Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sisters in Arms - Kobane, Kurdistan & Women Against ISIS

Sisters-in-Arms - Women soldiers face down ISIS as Rojavans fight for a new world in the heart of the Middle East.
The news from the Middle East has been relentlessly depressing in recent months, the Arab Spring seemingly slipping away into a river of blood and fundamentalist terror. The latest atrocities have come today with a video showing the beheading of an American Muslim hostage, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, and ten captured Syrian soldiers by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

Yet the Western media remains as misleading as ever about the nature of Levantine societies as it portrays a region almost passively helpless in the face of the Islamic State, preferring to ignore that ISIS is an entity galvanised greatly by the weaponry sent to the opposition in Syria by our Saudi and Qatari allies. The narrative is that they "captured" these armaments, when in truth much of them have until very recently been directly delivered to the men fighting for the "Caliphate".

Kurdish areas
But in the north of Iraq and parts of the Syrian north-east, the Kurdish people have resisted fiercely, often against the odds, although that is something they have been used to for some decades.  

The Kurds have lived in western Asia for over two thousand years. They have some historical links to Iran, but are ethnically distinct from the Persian people and the region they inhabit is currently divided between the far west of Iran, south-east Turkey, north-eastern Syria and northern Iraq (where they are the majority).In all they number about thirty million people. The first stirrings of nationalist aspirations developed in the 1880s against the Ottoman Empire, and the Kurds' story since then, as before, has been one of frequent struggle for recognition in the face of often hostile neighbours - especially Turkey and Iraq.

Alternately embraced and then ignored by the West as convenient to its geopolitical interests, many Kurdish nationalists from the 1970s onwards adopted socialist thinking as a response to social inequality and the continuing feudal conditions in some parts of the region. During the chaos after Saddam's defeat in the First Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi Kurds seceded from Baghdhad and have since developed their own autonomous government around Erbil. They finally gained political recognition of this in the new Iraqi constitution in 2005.

Similarly, when Syria fell into chaos and civil war, the Kurds living in Kobane and two nearby cantons - Erfin and Cizire - established their own self-governing region of Rojava under a multi-party administration based on democracy, civil rights, community and gender equality. Although predominantly Kurdish and Muslim, it includes significant Syriac (Christian) and Arab populations who have worked closely with the Kurdish parties. It is potentially extremely wealthy, containing 60% of Syria's oil reserves and some highly fertile agricultural areas.

The West has ignored Rojava: until ISIS hit the headlines with its appalling catalogue of brutality, its assault on this oasis of freedom was largely ignored. As late as early September, when I listened  to a Kurdish political activist at the Green Party conference describe her frantic escape from ISIS, clinging to the side of a speeding truck just a few days before,  Kobane was still barely reported.

The Green Partys' International Co-ordinator, Dr Derek Wall, has worked hard to promote the need to support Rojava (see his blog, Another Green World) , but other than the odd article in the Guardian, relatively little has appeared in the mainstream media even now -although to its credit the BBC did produce an interesting piece on its News channel. Consequently, the West sat on its hands until the city was evacuated and ISIS was batting through its streets in sight of the Turkish border post on its north side. This in spite of the rhetoric from David Cameron and others about the Caliphate being the greatest threat to civilisation in recent history.

In Rojava in particular, women are at the front of the military struggle. Around a third of the Kurdish People's Protection Units' (YPG) troops defending Kobane and other areas are women, some 7,500 in all, known as the YPJ. In the event of their capture by the misogynists of ISIS, there is little doubt about their fate, but their enlistment is not new, nor is it a reaction to the barbarity of their opponents.

Efrin, Kobane and Cizire are the cantons of Kurdish Rojava
Equality between men and women, has been a strong feature of Kurdish politics and society for decades. This is an unsurprising consequence of the socialist politics that originally underpinned revolutionary Middle Eastern politics for several decades before the more recent rise of religious fundamentalism as a channel for discontent.

The more conservative Peshmerga High Command in Erbil has formed women's battalions, but declined to deploy them to the frontline. However Rojava, reflecting its more radical culture, depends on its women fighters and the YPG/J is clearly proud to promote their role. It has used the internet and social media to promote the equal role of men and women in the existential battle against ISIS, including a Tumblir photo page with one message boasting: "Feminine and strong...The YPJ women are defying all stereotypes and they continue to shoot ISIS to hell where they belong."

Men & Women together against ISIS
Our political leaders' long disregard for Kobane until the very last moment of the 11th hour gives the lie to any claims by the West to be interested in women's rights. For while the Kurds of Rojava first warned about the dangers of arming what was to become ISIS, and then begged the world for help as the jihadists closed in, murdering their men and carrying their women off to be sold to rapists in slave markets, President Obama and others equivocated, hesitated and then equivocated some more.

The delay was almost certainly in part linked to fellow NATO member Turkey, whose treatment of its own Kurdish population has been questionable, to say the very least. Ankara is clearly nervous about a successful Kurdish state on its borders, especially one practising radical politics. But the Turkish government is not alone - Britain and the USA have a history of opposing democratic movements in the Middle East, including intervening to overthrow the Iranian democracy in 1953 - and Obama and Cameron share few if any of the Rojavans' objectives of social justice and equality. In the end, the main thing delivered by the West has been something the Kurds did not ask for - airstrikes.

So, if we are serious about the rights of other humans and especially of women, we should be giving whatever material aid we can to the Kurds - in the form of weapons and supplies, logistical support, medicine and food - not troops, which they have specifically said they don't want. Unlike our long-time, head-chopping business associates and collaborators in Riyadh and Doha, the Rojavans are the antithesis of everything ISIS stands for.

And, this time, for a change, we should choose as our allies people who share the values we like to imagine we to aspire to rather than the Kings and Presidents who pay out the most. The women and men of Kobane, Efrin and Cizire, the people of Rojava, are fighting for a new world.

We must not let them down.

WOMEN AGAINST ISIS  - Kurdish women are on the frontline in Kobane

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


The Night passenger
Rattles in heavy iron under
Kalaidescope sky without end
As paper wasps ascend

Arcs of white, plumes of red
Incandescent verdant glow
As sleek, nocturnal turbine
Slides under watchful carbine

Great sulphuric realm extending
From frozen Sleeve to sultry Oxen
While Saturn delivers his babies
Screaming and flailing to brother Hades

And now Centennial Sentinel
Repeats under ash-filled phosphor ciel
Cometh the Night
But never the Dawn

Cometh the Night
But never the Dawn

Friday, 7 November 2014

Lest We Forget

The British Legion has censored the anti-war verses of its Poppy Song.

Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday in the UK, when the dead of war are commemorated by ceremonies of red poppy wreath-laying at memorials around the country and a two minute silence is observed. The events mark the moment that World War One officially ended at 11 am on 11th November 1918. The first Remembrance Day was in 1919, when the two minutes were known as the Great Silence, a fitting term given the absence of perhaps forty million souls carried away by the conflict and its aftermath.

