliamentary candidate in a non-target seat (the Conservative / Lib Dem marginal of Chippenham) who was also actively campaigning in target seats, and I see nothing in the Beckett report which doesn’t match my own experience. The demands on a PPC in a non target seat are not so onerous, but I certainly observed the candidate and campaign fatigue that affected the key seats:

While the early investment in organisation was a great success, the ambition of the list, and, in some cases, the very early selection of candidates, created inflexibility, fatigue, and considerable strain on resources, especially for many individual candidates. We have been much impressed, not only by the commitment and talent of our unsuccessful candidates, but by their personal sacrifice – many effectively put their lives on hold for several years

Labour did in fact have a wide range of detailed policy positions, that when presented to the voters were broadly popular. Labour was also effective in a number of areas, such as press regulation, energy prices, executive pay and over Syria in the difficult task of setting the political agenda from the opposition benches. However as the report says:

It is felt that, as the course of events changed during the parliament, a succession of different themes emerged [from Labour]. In contrast the Tories stuck to the “crash myth” and welded this into their mantra of the ‘long-term economic plan.’
In addition, while our policy agenda was well constructed, it was not always easy to communicate. We adopted a highly principled and strict rule that all policy announcements must be “fully costed,” in part to counter any concerns about our handling of the economy. We were highly responsible, taking care only to promise what we knew we could deliver. This may have made us too cautious.

At the point of the election the economy was seeming to recover allowing the Conservatives to harvest the benefits of incumbency, and because Labour had failed to defend our own record in government, both of the coalition parties were able to win the narrative that the recession was Labour’s fault, and it was simply too risky to have a new, untested government.

The 2015 general election result was the first since 1997 where Labour’s vote increased compared to the previous election, we performed well among amongst the BAME communities, amongst liberal professionals, among younger people – especially younger women – and amongst the most disadvantaged.

We, however, did relatively poorly among older voters, and failed to grow support among social demographics known to favour the politics of the centre.

Tim Bale’s excellent work “The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron” discusses the phenomenon in political parties of privileging anecdotal based explanations over evidence in sustaining a group think, particularly in allowing a broader commentariat outside of party structures but overrepresented in the mainstream media, in blogs and the twittering classes, to reinforce a tendency for political activists drawn from a particular social demographic to assume that their own experience is normative for the whole electorate. I think there is an argument that the 4.5%er tendency in the Labour Party are overly attuned to those parts of the electorate where Labour’s offer in 2015 was not considered persuasive, without considering that it did resonate with other voters, partly because the 4.5%ers are more socially in tune with those skeptical centrist voters.

Of course the task is to develop an election winning coalition which enjoys a sufficiently broad appeal to win over voters across the left, centre-left and centre, in order to win a parliamentary majority. However, the argument that Labour failed in 2015 because it was “too left wing” or not attuned to “aspiration”, fails to acknowledge that every political pitch involves both a benefit and an opportunity cost. The electorate is not linearly arranged along a simple left/right axis, which is the implication of the simplistic idea that Labour can win “from the centre” and then shift the political centre of gravity once in government. To take an obvious example, many older voters are in favour of an economically more interventionist state, but are socially conservative; the proposition from Liz Kendal in the leadership election would have been both economically too right wing for them, and socially too liberal.

To win in 2015 we had to do better in seats in the South of England, we did have to win Hastings and South Swindon, and all the seats like that; but we also had to win in the north and the midlands, and in Wales and in London and Scotland. Centre left parties can gain a one-off tactical advance by shifting to the centre, but if that shift is sustained then it is at the expense of weakening their own core support and the ideological and institutional underpinnings as a party. This is evidenced by not only the secular decline in Labour’s vote through 2001, 2005 and 2010, but also the decreasing involvement and enthusiasm of trade union involvement in the party, and that the Blair years saw Labour’s support actually weaken in rural, non-target seats in the South West and South East.

It is also unhelpful to adopt the opposite view that the electorate is a collection of interest groups, in the belief that you can pick a set of sectionally tailored policies which give you a majority in each target group, and you can then carry the whole disparate bundle over the winning line. This smacks too much of Tammany Hall and feeds into the cynical, transactional approach which underpins the professionalization of politics, a phenomenon that is particularly dangerous for the Labour Party. Indeed one of the difficulties of the 2015 offer was that a manifesto of individually good policies seemed to lack a convincing overarching proposition.

A key argument in the Beckett report is the context that after the formation of the coalition government in 2010, the Lib Dems, who had previously presented themselves as critics of the Conservative’s economic policies, now became their defenders.

With the advent of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats adopted not just Tory policies – voting, among much else, for the VAT increase they had condemned – but also the Tory narrative of unwarranted Labour spending when in government. It was too easily forgotten that the Labour Government in 1997 inherited a country that needed to be repaired after the damage to our industrial base, healthcare, housing and education inflicted by the Thatcher and Major governments.

There was a near universal demand for public investment in infrastructure, in research and development, and in training, as well as for socio-economic policies such as childcare, so that we could compete internationally.

Suddenly, with the creation of the coalition, every Labour spokesperson on any current affairs programme faced, not just disagreement and opposition from two other major parties – par for the course – but disagreement which was tightly co-ordinated, and began in, and stressed, the same story – that somehow this was all Labour’s fault.So from the outset, it was hard for Labour’s counter- narrative to be heard.

Labour was also squeezed out by the media who focused on the melodramatic dymanics of the coalition itself.

Nor indeed was there much media interest in anything we had to say. For political commentators, there was a much more fascinating soap opera in continual transmission. A steady stream of differences and disputes were available within each governing party – the Liberal Democrats and the Tories – and to that was added differences and disputes between them as coalition partners, and all of it the more important for being directly relevant to government decisions. So, to the annoyance and disappointment of Labour supporters, Shadow Ministers found it even harder than is usual as the main party of opposition to make a public impact. Even where Labour was highly effective in opposition, say on energy prices, or on health, this rarely attracted the sustained coverage it merited.

This needs to be understood by those voices in the Labour Party who are overly critical of Jeremy Corbyn. The press and mainstream media not only have an inbuilt bias which has led them towards character assassination of every Labour leader in opposition (including Wilson and Blair), but the malcontents will always receive disproportionate attention because of the dramatic narrative that it allows them to paint about Corbyn. It is also worth considering that some of the bitterness against Corbyn is from people who considered that they had a legitimate expectation of a career in Labour politics, which they now feel has been thwarted.

In fact, Corbyn is doing well by many indicators. Party membership is up, the party is in good financial health, relationships with the trade unions are broadly good, his standing in the PLP is improving steadily with time, the much heralded rebellion in the PLP over Syria was contained to the “usual suspects”, the Oldham by-election was convincingly won, he has maintained a shadow cabinet reflecting talents across the party; and Corbyn himself has become better and better at handling the media and PMQs.

Significantly, John McDonnell’s appointment as shadow chancellor has been a success, and there is broad acceptance in the party of the need to oppose austerity. This is a major advance from the equivocation of the general election; and is a sound foundation for all wings and social constituencies of the party to unite around, including making a defence of the record of the 1997 to 2010 government.

It was always going to be a harder proposition to unite the party around Jeremy’s views on foreign policy and defence. But some sense of perspective is necessary here. Whatever the views prevailing in Portcullis House and the excitable babble of political commentators, for a number of years opinion polls have consistently shown that the public is skeptical about British military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. And particularly among young people, there is a considerable constituency who are actively opposed.

