Qatar-Gulf crisis: A fallout among thieves

The world was taken by surprise by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sudden move to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and impose an economic blockage.

They accused Qatar of supporting Iranian-backed militant groups in the the region and of cultivating a closer relationship with Iran.

The conflict is an expression of the complexities of shifting local and global geopolitical rivalries in the region.

The action is aimed at bringing Qatar to heel but it will further destabilise the region and sharpen the dividing lines.

Economic and physical blockade

Trump and Saudi kingDonald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz: Riyadh May 2017

The Gulf allies (Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain) imposed an economic blockade in what was clearly part of a carefully prepared action to bring Qatar to heel and came shortly after Trump’s visit to the region where he signed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. He indicated his support for the Saudi led action with the accusation that Qatar had, historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level..

Qatari diplomats and citizens were also ordered to leave and Qatar based media organisations such as Al Jazeera have also been taken off air. The economic impact so far has been limited with temporary disruptions to food supplies and dips in the stock and bonds markets.

The immediate triggers were reports of an alleged speech given by Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Than, to graduating military cadets where it is claimed he praised Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Qatar maintains this story is fake and a result of a hack of the Qatar News Agency (QNA). There are also allegations that a $1 billion dollar ransom for the release of a hunting party made up of Qatari royals ended up with Hezbollah and other Iranian linked groups.

With the new Trump administration’s view of Iran coming into alignment with Saudi Arabia, the Saudis took this as a green light for action.

Saudi Arabia has made no secret of it’s aim, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, spelt out that:

“..the damage caused by economic measures taken by some Arab states against Qatar should convince it [to] change its policies…”

“We believe that common sense and logic and will convince Qatar to take the right steps,”

“The decisions that were made were very strong and will have a fairly large cost on Qatar and we do not believe that Qataris want to sustain those costs.”

However, contrary to reverting to type and backing down, Qatar has dug its heels in and has called on the alliances it has carefully nurtured for the past decade or so. For instance, Turkey has completed signing of an agreement that allows it to station troops in Qatar and Iran has flown in food supplies.

Pressure for a resolution to the dispute has come from countries such as Germany who have criticised the action as a ‘Trumpification’ of the GCC dispute. The German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, accused Trump of risking a new arms race and warned that A toxic conflict between neighbours is that last thing we need,.

There are signs of some back tracking by the US. The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, asked for the easing of the blockade saying that it had caused unintended consequences and is hindering US military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS.

A statement by the Saudi Foreign Minister also to points to a reining back of the action:

“There is no blockade of Qatar. Qatar is free to go. The ports are open, the airports are open,” Jubeir said alongside a silent Tillerson who had called last week for the embargo on Qatar to be “eased”.”

Saudi Arabia and its allies have since announced they are working on a ‘list of grievances’ to present to Qatar, it is something of a puzzle that wasn’t done at the start…

There also seems to be little appetite from ordinary people from the Gulf allies for the action. For example, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have passed laws making it illegal to criticise the government or express any sympathy for Qatar, a tacit acknowledgement of dissent from their citizens.

Geopolitics: The jostling of rivals

Six GCC statesGulf Co-operation Council states

Although Saudi Arabia has taken the lead role in the dispute, its dependency on the US relegates it to the role of proxy. However, Saudi’s plentiful oil reserves and purchases of US and western arms gives it a leverage which can give it a degree of independence which can also make it an awkward ally.

Saudi Arabia, under the new, more assertive leadership of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has been more willing to adopt an aggressive stance in pursuit of its foreign policy aims. One example is the blockading and the bombing of Yemen in its fight against the Houthis, which has resulted in a humanitarian crisis.

Qatar, conversely, is driven by a choice of balancing between and playing off the regional and global powers against one another or becoming a vassal state. It’s recent efforts are the consequences of a failed 1996 coup d’état.

The coup was backed by Saudi Arabia, concerned at the prospect of Qatar pursuing a more independent foreign policy. It aimed to restore Qatar’s previous ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, who had been overthrown by his son Sheikh Hamad. The attempt ended in débâcle, with six hundred Bedouin tribesmen crossing into Qatar from Saudi Arabia getting lost and French mercenaries arriving on Doha’s beach but unable to find their boats.