This year is, of course, especially poignant given that it is just over one hundred years since that war began in August 1914, as commemorated on this blog in an earlier post, "We Will Remember. And One Day Learn".

And learn we still have to do. The First World War was once referred to as the Great War, with the epitaph "The War to End All Wars", as the socialist H.G. Wells called it, so great was the scale of death and destruction of this first truly international, industrial war. But of course it was far from the end of war; rather it presaged that even worse was to come.

And in the 96 years since it ended amidst Europe-wide chaos, civil war, revolution and a flu epidemic of historic proportions, around 150 million more people have died in wars; quite possibly more than in all the rest of history put together. We have not learned, and we have not changed.

And nor will we if, among all our other propensities to fight with each other, we choose in our very act of remembrance to forget. Yet this is what seems to be happening.

The Royal British Legion organises the Remembrance events and in doing so, it has always had a fine line to tread between remembrance and glorification of war. All the more difficult, perhaps, as in the last decade or so several hundred new names have been added to the lists of the dead from Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan - and many have felt uneasy about the nature of the Legion's commemorations, which have seemed increasingly willing to support current government policy rather than remember those who were lost. Yet whatever their views of the political decisions that have led to these wars, many have still wanted to commemorate the fallen and injured in the hope that there will be no more in the future.

But how much harder - indeed, nigh impossible - that now is when it is revealed that the Legion has accepted support from two big arms manufacturing companies - Lockheed Martin (the world’s largest arms company) sponsored last week’s Poppy Rocks Ball, while Thales (who manufacture the pilotless drones that have killed hundreds of innocent bystanders) have joined London mayor Boris Johnson in a big Red Poppy billboard at Westminster.These are companies making money - huge profits - out of wars happening right now. It is surely an affront to those who have fallen to have such events funded by these merchants of death.

But almost as bad, breathtakingly so, is the official Remembrance song issued by the Legion and sung by Joss Stone. This is a censored version of the beautiful The Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle. The original version recounts the thoughts of a visitor to the grave of a 19 year old soldier, Willie McBride, questioning the reasons for his death and it is distinctly anti-war.

The Legion, however, has cut it; as well as renaming it No Man's Land and squeezing any feeling or power from it as they turned it into lachrymose mush, it has excised two key verses (almost half the song) including:

Ah young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the cause,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying, were all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again. 

Scots-born Bogle wrote the song as a reaction to the slaughter of the Vietnam War, hence his line that in the war to end all wars, "the killing and dying were all done in vain." He has criticised Joss Stone's version for diminishing the intention of the song to build up verse by verse to a powerful anti-war statement.

Our PM wears a poppy while on an arms sale promotion to Gulf rulers
Compromised by its funding by arms merchants and association with three pro-war government parties, the Legion should be seriously revisiting its purpose - its support, or often lack of support, to former service people has come under increasing criticism. It should be focusing on them rather than adopting the role of cheer-leader to the Michael Gove-view of the slaughter of the trenches being a good thing.

It seems certain that more people will follow the route already taken by many on the Left and in the peace movement and wear white poppies in their own acts of remembrance. Among them will be a growing number of war veterans, people who, unlike virtually all of our blood-thirsty political class, have been at the sharp end of killing and dying, and want no more of it. Remembrance Day was established to mark the sacrifice of the dead in part so that we would learn to not add to their number. The deaths of millions through the last century must be commemorated for, as the over-used phrase goes, those who do not learn from history are bound to relive it.

But, with the plethora of regional conflicts around us, so many eagerly anticipated by our rulers and their arms manufacturing funders, perhaps we already are.

Lest we forget.

A petition has been started to ask the Royal British Legion to apologise for censoring the words of the poppy song. You can sign it here: Petition

Meantime, here is the full version, performed by the incomparable The Men They Could Not Hang.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Today is Tomorrow

The video below is about Canada and focuses on its failure, unlike over 110 other countries, to declare the right to live in  a healthy environment as a legally binding human right. But the issues it covers - environmental degradation, resource depletion and both the threats and the possibilities for the future - sit everywhere on our planet.

Above all, it speaks to today's generation: both for our own futures and those who come after us. What we do now, shapes tomorrow. Global warming has a lag effect of between 30 and 40 years - so in other words, what we do now, good or bad, will make a difference to the world around 2045 to 2055. With the IPCC report this week showing that carbon emissions are rising faster than ever, breaking ever more records for pollution, climate change, a phenomenon that knows no borders, the need for us to act has never been greater. Not only Canada, but Britain as it plunges headlong down the route already taken by the USA to frack our countryside; or India as it commits to burning more coal that ever.

As the IPCC acknowledges, the alternatives are there and affordable - and, contrary to all the myths, China is leading the way as it now installs more renewable energy each year than any other country in the world and more than all of Europe put together. We must follow the lead from Beijing and, closer to home, Germany (which on a good day can now get as much as three quarters of its energy needs from renewables - compared to less than a tenth in the UK). As these economic powerhouses turn to clean energy for a sustainable future, the British, American and other large economies need to purge ourselves of the oil and gas lobbies and turn to the clean, renewable energies of the future - the only way, indeed, to ensure that there is one.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Purple Haze: UK Voters Want to Stay in the EU

Just in case you've been missing him; a photo of Nigel Farage
We have been bombarded now for months, even a couple of years, of relentlessly being told that UKIP is surging a tidal wave of anti-European sentiment.With their powerful victory at Clacton likely to be followed up with another, probably less emphatic, win in Rochester in a few weeks time, print and broadcast journalists - especially the excitable, ill-read types who seem to inhabit the BBC these days - jabber about the "Brexit".

This, according to the BBC yesterday, is Britain's apparently more or less done deal on leaving the European Union (BRitish EXIT, geddit?) following a referendum, promised by David Cameron if the Tories win the next election and almost certainly a demand from any UKIP MPs in a Tory-UKIP Coalition (although it is to be noted that UKIP do not actually support a public vote: they would just withdraw as soon as they had the legislative power to do so).

And yet, as the Faragistas have risen and fallen and risen again through the year, almost completely unreported and certainly ignored by the mainstream media, has been another more substantial shift in public opinion. And that is, while UKIP have scrabbled up the polls from 10% at the start of the year to 16% in this weekend's UK Polling Report average, support for staying IN the European Union has risen exponentially among British voters.
Ipsos-MORI October 2014

Consider this: between September 2010 and February 2014, thirty out of thirty-three national opinion polls - showed clear majorities for Britain leaving the EU. Survation in January 2013 gave 54% for out and just 36% for staying in. And a whole slew gave the anti-EU vote in the mid to high 40%s with the pro-EU camp hovering in the low 30%s.

But since March this year, as the BBC hammered home UKIP's apparent inexorable rise ahead of and since the European elections, there has been a sea-change - possibly in response to the not-so-popular populism of Nigel Farage.

