Tag Archives: John McDonnell

Iran: all options remain on the table

Rhetoric about Iran is all too reminiscent of the prelude to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, warns Ben Lewis (first published in the Weekly Worker)

On Monday February 20 parliament debated the prospect of military intervention against Iran. This against a background of increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the United States and Israel, as well as the recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The debate was initiated by Conservative MP John Baron, perhaps the only Tory MP who opposes an attack on Iran. His motion was simple and straightforward: “This house believes that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counterproductive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons; and calls upon the government to rule out the use of force against Iran and reduce tensions by redoubling diplomatic efforts.” Malcolm Rifkind, Tory chairman of the intelligence and security committee, moved an amendment that completely changed its content. The amendment deleted everything except “This house” and replaced the rest of Baron’s motion with: “… supports the government’s efforts to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through a combination of pressure in the form of robust sanctions, and engagement led by the E3+3 comprising the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Russia; and recognises the value of making clear to Iran that all options for addressing the issue remain on the table”.

It was perhaps no surprise that a cross-party consensus quickly formed around the Rifkind amendment, which was passed by an overwhelming majority of 285 to 6. Those who voted against the amendment were Labour MPs John McDonnell, Paul Flynn and Dennis Skinner; Jonathan Edwards of Plaid Cymru; Mark Durkan of the Social Democratic and Labour Party; and Baron himself.

That meant, of course, that an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs lined up for war. Michael McCann deserves particular mention: “diplomacy and sanctions should not be our only options – nothing should be ruled out”. Diane Abbott, who has often spoken out against war and occupation, voted for the Rifkind amendment: ie, in favour of “robust sanctions” and against clearly spelling out that military intervention was off the cards. But then Abbott is now one of Ed Miliband’s shadow ministers.

It would appear that we are now closer to some sort of strike against Iran than we have been for quite some time. Reinforcing the sense of urgency, Baron reminded us that, given “tough new sanctions, state-sponsored terrorism and naval forces in the Gulf”, this “may be the only opportunity” to debate Iran before an Israeli air-strike, perhaps even a “regional war”.

Baron’s speech in support of his motion criticised “yesterday’s failed policies” of “sanctions and sabre-rattling”. Contrary to the stated aims of those supporting them, he said, sanctions and threats of military action only had the effect of strengthening the regime, particularly the “hard-liners”. He also did a good job of pointing out the shortcoming of the IAEA’s report on Iran, highlighting that there is not a shred of “concrete evidence” of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Given the utter disaster that ensued following the questionable evidence concerning Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction” in 2003, we should be very wary of another disastrous war, said Baron. His request to foreign secretary William Hague to say where the evidence of Iranian nuclear weaponry could be found in the IAEA report fell on deaf ears.

That said, his case was significantly weakened by the fact that he questioned whether Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had actually called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” – apparently, the complexities of Farsi might mean that he was simply calling for “regime change”. The problem with this kind of apologia for the theocracy’s impotent rhetoric is that it buys into the ‘logic’ of the warmongers in Israel, the US and the UK: if the mullahs do want Israel “wiped off the map”, they must be prepared to launch a nuclear strike on that country, which means they must be developing the ability to do so, which means other Middle East powers will rush to develop nuclear arms themselves, which means there will be a “second cold war”.

Anti-war case

As Hands Off the People of Iran supporter John McDonnell was able to point out, the notion that the current sabre-rattling results from Israeli fears of a nuclear holocaust is frankly absurd. While it is “open to doubt” that Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, the issue “is really about nuclear capability – which is a threat only if one believes that nuclear weapons will be used”. And no-one does really believe that. If we are anxious about nuclear proliferation, he said, we have to “start with the root cause”, which is “Israel illegally gaining nuclear weapons”. The way forward had been spelt out by former British ambassador to Iran, Richard Dalton, said McDonnell, when he called for a “nuclear-free zone across the Middle East”. But that would mean facing up “the issue of Israel holding nuclear weapons”.

Comrade McDonnell pointed out that he is no friend of the regime: he has consistently tabled motions supporting campaigns like those of the Tehran bus workers and against the persecution of film director Jafar Panahi. But sanctions and the threat of military action “are strengthening the hard-liners in Iran and hurting the Iranian people, who are desperate to throw off the yoke of that theocracy”.

