Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Coalition Government Faces Mass Trades Union Opposition to Public Sector Cuts Plan

On Saturday I joined the protest march through London opposing the Coalition Government's austerity programme. This was no standard march, it's organisers, the TUC, said there were almost a quarter of a million people on it, I could well believe it. Our contingent, from Edinburgh, took nearly 5 hours to walk just three miles from the Embankment to Hyde Park and at no stage could we see the beginning or end of the parade.

It was a magnificent display of strength by the much ignored British trade union movement. It was uplifting to be part of it and illustrated again just what the TUC is capable of when it gives a clear and uncompromising lead.

Not only was the protest huge, colourful and vibrant, it was clear that there were tens of thousands who had never been on such a march before. It was the largest protest of it's kind since 2003 and the outbreak of war in Iraq.

Our message was also clear. These cuts are unfair, they are vindictive and politically charged. The current economic crisis was precipitated by the greed and recklessness of Britain's private finance industry. These self styled 'Masters of the Universe' insist they are so important to world capitalism that they are 'too big to fail'. What they mean of course is that they are too big for governments to allow to fail and therefore public money, vast amounts of public money, must be found to bail them out every time they go bust.

Sadly all four capitalist parties in Scotland agree with them. They all accept that the public purse must be emptied to stop private banks going to the wall. That public money is currently being spent on far better causes - caring for the sick and vulnerable, educating people, housing the homeless and feeding the hungry.

These cuts are both brutal and unnecessary. To balance the books we should stop spending £100bn on Trident, stop allowing the rich to evade taxes, stop occupying Afghanistan and stop bombing innocent Libyan civilians.

Of course, the issue goes far deeper. The Liberals and Tories are ideologically opposed to the public sector. They prefer private individuals and unaccountable companies to deliver services and employ people. They have no qualms about the services being sub-standard and the wages being woeful. They don't use them nor do they work to provide them.

The TUC now has to consider what it does next. Saying 'Wait for a Labour Government' simply wont do. We had one of those before and they were useless. It is pointless and defeatist to repeat that mantra and gets us nowhere, not least because Labour also favours cuts. So it's over to you Brendan Barber!

Monday, 21 March 2011

Poll Predicts SSP Holyrood Advance

The latest YouGov poll on voting intentions for the Holyrood elections has the SSP on 4% for the Regional List Vote. Perhaps the most striking element of this is that support for the SSP amongst the over 60s stands at 9% and they are the age group most likely to vote.

The poll comes after Jimmy Kerr trebled the SSP's share of the vote in a Paisley council by-election (compared with 2007).

Both polls indicate that support for the SSP is growing again, and this is most encouraging as the Holyrood campaign kicks off in earnest.

We are asking all our members and supporters to spread this message amongst their friends, family and work colleagues.

We have shown over the past decade that our policies can can make a real difference. NHS prescription charges have now been abolished in Scotland as a result of the ground breaking work the SSP did on the issue between 2003-07.

We are asking our members and supporters to campaign strongly to get out message across over the next 6 weeks.

We are also asking for donations towards the cost of our campaigning. You can donate to the SSP by sending a cheque made payable to the SSP to SSP, 8 Alloway Loan, Edinburgh, EH16 6XH or by paying it in directly to the SSP's a/c.

As the campaign gathers momentum I'll keep you posted on what's happening and how you can support Scotland's Socialist Party.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

US Government denies visa to Malalai Joya

The United States Government have denied a travel visa to Malalai Joya, former member of Afghanistan's parliament. She was set to begin a three week US tour to promote her memoir 'A Woman Among Warlords'. Joya's publisher at Scribner, Alex Gargaliano, said "We had the privilege to publish Ms Joya, and her earlier 2009 book tour met with great acclaim. The right of authors to travel and promote their work is central to freedom of expression and a full exchange of ideas."

Joya's memoir has been translated into over a dozen languages and she has toured widely including Australia, the UK, Canada, Norway, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands in support of the book over the past two years.

Ms Joya presented herself at the US Embassy and was told she was being denied a visa because she was "unemployed" and "lives underground". Malalai Joya was the youngest woman elected to Afghanistan's parliament in 2005. Because of her harsh criticism of warlords and fundamentalists in Afghanistan she has been the target of at least five assassination attempts. "The reason Joya lives underground is because she faces the constant threat of death for having the courage to speak up for women's rights. It's obscene that the US Government would deny her entry" said Sonali Kolhatkar of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US based organisation that has hosted Joya for speaking tours in the past and is a sponsor of this year's national tour.