Of the twenty-seven polls published since March, only six have shown a majority for leaving the European Union, and even these have given margins well below half of the 15 to 20 points in polls of previous years. A single poll from June gave a dead heat, but all the others - 20 out of 27 - have shown majorities for Yes to staying in Europe. An Ipsos-Mori poll taken between 11th & 14th October gave 56% for staying and just 36% for leaving, with 8% unsure. Excluding the unsures, that is a 61 to 39 margin for remaining part of the EU, not far off the 66 to 34% margin in the 1975 referendum that confirmed our original membership of the Community. (note - these figures relate to polls about leaving the EU without any prior renegotiation of membership terms; a set of figures covering a renegotiated but continuing membership unanimously show big margins for Britain remaining part of the EU.)

Of course, these are just polls, but they perhaps point to a few things that our media should ponder long and hard if they intend to continue to emit the smokescreen over truth that is their evident obsession with UKIP.

1. UKIP may well be expressing the discontent of significant groups of people, but many more do not support its narrow, xenophobic take on the ills of our country. And indeed, even among UKIP voters, the EU is rarely top of their list of concerns - many, when you scratch the surface, actually support left of centre policies quite alien to their current party of choice.

2. The majority of British voters remain as they have always been - broadly progressive, fair minded and tolerant. The rise in support for the EU may be an expression of this - anti-Tory, anti-UKIP, pro-international engagement.

Source: Another Angry Voice
3. As traditional party politics collapse, UKIP has benefited as an officially sanctioned channel for discontent, a bit like the Czar tolerated the liberal Octobrists and Kadets in his Duma for a few years. But much deeper undercurrents are at work. A glance at the opinion polls will confirm that UKIP polls by far best among people aged 55 and over, while among young people support fades away and is negligible among first time voters - one recent poll tied them on 4% with the Lib dems. The Greens by contrast are chalking up figures in the mid-teens, often ahead of the Tories as in this month's Channel 4 survey. Simultaneously, membership of the party's youth wing, the Young Greens, has reached record levels. A new narrative is being written, one centred on a need for greater equality, tax justice rather than tax cuts; one in favour of public ownership, community service and personal freedom.

4. Public opinion has probably not been as volatile in over a century. And this uncertainty is disquieting to lazy journalists schooled in the comfort of an Establishment that is now peeling away. It's potential is also what should in contrast give heart to anyone with a socially progressive agenda.

5. All the above apply even more fully to younger people - almost two generations on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and nearly sixty years since the Windrush, we have the rise of a new age of people at ease with diversity and used to travelling, learning, working, living and planning a future in and/or with other Europeans. Coupled with the radicalisation of Scotland in the recent referendum and the inspiration of actions like the Occupy Democracy protests outside parliament last week, the politics of grumpiness represented by Farage and his acolytes are dating faster than a dusty old reel of Alf Garnett. (Who he? - ed)

This is not to say that the European Union is something which progressives, Greens, ecosocialists or other leftists, should happily embrace in its current form. It is overweeningly pro-big business, as witnessed by the current shenanigans over the mooted TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP). Yet it provides some minimum degree of employee, consumer and environmental protection which would otherwise be absent (notably, these are the things UKIP and Tory Euroskeptics are keen to do away with while keeping the pro-business stuff). And we need transnational bodies like the EU if we are to have any hope in hell of countering the existential threats of resource scarcity and environmental collapse in the years ahead.

But it does give the lie to the narrative that UKIP represents some silent majority. It plainly does not. A focus group on UKIP voters a while back found them to be relentlessly negative about Britain - too much rubbish on the pavements, too much political correctness, too many immigrants, too many loutish youths, too many gay people, and so on. When they were asked if there was anything they liked about our country, the one thing - the only thing - they could think of was "The Past".

And, even now as Nigel makes his plans and swills another pint down his gullet to wash out his livid liver, that is indeed what they are - the past. A final burst of actually rather tragic melancholia, looking back to a  tarnished "golden age" of offices filled with Madmen, cigarettes smoked by doctors and women in pinnies in the kitchen. As the polls show, purple is the colour of the sunset.

The morning is green.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


As we run up to the General Election in May next year, the main TV broadcasters - the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and SKY - have made a joint proposal for three leaders' debates in a sort of World Cup eliminator style (except the winners have already been decided).

They want three debates: the first with UKIP's Nigel Farage, Lib Dem Nick Clegg, Labour's Ed Miliband and Tory PM David Cameron.
Round Two would be Clegg, Miliband and Cameron; while Round Three just Tweedledum Ed and Tweedledee Dave by themselves.

Riveting stuff: four besuited white middle aged men with barely a cigarette paper between their views of the ideal neoliberal society droning on about how in fact there are really, honestly massive differences between them all and it is so exciting, etc, etc.

"Crowd-pulling" Lib Dems get a place but not Greens & SNP
No space for the Greens, who outpolled the Lib Dems at the last nationwide election - the Euros - in May and have been jostling with them in the polls for fourth place party ever since. No space for the SNP, now the third largest in terms of membership and with six times as many MPs as UKIP. No voice for anyone but the Westminster parties, with a reluctant nod to UKIP, the Licenced Opposition-by-Appointment to the Establishment. Rather, the format is set up to reinforce the status quo, to regulate and direct voters' choices.

Still Better Together?
The Greens and SNP are threatening legal action if they are not included - their two female leaders would provide perhaps the only left of centre voices as well as an added dimension to the gender of the Lads' debate.

Arguably of course the Leader's debates themselves are not welcome - shifting focus in a parliamentary democracy to the live performances of just a few individuals - but if they are taking place, then it is only right that all shades of opinion are included.

There are a couple of petitions circulating so please sign up and help to open just a chink of light on the debate. On Twitter, follow the hashtag #fairdebate2015

To include the Green Party:

To include all parties:

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Men In Grey

Shades of grey - 4 variations on the same theme; even if there is a more "exciting" range of suit shades; sort of.

Nick Clegg famously (well, sort of) "realised" that austerity was a necessary remedy for Britain's banking crisis one morning as he was shaving during the 2010 election campaign - although he neglected to share his insight with the rest of us until after the polls had closed. After all, perhaps sales of "I Agree with Nick" memorabilia (for that is all it is now) would not have been so brisk at the Lib Dem shop.

Wind forward to earlier this year - the morning of 27 March to be precise, and you might have wondered what Nick was thinking as he looked in the mirror that morning - perhaps he had to look twice when he thought he spied a little Nigel Farage dart behind him with a broad smile requiring no toothpaste. After losing the first of their two televised debates by a wide margin (57 to 36% favoured Farage), Clegg must indeed have pondered about what he had let out the linen cupboard.

Fact-stuffed to his finger tips, Clegg had set out to disabuse the public of Farage's claims about the EU. In typically misguided technocratic fashion, he thought that he could blow away the UKIP leader by showing his claims to be little but castles of sand: £55 million a day for Britain's membership of the EU? Nonsense, it's a snip as £33 million net after deductions and repayments! 70% of British laws set by Brussels? Nonsense - anyone could tell you that it is between 10% and %50 depending how you catgeorise things. How could Farage possibly win the debate after getting such facts wrong?