Sanctions represent “a siege of Iran”, which means we are “already at war by proxy”. As a result, Iran’s currency is collapsing, imports of grain are drying up and “people are becoming impoverished”. This is hardly “undermining the regime”. On the contrary, it is “hardening support for it by giving it the excuse that an external enemy is causing the impoverishment and hunger”.

Finally he referred to Israel’s “own domestic political agenda”: the “crisis atmosphere suits Netanyahu and the hawks who surround him”. Which was why there have been “covert military actions” carried out by organisations and individuals trained by Mossad. These acts “have prompted more terrorism around the world through Iran-sponsored attacks”, while the Israeli-sponsored “cyber-war” has “provoked even more retaliation”.

However, the eight-hour debate was dominated by the ratcheting up of threats. Labour MP Michael Mann was keen to draw on the example of Nazism and portray Ahmadinejad as the new Adolph Hitler. Apparently a recent conversation with one of his constituents who was present as the Nazis marched into Vienna had reminded him of Edmund Burke’s vacuous remark: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Absolutely sickening stuff.

With those on the ‘opposition’ benches going to such hawkish lengths, Rifkind’s case for leaving “all options open” sounded highly restrained by contrast. He made the rather odd point that if Baron’s motion were adopted then this would, paradoxically, increase the likelihood of military intervention against Iran. Why? Well, the Israelis would feel deserted by their allies and thus compelled to act unilaterally. At this point, John McDonnell intervened with a timely and well-aimed question: what sanctions would be imposed on Israel, were this to happen?

None, of course. In fact an Israeli strike might not be such a bad thing: “The Israelis acted unilaterally against Iraq when they removed the Osirak reactor, and both the western world and the Arab world breathed a huge sign of relief. It would ultimately depend on how successful the Israelis could be, and that is a separate question.”

That said, for the most part both Rifkind and foreign secretary William Hague were particularly keen on stressing two things: that the US was the “key country” in thinking about these questions (ie, the US will ultimately decide, and Britain will follow its lead) and that they would, of course, prefer a “peaceful” solution based on sanctions and “dialogue”: ie, negotiations with a pistol pointed at the head of those on the Iranian side of the table. After all, diplomacy requires “carrots and sticks”.

Rifkind stated that if it did come down to US-sanctioned military action, the “adverse consequences” would only be “relatively temporary”, with “short to medium-term” effects for a “few days, weeks or possibly even months”. The alternative, however, was the “permanent” prospect of an Iranian state with nuclear weapons. The circumstances under which such ‘pre-emptive’ military action might take place were, of course, a “military question” that should not be discussed in parliament.

According to Hague, “Our quarrel emphatically is not with the Iranian people” – although it is fine to wreck their lives through sanctions, it seems. No, “we want them to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as we do and to live dignified lives in a prosperous society”. But “the Iranian government’s current policies endanger the interests of the Iranian people themselves, as well as undermining global security”.

This government celebrated the Arab spring a year ago by sending a delegation of British arms dealers around the Middle East – led by the prime minister – so they could ply their wares to a series of dictators. David Cameron showed himself more than willing to continue selling rubber bullets, tear gas and heavy arms to Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen immediately after his visit to Egypt in February 2011. Weapons to be used against those fighting for some sort of “dignified” existence in the face of “appalling” abuses of their human rights.

Behind all the delusional, self-righteous crap, though, lies an undeniable drive to war. Labour rebel Paul Flynn made the obvious point that the debate and the rhetoric deployed by the politicians has a distinct feeling of 2003 about it. This should be of enormous concern to all of us committed to any notion of democracy and progress in the Middle East and beyond. Almost 10 years on, and after the trail of death and destruction in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, our rulers are now contemplating a repeat.

We must do our utmost to oppose any such intervention. What is more, we must highlight the real motives behind the rhetoric: the US, through its main regional ally, Israel, is attempting to regain full control over a region that is going through extremely rapid change. We need the biggest, most militant and most daring show of opposition to their project. At all times we must expose the duplicitous lies of ‘our’ leaders and strengthen the force that can stop wars and a further descent into barbarity: the international working class movement.



Videos and report from Hands Off the People of Iran AGM

Here are videos of some of the excellent presentations to the HOPI AGM which took place in London on Saturday February 12.

You can also read the Weekly Worker report of the AGM, here: ‘Renewing solidarity.’