The vote that Jeremy received in the leadership contest is a substantial mandate and has enthused thousands of people to join the party. Of course that mandate does not immediately translate into policy, and for example, Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan also received mandates of their own on rather different platforms. How those differences are resolved is the realm of politics and compromise, but the days are over where all the concessions will come from the left.

The Beckett report highlighted a number of areas where the party did well. We conducted a great ground campaign, and learned a lot about digital campaigning, and we can profit from studying the techniques employed by the Conservatives. But is also shows that the party has a mountain to climb to win in 2020. That would be the case whoever we have as party leader.

Trident with conventional warheads? Actually it makes sense

Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that Britain might profitably employ Vanguard class submarines armed with Trident missiles, using conventional warheads, but with potential nuclear compatibility actually might make a great deal of military sense.

I have recently been researching the issue of Britain’s nuclear capability, with the intention of writing a substantive article on the subject. One of the things that has struck me is the incongruity of Britain specific capability, compared to other states with nuclear weapons.

The US Admiral Dennis Blair, a former head of Naval Intelligence and at one time Obama’s Director of Intelligence, once remarked that the chances of a nuclear war between China and the USA is between nil and zero. In contrast, India faces a clear danger of nuclear war from Pakistan. Yet both China and India not only have a clear “no first use” policy, but their nuclear arsenals are on de-alert status, whereby the warheads are not only not fitted to the delivery systems, but are stored separately. Israel goes one step further, and does not even have its nuclear weapons assembled, and has never conducted a test.

Ever since the USSR first tested a nuclear bomb in 1949 the world has faced the possibility of war between two nuclear armed powers. The stakes got higher once hydrogen bombs were invented, with their smaller size and apocalyptic destructive power. Whilst mutually assured destruction (MAD) might ensure that no rational government would use nuclear weapons, and they have not been used for 70 years, the danger has always been present that one side would develop a technical capability for a first strike that would disable the other side’s ability to respond, potentially forcing the side with weaker capability into the “use them or lose them” dilemma. Targeting the nuclear weapons of another power is referred to as “counterforce”, and the arms race over the last decades has been focused on escalating counterforce and measures to defend from counterforce, and ensure force survivability. This is the first strike scenario, and both the USA and Russia have felt themselves compelled towards a growing and increasingly diverse arsenal to target each other’s nuclear weapons, and develop new delivery methods that frustrate the oppositions counterforce, for example , increasing throw-weight and penetration, extending time to detection, and shortening time to target; meanwhile there has been an equivalent effort in defence, by hardening, dispersing or moving launch sites, and with ever more sophisticated readers for early detection and distinguishing between decoys and attacks.

Those weapons that survive counterforce are used for the second strike, or deterrent phase, which euphemistically targets “countervalue” – or civilian population centres.

One problem of such a second strike capability for the UK government is that clearly it is contrary to Protocol 1, Article 48, of the treaty signed by the UK in 1977, additional to the Geneva Conventions, and particularly article 51, which states

The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.

But more practically, the UK’s nuclear capability is only credible as an adjunct to the larger nuclear capability of NATO, effectively that of the USA. To adopt the terminology of Admiral Blair, the risk of a countervalue first strike against the UK by a state actor is between nil and zero. (If a non state actor was in possession of nuclear weapons, then a nuclear response would have no target, and would therefore be no deterrent). Yet if the UK had no nuclear capability, it would not be a possible target for counterforce.

The unresolved issue therefore is whether a UK government would use its own nuclear weapons as a second strike response to a Russian counterforce strike against American targets, due to NATO obligations. Were they to do so, that UK government would be inviting a nuclear attack against UK civilian targets even though the UK had not suffered a nuclear attack.

Given that there is no credible nuclear threat to the UK, why does Britain maintain a continuous, sea based, on-alert nuclear capability, when India and China – for example – do not.

This raises a further complication of UK’s position. Each Trident missile carries about 12 multiple, individual warheads (MIRVs) and would be a formidable second strike weapon. But it also has a dangerous first strike capability.

In the 1980s the INF treaty eliminated most STOF (short time of flight) weapons, because in a first strike scenario they reduce the thinking time of the defending party from minutes to seconds, thus greatly increasing the risks of accidental nuclear war. However, when used in Depressed Trajectory (DT) mode, Trident itself becomes a STOF weapon, and as a submarine launched system (SLBM) the point of origin would be unpredictable. A Trident missile has a 7 minute flight time, or shorter, to hit targets in Russia.

The UK’s insistence on having a permanent seaborne presence with armed, first strike capable weapons is therefore potentially a dangerous source of instability.

So what of Corbyn’s suggestion? It is worth understanding that within NATO a number of states which do not have nuclear weapons of their own have a nuclear capability of carrying US warheads in specially adapted aircraft, with specialist trained crews. It is therefore a credible position that the UK could maintain a delivery system potentially compatible with US warheads.

In addition, a number of states, such as Canada and Japan, possess fissile material, dual use nuclear or conventional delivery systems, and the technical capability to develop warheads. For one of the current nuclear armed states, like the UK, to step back from current and live capability to the status of only nuclear potentiality would still leave national defence options open for the future, while propelling major momentum towards non-proliferation. Indeed one of the biggest problems of the UK’s current stance is that if we believe that Britain (that anticipates no currently foreseeable, credible risk of attack) needs nuclear weapons, then states with clear and present threats surely have an even more compelling case.

However, whether or not Trident will have a nuclear warhead is not even a decision that needs to be made currently. The so-called “Main-Gate” decision to place orders for the Vanguard submarines is due for 2016, while the decision on the warheads is not scheduled until 2019. If a credible case can be made for Vanguard and Trident acquisition without committing to nuclear warheads, then the divisive issue of replacing the warheads is postponed because even those opposed to a new generation of British nuclear warheads could still support the building of the Vanguard submarines, thus also securing the associated jobs.

Indeed, the STOF and MIRV capability of Trident means that they are capable of defeating even highly effective air defence, and armed with conventional warheads they could be used in extreme circumstances for national defence, whereas with nuclear warheads they could never be used. As Ronald Reagan said “nuclear war can never be won, and must never be fought”

David Bowie

David Bowie, whose death after a long battle with cancer has just been announced, was a creative genius with a unique talent for constantly breaking the mould. He was also clearly a man of inordinate intelligence with a fierce devotion to privacy that marked a refreshing change to the norm in the world in which he existed.

I remember seeing him live in concert back in 1987, during his Glass Spider Tour. It was at Roker Park, Sunderland FC’s old ground, and involved a spectacular stage show consistent with Bowie’s reputation for pushing boundaries with his music and performances.

Of the countless iconic songs he wrote and performed, Space Oddity is my personal favourite. It was ahead of its time in its arrangement and with lyrics that were sufficiently cryptic to allow us to extrapolate our own meaning, despite being written to coincide with the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

Bowie also took up the odd role in movies, though never with the same success as his music. However the following scene from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) is particularly powerful, depicting man’s inhumanity to man and the power of the human spirit.

There will be countless obituaries produced in response to the news of his passing, but none I think that will come close to representing him as well as the huge body of work he leaves behind. His loss to music and culture is mitigated somewhat by that body of work.

Obama sheds tears for America – a nation in crisis

568e5f9ec46188c9658b45dc-2The issue of gun control in America has exposed the inherent weaknesses of US democracy and the extent to which the Old Testament vies with the nation’s constitution for supremacy when it comes to the law.