Clegg like so many in the political class, inured to years of tick box politics, is blinded by facts: but the fact is that their much-loved evidence-based research can prove just about anything: hospital queues have increased or decreased;  poverty is better or worse (or absolute or relative and if so what sort of relative?); people are better or worse off - all dependent on which sleight of hand or "weighting" is applied. All these statistics, they believe, can justify what they have done, how they have behaved and prove pesky people like Nigel Farage wrong.

Except it doesn't work. Because Farage cleverly represents how some people feel and very powerfully in some respects. Like so many populists, he has caught a mood, played on it and capitalised on it. Fear of the (supposed) unknown: foreigners taking our jobs, foreign governments telling us what to do while supposedly breaking all the rules themselves, and so on. And as we have seen this week even in a town with few migrants indeed, Clacton-on-Sea, it works powerfully to UKIP's gain - and nearly did so hundreds of miles away in the north at the Heywood & Middleton by-election on the same day as well.

Now these feelings may not be based on facts (although years of spurious facts being peddled by the media has very effectively created the impression that they are). They may even be factually incorrect - but that still doesn't matter; because facing declining living standards and joblessness, some people will indeed turn to the most visible scapegoats offered up by UKIP (and reinforced by the media) in their midst, however wrong it may well be to blame them. Similarly, the "fact" that UKIP stands for tax cuts for millionaires, deregulation for bankers and cuts to the NHS may not go far unless there is an alternative narrative that says we can feel ok about ourselves and others, that we can trust our neighbours and unite against disproportionate inequality. So far, none of the main parties offer such, nor, with all of them united on things like the benefits cap, are they likely too.

And what our stats-driven, pseudo-technocratic elite don't understand, perhaps because to their Vulcan-mindsets it isn't logical, is feeling. How emotional can you get over a table of even the most damning figures set against a tearful human face, or a photo of an empty factory, or a queue at a food bank? Yet they will happily, even sociopathically, reel off lists of these things, their smug, knowing faces turning to perplexed confusion when it dawns on them that it isn't working. For while facts are important, especially in laying low some of the lies propagated by UKIP and others on the right, if they are all you have, then shorn of any Vision all you have is an encyclopaedia of today, not a manifesto for tomorrow.

New Labour started this trend among our politicians of putting figures up in place of politics; of citing "key performance measures" over political change. And little wonder, given Blair's abandonment of political ideology - performance targets were all he had left to try to make out it doesn't matter if your liver scan is done by the NHS or by profit-seeking Virgin Clinics or whoever. The result is the Deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, flailing about on national TV this morning trying to outdo UKIP on tackling immigration rather than offering a counter-view. But how could she? After so many years of evaluating stats and focus group analyses, she may well not actually have her own view any more, her original thoughts, feelings even, long since lost in the smoke and mirrors of think-tanks and policy wonkery.

So now we face the outcome of this: bereft of belief or values, the self-created, self-serving "political class" (the two words that say it all, really) spread among the two and a quarter established parties are left floundering as UKIP and others advance. UKIP triumphed last week and at the Euroelections in May. Simultaneously, both at the May vote and in many opinion polls since the Greens are vying to overtake the Lib Dems nationally in spite of a virtual media blackout - quite the opposite of UKIP's wall-to-wall coverage of Nigel's every pint.  Meanwhile in Scotland, the enthusiastic Yes campaign seems almost undiminished in spite of the referendum defeat as all the three Westminster parties can, still almost literally, bring themselves to say is, indeed, No or possibly Not Yet. The three Yes parties - the Greens, the Scottish Socialists and the SNP have each experienced an exponential growth in membership - the latter party now approaching 100,000.

 People are looking for alternatives - to my mind, some of these seem very unpleasant alternatives indeed whilst of course I have my own preferences; but what they all do, is touch on humanity (both its good and bad aspects) infinitely more than the anodyne, focus group media politics of the established parties. With UKIP, the challenge for the left is to avoid the pathetic denunciation of their voters as "f***ing thick" and "just fascists" (both cited on a supposedly progressive webpage today) and look beyond vote totals to the actual beliefs of many UKIP voters (as distinct from UKIP itself) - pro-welfare state, pro-public NHS, pro-rail nationalisation and in favour of a higher living wage, in some cases more emphatically so than Labour voters. These are people who feel abandoned because the Labour Party especially took the view so eloquently articulated by that Tribune of the People, Lord Peter Mandelson, when he suggested that "traditional" Labour voters had "nowhere else to go". Well, they've gone and they won't come back to Labour or any other party that treats them so off-handedly.

We need to offer a different story; the one that says ordinary people's problems are not caused by their disabled, migrant, ethnic minority or unemployed neighbours, but rather by the tax-minimising elitists who, among other big parties, fund UKIP. And that UKIP, offering yet another Man-in-a-grey-suit, are not a challenge to the current system - rather just more or the same with a little extra bile and bombast.

The collapse of the political system that has effectively prevailed for the last century marks many dangers ahead - but also the greatest opportunities yet to build a new, fairer society: we can only achieve that by providing a positive way ahead, an end to the politics of fear and loathing and transition to the inclusive, more egalitarian democracy that so many are so desperately seeking.

Below: looking for a new way; so many people turned up at the first post-referendum meeting of Glasgow Green Party that surprised party officers had to move the meeting outside the booked venue.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Nazis - A Warning from Yesterday

Above - the first meeting of Hitler's Coalition Cabinet in January 1933. On the front right sits Franz Von Papen, his Vice-Chancellor, who thought he could control the Nazis to promote the interests of his own corporate sponsors and fellow nobles. A year later, it was Hitler who sacked Von Papen, who then was exiled as Ambassador to the Vatican City.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

1905 Again

"Well, we don't need's all over..."

Ruling classes:  faces change but the song remains the same
The Tory Party speaker on the Scottish referendum programme, sometime in the wee small hours of Friday 19th September, could not have been more brazen as he dismissed off hand a question about how soon the "devomax" powers promised by the Westminster leaders would be delivered following the NO vote. Subsequently, his colleagues from the Lib Dems, Labour and his own party stumbled to correct him, assuring people that of course the incredibly tight timescale would indeed be honoured.

But already it hasn't been, nor will it be. Because it was, from the start, a cynical lie. Nothing has been brought forward as promised. Each of the three parties has come up with at least one, in some cases more, sets of differing proposals, while understandably some English MPs have begun to question even more the already existing imbalance in the so called West Lothian question - whereby Scottish MPs can vote on matters affecting England when English MPs have no equivalent say on Scottish matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The whole thing is gridlocked and, as many including this blog had predicted, it is almost certain to disappear as fast as snow in summer as the political crisis moves to UKIP and the future careers of David Cameron and Ed Milband.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP has seen its membership rocket to over 60,000, so that  it is now the third largest UK party. The Scottish Greens, in less than a fortnight, saw their membership more than treble to over 6,000, while hundreds of others joined the Scottish Socialists. At the same time, the cultural movements Radical Independence, the National Collective and Common Weal continue to grow and promote a social collectivism that has become a political awakening at the grassroots unprecedented since the rise of the trade unions a hundred years ago.