As part of its efforts at extending its influence in the region, Qatar has supported rival groups and political parties. In Egypt it supported the ill fated government of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. In Gaza it has supported Hamas, an enemy of Saudi Arabia’s ally Israel.

Qatari policy has resulted in it becoming a regional rival in its own right to Saudi Arabia.

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of Iran’s key foe Sadam Hussein, Saudi Arabia and the US have ceded ground to their rivals. Turkey has increased its presence with intervention in Syria and has moved to back its Qatari ally. Russia, militarily and diplomatically, and China, economically and diplomatically, have extended their influence in the region at the expense of the US. All this jostling of rivals has highlighted and exacerbated the fragility of the US allied block.

While the action is without doubt aggressive, disproportionate and based on hypocrisy one should have little sympathy for Qatar. As with all the GCC countries, Qatar is responsible for systemic abuses and holds very little regard for workers’ rights in particular and human rights in general. The dispute in this respect is very much a ‘fallout among thieves’.

Further destabilise the region

Most observers initial assessment was that Qatar would retreat as it has done in previous disputes. The Chinese state owned newspaper, Global Times, wrote that:

“This may be an unforgettable lesson for Qatar. Once it compromises, it may be allowed back into the original Middle Eastern geopolitical structure.”

The alliances Qatar has cultivated has meant that it’s been in a stronger position to resist being forced into making concessions, or at least holding out for more time.

An example of the leverage Qatar now commands is how it has used its role in a territorial dispute between African neighbours Djibouti and Eritrea. It withdrew its peace keeping troops without notice and Eritrean soldiers immediately occupied the territory, triggering a crisis in a strategically important area. This was clearly intended as a shot across the bows, that Qatar can cause real damage to its opponents strategic interests.

The Saudi King has a reputation for bold moves. But the dividing line between bold moves and over playing ones hand is very thin, Saudi Arabia’s gambit could backfire and result in a further geopolitical shift to its, and the US’, rivals in the region.

The collective action is aimed at bringing Qatar to heel but regardless of outcome it will further destabilise the region, sharpening the dividing lines and increase volatility in a region awash with arms.

Gary Hollands – June 18th 2017

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Labour’s ‘local campaigns’, a view from the trenches

Labour’s right-wing and the press have been making dire predictions of a Labour defeat on June 8th.

Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents inside the party are getting their blame in early, calling on Corbyn to ‘take the hit’ and resign when, as they assume, Labour loses.

Many anti-Corbyn MPs are running ‘local campaigns’, something that is beyond their competency given that it is a General Election.

If there is a Labour defeat then it should be made clear that the ground for that was prepared with the decision of the Labour rebels to launch a coup after the Brexit vote.

The Labour Party still has an opportunity to pull off an historic shock if it mobilises the huge resources of a membership of over 500,000 and unites to campaign professionally and enthusiastically on Labour’s progressive policies.

Get the blame in early

Peter Mandelson ex-ministerPeter Mandelson ex-Labour cabinet minister

A typical example is Emma Reynolds who, launching her campaign for Wolverhampton North East, said that; Ed Miliband did the right thing in 2015 and I think Jeremy Corbyn will have to take the hit if we lose this election.

With reports in the Sunday Times, 14th May 2017, of Tony Blair’s circle plotting a break away party, it would seem that sections of Labour’s right-wing are more pre-occupied with splitting the party than winning power.

The national campaign

The campaign nationally at the start showed signs of having the DNA of the failed Milliband campaign of 2015 where policies were shot out like each day as chaff with no cohesive vision of the country under a Labour government. That has now improved with the leaking, done with the intention of damaging Corbyn, of Labour’s draft manifesto which backfired and allowed Corbyn’s team more influence over the election agenda.

The claims by some within the party of Corbyn’s unpopularity on the doorstep is wildly exaggerated. It’s true that while Corbyn is popular with young people, there is less of a cut through with older people. However, the release of what is looking to be a calamitous Conservative manifesto is bringing home that issues such as pensions and social care costs are what really matter.