The sight of President Obama shedding tears at his recent press conference, where he announced he was taking executive action, bypassing Congress, in order to tighten gun control, was a seminal moment in his presidency. The tears were genuine, his frustration over the lack of action on this particular issue is authentic, and the weaknesses of the US political system and constitution are inarguable when it comes to the ability of any administration to govern effectively.

When it comes to gun ownership the United States is a victim of the myths that sustain it and have corrupted its society and body politic. In this regard the Second Amendment to the nation’s constitution, mandating gun ownership as a right, has along with the First Amendment upholding the right of free speech, assumed the status of one of the Ten Commandments; considered inviolable and eternally sacrosanct, a guarantor of the freedom of the American people. With regard to the First Amendment on free speech, it is entirely right that it is so, but the Second Amendment was a product of its time and cannot be regarded in the same light.

Let us take a moment to examine it in detail. Its actual wording is: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The debate that has ensued ever since it was ratified and enshrined in law in 1791 is over whether it refers to the collective right to bear arms or the individual right to bear arms – in other words, was it designed in order to sanction the right of state militias to bear arms in order to protect and uphold state’s rights or was it, as commonly believed today, designed to sanction the right of individuals to bear arms in order to protect themselves and their property?

Significantly, the wording of the amendment is sufficiently ambiguous to be interpreted as both. However what cannot be denied is the lunacy of treating an amendment that was written in 1791 as equally relevant today as it was then. The vast changes in US society that have taken place, its urbanization, and the overall development of the country between then and now refutes utterly the idea that the Second Amendment should remain as sacrosanct as its adherents argue it should. Unlike the First Amendment the Second Amendment was not created as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end – i.e. in order to protect rights, such as the right to free speech, from being denied or interfered with by those in power.

Here we come to another major societal problem that pervades in the so-called land of the free – the conspiratorial mistrust of Washington and central government. Combined with the frontier mindset of many who consider owning deadly assault weapons as being tantamount to liberty, and combined with an unhealthy attachment to God as an entity of divine retribution and punishment instead of love and goodwill, this conspiratorial disdain for the government and its institutions has served to undermine social cohesion and the ability of the government to govern effectively. Checks and balances, when taken too far, lead to the kind of political paralysis that has been a feature of Obama’s two terms in office.

But when it comes to Obama’s focus on gun violence hypocrisy looms large. For almost unremarked by the President has been the sheer number of unarmed men and women who’ve been gunned down by police officers in recent years. A disproportionate number of those gunned down by cops have been black people – 336 according to the US website Mapping Police Violence, with 101 of those victims clearly identified as unarmed at the time. The most shocking stat is that only eight of the police officers involved have faced any criminal charges.

Up to now Obama has shed no public tears for the victims of police violence, whether black, Hispanic, white, or any other. Moreover, when others have championed the right of the victims of police violence to justice, they have come under sustained attacked from the right wing media establishment and the powerful police unions. Consider how the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was threatened with a nationwide boycott of his movies by police unions across the States after he attended a Black Lives Matter march and rally in New York towards the end of last year.

The exaltation of lethal violence that suffuses American culture adds another dimension to the crisis. The nation’s view of itself as a muscular and invincible global power, which brooks no dissent or resistance to its writ, is reflected in society at home. Its legal system, under which over half the entire world’s prison population is incarcerated, is notoriously harsh, especially when it comes to the poor – a disproportionate number of whom, as with the victims of police violence, happen to be black.

We are talking a society and a nation that is in crisis, polarised between the super rich and everybody else, and also along racial lines. Seen in this context, Obama’s tears were not only for the victims of gun crime in America but America itself.

In the United States in 2016 injustice not freedom reigns.




The disaster of NATO’s legacy in Libya

Map_Libya_BBC_1There is almost an air of desperation in the recent unanimous adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2259 that seeks to bring together a critical mass of Libyan factions and actors  to support a new unity government of national accord that will oversee a peace process.

Libya’s new Presidency Council will form a government within 30 days of the UN resolution, and the resolution stipulates that this government will be the only authority recognized as sovereign by other states, but with no consequences for states that ignore that stipulation. Currently, in addition to the myriad militias and warlord factions in Libya, there are two rival “governments” in Libya, the House of Representatives based in Tobruk, and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli.

The prospects of the new government of National Accord can be judged by the fact that on 15 December, Agila Saleh Essa Gwaider and Nouri Abusahmain, presidents of the House and the GNC respectively, met in Malta in an attempt to broker an alternative deal that excludes international actors, and they have both refused to endorse the UN deal; indeed many other politicians and militias still remain outside and opposed to the process. The alternative proposal intends to form a new temporary legislative body composed of GNC members and 100 tribal leaders from the eastern region. [Abdel Qader Huweili, a member of the GNC] told Middle East Eye that the latter would be selected through the sponsorship of the tribes “to maintain the Libya unity”.

The UN itself has been widely discredited following the revelation of emails proving that the UN’s special envoy to Libya until November, Bernadino Leon, had been effectively working as an agent of the UAE, and far from being an honest broker, was following the UAE’s agenda seeking to promote the House of Representatives and delegitimize the GNC. Since he left his UN post he has been appointed to a highly remunerated position in UAE.

The situation in Libya is beyond catastrophic. For example, Abdul Hakeam Al-Yamany reports how in the Eastern city of Benghazi the health service faces complete collapse, with 60% of the hospitals completely closed, and the remaining health centres unable to meet even the basic needs of the population. Benghazi Medical Center, with only 260 beds, is now the only hospital serving a metropolitan district of 1.1 million people.

“The security situation is now even worse than what we saw during the Libyan Revolution four years ago,” said Leon Tombo, a Philippine national and a nurse in the emergency room of the Benghazi Medical Center, in May 2015. He added, “I will resign at the end of this month, and many of my colleagues have already left. We are no longer safe inside the hospital; bombs and bullets are hitting the building, and a number of my colleagues have been injured in these attacks.”

In another report Al-Yamany, describes how the education sector has collapsed.

Over a year ago, on May 16, 2014, General Khalifa Haftar launched the so-called Operation Dignity against extremist militias in Benghazi. Since that time, the city has been engulfed in an armed battle that has ravaged its infrastructure, destroyed most of its institutions, and led to the displacement of entire neighborhoods of the city. The crisis has particularly affected the education sector in Benghazi. Only 60 of the 400 schools in the city escaped damage and are able to accept students. … …

Mohammed al-Barghathi, a 12-year-old from the [Banina neighborhood, which has largely been destroyed], added, “My friends and I tried to clean our school multiple times so that it could be used for education, but the random shelling continues to fall on our region. Three of my friends died when they stepped on an unexploded shell hidden in the school yard.”

Meanwhile, the schools in safer neighborhoods have mostly been transformed into shelters for internally displaced persons who have left their homes in nearby areas of conflict. The Benghazi Crisis Committee is trying hard to develop solutions to displaced persons using the schools as temporary housing until the war ends in the city. Essam al-Hamali, the official in charge of social affairs in the Benghazi Crisis Committee, said, “We have 13,000 displaced families in Benghazi. We have temporarily placed them in schools located in relatively safe areas, because we have no other place to house them.”