Across the rest of the UK, there are similar if as yet less precipitate progressive advances - the Greens have grown by nearly 50% in the last year to over 20,000 members, while campaign groups like 38 degrees, the 999 March for the NHS and Global Justice Now mobilise thousands of people to oppose the privatisation of public health and the corporate coup d'etat promised by the TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP). Building on previous campaigns by Occupy and UKuncut, these extra-parliamentary groups are starting to shine some light on the hollow heart of our rotten, so-called democracy. Many are set to join trade unions on the TUC Day of Action on 18th October - Britain Needs A Payrise - which offers a signficant chance to put social justice back on the political agenda.

Getting equality, or inequality, back on the political agenda is key to campaigning for transition to a fairer, more sustainable society and, crucially, an economics that works for people and planet. For, just as Labour talks about squeezing public services only a tad less harshly than the Tories, and the Tories promise to cut benefits for the poorest and taxes for the richest, Britain is firmly set to move from its already appalling second to an eye-wateringly shameful first place in terms of being the most unequal society in the so-called developed world. Never has our country been wealthier; but never, possibly not even in the Middle Ages, has that wealth been more obscenely and destructively skewed into the hands of a tiny, tiny number of super-rich people.

In the latter days of the Roman Empire and the Royal Court of Versailles, the elite excluded themselves from more and more taxes while imposing ever greater burdens on the rest of society, pillaging the state for ever more destructive privileges. Now, in this century, we see the very people who offshore their accounts and avoid taxes on billions of profits from state-private contracts rewarded with garish medallions and ludicrously outdated Imperial titles, or with seats in the unelected House of Lords. (And still one of them complains their £300 a day allowance is not enough to satisfy her needs).

The corollary of this isn't about the politics of envy - although why should we not be angry about such revoltingly unequal outcomes? - but about its destructive effect on our social fabric and ordinary people's lives. As Hobbes explained four centuries ago in Leviathan and as The Spirit Level demonstrated so conclusively just 5 years ago, more unequal societies have greater violence, crime, ill health and unhappiness than those with a fairer distribution of wealth. From this, people in a poorer but more equal country like Cuba live longer and happier lives than those living in the superficially more prosperous but far more inegalitarian USA. The only response to poverty in this paradigm is seeking ever more economic growth, regardless of the often irreversible damage done to the environment and without addressing the need for fairer distribution - left unchallenged, the utter conceit of "trickledown" economics will only end when it eats itself, and all of us, in the process.

Thomas Hobbes - he "got it" back in 1651
But it seems our leaders don't get this. Referendum over, forget the crowds and forget the promises. The conventional wisdom likewise for three upcoming English by-elections, where the dangerously populist UKIP is challenging, is that protesting voters will dutifully revert to type at the General Election next May.

Our intellectually sclerotic, emotionally barren Masters may be disappointed. They may like to think that they can smuggly mouth a few platitudes like the "no more business as usual" mantra so beloved but long forgotten by errant bankers from 2009, but it seems people are listening less and less.

Possibly sensing this, their response is to look not to democracy, but to repression - with the Tories talking about powers to imprison people deemed to be anti-democratic while simultaneously proposing to abolish human rights legislation. The irony is of course lost on the dourly unimaginative Theresa May, but given that the existing Domestic Extremists register already includes thousands of people such as a Green Party Peer with no criminal record whatsoever and an 87 year old pensioner put under surveillance for going on public marches, the Establishment's definition of anti-democratic may well be very different to the common understanding of the word. Like similar American legislation, it is more likely to be used in defence of big business than any real threat to the illusion that increasingly passes for British democracy.

In 1905, facing an existential threat to his regime from the St Petersburg Soviet, a spontaneously created body of workers and soldiers, Czar Nicholas II conceded a Duma, an elected legislative parliament with near universal suffrage. The liberal parties, such as the Kadets and Octobrists, rushed to sign up, cutting the ground from under the feet of the more radical parties like the Social Revolutionaries that warned it was a ploy to buy time. The Soviet, latterly chaired by Leon Trotsky (at that time not a Bolshevik), was surrounded by Czarist troops and its leaders arrested, tried and imprisoned or exiled. Meanwhile, after reluctantly tolerating but taming the Duma for a few years, the Czar replaced it with an essentially consultative body and returned to business as usual.

We know how that turned out.

1909 Russian revolutionary view of contemporary society. Plus ca change...?

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Last Days of the United Kingdom

Glasgow's George Square had a certain balmy calm when I arrived on Friday afternoon. The late summer heat had cast a faint grey mist across the sky, and there was a certain air of poignant expectancy as I wandered by the statues in front of the City Chambers, the great Victorian building that has for over a century and a quarter housed the council of Scotland's largest city. I reflected how, with the polls becoming ever tighter, it might be the last Friday that the city would see as truly part of the United Kingdom; for even if a Yes to independence vote still leaves months of negotiations before formal separation, no one would doubt that by Friday coming everything would have changed anyhow. "Scotland on the cusp of  making history" read the news-ticker above the corner of St Vincent Place.

Reaching for the future; Glasgow 13 September 2014
And on Saturday, the relaxed atmosphere of Friday evening transformed into something else - still oddly relaxed, yet passionate and positive too. Thousands of YES SCOTLAND supporters, swathed in blue saltires, or blue and white hats, scarves (in spite of the heat), tee shirts and tops, with balloons and flags, gathered on the steps of the Concert Hall. Cheery, singing everything from Flower of Scotland through Proclaimers' melodies to Singing I-i-yippy-ippy-i, there was almost two hours of simple communion. And smiles. Even when two BETTER TOGETHER supporters made their way into the middle of the crowd to hold up their Vote NO placards, the reaction was of  mutual amusement and pantomine, not the subliminal violence that the media has darkly suggested. But that didn't stop the Sunday Times the next day characterising the campaign as just so, in spite of offering little beyond some damaged posters and an egg broken across Labour MP Jim Murphy's highly sensitive shoulders.

So much for the traditions of Scottish politics where banter and flour bombs harmlessly demonstrated the passion at their heart. My own great uncle was arrested for impersonating former PM Asquith during the Paisley by-election of 1920 in a stunt that involved driving a coach and two horses through a crowd and ended with an evening in the police station. It was tame stuff compared to some of the events of those days, but likely to have seen him demonised as a menace to public order, or worse, in our era of corporately-owned, sanitised and paranoid politics.

Now, you shouldn't get too passionate about anything, because you need to be reconciled to nothing changing. Now, with this referendum, you are to vote NO out of fear of not being able to get a mortgage/ losing your job/ paying more for your milk and bread/ not being able to see Dr Who on the TV/ your telephones not working/ being more prey to terrorist attack/ facing border posts at Gretna Green/ experiencing massive economic collapse/ oil running out/ zombie plague attack...