Use opportunity of Diane Abbott leadership bid

Rightwing scheming as well as John McDonnell’s withdrawal has ensured there will be a left candidate for the Labour leadership after all, writes Peter Manson

Diane Abbott’s successful bid to secure enough nominations for the Labour leadership contest resulted from the momentary convergence of interests of the John McDonnell-led left, a handful of black MPs from across the Labour political spectrum and elements within the rightwing leadership keen on demonstrating that the party is a ‘diverse and vibrant force’, appealing to all sections of society.

So, unlike 2007, when the New Labour leadership succeeded in arranging Gordon Brown’s coronation by ensuring that no-one else won enough nominations, this time around it has positively encouraged a contested election with the aim of stimulating what acting leader Harriet Harman dubbed an “open, engaging and energising” campaign. Harman publicly announced that she was nominating Abbott to help ensure a black woman was on the ballot paper and, true to his word, front runner David Miliband also added his signature (he had promised to do so to achieve a more broadly contested poll should any candidate end up one nomination short of the necessary 33 Labour MPs). Ed Balls also hinted that his supporters might as well sign up for Diane when he said there was no point in adding their names to his total, now he had passed the minimum so comfortably.

Another leading rightwinger to nominate her was Jack Straw – former home secretary, foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons, and one of only three people to have been a cabinet member continuously from 1997 to 2010, so complete is his loyalty to the Blair-Brown right. Then there is Phil Woolas, ex-minister for borders and immigration, who is hated by all genuine internationalists for his role in overseeing deportations, the detention of children and virginity tests.

So Abbott is backed by the former ‘immigration tsar’, but at least the current ‘poverty tsar’ did not nominate her. Frank Field – a Labour minister for ‘welfare reform’ under Blair, now given the task of deciding how best to hammer welfare recipients by David Cameron – may, for whatever reason, have originally nominated John McDonnell, but he is one of the few who did not switch to Abbott when McDonnell pulled out.

Most of those who did take McDonnell’s advice – duly transferring their nominations when he withdrew at the last moment on June 9 – are, of course, Labour left MPs. McDonnell said: “It is now clear that I am unlikely to secure enough nominations and so I am withdrawing in the hope that we can at least secure a woman on the ballot paper.” The previous day he had warned of his intentions in the same terms. While he said there was still a chance they could both get through, “I’ve also said, if it comes down to it, if it’s a choice of me standing and not getting on and me pulling out and getting a woman on the ballot paper, that’s exactly what I’ll do because I think it’s important we actually reflect modern society.”

It seems that comrade McDonnell was deliberately playing down his and Abbott’s leftwing credentials in order to fit in with the multiculturalist ‘diversity’ agenda of the Labour right. His own slim chances of getting enough nominations were dealt a fatal blow when Abbott announced she was standing. It looked for all the world that her move, by ensuring that the votes of the tiny contingent of Labour left MPs would be split, had finally scuppered the possibility of any left candidate getting on the ballot paper.


There was more than a hint of suspicion that Abbott had been put up as a wrecking candidate by elements of the soft left, in an attempt to prevent McDonnell acting as a ‘spoiler’ for David Miliband, taking away votes from one of the mainstream candidates with a chance of beating him. Ken Livingstone came out openly for Ed Balls, while Tony Benn made it plain he would eventually back Ed Miliband – in both cases as the lesser evil. If McDonnell had got on the ballot paper he would undoubtedly have won over a much greater proportion of rank and file Labour and union members than the level of his support in the Commons. But, for the likes of Livingstone, that would only have played into the hands of David Miliband.

The problem now for the soft left is that Abbott could play exactly the same role. Yes, McDonnell has been prevented from acting as a ‘spoiler’ and letting David Miliband win, but the chances of ‘realistic’ ‘leftwing’  Ed Balls could still be damaged by Abbott. Not exactly what the soft left had in mind when they egged her on. And David Miliband and the other rightwingers were hardly unaware of this when they added their names to her nomination papers.

As for McDonnell, despite criticisms that he had unnecessarily accommodated to the right both by his apparent willingness to sign up Field and other rightwing mavericks like Kate Hoey, and in the manner of his withdrawal, there is no doubt that he did the right thing in stepping down in favour of Abbott. There was in the end definitely no chance of getting on the ballot paper himself. Even if Abbott had withdrawn (which she most certainly would not have done), the assortment of rightwing and black MPs that ended up nominating her would not have transferred their nominations to him.