General Khalifa Hifter is a onetime confidante of Muammar el-Qaddafi, now turned warlord leader, who is waging war on the Jihadis in Benghazi. The conflict has taken on the aspect of a war economy typical of failed states, where armed conflict has “destroyed the local legitimate economy so that many people have no other source of income except through joining an armed group, and in which access to resources depends on violence”

As Frederic Wehrey recounts:

Many of the pro-Hifter forces — their leaders say anywhere from 40 to 80 percent — are in fact neighborhood militias. The struggle in some areas has taken on a vicious familial and even ethnic quality, marked by the settling of ancient scores, between the east’s Bedouin Arab tribes and families from western Libya, some of whom have distant ties to Turkey. “This is about fighting the Turks and Freemasons,” the leader of one tribal militia told me. Another described children as young as 14 or 15 fighting in his ranks. I heard stories of summary executions of prisoners, forcible eviction of families and destruction of property.

Ultraconservative Salafists are said to be among the most competent fighters in General Hifter’s ranks; they too fight out of local and sometimes tribal solidarity, confounding the notion that this is a purely ideological war between secularists and Islamists.

On the other side, the composition is equally murky. To be sure, the Islamic State is present and growing. But one military critic of General Hifter, who wishes to remain anonymous, estimates that many of the opposing fighters are not hardened jihadists, but youths from Benghazi’s marginalized families who got caught up with Islamist militias and are now looking for a way to stop fighting.

The UK government published a summary in July:

Armed groups on all sides of the conflict have disregarded civilians and committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and violations and abuses of human rights, including abductions, extrajudicial executions, unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment. Armed groups have targeted Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) seeking to document and denounce such violations and abuses. Moderates who have supported the UN-facilitated efforts for a ceasefire and political dialogue have also been targeted by armed groups. … …

A series of savage attacks by extremists took place during the reporting period. In January at least 9 people, including 5 foreign nationals, were killed in a terrorist attack on an international hotel in Tripoli. In February, ISIL-affiliated terrorists claimed responsibility for the abduction and beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians, prompting retaliatory air strikes on Dernah by Egypt. In February, nine were killed in an attack at Mabruk oilfield southeast of Sirte, and three oil workers were kidnapped. On 6 March, terrorists killed eight oil workers and kidnapped nine workers at Al Ghani oilfield, south east of Tripoli. Car bomb attacks in public areas in Tripoli, Tobruk and Benghazi caused many casualties. In April 2015, two groups of Ethiopian Christians were executed by ISIL in Libya in two locations. … …

The UN, NGOs, and the media reported summary executions by a Sharia “court” in Dernah, and killings of security officials and current and former civil servants including judges, HRDs, media workers, and a female member of the General National Congress. …

Armed militias, mostly from Misrata, continued to prevent about 40,000 residents of Tawergha, Tomina, and Karareem from returning to their homes as a form of collective punishment for crimes allegedly committed by some Tawergha residents during the 2011 revolution. Those displaced continued to seek safety and shelter in makeshift camps and private housing in many areas, but they remained subject to attack, harassment, and arbitrary detention by the militias … …

The condition of prisons and treatment of prisoners under the jurisdiction of the different sides in the conflict remained a serious concern throughout this period. HRDs continued to report arbitrary detentions, mistreatment, torture and extrajudicial killings in detention centres on all sides.

Libya has, since 2011, suffered a collapse of civic infrastructure, with the health and education sectors decimated, with the productive, peacetime economy replaced by brigandage, and with a catastrophic collapse of womens’ rights. The rule of law has completely collapsed, with all parties in Libya refusing to cooperate with jurisdiction of tthe International Criminal Court: for example, the trial that resulted in the death sentence for Saif Islam Gaddafi was held in absentia as he himself is rotting in a extra-judicial militia run prison, and no prosecution evidence was presented, the court moved straight to judgement. Even by 2012 the UN was reporting

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay … raised concerns about detainees being held by revolutionary forces, saying there were some 8,500 prisoners in about 60 centres.

“The majority of detainees are accused of being Gaddafi loyalists and include a large number of sub-saharan, African nationals,” she said. “The lack of oversight by the central authority creates an environment conducive to torture and ill treatment”

What is therefore odd, is that supporters of the NATO intervention which destroyed the Libyan state don’t accept that the adventure was misjudged.

In October 2011, Seumus Milne described in the Guardian how the NATO intervention had been a disaster. I refer to Milne as he has become a bête noir of the pro-war lobby.

In response, Daniel Knowles wrote in the Telegraph:

In Milne’s view, without Nato’s support, Gaddafi would have entered Benghazi, murdered a few thousand people and order would have been restored. In actuality, without Western support, Libya either would have endured a much longer and more brutal civil war (with a much stronger chance that the most violent rebels would win out), or else it would have finished with Gaddafi still in power, only now forced to use far more repressive measures to maintain his grip. …

It is absolutely in the West’s interests to overthrow despotic, disgusting regimes like those of Gaddafi, and to encourage more pluralistic, liberal ones in their place. It is also good for those people, who now have a chance to build a better society.

Already when Knowles wrote this, the promise of a “better society”, was a macabre insult to the tens of thousands of lives broken by a society teetering on the abyss, as the state was destroyed and rival militias fought over the spoils. It has become a lazy caricature of those seeking to hold to account the folly of British military misadventures that this is due to knee jerk “anti-imperialism”, but perhaps as a Conservative Knowles might reflect on the wisdom of Edmund Burke in his reflections on the French Revolution.

The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please. We ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints. Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate insulated private men; but liberty when men act in bodies is power. Considerate people before they declare themselves will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new  power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers and dispositions, they have little or no experience.

More extraordinary is that as recently as October 2015, the Labour Party’s own cheerleader for war, Kate Godfrey, wrote in the Telegraph that

I was in Libya as Colonel Gaddafi very deliberately fostered a refugee crisis in which thousands of people died on ghost transports, on buses and on trucks that couldn’t take the strain of their carriage. Gaddafi was opening up passes to Africa’s south in a great scheme to blackmail the EU. I was there as the migrants died of thirst. But really they died of a vindictive, bloody blackmailing policy. They died because of Gaddafi.

Seumas Milne says the Nato intervention in Libya is “a catastrophic failure”. He thinks that Gaddafi would never have enacted a brutal repression against the protesters of the Arab Spring. He thinks that “if there were global justice, Nato would be in the dock over Libya.” I was there, and Milne was not, and Milne is wrong.

He is wrong on Libya, and he will be wrong on Syria

Elsewhere, Godfrey wrote

The Gaddafi regime fell in weeks – as it were always going to fall. Within three days of the start of anti-government protests, the opposition were in charge of the country’s second capital, Benghazi. Six weeks and UN Security Council Resolution 1973 had been adopted, a no-fly zone was in place, and a coalition of 27 states from Europe and the Middle East sent in strikes against pro-government forces.

Six months after the start of protests and Tripoli fell. Gaddafi died, and Libya disintegrated into areas under control by separate more-or-less Islamist militias. And this is more-or-less where Libya remains.


Because Libya was never a cohesive country. It was, and is, barely a country at all but a scattering of six million people in a vast desert, with almost all of them concentrated in a thin coastal strip. The capital, Tripoli sits at the top left, the second city – and virtually the second capital – Benghazi, at the top right. With the exception of that coastal strip, the rest is sand, and one-Toyota towns.

During Gaddafi’s day the powerful kept an occasional politic presence in Tripoli and dwelt in their tribal areas and in loathing. The moment they had the opportunity to go after Gaddafi, they went after him. Given the intensity of feeling, the three days to take Benghazi looks restrained.

There was no depth to the Libyan state. The only question was, would the regime have the chance to use their control of the air? … …

People say Libya under Gaddafi worked. It was a police state. It was a wretched grey murder-state with basic dental. I spent a lot of time there, and I saw hunger, and fear, and Mukhabarat, and those on the good days.