Joya has also become an internationally celebrated critic of the US-NATO war in Afghanistan.

Events featuring Malalai Joya are planned, from March 20 until April 10, in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC, Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and California. Organisers of her speaking tour are encouraging people to contact the Department of State to ask them to fulfill the promise from the Obama Administration of "promoting the global marketplace of ideas" and grant Joya's visa immediately.

Noam Chomsky said "Malalai Joya leaves us with hope that the tormented people of Afghanistan can take their fate into their own hands if they are released from the grip of foreign powers"

The Irish Times described Joya's book as " A fascinating account of Afghanistan's political reality...Malalai Joya has been compared Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi"

The Daily Telegraph commented that Joya was "Unwavering in her mission to bring true democracy to her country...Women have been known to walk for miles just to touch her. For them, she is their only real hope for a better future"

Friday, 18 March 2011

Ken Loach's Route Irish

I had the very great pleasure of meeting the acclaimed and prolific film maker Ken Loach on Wednesday, when he was at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh showcasing his latest work 'Route Irish'. Ken is a very good friend of the Scottish Socialist Party and has been for many years now. Many people will have seen him on Newsnight recently where he tore Michael Hesletine, former Deputy Leader of the Tory Party, to shreds over the attacks on working people being made by the Con Dem Government. He was superb and I'm sure he lifted the spirits of every Socialist in Britain who watched the programme.
The film, 'Route Irish' focuses on the role of private security companies in Iraq and tells the story of two Liverpudlian friends, Frankie (John Bishop) and Fergus (Mark Womack). Frankie dies in highly suspicious circumstances whilst travelling along the most dangerous road in the world - the one between Baghdad International Airport and the city's diplomatic 'Green Zone' - which is known as Route Irish.

The film is a powerful piece of work and is again a collaboration between Ken and screenwriter Paul Laverty. It is well worth seeing for the dexterous way it exposes how the murky world of modern imperialist warfare and private profiteering connect within the 'military industrial complex'.

Route Irish goes on general release today.

[picture : Craig Maclean]

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Dont 'freeze' the Council tax, shovel it away

This weeks u-turn by Labour's Iain Gray in favour of a Council tax freeze may put him on a par with Alex Salmond but it does little to challenge the essential inequity of the tax itself.
The overwhelming majority of Scots want to see the Council tax swept away altogether like the unwelcome snows of the weekend, not kept and frozen.
Since the tax bears no relation to one's income or ability to pay it is the poor who are inevitably hit hardest. Some senior citizens for example must pay 20% of their entire income on this one bill.
Iain Gray would therefore be well advised to examine the Registers of Scotland report published this week showing how the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer when measured via house sales in the past year. Houses in Belmont Drive, Edinburgh, for example, currently Scotland's most expensive street so we are told, were sold for £2.3million in 2010. Householders in that part of Murrayfield pay just £2,338 in Council tax whereas those householders in the city's average Band F properties, valued at less than 1/10th of the price, face a bill of £1,688 or 70% as much. Clearly neither Labour nor the SNP's Council tax 'freeze' does much to help the poor and the low paid who continue to shoulder by far the heaviest burden.
In 2007 the SNP manifesto for Holyrood accepted the fundamental injustice of the Council tax and pledged to scrap it altogether in favour of an income based alternative. They have moved far from such a commitment insisting the better off face up to their responsibilities, to simply 'freezing in' the unfairness. Its no wonder then that industrialists like Sir David Murray are happy to back them in May. Not only did the SNP not deliver on their 2007 election promise they didn't even put up a fight. They chickened out of submitting a Bill to Parliament replacing the Council tax for fear it would be defeated. This attitude is in stark contrast to the record of the Scottish Socialist Party which presented 2 Bills in consecutive sessions.
The SSP remains committed to an income based alternative to the Council tax which shifts the burden from the shoulders of pensioners and the poor onto those of say Mr. Stephen Hestor the now £6.6million richer CEO of RBS and his neighbours in Belmont Drive and elsewhere who can plainly afford to pay more.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Edinburgh Divided