Comrade McDonnell, for all his reformist illusions, is the most determinedly and consistently pro-working class, and therefore the most principled, Labour MP by a long chalk. Abbott, though, is regarded as safe enough by the Labour establishment. What is more, she has the advantage of being both black and female.

On the other hand, the fact she is on the ballot paper does provide working class partisans with an opportunity. Now at least there is the chance of a genuine debate rather than stage-managed talking shops involving candidates whose anti-working class agenda differs only in nuance. Abbott is unlikely to abandon altogether her previous opposition (however wavering and opportunist) to cuts in public services and imperialist wars. Even if she does, we may still be able to publicly challenge her. Harman’s talk of involving up to four million people in the Labour leadership debate is not just hype, and the presence of a candidate likely to challenge the Labour establishment consensus opens up the potential for a more effective pro-working class intervention.

It goes without saying that it would have been far better if comrade McDonnell had been the left candidate who succeeded in getting on the ballot paper. Before Abbott came along that had been a possibility, if a remote one. She showed a cavalier disregard for this fact by announcing her candidacy against the established leftwing contender so late in the day and apparently without consultation (certainly without any common agreement).

That is why comrade Chris Strafford’s argument was so misplaced (Letters, June 3). We should have welcomed her candidature as McDonnell did, he said, instead of condemning her splitting manoeuvre, and concentrated on the demand that both of them should have been allowed to stand. Yes, as a good diplomat, McDonnell publicly pronounced himself pleased that she was joining in the debate, but I suspect that what he said in private might have been a little different.

Nor is there a contradiction between demanding the scrapping of the undemocratic, anti-left restrictions on leadership contenders and opposition to Abbott’s splitting tactics (even though in the end – to everyone’s surprise, including, I suspect, her own – they did result in a leftwinger getting on the ballot). The left cannot rely on sections of the right tactically deciding to offer support for their own ends and there should have been a single left candidate from the beginning. Clearly it was John McDonnell who was best qualified both in terms of support from Labour left MPs (before he withdrew he had 16 nominations to Abbott’s 11) and political consistency and working class principle.

The correct position was to call for a single left candidate, while simultaneously demanding the right of all those with real support to be able to contest. Why should the right to nominate be restricted to MPs, most of whom were hand-picked by the Blairites? That right should be opened up to all Labour Party bodies and affiliated organisations, not least the unions. Comrade McDonnell himself said he had made a last-ditch attempt to get the threshold for nominations reduced before he decided to withdraw. He knew many Labour activists and trade unionists would be “disappointed that their candidate will not be on the ballot”, but urged them to continue to fight for “democracy within the party”.


And that is very much needed. Only through democracy can the ascendancy of the right be challenged. Not only are the four main leadership candidates (in addition to Ed Balls and the Milibands, Andy Burnham also won sufficient nominations) unambiguously pro-cuts and pro-war: they have all jumped on the anti-migrant bandwagon.

Balls has made great play of how he had tried to talk Gordon Brown into adopting an even tougher anti-migrant approach. He said: “Free movement of goods and services works to our mutual advantage. But the free movement of labour is another matter entirely.” Which is why he favours “transitional arrangements” across the European Union when new states apply to join – as should have been the case “for a sustained period” when Poland and other A8 countries acceded in 2004. As a result “British workers” have had to accept lower pay and worse conditions, says Balls. You could not wish for a clearer example of nationalistic, pro-capital politics being dressed up as pro-worker.

Balls thinks that Gillian Duffy, the pensioner whom Brown labelled a “bigot” for challenging him over immigration, was merely expressing “the kind of things being said by Labour supporters”. This type of ‘I’m not racist, but …’ anti-migrant prejudice is voiced as “look what it’s doing to my community, to my child’s job prospects, our housing queues”, said Balls.

It is, of course, understandable that the Gillian Duffys of this world, encouraged by the gutter press, should react in that way. But for politicians like Balls, who claim to be on the left of Labour, it is inexcusable. Diane Abbott has stated her opposition, as the daughter of migrants, to the anti-immigration hysteria. The question is, will she have the principled, internationalist, working class arguments to back up her own gut sentiment?


Labour Party: Diane Abbott splits left

Communists want to see the Labour Party completely transformed, writes James Turley

Labour’s leadership contest is now properly underway, with the opening of nominations on May 24. Aspiring candidates will have to secure the consent of 33 Labour MPs in order to go to the vote later this year.