At the best of times, Gaddafi’s regime was a stretched and grubby sticking plaster over a country that didn’t work.

There was no Save the Dictator option, and neither should there have been.

I lack Ms Godfrey’s talent for divining the opinions of the population of an entire country.

Nor can I speak for her experience of meeting people in Libya who were hungry, but according to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), in 2010 Libya had the highest HDI in the African continent, and in 2012 had a GDP of $US 14000 per capita, equating to a spending power per head of $11900; the highest standard of living in Africa. Libya under Gaddafi also had free health care and education, around a quarter of the population were university educated, and more than half of graduates were women.

As Hugh Roberts explained in the London Review of Books in 2012

The socio-economic achievements of the regime can be attributed essentially to the distributive state: that is, the success of the hydrocarbons sector and of the mechanisms put in place early on to distribute petrodollars.

The comic opera absurdity of the so-called Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya, the puppet uniforms, and Gaddafi’s Bedouin chic did indeed provide a grotesque façade for a state that endorsed and encouraged terrorism, and brutal internal repression. It was a particularly absent state, lacking any political party or parties, and while it had a functioning bureaucracy with some degree of popular participation, it had neither the culture nor institutions for allowing political differences to be aired or resolved. We need to understand that the murder, torture and repression of political opponents is the attribute not of a strong state, but of a weak state.

The stronger state is one where there is sufficient culture of respect for the rule of law in civil society; political institutions that allow the resolution of disputes; and the willingness of governments to renounce power to their political opponents via constitutional means. Constitutionality is the hallmark of a state whose sovereignty rests upon popular consent.

Godfrey’s argument fails on a number of particulars. Firstly, she fails to distinguish between the stability of the Libyan state, and the particular expression of the government of that state. Governments and states are not the same thing, and governments can be changed by political process while still maintaining states. The military action by NATO in assistance of the rebels destroyed the state itself, and thereby destroyed the monopoly of armed force from the state and also the bureaucratic institutions which allowed the administrative and distributive economic functions of the Libyan state to function for its population. Even a repressive state plays a public safety role through excluding other actors from exercising war and brigandage on its territory.

Speaking in June 2015, the Tunisian Human Rights activist Amira Yahyaoui, emphasized the importance of public safety:

Security is a top priority. [Tunisia is] a very small country threatened by al Qaeda from Algeria and [the Islamic State] from Libya — that’s a huge mess, right? And more than that, one of the keys of success of Tunisia is that we don’t have Egypt’s military. Ben Ali was a dictator, and he made the choice to weaken the military, to avoid a military coup. But it’s now becoming a huge problem. Today the Tunisian military is really unequipped. The terrorists are very tech-y today, they use social media to organize, so this is one of the reasons I’m doing this.

But the second reason is that, for human rights activists, security is a taboo. Security means you are anti-human rights. But that gives space to those who are not very keen on human rights to take care of this topic. I think that people from a human rights background should be more involved in security issues, and stop thinking that security is a taboo. If we want to defend people’s rights, the first thing we need to defend is their right to live and not to die. That’s the first step.

Godfrey is blasé about the collapse of the Libyan state, saying that it was inevitable. It was only inevitable once NATO destroyed the armed forces defending that state. This created the security vacuum that was itself a human rights catastrophe greater than any furious dogs of war that Gaddafi could let slip.

She is also simply wrong that there was not a political alternative. Arguably the NATO intervention curtailed any prospect of a process in Libya leading to a stable resolution. It is worth quoting Roberts at length:

The claim that the ‘international community’ had no choice but to intervene militarily and that the alternative was to do nothing is false. An active, practical, non-violent alternative was proposed, and deliberately rejected. The argument for a no-fly zone and then for a military intervention employing ‘all necessary measures’ was that only this could stop the regime’s repression and protect civilians. Yet many argued that the way to protect civilians was not to intensify the conflict by intervening on one side or the other, but to end it by securing a ceasefire followed by political negotiations.

A number of proposals were put forward. The International Crisis Group, for instance, where I worked at the time, published a statement on 10 March arguing for a two-point initiative: (i) the formation of a contact group or committee drawn from Libya’s North African neighbours and other African states with a mandate to broker an immediate ceasefire; (ii) negotiations between the protagonists to be initiated by the contact group and aimed at replacing the current regime with a more accountable, representative and law-abiding government. This proposal was echoed by the African Union and was consistent with the views of many major non-African states – Russia, China, Brazil and India, not to mention Germany and Turkey. It was restated by the ICG in more detail (adding provision for the deployment under a UN mandate of an international peacekeeping force to secure the ceasefire) in an open letter to the UN Security Council on 16 March, the eve of the debate which concluded with the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973.

In short, before the Security Council voted to approve the military intervention, a worked-out proposal had been put forward which addressed the need to protect civilians by seeking a rapid end to the fighting, and set out the main elements of an orderly transition to a more legitimate form of government, one that would avoid the danger of an abrupt collapse into anarchy, with all it might mean for Tunisia’s revolution, the security of Libya’s other neighbours and the wider region. The imposition of a no-fly zone would be an act of war: as the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, told Congress on 2 March, it required the disabling of Libya’s air defences as an indispensable preliminary. In authorising this and ‘all necessary measures’, the Security Council was choosing war when no other policy had even been tried.

The proposal for a cease fire and negotiations could not allow the absent state model of the jamahiriyya, to survive. The jamahiriyya lacked the civic institutions and political traditions to engage in negotiations, and so would have needed to generate them. There is evidence that the jamahiriyya was reformable, and the compelling impetus of a peace process would have accelerated support for the reforming current led by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who had been previously praised by among others Tony Blair, and was well placed to use the crisis to its advantage to create civic institutions. This option needed to be explored, and powerful voices within the African Union were urging Gaddafi to participate.

As Hugh Roberts explains:

It was the fashion some years ago in circles close to the Blair government – in the media, principally, and among academics – to talk up Saif al-Islam’s commitment to reform and it is the fashion now to heap opprobrium on him as his awful father’s son. Neither judgment is accurate, both are self-serving. Saif al-Islam had begun to play a significant and constructive role in Libyan affairs of state, persuading the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to end its terrorist campaign in return for the release of LIFG prisoners in 2008, promoting a range of practical reforms and broaching the idea that the regime should formally recognise the country’s Berbers. While it was always unrealistic to suppose that he could have remade Libya into a liberal democracy had he succeeded his father, he certainly recognised the problems of the Jamahiriyya and the need for substantial reform. The prospect of a reformist path under Saif was ruled out by [NATO’s intervention].

Paradoxically, because the rebellion arose in the Libyan context without pre-existing civic and political institutions, the opposition also needed time to coalesce and develop. The military victory of NATO not only ruled out reform of the jamahiriyya, but it also ruled out the opposition going through the process of political evolution and clarification, the development of institutions, mechanisms of accountablity and self-discipline. The state was destroyed without anything else to fill the void.

Back in 2014, Thomas Friedman argued in the New York Times that the wave of global protests – what he calls the “square people” has broadly been contained at the level of protest.

Behind massive street demonstrations there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government. This is the important point made by Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, who writes that ‘Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.’