The release and reception of Labour’s manifesto coupled with the reaction to the Conservatives’ manifesto has given Labour members a morale boost with a glimmer of hope of over hauling the Tories.

Local campaigns

Many anti-Corbyn MPs are running ‘local campaigns’. This is based on the premise that they as a ‘brand’ are strong enough to counter what they see as the toxicity of Corbyn.

I have first hand experience of this, over hearing an anti-Corbyn member admonishing two canvassers for introducing themselves as Labour on the doorstep. Don’t mention Labour, you’re here to re-elect xxxx [name withheld], xxxx is the brand, xxxx is the brand, they were told.

My MP and his team is one of those running a local campaign so it’s worth giving a little flavour of what this looks like on the ground.

In past elections the campaign would start with knocking all doors to identify the vote behind them and calibrate targeting as the campaign wore on, this would be nationally co-ordinated. For this campaign we’re mostly knocking on the doors of known Labour voters with little effort to actively engage them. Our work so far has more the feel of a survey than a political campaign.

Materials that are locally produced, such as leaflets, are of poor quality layout and content. They are also printed on low grade paper, sometimes about a quarter of leaflets I deliver end up as screwed up litter on the doormat. I haven’t seen any nationally produced material yet, though I know it exists.

Paul Nuttall UKIPPaul Nuttal: UKIP leader

A real danger in Labour seats where the UKIP vote is greater than the MP’s majority is of a collapse of that vote to the Consrvatives. I took this up directly with my MP, pointing out that the polls and local election election results indicated this was a real possibility in our seat.

I asked what the strategy was to target the UKIP vote. The MP replied that they didn’t think the UKIP vote would have much impact. When I pointed out the maths, that if two thirds of the UKIP vote went to the Conservatives then Labour would lose the seat, the MP looked a little downcast and admitted he didn’t know where the UKIP vote was…

It is clear that these MPs and their campaign teams do not posses the necessary competencies to run a campaign where multiple national issues predominate and change rapidly. Their messaging, limited to local issues is poorly targeted and mostly drowned out by bigger events.

The danger of this is the fragmenting of the national campaign and reducing its effectiveness. They may not cost their own seats with this ‘local campaign’ experiment but they are putting them at greater risk.

The coup and Brexit

There are two major influences at work affecting Labour’s campaign. The attempted coup by Labour MPs after the European referendum, Brexit, vote. The other being the Brexit vote result itself.

Instead of kicking the Tories when they were down, Labour MPs with a series of resignations and a 172-40 vote of no confidence, launched a disastrous attempt to oust Jeremy Corbyn.

While the Tories organised a quick and smooth coronation of Theresa May, Labour was plunged into months of public bitter in-fighting.

All this gave the Tories time to recover and not only recover but establish a commanding lead at the beginning of the election campaign.

Brexit is described as an historic event but the psychological impact is poorly understood. I have memories of the Falkands war and similarly, the mood after Brexit was akin to a declaration of war where the natural instinct is to gather behind the leader.

The Conservatives have understood and have exploited this with the slogan of ‘strong and stable’ leadership. This is helped by some elements of the Labour Party claiming Jeremy Corbyn is weak and shambolic, a narrative that is relentlessly amplified by their allies in the press.

‘Strong and Stable’ leader or feet of clay?

Theresa May strong and stable BrexitTheresa May: Strong hand or clay feet?

The Conservatives have gone to great lengths to present Theresa May as a ‘strong and stable’ leader. Their campaign has more the look of a US presidential campaign with only passing reference to the party and its candidates.

The ‘Theresa May’ story of someone reliable who gets things done as a total fiction. Her real record as Home Office Minister was poor and her record as Prime Minister very thin.

The claim that a vote for her would strengthen her Brexit hand with the EU is a delusion that needs to be challenged whenever it’s raised. There is no explanation of what the EU would give for example, a 200 seat majority, that they wouldn’t for a 50 seat majority. It seems that Theresa May thinks the election is a reward points scheme in negotiations with the EU.