According to the Labour Party’s website, David Miliband and Ed Miliband are now officially nominated, though David is now ahead of his brother in terms of backers. Ed Balls and Andy Burnham are still some way behind … and at the time of writing John McDonnell has just four nominations – including, believe it or not, the execrable Frank Field and Kate Hoey.

While previously the post-Brown leadership contest was due to have been conclusively stitched up, with a ludicrous three-day nomination period initially imposed by the Labour national executive committee, now it has been extended to a miserly 16 days.

The protests began, naturally, on the Labour left, who are hobbled enough already by the MPs’ stranglehold over nominations; but quickly they spread. Jon Cruddas, the soft left angling for a post as David Miliband’s deputy, criticised the time limit forcefully. It was a measure directed clearly against the left, traditionally underrepresented in parliament anyway, but particularly badly marginalised at the present time.

In fact, so flagrantly anti-democratic was the original timetable that even Ed Miliband deigned to offer support to disaffected Labourites, via the social networking site Twitter. With both Miliband camps dissatisfied with the three-day period, to say nothing of less powerful figures in the party, one has to wonder who supported it in the first place.

So the contest – at least, any contest not completely internal to New Labour – is just about alive. Still, the safe money is on a New Labour-only non-debate, as the first Labour left to throw his hat into the ring, McDonnell, knows all too well. His was the only serious left challenge to Gordon Brown’s coronation in 2007, but despite an energetic campaign – not to mention a longer campaigning period – he was unable to get enough nominations. The reasons are multiple, but the two most important were the Labour Party machine’s desire for an orderly Blair-Brown transition, and the fact that the largest trade unions refused to lift a finger for him and cajole their parliamentary groups into offering support, preferring instead to crown Brown. (It does not help that some left-led unions are not affiliated to Labour, leaving them in no real position to influence the outcome of such struggles.)

This time around, the number of nominations necessary has fallen – but only in proportion with the overall size of the parliamentary Labour Party. The number of identifiable lefts has certainly fallen too; though their electoral performance in the recent general election was generally better than the right, the latter have long consolidated their control over selections.

McDonnell’s only major rival on the left last time was Michael Meacher, who pulled out when it became clear he had very little support whatsoever (it turns out, thankfully, that barely coherent conspiracy theories are not enough to secure leftwing support for a former Blair cabinet minister). He recommended his nominators transfer their support to McDonnell. This time around, the surprise rival is Diane Abbott, a long standing left MP best known today for her odd-couple TV partnership with reformed Thatcherite Michael Portillo.

This makes it extraordinarily difficult for either Abbott or McDonnell to make the ballot. They both fish, broadly, from the same pond: the shrinking number of Labour left MPs. There are differences too: McDonnell enjoys (if that is the word in a Labour leadership race) support from the far left, for a start. Socialist Appeal, the Socialist Workers Party, the CPGB and many others have weighed in for his candidacy; even the Socialist Party, officially committed to the dogma that the Labour Party is completely dead as any kind of organisation of the working class, has found the necessary spine to come out for McDonnell. He also has the advantage of enthusiastic support from the RMT.

Abbott’s supporters have tended to use a single buzzword: ‘diversity’. It is certainly true that she is the only woman and the only ethnic minority candidate; for anti-racists and anti-sexists whose beliefs tend towards the narrowly statistical, a black woman on the ballot is an achievement in itself. It would be something of an event, particularly if she somehow managed to go all the way and get the job.

The question is rather: what is there that politically differentiates Abbott from her better-established rival? The only honest answer is: not a whole lot. Both are opposed to the government’s programme of cuts, and would be opposed to a Labour government’s programme of cuts; both opposed the Iraq war from the outset, unlike Johnny-come-latelies like Ed Miliband and Ed Balls (although Abbott, unlike McDonnell, refused to call for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops). Both are, of course, opposed to all forms of racism, and are at least prepared to position themselves to the left of the Tories and Lib Dems on immigration. In the absence of significant political disagreement, Abbott’s campaign amounts to splitting the left-Labourite nominations and votes. McDonnell, either diplomatically or naively, officially welcomes Abbott’s campaign, calling for further reforms from the Labour NEC so they both can contest the leadership; but in reality, their uneasy coexistence would destroy the chances of a leftwing Labour leadership – almost certainly at the nomination stage.