It is worth considering how Tunisia became an exception, again to quote Friedman:

Daniel Brumberg, a democracy expert at Georgetown University and the United States Institute of Peace, points out that the most successful Square People in the Arab world, who forged a whole new constitution, are in Tunisia, which is the Arab country that had “the most robust civil society institutions — especially a powerful labor union federation, as well as business, human rights and lawyers associations — that could arbitrate between the secular and religious factions,” who had come together in the square to oust Tunisia’s dictator. Tunisia also benefited from an army that stayed out of politics and the fact that the secular and Islamist forces had a balance of power, requiring them to be inclusive of one another.

The crucial feature in the development of stable political institutions is that they have legitimacy based upon popular engagement. Respect for the rule of law, especially constitutionality, cannot be imposed from outside; and even the successful German experience was domestically driven, in conjunction with protracted nation building support by the occupying powers. Conspicuous successes in conflict resolution, for example the end of South African Apartheid, or the process started by the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, have involved long term commitment from the protagonists themselves to resolve their differences.

Kate Godfey is quite explicit that she believes that those like myself and Seumus Milne who argue that NATO’s intervention in Libya was a failure are wrong. She therefore presumably believes it was a success.

It is therefore worth comparing her views with those of Sir John Sawers, who was Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for five years until November 2014.

“When crisis erupted in Libya, we didn’t feel it right to sit by as Gaddafi crushed decent Libyans demanding an end to dictatorship.

“But we didn’t want to get embroiled in Libya’s problems by sending in ground forces. After Gaddafi was ousted, no-one held the ring to help manage a transition to something better … …

“Libya had no institutions. Who or what would take over? The answer? Those with the weapons. Result? Growing chaos, exploited by fanatics.”

James Robbins, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent comments on Sir John’s views as follows:

Most foreign policy analysts seem to agree that the major Western powers, Britain included, are now caught in a sort of policy no-man’s land between intervention and non-intervention.

Politicians are trying to satisfy citizens who continue to expect security and protection, but who also seem increasingly unwilling to tolerate the sort of defence spending that protection might require, and, more importantly, the scale of sacrifice in soldiers’ lives which ground combat inevitably brings.

What Libya got was neither full intervention nor complete non-intervention, but a sort of limited intervention.

That limited intervention, sanctioned by the UN, led by David Cameron for Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy for France, was based on the new-ish doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”. … …

The huge difficulty with limited intervention, of course, is the unpredictability of outcomes.

That fickle and unfathomable “law of unintended consequences” delivered catastrophic results in Libya.

Western policy relied on maintaining the unity of anti-Gaddafi forces once they had dealt with their shared enemy.

Light-touch Western efforts to help Libyans put aside their tribal and factional differences forever and embrace power-sharing through representative government based on national unity, have comprehensively collapsed.

The doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (RtP) is certainly not an unchallenged one, and it is viewed by – for example – India, China and Russia with some skepticism. At the heart of RtP is the concept that state sovereignty is constrained, and that it can be lawful for another state to intervene to avoid humanitarian disaster. Certainly, using examples of the Rwandan genocide, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, it is clear that outside military intervention can be a necessity, though there should be a high threshold of violence to overcome, an emphasis on caution, the exploration and preference of non-military options, consensus and shared responsibility through the UNSC, the involvement and indeed primacy of regional actors, and follow through and civic and economic capacity building to ensure that the outcome is not a failed state.

The prime difficulty is that the type of military action advocated as a success in Libya by Kate Godfrey was one that would almost inevitably lead to disaster. Whatever the merits of the exercise of RtP in any particular instance, any resulting military action needs to be integrated in a workable political system that works towards stable outcomes.

Warfare is a brutal business. Von Clauswitz famously observed that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. Just contemplating the incongruity of this statement with the modern reality of wars involving warlord polities like ISIL, and the descent into anarchy, reveals an entire sea change from war as traditionally understood in Europe as the organized exercise of violence by states in pursuit of political aims.

The exclusion of non-state actors as legitimate participants in war derived in Europe from the widespread introduction of firearms, but in particular through the social codification of laws of war, derived from Huigh de Groot’s (Grotius) work “The Laws of War and Peace”, that became adopted across Europe by professional practitioners of war, seeing the mutual benefit of self restraint. Even from the outset, Grotius’s work was ignored during the expansion of European powers into the colonies, and was later challenged by the citizen armies of the Napoleonic era and increasing destructive power of armaments; but for some extensive period, the exercise of military power was regarded as deliberately conservative of social stability.

Whereas seventeenth Europe, particularly Germany, had endured war of the same brutal totality as consumes, for example, modern Syria, the military historian, Robert O’Connell observed that the codification of rules of war meant that “for two centuries these men succeeded in capturing and integrating the gun into a workable political system”.

What NATO’s intervention into Libya reveals is an exercise of military might where the means do not match the will; and that was socially regressive in destroying the institutions of social stability thus destroying the civic foundations of a peacetime economy. In so doing, it has allowed the creation of a war economy, where access to economic resources is directly dependent upon the exercise of violence. Such a breakdown of civil society and public safety are exactly the conditions into which a warlord polity like ISIL can advance. Indeed, while other Jihadi actors like Boko Haram are merely franchise holders of so-called Islamic State (ISIL), according to the UN, ISIL in Libya is integrated with their confederates in Iraq and Syria.

NATO’s action did not locate itself within a framework of seeking political stability, and indeed it undermined and forestalled a political peace process from the African Union. Indeed, contemporary with the Libyan war, the state of Bahrain unleashed a wave of repression not dissimilar to that which prompted NATO intervention in Libya. The British government took precisely the opposite view to that which they took in Libya, believing that political stability in Bahrain outweighed other considerations, and that reform could be encouraged through dialogue and engagement.

Military action should never be engaged in unless there are clear, realizable political objectives, that the risks are considered, where there are clear exit conditions, and where the consequences of failure as well as the consequences of success are factored into the decisions. What is more, embarking on war where the military means and will are insufficient, and are known to be insufficient at the outset, to ensure that the political objectives can be met guarantees failure. What is more, any exercise of RtP must ensure commitment to a political process that emphasizes social stability as an outcome – destroying states and letting anarchy reign may satisfy the liberal interventionists, but the left is right to oppose and hold such vanities to account.

Star Wars and the Death of American Cinema


‘Star Wars’ is a simple story, simply told, of good versus evil, light versus darkness, and freedom versus tyranny. In other words it is the story of America’s struggle to preserve democracy and civilization in a world beset by evil and ‘evildoers’.

Movies and political propaganda have long walked hand in hand. Indeed if ever a medium was suited to propaganda it is the medium of cinema. And if ever an industry could be credited with creating an alternate reality so pervasive it has managed to convince generations of Americans and others around the world that up is down, black is white, and left is right, that industry is Hollywood.

George Lucas, the creator of a Star Wars franchise which, including this latest installment, has churned out seven movies since the original appeared in 1977, is along with Steven Spielberg a child of the reaction to the American counter-culture of the sixties and early seventies.

Though both products of the sixties – a decade in which culture and the arts, particularly cinema, was at the forefront of resistance to the US military industrial complex – Lucas and Spielberg came to prominence in the mid 1970s with movies which rather than attack or question the establishment, instead embraced its role as both protector and arbiter of the nation’s morals. The curtain began to come down on the most culturally vital and exciting and cerebral period of American cinema – responsible for producing such classics as ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘MASH’, ‘The Last Detail’, ‘The French Connection’, ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ – with Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ in 1975, followed in 1977 by Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’. The former frightened America, while the latter made it feel good about itself again.

Both movies together spawned the high concept blockbuster, wherein audiences were invited to feel rather than to think, allowing them to suspend disbelief and escape reality instead of sharing the experience of confronting it via stories in which alienated characters expressed the angst, frustration, anger, and disaffection which they themselves were experiencing in their own lives, thus inducing a sense of solidarity.