Registers of Scotland published a report this week showing 15 of Scotland's 20 most expensive streets are in Edinburgh. Houses in Belmont Drive, Murrayfield, the country's most expensive street start at £2.3million. There are seven of them.
These figures remind me of a speech I made in the midst of the 1990's housing boom to the Edinburgh Tenants Federation AGM. 'Million pound houses are ten a penny now in Edinburgh' I quipped. It appears the the luxury housing market has barely been effected at all by the 2009 financial crash as prices continue to soar. Far too much money is still chasing too few houses. And since its 25 years since Edinburgh built council housing in any meaningful numbers the chronic shortage is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
Working class people have long been forced to leave the city in search of more affordable locations in West Lothian and Fife.
Last year The Guardian, looking at the impact of the 2009 financial crash,concluded that Edinburgh remained the second richest city in Britain. With almost £3trillion worth of equity managed here on a daily basis this city of 460,000 sits behind only London with 7 million people in the UK wealth league table.
But Edinburgh, as anyone who lives here will attest, is a city of shocking contrasts. Geographically compact, enclosed by the Firth of Forth to its North and East and the Pentlands Hills to its south, Edinburgh's affluent never live far from its impoverished. Life expectancy i Belmont Drive for example is 10 years higher than Craigmillar [East], West Pilton [North], the Calders [West] or Burdiehouse [South].
Last week more than 300 families on the Council's waiting list applied for a modest three bedroom house in Saughton under the tenant transfer scheme. The 299 unsuccessful families must therefore continue to endure unsuitable and overcrowded conditions a while longer. Belmont Drive although only a stones throw from Saughton might as well be on the moon for them.
An it is not only housing inequalities which feature starkly in Edinburgh's deep social divide.
Nearly 25% of children here go to private school, paying up to £25,000 for the privileges. Tony Blair, Alistair Darling and Iain Gray all went to them. Edinburgh City Council meanwhile whether Labour, Liberal or SNP controlled, has closed dozens of state schools in he past 10 years and forced class sizes in the remainder to levels twice that of the private sector.
So claims that 'We are all in this together' made by those other private schoolboys Cameron, Clegg and Osborne ring hollow in these parts. We have heard such noises many times before.
Neither the Con-Dems, Labour nor SNP [with the backing of industrialist Sir David Murray, himself a resident of one of Edinburgh's richest streets] has the slightest intention of challenging inequalities, indeed they are part of the problem not its solution. So the question remains how do we turn round this obscene wealth divide?
The Scottish Socialist Party knows how. We can start by insisting the better off pay their share of tax for a change. Look at how the Council tax exacerbates the grotesque wealth inequalities in Edinburgh, and beyond. The residents of Belmont Drive in their £2.3million houses pay a Band G Council tax of £2,338. Those city residents living in the average Band F property pay £1,688. That's right 70% as much as their richest neighbours who are likely to be people like Mr Stephen Hestor the CEO of RBS. The country's biggest publicly owned bank this week awarded him a salary of £6.6milion for the coming year- for running our bank!
The SNP's much vaunted Council tax freeze- now backed by New Labour-means people like Stephen Hestor benefit most. The Scottish Socialist Party's plan to replace the Council Tax with a Scotland wide income tax means the owners of Belmont Drive face a much more realistic bill- 20% 0f their income over £100,000 a year. Meanwhile those struggling to get by on low wages -850,000 Scots- we be exempt from obligations until their incomes rise. That's the enlightened attitude Edinburgh was once famous for across the world before the city became synonymous with obscene social divisions and indefensible inequalities.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Libyan Confusion

Last weekend I attended a rally for democracy in Libya. It was, to be honest, a rather Chaotic and confused event. We were all there, I suppose, in support of the uprising against the Gaddafi dictatorship calling for democratic reforms.

There were people calling for the restoration of King Idris, whom Colonel Gaddafi deposed in a military coup in 1969, waving the Libyan flag of that time. I don't support the restoration of monarchs. I prefer democratic republics.

There were also people calling for Britain and NATO to enforce a No Fly Zone to stop Libyan Government planes attacking the rebels in the oil rich east of the country. I don't support Western Imperialist interventions either.

Thankfully there were also some people who supported the introduction of democratic rights and a secular progressive government in Libya and, indeed, throughoutNorth Africa. Admittedly these are in short supply.