Behind this lies the widespread sentiment that this is a squabble between unelectables, and the real duty of socialists is to support somebody like Ed Balls, who represents a ‘realistic’ left candidate. That is the argument of Ken Livingstone and, one presumes, his allies in Socialist Action. Perhaps also of the Morning Star. Its report avoided taking sides between McDonnell and Abbott. So is she being used by the ‘soft left’ in order to sabotage McDonnell’s campaign so as to excuse rallying to Ed Balls in the name of left unity? Possibly. Yet the fact of the matter is that Ed Balls has said basically nothing that separates him substantially from the Milibands; he is assumed to be to their left simply by not sharing their surname. The battle between McDonnell and Abbott is a battle to represent the Labour left not satisfied with that choice; but it is a battle neither can win.

It is also worth noting that a certain amount of left posturing is ubiquitous among the Labour candidates. Ed Miliband and Balls both express, as noted, certain regrets concerning the Iraq war. There is a tendency for the Labour Party to drift to the right as it approaches government, and to the left when its power expires; the election defeat has finally robbed an increasingly directionless New Labour of its last remaining selling point – results. The careerists most closely associated with the New Labour project have had to disavow the term – not New Labour but ‘Next Labour’, demands David Miliband … Speaking of the Labour right, the choice is just as slender as between candidates of the left. All candidates appear to be outdoing each other at cynical anti-immigration rhetoric. The trick, as it ever was for New Labour, is to outflank the Tories to the right; only Labour, it is claimed, is in touch enough with the ‘white working class’ properly to ‘control’ immigration. Neither Ed nor David Miliband, nor Ed Balls or Blairite former health minister Andy Burnham, is able to sustain this illusion; exactly how the NHS, for example, would function without a ready supply of skilled migrant labour is a problem of scanty concern to our would-be premiers – unless they should be so unwise as to try to translate this kind of policy into reality.

David Miliband and Burnham are, we are told, Blairites, and the Eds Brownites; this is supposed even now to indicate some kind of principled difference. Yet the notion that Gordon Brown represented anything other than a less PR-friendly spin on Blairism is transparently risible after three years under his cosh (with the collusion of the Milibands and Balls). Both, it turns out, were enthusiastically Atlanticist variants of neoliberalism. Neither was guaranteed a future after the financial crisis. The political franchise of most mainstream media outlets has long been transferred from Labour to the Tories (even the Labour-stalwart Guardian backed Clegg in this election); the competition between Labour factions over immigration is suddenly of precious little concern to a reactionary press with its favoured boot-boys back in charge.

That the Labour right – or New Labour, as it branded itself for the last 13 years – represents nothing politically distinctive from typical rightwing governments around Europe is old news. That Blair and Brown were so transparently mendacious in their political billing as ‘progressives’ paralysed the trade unions and workers’ organisations as they struggled to politically dissociate themselves from a government they nonetheless materially supported.

Today these organisations have the opportunity to revise radically their political commitments; even a consistent version of the Labourism unsurprisingly endemic in the unions would be an improvement over the incompetent ‘realism’ that recommends a vote for Brown over Blair, or Ed Balls over Ed Miliband. There is every sign, however, that this opportunity will once again not be taken. John McDonnell’s support is concentrated in disaffiliated unions; though Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, politely touts both McDonnell and Abbott for glory. Most of the other unions – Unite, Unison and so on – can be expected to come out in favour of whichever New Labourite appears least comfortable in his own skin, with Balls the main contender.

Communists want to see the Labour Party completely transformed – from its foundations it has stood for the British working class’s attachment to the nation-state and to the undemocratic constitutional order, and the reciprocal delivery of crumbs from the ruling class table. We want do drive out the pro-capitalist right wing, not seek some comfortable deal with it. That means we need to overcome Labourism in both its leftwing and rightwing guises. If the Labour Party were to disappear, or be completely subsumed into a bourgeois liberal grouping on the model of the Democrats in America, it would be a big setback for the working class movement in Britain. But that is exactly where right Labourism points – strange though it might first appear, something reinforced by left Labourism. In the name of realism and gaining a majority, left Labourites constantly seek to reach out to the right. In other words the trade union bureaucracy and the openly pro-capitalist right. So in order to cement the independent initiative of the working class it is necessary to supersede left Labourism positively. The nomination and election of John McDonnell as Labour leader would provide the best conditions to take forward this argument.