It was the era of the anti-hero, main characters for whom the system and conformity was the enemy, and who ploughed their own furrow regardless of the consequences. The questioning of authority and its received truths reflected a country whose young and not so young were hungry for radical change. The war in Vietnam, Watergate, the black civil rights and nationalist movements had shaken up American society and, with it, its culture and cultural references.

But by the mid seventies, with the end of the Vietnam War, and with the counter culture running out of steam, the time had arrived to box up all that alienation, anger and rebelliousness and allow the mythology of the American dream and democracy to reassert its dominance.

In his peerless history of this vital period of American cinema – ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ – author and cultural critic Peter Biskind writes: “Beyond its impact on movie marketing and merchandising, Star Wars had a profound effect on the culture. It benefited from the retrenchment of the Carter years, the march to the center that followed the end of the Vietnam War.”

This march to the center became a march to the right under Reagan, which manifested in Hollywood as artistic and cultural stagnation, wherein directors such as Spielberg and Lucas became less concerned with story and character and more focused on spectacle. Bigger, louder and richer was the mantra as two dimensional characters and plotlines that your average ten year old with a set of crayons and an imagination could come up with predominated.

Biskind writes: “Lucas knew that genres and cinematic conventions depend on consensus, the web of shared assumptions that had been sundered in the ‘60s. He was recreating and reaffirming these values, and Star Wars, with its Manichean moral fundamentalism, its white hats and black hats, restored the luster to threadbare values like heroism and individualism.”

In this latest Star Wars movie, directed by J J Abrams, Lucas makes do with a writing credit after selling the franchise to Disney in 2012 for $4.05 billion. Yes you read that right; he sold it for $4.05 billion. That kind of money will buy you a lot of light sabres.

Disney and Abrams have reached back in time in order to refresh the franchise, returning it to its roots with the return of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and the old iconic favourites Chewbacca and R2D2. For Star Wars buffs there’s even the return of Han Solo’s iconic spaceship the Millennium Falcon. The movie’s antagonist, its Darth Vader, is named Kylo Ren, played by Vladimir Putin…sorry Adam Driver. With this character lies the one interesting twist in the plot. Mind, having said that, we’re talking ‘interesting’ relative to the rest of the plot. We’re not talking Roman Polanski and ‘Chinatown’ here.

There are also major roles in the movie for two relative unknowns, both British: Rey, through whose eyes the narrative unfolds, is played by Daisy Ridley, while Finn is played by John Boyega.

For all the hype surrounding its release, and the rave reviews it has garnered, the latest instalment of the long running and inordinately successful Star Wars franchise – ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ – is so embarrassingly and toe-curlingly clichéd it’s impossible to walk out afterwards without limping.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the movie is not the battle of good versus evil it portrays but the fact that Harrison Ford was reportedly paid 76 times more than newcomer Daisy Ridley to star in it. The 73 year old’s financial package comprised an upfront fee in the region of $20 million plus 0.5 percent of the movie’s gross earnings, which are projected to reach a whopping $1.9 billion.

It is proof that the story of America is not good versus evil or light versus darkness at all. It is instead the story of the super rich versus everybody else.

Afghanistan – a dismal tale of failure and folly

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where they recently mounted a major military operation in Helmand province in the south and where throughout the rest of the country they are increasingly active, is emphatic evidence that NATO’s prolonged military mission there has been a dismal failure. This failure is not however a measure of the failure to impose a liberal democracy in the country but in the lives destroyed in the attempt.

As is the case all across the UK in 2015, homeless people are a regular fixture on the high street close to where I live; to the point where you can’t walk for five minutes in either direction without coming across one sitting on the pavement begging for change.

One of the regulars – let’s call him David – is an ex-soldier. Until recently I would come across him sitting on the pavement outside the same mini-supermarket each early evening rush hour, trying to make enough money to pay for a night at a hostel. In front of him he would have a piece of cardboard with his army service number written across it, hoping it would garner a more positive response.

David’s story is an all too common one. In his early twenties, with a young wife and two kids to support, he was made redundant from his job after serving his apprenticeship as a vehicle mechanic. Unable to find work he decided to join the army. He signed up for the minimum term of four years and in that time served four six-month tours of duty in Afghanistan. The experience left him damaged and unable to cope emotionally and psychologically with normal life once he came out. His marriage collapsed and for want of support from the state and not enough help from the various hard-pressed charities that are set up to help ex-servicemen like him, he ended up on the street.

Recently he disappeared and I stopped seeing him. I subsequently learned that he was in prison after selling heroin – heroin that likely originated in Afghanistan – to a young girl who died from it.

This spiral of despair and tale of wasted young life describes the reality of Britain’s military interventions over recent years. In Afghanistan, as with Iraq, young men such as David were thrown into a country they had no business being in to fulfil a military operation that was ill conceived, planned, and organised, lacking resources, equipment, and anywhere near enough manpower.

Where Britain is concerned we are talking war on the cheap, which in the case of Afghanistan was unleashed by Tony Blair after 9/11 to help US president George W. Bush vent revenge for this terrorist atrocity on one of the poorest countries in the world. The results, fourteen years later, are all too predictable.

Make no mistake, the Taliban are destined to be part of Afghanistan’s future. They are Afghans who inarguably enjoy wide support among the majority Pashtun population in the south of the country and are considered by the communities in which they operate to be fighting for the country’s liberation and independence. Consequently, the most grievous indictment of British and US policy is not the resurgence of the Taliban; it is instead the recent emergence of ISIS in eastern Afghanistan. It comes as more proof that instead of making the situation better, the presence of British and American troops in the Arab and Muslim world has only made it worse.

At its peak the number of British troops and service personnel in Afghanistan reached 9,500, the bulk of which were deployed to Helmand. The number killed stands at 456 while over 7000 have been injured or maimed. As for Afghan deaths, according to a study published by the Watson Institute at Brown University in the US, 26,000 Afghan civilians were killed between 2001 and January 2015. As for the number injured or maimed, there are no reliable figures available but you can draw your own conclusions.

The only victors to emerge from this military and foreign policy debacle have been corruption and the heroin trade. In October the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published its 2015 Afghanistan Opium Survey. It reveals that 66% of the country’s opium cultivation takes place in the south – i.e. Helmand. While overall there has been a decrease in overall poppy-cultivation compared to 2014, the number of poppy-free provinces in the country also decreased. In other words, Afghanistan and heroin are now two sides of the same coin.

Apologists for the US/British/NATO role in Afghanistan point to the achievement in leaving a country behind in which far more people have access to basic medical care and education than they did under the Taliban. While this may well be true the cost in wasted lives and corruption surely undermines it. This is without referencing the inescapable fact that the Taliban are stronger now, today, than they have been since 2001, prior to the invasion and occupation. Here Leo Tolstoy’s dictum that ‘The two most powerful warriors are patience and time’ receives ironclad validation.

Returning to the plight of David, a young man facing a bleak future of perennial despair, those who sent him and thousands like him over to Afghanistan to kill and be killed no doubt enjoyed their usual sumptuous Christmas this year. In a just society they would be the ones in prison and the Davids of this world would be where they rightly belong at Christmas – at home with their families looking forward to the future.