The Tories have illustrated a Trump-like naïvety that trade negotiations are just a matter of horse trading. The EU response to their letter brought them up with a jolt and the realisation that trade deals are just as much about politics, internal and geopolitical.

The chances of a ‘good deal’ for Britain in the Brexit negotiations is unlikely. Politically, the EU can not afford a successful Brexit, it would sound the death knell of the whole project.

Given Theresa May’s poor record and the regressive programme revealed in the Tory manifesto – closer scrutiny reveals her as a leader with ‘feet of clay’ rather than ‘strong and stable’.

Can Labour pull of an historic shock?

There is some encouragement for Labour with several factors that can help the campaign including its manifesto, the Conservatives attacks on their own base, targeting some of the UKIP vote and events themselves.

The upside of the leaking of Labour’s draft manifesto was that it was reported unfiltered for nearly a day. The reception from voters on the doorstep and in press interviews has been overwhelmingly positive.

On the contrary, the Conservative manifesto has received a poor reception. Their proposals on social care, dubbed the ‘dementia tax’, angered many voters. The backlash has been so devastating that Theresa May has been forced into a humiliating retreat. In the space of four days the media went from praising the Tory manifesto as redefining the Tories to dismissing it as a ‘manifesto of chaos’!

The collapse of the UKIP vote, nearly 13% in 2015, into the Conservatives is in large part responsible for their, currently narrowing, lead in the polls. Labour can and must target elements of the UKIP vote with its commitment to crack down on rogue employers and landlords, abolishing zero hours contracts and to raise the living wage to £10 per hour and build 500,000 social homes.

As the saying goes there are also ‘events dear boy’, the cyber attack on the NHS threw into sharp relief the underfunding and mismanagement by the Tories.

There’s no doubting the the scale of the task facing Labour, but there is still an opportunity to pull off a historic shock of winning more seats than the Tories. But this can only be done on the basis of mobilising the huge resources of a membership of over 500,000 and uniting to campaign professionally and enthusiastically on Labour’s progressive policies.

Gary Hollands – May 23rd 2017

Election campaigning suspended

Publication of this article was delayed out of respect to the victims, and their families and friends, of the horrific suicide bomb attack at the Manchester Arena.

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US strikes to change geopolitical balance of power

The US carried out an air strike on a Syrian airbase in what they claimed was retaliation for an alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which killed 74 people including 11 children, on April 4th 2017.

The strike was carried out ahead of any independent investigation, giving rise to the suspicion that the chemical attack was a pretext for direct intervention against the Syrian government.

Before the strike President Donald Trump gave an emotional press conference where he reacted to the images of dead children; I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me – big impact.

But after the strike Trump revealed that those dead children came second place to America’s geopolitical interests. He informed the world that:

“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,”

The US’ action was designed to protect its geopolitical interests in the region and risks making the world a more unpredictable and unstable place.

Evidence and facts – What do we know?

Trump responds to chemical attackTrump responds to alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun

One rule when examining evidence is not to take evidence supplied by those with a material interest in the outcome at face value.

Sadly this is where many western journalists have come up short, announcing Assad guilty as charged and joining in beating the war drums. Their behaviour is in stark contrast to the news of the death of up to 300 civilians allegedly many of them children, in a suspected US airstrike in Mosul, where they posed as the model of ‘objectivity’.

At the time of writing very little is known apart from what is agreed by the parties directly involved in the incident, the Syrian regime and the rebels, principally Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front.

They agree that Syrian jets carried out a missile attack and that there was a chemical incident as a result. The use of the the phrase ‘chemical incident’ is appropriate as the delivery mechanism is in dispute. The UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs told the UN Security Council that:

“Reports have stated that the attack was carried out through an airstrike on a residential area [but] the means of delivery of the alleged attack cannot be definitively confirmed, at this stage,”

In other words there was not enough evidence to determine the who and the how.