But in the end, it isn't actually much about Scotland being separate or not. Not really. It is about a polity, a community democratically voting to defy the wishes of the Establishment - not just the political one, but the economic, the financial, above all the Corporate one too. They could countenance Scotland going - and some Tory MPs such as Nadine Dorries have sarcastically reiterated the old myth of Scottish dependency culture to ask "Why are we paying them to eat deep-fried Mars Bars when we don't have a decent NHS (in England)?"

But what they can't countenance is the massive blow to the Establishment a YES vote would be: at least in part because what has become an extraordinary mass movement might inspire similar demands  in other parts of the remainder of the UK, and even beyond - Catalonia especially is following the campaign closely, and on social and regional media the talk is increasingly of who next? Northern Ireland seems likely. Wales, possibly. But also there are stirrings for greater local governance in Cornwall, the North East, Yorkshire, and onwards, reflecting a reaction to the messy hodge podge of half baked devolution arrangements put in place by Labour and untouched by the Coalition.

YES supporters gathered at the Concert Hall
And so, in typical technocrat fashion, a plethora of tired out grey men in grey suits trooped up to Scotland to utter a myriad of panicky promises of future powers to the Holyrood Parliament. Lots of technical details about at least three if not more possible amendments to the remit of the Scottish legislature - a timetable even for its consideration; but nothing concrete, nothing agreed. And just as their pitch has been one of relentless fear of the future beyond a Yes vote, equally they have offered nothing meaningful in return - and nothing at all to foster any notion of a shared future, or celebrate the UK's achievements. It reached a culmination in a performance today by David Cameron in which the Prime Minister pleaded on behalf of the Union - supposedly the most successful democracy in the world, stopping slavery in the 19th century and facists in the 20th. 

But no mention of now - no mention of our becoming the second most unequal society on the planet; no mention of his Government's privatisation of our health service (hobbled with tens of billions of debt by the last Labour Government's Private Finance Initiative); no mention of the tax cuts for millionaires and the continuing assault on the poor which have been the hallmarks of the Tory-Lib Dem regime, and are set to continue with Labour signed up to the same spending agenda. And no mention of the true history of the British people - of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or the Peterloo massacre, or the Matchstick strikes, or the sufragettes, of the men, women and children who fought tooth and nail against Cameron's predecessors to wrest democratic rights and some limited form of social justice from an ever resistant elite.

And so on Thursday, Scotland's voters - people of all religions, origins and social classes -will  have a dual potency. First, to Scotland and deciding on a choice to retake their lost sovereignty; and second, to deliver a body blow to the smug, corrupt complacency of the British political class.Whatever the outcome, the political system of the UK is broken irreparably. The three Westminster parties will be - already are - in existential crisis. Fixed parliaments or not, the end of the Coalition and a General Election may be just a few weeks away.

These are the last days of the United Kingdom. However the vote goes - and it is to be hoped it will be "Yes" - nothing will be the same again. Whichever side of the Border we find ourselves on, the challenge is how we fashion what comes next and make it better for all our people, for the poor and the vulnerable, for the creative and, above all, for the generations to come. Whether Britain continues to exist as a political entity or not, surely that would truly be a legacy worthy of the best of what has gone before - the Britain of the NHS, of the welfare state, of free education and of social change?  A largely vanished Britain of compassion and progress, now little more than a finally fading memory. A golden isle set in a silver sea, a hope of what might have been, but sadly never was.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Scotland - Trust the Bankers?

The men who forgot Scotland
“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.” 
- Noam Chomsky
Over a year ago in Weimar Britain and again in April this year in On The Eve, this author, like many other progressives, previewed the momentous times we are living through now. As our world and the societies within it continue to convulse and shatter in the face of the growing crises of an economic system in terminal decline, we have seen the panic of the banking collapse, the wars for oil, and the demolition of human rights to ensure control not only over terrorists but over peaceful domestic opponents as well - in particular opponents of corporate interests.

It was indeed all going as well as the Establishment could have hoped - better in fact, as the electorate continues, on balance, to be convinced by the espoused case for austerity and denigration of the public enemies of migrants, disabled people and the unemployed. With political revolt gingerly contained, even if only transiently, in the even more neoliberal Aunt Sally of  UKIP, the private island-owning, off-shoring elite has gleefully seen its wealth grow to become larger and more obscenely skewed than at any other time in British history. The "free trade" TTIP treaty is set to seal it all for good. Divide and rule indeed.

But then, last weekend, a YouGov poll put the pro-Independence camp in Scotland narrowly in the lead for next week's referendum. Of Scottish voters expressing a preference, 51% said they will vote in favour, while two thirds of those still to make up their minds were tending towards the independence option. It was just one poll, though it confirmed a trend of some weeks of rise in the Yes vote. But it slammed a Panic Button among the Establishment in Westminster and ever since, as Alex Salmond has put it, everything including the kitchen sink and the whole lounge has been lobbed frantically at the Yes Scotland campaign.

First we had the faux homage of the three Westminster leaders - Cameron, Miliband and Clegg - to Scotland on Wednesday, dramatically cancelling PM's Question Time to make apparently passionate pleas for the Union to be preserved.  

Cameron nearly wept as he begged Scots not to use the vote to "kick the 'effing Tories"; Miliband said he might even stay the whole week; while Clegg dashed just inside the Borders to promise, with the others, the exciting prospect of a timetable for proposals to give Scotland's devolved parliament additional powers, although none of them could quite explain what these would be. Labour's Gordon Brown was also wheeled out to remind people that he is Scottish too, although at least unlike John Prescott  he didn't need to remind himself that he was supporting the "No" campaign, Better Together by writing its name in biro on the back of his hand.

But much, much more has since been deployed to stop secession. The Governor of the Bank of England, a Government appointee, has warned of financial chaos for Scotland after reiterating that there will be no common currency; while Lloyd's Bank and RBS (bankers to the Tory Party) have said they will move their headquarters south if there is independence. Next, at Cameron's prompting, Asda has said its milk prices might go up in a separate country. Morrisons and John Lewis made somewhat more ambiguous statements about divergence rather than disadvantage, but the increasingly shrilly pro-Union BBC reported these as warnings of higher prices.

And yet, and yet... wasn't this entirely foreseeable? A combination of bribes and threats spawned the Union in 1707, so it seems appropriate and unsurprising that the descendants of the elite that pushed through the creation of the UK would use the same methods to prolong its existence. Even more so, in fact - there is a commonly held misconception that neoliberal capitalism seeks to minimise the state and its powers. In truth it minimises the state only in terms of its responsiveness to the masses and their needs and wishes. It maximises the deployment of coercive state power to ensure the continued dominance of the Establishment - and this has never been as nakedly in evidence in British politics as in the last few days over Scotland.