Peter Manson spoke to Labour left MP John McDonnell about the Labour Party conference, the general election and beyond

john mcdonnell mpHow do you see the main issues at the Labour conference?

The New Labour leadership will be trying to use the conference for yet another relaunch of Gordon Brown. If it’s anything like the public relations exercise of his TUC speech, it will be extremely dispiriting and disillusioning – it will hardly be successful in terms of launching the general election campaign.

What they will be trying to set out is some form of difference between themselves and the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, but they have all now reached a consensus on the key political issue – they expect working class people to pay for this crisis, not the bankers themselves, and they’re not looking for any transformation of the system. They are now looking for a massive onslaught in terms of cuts in public services, attacks on trade unions and undermining any reaction against neoliberal policies and the restoration of market dominance. I don’t think there’s any discernible difference between New Labour’s position and that of the other main parties.

It could be argued that the Tories are playing into Brown’s hands by declaring their intention to make deeper and further cuts with relish, whereas Brown will make the same cuts with tender, loving care.

That might have been the case a week ago, but the scene has changed so dramatically. We’ve just had Ed Balls announcing education cuts on a scale we haven’t seen for years – there seems to be a Dutch auction going on about who can be more brutal in their attacks on the working class in terms of cutbacks in public expenditure and, inevitably, assaults on people’s pensions and welfare benefits.

It is possibly the most disillusioning exercise we’ve seen in politics in recent generations. Not only will people say, ‘There’s no difference between you’: there is no difference between them in the content of their attacks on working people.

It reminds me of Tony Blair’s first election victory in 1997, when he promised to keep in place the Tory cuts for two years. People voted Labour on the grounds that they couldn’t be any worse than the Tories and that seems to be the basis on which trade union leaders are recommending a Labour vote.

Some trade union leaders. They are working on the basis that you might as well have the devil you know rather than risk the Tories.

Remember, in 97 what happened was that people marched to get rid of the Tories. It wasn’t that they had any confidence in Blair – the electorate didn’t really have a clue as to what the ramifications of his victory would be.

When you are in the situation where all the parties are virtually presenting the same programme, people react according to what they are actually experiencing at the time – they will march again to get rid of the incumbent government. New Labour is seen as pursuing the same policies of attacking working people as the Tories and, despite the savage cuts proposed by the Liberal Democrats last week, I think people will want to take it out on the government.

What happened to Keynes? I thought we had to spend our way out of the crisis, but all of a sudden, with a general election looming, that seems to have gone by the board.

There are three examples of Labour being in power when a crisis like this has hit – two were under Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan. You could argue that Keynes was a competing economic theory in the 30s, but you couldn’t argue that about Callaghan’s time. Both MacDonald and Callaghan rejected Keynesianism, let alone any form of socialist practice. What happened to them? They turned on their own class, cut welfare benefits, increased unemployment and slashed public expenditure. The reaction was absolute opposition from working people and the removal of Labour from power for a decade.

The third example was Attlee, who came to power in a crisis, when the country was bankrupt, and successfully used taxation and public ownership to redistribute wealth and establish the welfare state. What is interesting is the ignoring of the Attlee experience and New Labour’s seizing upon Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan, with Keynesianism going out of the window. Not that I think Keynesianism is the solution, but even in their own terms New Labour has rejected an alternative. It’s panic, absolute panic, that is setting in. Every policy is aimed above all at trying to secure a continuation of power.

Just as the media and many commentators were urging Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan to be ‘responsible’ and look after the ‘national interest’, exactly the same has been pouring out of the pages of The Guardian, The Times, the FT and the rest. They are all urging ‘responsibility’, which means cuts.

It is almost as though the world has lost its senses, even on Keynesian terms. They are introducing massive cuts during a recession, which will produce more unemployment and keep the economy on a downward spiral.

You are convenor of the Trade Union Coordinating Group. What is the TUGC’s role?

We established the TUCG at the TUC congress in 2008. Initially there were four unions which had worked together in a few individual campaigns such as Public Services Not Private Profit, and they felt a more consistent alliance was needed. They were advocating similar policies and looking for further coordination and campaigning, whether that be public meetings, organising demonstrations or even coordinating action in the future. The TUCG has now doubled in size to eight unions.

It was quite clear what divisions there were within the TUC this year. TUCG trade unions are calling for a much more aggressive approach in terms of industrial relations, so that people don’t have to pay for this crisis in terms of cuts in wages or conditions or their jobs. They have a much more independent line – it is just not acceptable to expect people to support a government which has turned on its own class.