But this did not deter the US and its allies, they declared Assad guilty. France’s representative insisted:

“…there was significant evidence that the event had not resulted from an air strike on a warehouse belonging to rebel groups, as some had claimed. The atrocities had demonstrated the Assad regime’s ‘destructive folly'”

Unfortunately France didn’t see fit to share this evidence with the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

Oddly, despite the Syrian regime and the rebels agreeing that the attack was missile strikes carried out by jets, the AFP news agency reported that the initial draft resolution from the western allies to the Security Council demanded information on helicopter squadrons:

“Damascus would be asked to provide the names of all commanders of helicopter squadrons to UN investigators and allow them to meet with generals and other high-ranking officials within five days of their request, the draft resolution said.”

Which indicates their initial assessment was that the incident was a barrel bomb attack. It would seem that the western allies were acting before they had bothered to get all the facts…

All this points to, whether Assad was responsible or not, the US and the west looking for a pretext for direct military confrontation with Syria. The question is why?

Why wade further into the quagmire of Syria?

This is complicated in the respect that this is more a question of a hierarchy of motives, domestic and geopolitical, rather than one of a particular objective.

Domestically Trump has faced huge obstacles in implementing his campaign promises. An article by the Atlantic brutally summed up Trump’s position:

“Today, Trump is desperate. He is flailing from failure to failure in domestic policy, with dismal approval ratings and no clear way to increase them-except by trying to exploit the American public’s historic tendency to rally around a president at war.”

The primary concern is geopolitical as it affects the US’ position as, in the words of ex-State Department adviser Robert Kagan, …a regional power in every strategic region.

Syria divided: Who controls whatSyria divided: Who controls what? Source Al Jazeera

There is a pattern in the US alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria which appears to indicate that the US is working to establish a presence in a divided Syria. On CBS’s Face the Nation US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said If we can achieve ceasefires in zones of stabilization in Syria, then I believe – we hope we will have the conditions to begin a useful political process.

This is not straight forward though, there is vociferous opposition from Turkey, who regard the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (Yekineyen Parastina Gel; YPG) as terrorists. The US think tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes the myriad of conflicting interests in their report ‘Syrian Kurds as a U.S. Ally‘:

“…the Kurds themselves, Turkey, Arabs in the Kurdish-controlled area, the Syrian Arab opposition, the Iraqi Kurds, and Russia. All of these parties are engaged in complex interactions; none fully share U.S. interests—although many have interests that overlap with or differ from those of the United States.”

There is evidence of a split within Trump’s team over the fate of Assad with Tillerson and the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley taking different stances. This division is a reflection of a wider split within the American ruling elite over how to deal with Russia and other challenges.

Tillerson in the CBS interview above, while questioning Assad’s legitimacy as leader, agreed that the fate of Assad was in the hands of Syrian people. He also warned of the dangers of regime change; we’ve seen what violent regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed….

In contrast, the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in an interview with CNN was clear that; There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.

The ambition to overthrow Assad is a much more fraught aim in that it risks direct confrontation with Russia, and even if successful the likely outcome would be a vacuum that would be filled by IS and a multitude of other jihadist groups.

The US strategy, for now, looks to be one of establishing a presence in Syria while simultaneously removing the influence of Russia and Iran by ousting Assad.

When all this is considered, what makes it worth the risks of wading into the quagmire that is Syria?

Strategic importance of the east Mediterranean

Mediterranean SeaMediterranean Sea: The east Mediterranean is the meeting point for three continents

The east Mediterranean area (known as the Levant), of which Syria is part, links three continents and is a gateway for Asian, African and European trade routes which makes the region one of the most strategically important on the planet.

Understanding the geopolitical importance of the region is perhaps best explained through an analysis of Israel by Stratfor, a global intelligence company:

“Israel therefore occupies what might be called the convergence zone of the Eastern Hemisphere. A European power trying to dominate the Mediterranean or expand eastward, an eastern power trying to dominate the space between the Hindu Kush and the Mediterranean, a North African power moving toward the east, or a northern power moving south — all must converge on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and therefore on Israel. Of these, the European power and the eastern power must be the most concerned with Israel. For either, there is no choice but to secure it as an anchor.”