The left needs to stand back from civil war in UNISON

I am not a member of UNISON, and I am neither qualified nor inclined to comment on the respective merits of the various candidates who recently contested their election for General Secretary. However, I do think that there is cause for concern for the whole labour movement that such a large and important union may become distracted by internal disputes at such a critical juncture, when we face a determined assault on living standards and public services by a Conservative cabinet ideologically wedded to austerity. Furthermore, when the government’s trade union bill threatens not only some trade union rights, but also includes the very practical danger of check off (known in UNISON as DOCAS) – the deduction of trade union contributions from payroll – being outlawed in the public sector, which is designed to hobble the finances of public sector trade unions.

UNISON, along with the other unions, will need to show unity and determination to resist.

The result of the election was as follows:

Dave Prentis 66,155 votes (49.4%),
Heather Wakefield 35,433 (26.4%),
Roger Bannister 16,853 (12.6%)
John Burgess 15,573 (11.6%).

Prentis therefore won a convincing majority over all the other candidates, and won the support of nearly half of all those voting.

A relevant comparison is the 2000 election, when Prentis was first elected, where he received 55.9%, (125,584 votes on a higher turnout. In that election, Bannister – the Socialist Party candidate – received 31.65% (71,021 votes).

Controversy surrounds the recent election because of a recording that has emerged which appears to feature someone sounding like the London Regional Secretary, Linda Perks, encouraging full time regional officials to campaign on behalf of the incumbent General Secretary, Dave Prentis. If true, this would be against UNISON’s election rules. Perks has now been suspended while an internal UNISON investigation is conducted, and it would be improper to comment while that process is not yet concluded.

A number of complaints have apparently been referred over this matter to the Trade Union Certification officer, who is an independent official with the power to adjudicate, and could theoretically require the election to be rerun. A relevant question to ask, however, would be whether any potential breach of the union’s rules would have materially affected the outcome. Given the margin of Prentis’s victory, it would be reasonable to assume that his re-election does truly represent the views of the wider membership.

Nevertheless, Left wing member of UNISON’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Rogers reports that 23 members of the NEC have called for Prentis to be suspended. This follows a vote at an NEC meeting where 21 NEC members voted to discuss the alleged electoral malpractices, with 32 NEC members supporting a call for next business ( a procedural mechanism to halt discussion on a topic).

Whilst this might sound quite damning, the voting exactly mirrors the nominations by the same body before the election took place. 32 for Prentis, and 21 for lay member candidates. So it would again be reasonable to assume that the division on the NEC reflects established positions, rather than an escalating crisis.

The left therefore has a real responsibility to ponder its next move carefully. If individuals or branches seek to use the current controversy to undermine the existing leadership of UNISON, then that would be irresponsible if they cannot replace it with something better and stronger. It is incumbent upon all trade union activists to consider whether their actions leave organisation stronger or weaker.

On a note of terminology, I think it unfair and inaccurate to simply accept a framing of these contests as Dave Prentis being challenged by “the left”. In historical terms, in the context of British trade unionism, Prentis is himself a supporter of the left. However, for the sake of convenience let us refer to his lay member challengers as being “the left” in UNISON. I hope it is not unfair to quote again from Jon Rogers, because he puts the case clearly. Here he discusses not only Dave Prentis, but also one challenger, Heather Wakefield, who is also a senior official in the union.

There’s no point replacing a male General Secretary whom many of us feel has given inadequate leadership in the fight against the Tories with a female candidate in respect of whom there is no evidence that she would be any better.

Heather missed the boat five years ago when, having stuck her head briefly above the parapet, she ducked back down before the polls opened.‎ In the past five years Heather has not only failed to differentiate herself from the incumbent General Secretary but has been in the front rank for some of the most dismal outcomes to major industrial disputes in our history.

‎UNISON staff kept a final salary pension scheme – but not the membership. Whilst Dave Prentis led the retreat from united action to defend pensions after the single day of action in 2011, Heather Wakefield was an integral part of the leadership which led us away from unity.

Similarly, whilst it was Dave Prentis who, having smashed the now notorious ice sculpture could not lead a united fight to do similar (or any) damage to the Government’s pay freeze, Heather Wakefield was the Head of Local Government going in to the catastrophically mismanaged 2014 pay dispute.

There are a number of problems with this.

Firstly, if there is no reason to differentiate between Wakefield and Prentis (and to be fair, having read Heather wakefield’s campaign material she did not make a strong case that she would be a better or even a significantly different GS than Prentis), then their combined vote is 75.8% of those voting. This compares to the vote of 67.3% secured by Prentis alone in 2010, and 75.6% for Prentis in 2005. Meanwhile, the combined left challengers votes show a consistent minority in the union (24.2% in 2015, 32.7% in 2010, 24.4% in 2005). In broad terms the left does not have sufficient support to defeat Prentis, and the level of support is not growing.

Secondly, the arguments put forward by the left candidates assume that the 2011 pension dispute and 2014 pay dispute could have achieved significantly better outcomes. Let us examine this:

With regard to the pensions dispute, the result for the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) was as good as could be achieved as I argued at the time; and the reference to unity by Jon is misguided as UNISON did stand in unity with GMB and Unite who were involved in the LGPS dispute. The membership in these three unions in local government were not tin soldiers to be deployed in battle over the separate disputes over other, different and unfunded pension schemes that did not directly affect them. As I argued at the time

The difference in assessment of Monday’s pension talks between Mark Serwotka and Dave Prentis cannot be explained merely by the differing political outlooks of these two general secretaries. According to Mark the talks were “a farce”; whereas Dave Prentis said “there was a sense that today we were in real negotiations”.

The government seems to have made a substantive concession to the unions representing local government employees, whose pension arrangements are via the funded LPGS scheme; whereas no concessions seem to have been made to the unfunded schemes for teachers and civil servants.

Because the issues are so complicated, and resistant to easy answers, then there is scope for negotiation between the unions and government, even this government. However, we should recognise that the funded LGPS does give unions representing local authority workers more leverage than the unions representing workers in the unfunded schemes.

Talk of coordinated union action over pensions may be unachievable therefore, if the government makes concessions to the unions in the local authority scheme, but not to teachers, civil servants or the NHS.

On the face of it public sector pensions is an issue that should unite workers; but the detailed differences in outcome may undermine that unity. A Teaching Assistant earning about £7 per hour, working part time and being paid for just 30 weeks per year, typically only pays into the LGPS for less than seven years; whereas a male teacher on retirement may have 30 years of contributions behind him. Does anyone really expect the school support staff to strike to support teachers if the government makes concessions on the LGPS?

Turning to the 2014 pay dispute, this was sufficiently well enough observed on the first day of action to make the action effective, in conjunction with the press and media operation of the national unions. It did reveal the difficulties of organizing national action in the public sector, and the move by the teaching unions to not support a follow up day posed a challenge to both GMB and UNISON organizing school support staff. There was a Quixotic decision from UNISON not to ballot their members in academies for the first day’s strike, though GMB did successfully strike in these employers; but the most chaotic aspect was the subsequent holding of a special conference by UNISON where lay member delegates repudiated a deal already agreed with the employer jointly with GMB and Unite.

What is noteworthy about this argument is that those who believe that the result was a “sell out”, did not themselves secure a better turnout or participation in their own workplaces in the action than allegedly more moderate parts of UNISON. The challenge from the left would therefore seem to be stronger in words than in action.

I am sure that there are many ways that UNISON could be improved, and it is not my place to comment on them. However, there is a very real danger that the current controversies over the GS election may destabilise the union. It is incumbent not only on the left to consider their next move, but also for supporters of Prentis to consider how these divisions can be resolved.