Bankers, politicians, city traders, journalists and multinational companies have come together to warn of everything from economic apocalypse to "difficulties" for Scottish viewers wishing to watch Celebrity Come Dancing on the TV. 

The bankers and traders whose sociopathic greed and lawlessness created the crash of 2008 and nearly busted the world economy; the politicians who deregulated finance so completely that the crash happened, and who then spent tens of billions of tax money and loans to bail the banks out before billing the rest of us for it; the industrialists who rage against any form of consumer or employee protection and who have plundered our society via PFI arrangements, outsourcing and tax evasion; and the journalists who, when they are not hacking celebrities' telephone messages are busy telling us all that there is no alternative to what we have got.

Yes, all the people who obviously have the best interests of the rest of us engraved on their cold, cold hearts and foremost in their absent consciences. These people are stepping forward to tell Scottish voters that they are too crap, too lazy, hope to govern themselves. And if they don't listen to their friendly warnings, there will be a less friendly price to pay. The bankers, traders, and industrialists will make sure their political puppets send the bill personally.

The message, of course, is not just for the Scottish voters. Indeed, if Scotland could be got rid off, perhaps tugged out into the mid-Atlantic and quietly sunk, many of the people currently hoarsley calling for the Union to be preserved would be first in the queue to pull the plug. However, as geography dictates otherwise, the last thing the Establishment want the rest of the UK to see is part of it defying our Masters' wishes and giving us ideas above our station. Even a mildly social democratic Scotland would not just be an annoying neighbour - it could become an existential threat to the neoliberal consensus. Hence, it must be strangled at birth - or preferrably before.

The big question is whether enough Scottish voters will be browbeaten or scared into voting against independence to stop it happening. The trend over the last fortnight has been a clear and big upswing for separation - one based on seeking a more inclusive, fairer society than the one emerging in the UK as a whole. It remains to be seen if the crisis response from Westminster and its paymasters will stem the flow, or be seen through as the insincere, last gasp blandishments of panicking machine men.

A frequent refrain from the Better Together camp is that an independent country would be moving into uncertainty; taking risks, and be a journey rather than a destination. But isn't that just life? Life for all of us. Salmond (who is no socialist but is equally no neoliberal either) has ackowledged that independence is the start of something, not the finish. Meanwhile the Radical Independence Campaign of leftwing parties like the Greens and Scottish Socialists as well as cultural groups like the National Collective positively embrace the nascent potential of such a future. 

Besides, if there are no guarantees for a free Scotland, what is guaranteed about Britain as it is? A harsh, low wage, "flexible" economy increasingly unkind to the poor and vulnerable, suspicious of strangers, and selling off what little remains of its public services? A State whose main functions involve spying on its own citizens and vying with the USA for the number one spot as the most unequal developed society on the face of the Earth?

Better together? For who?

Monday, 1 September 2014

You Will Be Commodified

CSR, corporate social responsibility, was the buzzword of the "Third Way" of the Clinton and Blair days. Grasping capitalism got a makeover as it moved its p.r. budget into sponsorship of everything from opera performances to litter picking, supposedly "giving back" to the communities it had expropriated its massive profits from. Its agenda was approvingly marked out by Tony Giddens, guru of the “Third Way” in his writings in the 1990s. Through an "End of History" prism so popular at the time, Giddens claimed that "when no one knows of any viable alternative to a market economy, demonising the corporations makes no sense.” He proposed that corporations should engage with the voluntary sector to foster social programmes, such as one from the US where a computer firm provided equipment to schools in return for a slew of exclusive advertising.

The cynicism of this seemed to bypass many writers on the genre. Giddens drew from the work of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who identified a new, business focused strategy by corporations towards involvement in social development. Whereas the traditional approach to community involvement viewed the voluntary sector as “a dumping ground (for) spare cash, obsolete equipment and tired executives on their way out”, Kanter’s “new paradigm” involved using social needs as a basis for development of business ideas and opportunities. It has nothing whatsoever to do with "giving back" or discharging any accepted "social responsibility". Rather, it is simply a laboratory for profit maximisation - in the UK, Blair and Mandelson of course enthusiastically embraced, intensely relaxed as they were about the filthy rich.

Never mind that, around the world, most of these mega-monstrosities continue to rip off consumers, drive down wages and ravage our environment of irreplaceable resources: they give money to charities! They endow hospital wings (in place of paying taxes for public health). They plant trees, give kids "jobs" as unpaid interns...

Capitalism has much to atone for.
Capitalism is based on the commodification of everything that can be described as scarce. If something is not completely abundant, such as (for now) oxygen, it can be appropriated by someone who by the law of capitalist states becomes its "owner". That commodity remains in the ownership of that person (human or corporate) until it is sold with the seller's objective being to maximise the difference in value between what it took to acquire the item and what can be obtained from a purchaser. On such an elevated and considered level are the wonderful, diverse products of our unimaginably complex biosphere costed, traded and eventually used up, in spite of their often being irreplacable. This is why, for example, oil companies have no fear about the melting of the ice caps - rather they see this as a brilliant market opportunity to drill for oil in the deep waters of the Arctic.

Similarly, as water becomes scarcer, we have the head of Nestle, which uses massive quantities of water in Third World countries to produce fizzy drinks and even "water" for use by First World consumers, declare access to water is not a public right. Rather, it can be commodified, bought and sold by rich multinationals - and as this same corporatocracy has bought up governments as well, the law makes any attempt to bypass the overweening power of big business' ownership of even the basic essentials of human life increasingly difficult. For example, in one African country, a western firm running the privatised water industry for a time even succeeded in banning impoverished peasants from collecting rainwater. Popular protest led to their eventual ejection and the renationalising of the water industry. But it remains a fact that the neoliberal elite will happily deploy state power on behalf of itself - in fact, while preaching the virtues of free markets, these privateers in truth skew and bypass markets in ways Stalin only dreamt of. (It is notable that bans on "rainwater harvesting" are now spreading to states within the USA, with Utah and Colorado criminalising anyone who puts so much as a bucket out to collect water in the driest states of the Union - where water, as a commodity, could scarcely be more precious or profitable).

But in the midst of this we get companies claiming to care, offering well-branded "help" to the very people they are screwing over - like the fracking company Chevron, which sent a pizza voucher to residents after an explosion near their town. If it wasn't so devastatingly tragic, it might be laughable - but it isn't. It is real. Can anyone seriously argue that this system with its mindset of dog-eat-dog acquisition can be sustained or reformed? In any other context would anyone even remotely buy the farcical claim that lots of cut-throat competing individuals acting to the maximum of self-interest somehow synergise into fostering the public good? Or enhance and share the common weal?

This video by the Australian environmental movement sums up the truth and says what the sociopaths on the make who control such a swathe of our economic activity and own so much of our planet are really saying to the rest of us, the suckers they leech from day after day after day. Some of them are even trying to copyright our DNA - yours and mine; our very essence, owned by someone else. But then this is the very imperative of the system - to extract value from others and accumulate endlessly; to view everything as ultimately capable of being finitely priced; where need rewards greed. Where everything is costed, but nothing, in the end, is truly valued.