Each of the revolts we have witnessed this winter has had one thing in common in that they are spontaneous uprisings of the masses against brutal, out of touch, governing regimes. But whereas in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen protestors shared at least an agreement on what they were against, even though there was not much evidence on what they were for, in Libya that is not the case. Things are somewhat different there. First of all Gaddafi has clearly retained a large measure of public support, perhaps even the majority, particularly in the west of Libya around the country's capital city Tripoli. Secondly, the armed forces have, by and large, stayed loyal to him. Thirdly the divisions in Libya are largely tribal. Benghazi, Libya's second city, has long been a centre of opposition to Gaddafi, and not without reason. But the tribal leaders have not managed to link up with Gaddafi's other opponents, like those angry at his corruption, his neo-liberal economic policies and his pro-Western stance.

The confusion I witnessed in Edinburgh is nothing, however, compared to that in Whitehall. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has raised it to an art form. He was the one who told the world in the first few days of the revolt that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela. He initiated the call for NATO to impose a No Fly Zone, only to be informed that Britain had no planes with which to enforce it. And this weekend Hague secretly ordered the SAS into Benghazi in helicopters, only to have them shot down by the very Libyan rebels he was trying to help. The elite British unit were lucky not to have been shot. Perhaps Hague got his No Fly Zone after all, even if it wasn't the one he wanted.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Relief For Scottish Patients After 60 Years Of Pain And 7 Years Of Trying

Today I sent my congratulations to the Holyrood Parliament for finally agreeing to abolish NHS prescription charges. Seven years ago as SSP MSP for the Lothians I introduced a Bill to scrap these charges, believing them to be both an injustice and in clear breach of the promise the NHS made in 1947 to provide care, free at the point of need, to all patients.

In the spring of 2005 the Parliament's Health Committee backed my Bill.

In my letter to Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon I welcomed the fact that this 'tax on the sick' is finally history in Scotland. I am particularly delighted for those 60,000 patients who will now get the medicine they need rather than go without because they can't afford to pay. Prescription Charges were introduced in 1951 as a temporary measure, a tax on patients deemed necessary by the Government during an economic crisis and the escalating cost of the war in Korea. Today a promise to patients, broken in Scotland, for more than half a century, is finally kept.

In 2007 I received the acknowledgement from the SNP Government for the work I did in pursuing this proposal. Today I am delighted to reciprocate by passing my compliments to Nicola Sturgeon, the Health Minister, for recognising the wisdom and justice in this proposal and for her determination in implementing it in full. For me it was always more important for the measure to be implemented than to haggle over who finally achieved it. The NHS in Scotland can be proud today, and the country too.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

For A Modern Democratic Republic With An Elected Head Of State

And so to Oman. The game changing 2011 revolt that began in Tunisia and spread to Yemen, Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain has now reached the Gulf state of Oman.
How tremendously uplifting it is to see the downtrodden masses in all these countries rise up in courageous revolt against their unelected heads of state. Leaders who live amid stark and obscene excess whilst the people in contrast face a daily struggle to obtain the bare necessities.
Remind you of anywhere close to home?For all the 24 hour news coverage and wall to wall analysis of 'the revolution in the Middle East' not one programme editor or TV producer, far less their airhead presenters, have ever asked if we should be looking to our own constitution and its absence of democracy. No reporter or journalist has, as yet, made the $64 million connection that we here in Britain also have an unelected head of state just as far removed from the daily life of the population as Hosni Mubareak or Muamir Gaddafy.
And this is strange because our head of state's family are also seldom out of the news. Whether it is the manufactured and excruciating references to the minutiae of two royal weddings this year or to the orchestrated sympathy for the stuttering of a previous king in our cinemas, it seems that you can't move for monarchical PR these days.
Britain's royal family are perhaps the richest in the world, as far removed from the day to day realities of life as it's possible to be. Prince William and Kate Middleton need not worry about repaying their university debts. The poverty of 1 in 3 children will not impinge on their household in any way. There's no chance of any of their palaces being repossessed. The brutal economic crisis will not affect their pomp or circumstance. They will continue to reign over us as 'subjects' with apparent impunity.
Our feudal monarch is, of course, every bit as ridiculous as the Saudi Crown Prince and the barmy Bahraini royal family. And it may well be argued that since the people of Egypt (in the 1950s) and the Libyans (in the 1960s) threw out their hated monarchs to establish their own republics, they are a step ahead of us and probably feeling sorry that we do not have their courage to rise up and rectify this glaring oppression and insult.
Isn't it time we took a leaf out of the Arab people's book to establish a modern democratic republic of our own with a head of state we elected? What's the odds on this revolt reaching Britain?