For any country with global influence, or global ambitions, the east Mediterranean area is crucial and they are compelled to fight for a stake in it, preferably at their rivals expense.

Making the world a more dangerous place

The US is facing the challenge of a shift from a unipolar world to a multi-polar one with the rise of China and Russia on the global stage and Turkey, Iran and Brazil as regional powers.

This has caused deep splits in the American ruling elites over a choice between maintaining American hegemony, by force if necessary, or recognising the spheres of influence of competing powers. The decision to launch air strikes against Syria shows that this infighting can produce sharp turns in policy.

The US air strike has ramifications beyond the middle east. The Dallas News observed, that the strike against Syria served as a not-so-subtle warning to U.S. rivals:

“President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria sent a powerful message around the world — one that could be read very differently in Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing.”

This sudden volte-face in US policy risking direct confrontation with its major rivals means that the world is now a more unpredictable, unstable and dangerous place.

Gary Hollands – April 11th 2017

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Right-wing populism, a socialist answer

The neoliberal consensus of the mainstream political parties that had its roots in the 1980s doctrines of Thatcherism and Reaganomics ended in failure with the financial crash of 2007-2008.

Polarisation took the place of this consensus leading to a surge of right-wing populist parties and the rise of left-wing movements. Its impact on the tradition parties of the left and right was to force them to adapt or die.

This sign posts to a coming period of ever greater polarisation, volatility and upheaval.

Traditional left parties, wedded to the establishment consensus, have suffered a string of electoral defeats. These failures have influenced a turn to socialist ideas as an answer to right-wing populism and the problems faced by ordinary people.

Fall out of the 2007-2008 financial crash

Financial crash 2007-2008CNN headlines: 2007-2008 Financial Crash

The 2007-2008 crash, dubbed the ‘Great Recession’, was the worse financial shock since the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s.

The decline of the industrial heartlands was accelerated. High skilled, well paid, secure employment provided by these industries gave way to low pay and insecurity. Facing the full brunt of the crash, many sections of the working class felt abandoned to their fate.

Middle class people found themselves going backwards. Problems that were thought to be exclusively those of the working class such as job insecurity, declining healthcare and education services are now middle class problems.

The working and middle classes paid the price of economic recovery with the programme of austerity. There has been a huge shift of wealth to the top 1%, with Oxfam reporting that; The wealth of the richest 62 people has risen by 45% in the five years since 2010. The neoliberal philosophy of the elites has come to be seen as nothing more than a fig leaf for self-enrichment at society’s expense.

The economic and military dominance of the US and the west is being challenged by rising powers of China and Russia while at home the disillusionment of swathes of working and middle class people is fuelling the rise of populism.

This has caused splits in the ruling class over the best way out of the difficulties they face. The warring of the American elite since the victory of Donald Trump shows how deep these divisions are.

In this light polarisation can be viewed as the manifestation of capitalism at an impasse.

One of the casualties of this polarisation is the mainstream ‘centre ground’ parties…

Polarisation – Adapt or die

Polarisation has brought to an end the process of convergence between the established left and right parties and is posing a choice of adapt or die.

The conservative parties have adapted by moving to the right, stealing the language and policies of right-wing populism.

A typical example is given by Qiu Zhibo, writing for the Global Times. She analyised the pressure of the far right on Dutch conservative parties:

“In recent months, more Dutch parties, including the VVD, have moved further right. For the VVD, the more right-wing conservative approach is an effective and inevitable approach to protect its electoral base, as the political agenda is dominated by the far-right party’s anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The conservative party becomes less politically correct and more populist in their words and policy positions.”

The leaderships of the left parties have been unable to put forward an alternative to the shift to the right. In some cases they’ve pandered to the bigotry. French Socialist minister, Manuel Valls, demanded that the; The Roma should return to their country and be integrated over there,.

This breakdown of the neoliberal consensus and the failure of the mainstream left has created a fertile ground for the rise of right-wing populism.