So watch this and get to the heart of how it works. No apologies for bad language. It's what they are doing to all of us, our world and its future right now as you read this.

My thanks to Jack Lindblad, candidate for Los Angeles City Council, for linking to this video. More on his campaign HERE

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

999 for the NHS - "The Spar of Sickness"


Patients & staff wave to marchers at Pinderfields in Wakefield
After spending two days on a "feeder walk" from Halifax and Huddersfield through Dewsbury, I joined the Jarrow to London People's March for the NHS at Wakefield last Saturday. Then on Sunday, in blazing sunshine, we moved on along city streets and country roads to Barnsley, ending with a rally at the hospital. Green colleagues who did the next leg the following day met grey skies and rain, but the crowds appeared to have grown and today saw the marchers exit Yorkshire after a rousing send off from Sheffield on their way out of the county towards Chesterfield.

The march was set up by some mothers from Darlington in north-east England, who had grown increasingly concerned about the deterioration of the NHS over the last few years. Through the 999 Call for the NHS, they are retracing the steps of the 1936 March for Jobs from Jarrow to London to highlight the health service crisis engulfing England.

Darlo-Mums: the founders & organisers of the People's March
It was especially powerful to walk for a time with Jo Adams, one of the Darlington Mums who told me about her family's terrible experiences recently with an increasingly chaotic, disjointed health service and her fears for the future. And it was very moving indeed as we went through Barnsley with people coming out of their houses to cheer and applaud us on, and cars sounding horns in support. Following the route of the original march, Jo and her group will reach London on 6 September - if you are near the route, please go and join them, even if just for an hour or mile or two. Find out where you can meet them at and follow them on Twitter via @999CallforNHS.

There was a huge mix of people taking part - disabled activists, current and past patients, councillors, parliamentary candidates, health workers, GPs, Greens, Left Unity, Communists, Labour, parents, children, citizens - and even some Americans. Balloons proclaimed our love of the NHS, its visceral hold on what is left of community in modern Britian self-evident as was the obvious fact that in spite of the paramount importance of our public health service, it is symbolic of a wider campaign to restore genuine public services in areas now so frequently sold off or leased out to profit-seeking
privateers such as education, social services and transport.

Among the most frequently cited concerns among people on the marches were the deliberate underfunding and privatisation of health services at all levels in England. Under the "Nicholson challenge" set by the Blair/Brown Government, and gleefully continued by the current one, the NHS is required to return £2,000 millions from its budget each year, supposedly in efficiency savings. The result is hospitals in crisis - our local Mid-Yorkshire Trust is £17 million in debt and running down services accordingly.

The Coalition Government has removed the duty to provide universal care free at the point of use and so we now see an ongoing debate to charge up to £25 for GP visits and possibly more for the apparent crime of going to the A&E department. The latter is often used by the Coalition as a supreme example of wasted resources, conjuring up the image of drunken chav teenagers descending on A&Es across the country from Friday lunchtime to the final effusions on a hazy Monday morning. Notwithstanding the brave struggle of medics and paramedics with the byproducts of our neoliberally deregulated entertainment industry and its excessive focus on flogging as much booze as possible, the truth is somewhat more prosaic - research by the College of Emergency Medicine shows that fewer than 15% of A&E visits could be dealt with by GP intervention; hardly enough to justify charges to deter alleged timewasters.

The Stockport Undertakers bear the NHS cake cruelly cut & carved by the Coalition
Even worse, as required by the 2012 Health & Social Care Act, NHS services - even cancer care - are being put out to tender and since April last year 70% of the contracts have been awarded to the private sector, to companies like Virgin and Vanguard, Spire and Specsavers. The NHS is fast becoming a brand name for a profit-seeking franchise rather than an integrated public service: a sort of Spar of Sickness, if you like.

But to me personally this crisis is as strikingly in evidence in some small but nevertheless important ways. My father-in-law passed away last year after a long illness with cancer. During his treatment, I recall one evening visiting him in hospital and having to go out to a local supermarket to buy pillows for him as the hospital did not have any spare. On the way back, in the lift, I met a woman who had brought a duvet for her husband because they had run out of clean blankets. Even the ward toaster was not replaced when it broke.

We are the sixth richest country on planet Earth. But, depending on which measurements you use, we are also the second or third most unequal. Our Governments have sold off public asset after public asset, telling us the private sector will run them more effectively in spite of its ever growing need and ability to take out more and more for profit. Energy, telecommunications, the railways, the bus service, huge swathes of our universities and colleges, the post office, the probation service, Job Centres, the passport agency, and now the NHS have been or are being sold off or leased out at often bargain basement rates to the very people who are funding our political parties and/or in whom our politicians hold substantial financial interests. Even opposition politicians like Labour's former health secretary Alan Milburn and former Chancellor Alistair Darling have taken contracts of one sort or another from private health firms.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt - a tragi-comic target
And now, if they have their way, the three Westminster parties want to sign the TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership treaty, part of which will require states to put public services out to tender - if they don't or if they bring in regulations to protect employees or consumers, even via the ballot box or a referendum, the State-Investor Disputes mechanism will allow big companies to sue for compensation for loss of profits. As blogged previously, some examples of these from existing "free" trade agreements around the world have seen governments having to pay corporations hundreds of millions of dollars as reparation for such heinous acts as wishing to protect forests and put health warnings on cigarette packets.

Some Government Ministers and Labour MPs (Labour are almost as keen on TTIP as the Tories and Lib Dems) have suggested the NHS could be exempted from the TTIP. However, the agreement covers all commercial enterprises and by marketising and contracting out NHS services, the NHS is subject to commercial law and, as such, can not be exempted from the TTIP. Any attempt to do so would almost certainly lead to legal cases running into the hundreds of millions in terms of costs to the Exchequer as well as possibly years of uncertainty. Besides which, when did the Tories really not want to sell off the NHS in any case?

We can and must do better than this. There is no real need for austerity - only for redistribution: of wealth and of ownership. The 999 Call for the NHS is a brave and imaginative initiative: it reaches deep into the hearts of tens of millions who have always assumed we live in a society where you will be cared for if you fall ill. Terrifyingly, under our very noses, duplicitous politicians are taking all that away, replacing the motive of public service and community with the selfish drive of profit. It is time to purge ourselves of this parasitical class of professional legislators and, in its place, create genuine democracy far beyond the simplistic notion of five yearly trips to the ballot box; democratic ownership is absolutely central to a society that uses its resources for the common good.

And such a society is still possible, even essential. Perhaps the journey towards it began a couple of weeks ago on the streets of Jarrow.

Just to confirm what they won't tell you - the National Health Service IS being sold off, right now, under our noses.

Professor Ray Tallis, author of NHS SOS, spoke to the rally at Barnsley Hospital.