Rise of right-wing populism

Geert WildersGeert Wilders: Leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom

By stoking and preying on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim prejudice, parties of the far-right from the UK’s UKIP to France’s Front National have enjoyed a number of successes. They’ve also employed anti-establishment demagogy to appeal beyond their limited base to disenfranchised sections of the working class.

Despite a number of setbacks suffered by these parties, there is little cause for celebration. The Times newspaper, in a March 17th editorial on the Dutch elections, warned against concluding that the populist threat had been seen off:

“The thwarting of the ultra-nationalist Islamophobe Geert Wilders has prompted relief in the political establishments of Europe who see it as a sign that the populist wave, started by Brexit and the campaigning of Donald Trump, has hit a Dutch dike and dispersed. …This is probably wishful thinking.”

This is a warning to those who think that these movements can be fought with a simple case of electoral arithmetic and is a reminder that elections are sometimes just a marker in the march of events.

Transformation on the left

The mainstream left parties have experienced a series of demoralising electoral defeats across Europe since the 2007-2008 crash.

These setbacks may give the appearance of a left in retreat but the more astute representatives of the ruling classes are not so easily fooled. The Times editorial above also noted the gains made by the radical left:

“Traditional left-wing parties are struggling to find a response to mass migration. As a result they seem to be heading for oblivion. The Dutch Labour party, once a significant partner in government, lost 29 seats, saving a mere 9. … Instead the polarising effect of an election focused on national identity forced left-leaning voters to look elsewhere, to smaller parties such as D66 and the Green-Left.”

The impact on the traditional left parties varies according to their traditions and roots. In the UK, the Labour Party’s close links with trades unions and its history as a mass party means that leftward shifts in society find their first expression in the Labour Party.

This is evident in the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the huge influx of new membership making the party one of the largest left parties in Europe.

But the fate of parties that consistently betray their base, especially during times of crisis, serves as a warning. PSOE in Spain, PASOK in Greece and the PvdA in Holland have all been challenged or swept aside by the more radical left movements of Syriza, Podemos and Green-Left respectively.

The rise of left-wing movements and the elections of figures such Corbyn as Labour Party leader twice and Hamon as France’s Socialist Party leader shows there is a transformation taking place on the left.

Uneven change, volatility and upheaval

Anti-TTIP protestsEuropean protests against TTIP

Political developments can proceed in an uneven manner. For example, Greece saw a shift to the left in the January 2015 election with the victory of Syriza. A couple of months later the UK’s Labour Party suffered defeat at the hands of the incumbent Conservative Party.

However, as the fall out from the 2007-2008 crash becomes generalised these developments will move into lock step as movements in one country directly influence those in others.

An added ingredient is the volatility of the middle classes. Sandwiched as they are between the two main classes, they can exhibit sudden political swings. In this respect they act as a weather vane for the balance of forces between the working and ruling classes.

By shifting to the right, the traditional conservative parties have given a veneer of respectability to right-wing populism. This populist ideology will be used as a weapon to divide ordinary people against each other and to further their attacks on workers rights and conditions.

This raises the question of how to confront the challenge of right-wing populism, whether of the far right or the mainstream conservative parties.

Experience shows that right-wing populism can not be answered by pandering to it or defending a discredited status quo that gave rise to it.

Socialist programme

Events themselves have given an answer to austerity, far right populism and the poison of xenophobia. The campaign of Bernie Sanders in the US presidential election, the elections of Corbyn and Hamon galvanised support behind socialist ideas.

Fears over immigration can only be answered with secure good quality employment, housing, education and health care. Policies like the UK Labour Party’s proposal for a national investment bank to invest £500bn in infrastructure and skills over ten years is a good starting point.

However, this programme would be an anathema to the elites who would see this as a challenge to austerity and even a risk of reversing the transfer of wealth they’ve enjoyed since the crash. In the event they use their economic power to block policies benefiting the 99% there would be the need to go further and look to taking strategic sectors of the economy, for example finance and transport, into democratic state control.

The message from the left should be that defeating right-wing populism and defending the interests of ordinary working people can only be guaranteed by uniting around a platform of socialist policies.

Gary Hollands – April 5th 2017

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