What unions are involved?

The original four were the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Public and Commercial Services Union, Fire Brigades Union and National Union of Journalists. Now there are also the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, National Association of Probation Officers, Prison Officers Association and United Road Transport Union. Only the Bakers Union is affiliated to Labour.

How do you see the TUCG in relation to, for example, the Labour Representation Committee?

Well, to be honest, the TUCG is a trade union grouping, which addresses a whole range of issues from a trade union perspective and will prove increasingly effective, I think, as we go into this next period, whoever is in government. Whoever it is, they are clearly going to come for people’s jobs, working conditions and pensions, and the trade unions are the only organisations that can play a leading role in protecting them.

There is also a role for the TUCG in the discussion about future representation as well as future action. It will be convening a conference aiming for February, looking at a strategy for the unions in the run-up to the general election and beyond it.

There is no formal link between that and the LRC, which is a separate political organisation. But the TUCG is one of many initiatives being undertaken at the moment, whereby people are feeling their way forward on how they can make alliances across industrial, economic and political struggles, and what structures best suit those struggles at any one point in time.

Just as the LRC is an attempt to form alliances of the left both within and outside the Labour Party, here you have a group of trade unions that are allying to make themselves stronger and more effective, but that are also looking to work with others in the promotion of political objectives as well. So the TUCG unions came behind the People’s Charter, and will want to work with groups like the LRC in campaigning on issues they agree upon.

In the general election you will be a Labour candidate, but the message you are putting over is that there is no difference between the three main parties. So on what basis will you be campaigning for a Labour vote?

It’s interesting how many individual Labour candidates in the general election will be standing on policies that they’ll be advocating locally and will have no reflection on what’s happening nationally. They will be pursuing policies that a number of us have been advocating for a period of time.

Those candidates will be opposed to working people having to pay for this crisis and, calling for the redistribution of wealth and power, advocating public ownership, arguing for peace, opposing the war in Iraq and calling for troops out of Afghanistan. That will be a fairly common platform for which a number of Labour candidates will be campaigning, because it’s the only way in which they’ll be able to save their seats. I expect that there will be quite a large number of Labour candidates who will be distancing themselves from the policies they’ve even voted for over recent years.

Unfortunately, however, a tiny percentage of the electorate vote on the basis of what the local candidate, as opposed to their party, is saying.

That’s why if there isn’t any change in Labour policy nationally there’s a good chance of a wipe-out. The only thing that will save Labour – not as a government, but from being wiped out – will be the incompetence of the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

Some of the TUCG unions may well give at least tacit support to non-Labour candidates. How do you view their position?

Well, I’m a Labour MP, so I’ll be standing on a Labour platform. I’ll be putting forward policies I’ve been advocating for a number of years.

Individual unions will make their own decisions, but I think the recommendation of TUCG unions to their members on how to vote will be based on a critique of the record of the particular candidates and the policies they’re pursuing. I think you’ll see a number of unions supporting candidates based on a realistic assessment of their track record.

Even some of the most New Labour-loyal union leaders – Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, for example – are arguing that members should only vote for candidates who support union policies. We’ll see whether that translates into reality, but I think TUCG unions will take such a position.

Do you think any substantial left-of-Labour groups will stand?

Various discussions are going on, I’m sure, as reported in your own newspaper. I’m sure there will be non-Labour left candidates, but there seems to be an increasing awareness that they shouldn’t be running against Labour left candidates.

At the same time I’m hoping that, in the general election campaign, from somewhere there will be a political debate. If that comes from left candidates in the Labour Party, and from left candidates outside, at least working people will be able to see that some people are arguing for an alternative.

We’ll see what happens in the general election. However, the main debate about the future of the left will come afterwards.

Hopi sanctions campaign launched

Simon Wells reports on the launch of the Smash the Sanctions campaign

John McDonnell MP

John McDonnell MP

On March 16, Hands Off the People of Iran kicked off its Smash the Sanctions campaign with a press conference in the House of Commons. John McDonnell MP, Jenny Jones (Green Party member of the London assembly) and Hopi chair Yassamine Mather addressed the meeting.

Comrade Mather started off by saying that sanctions are another form of war. The current set has just been renewed by Barack Obama. This shows that – if any proof was needed – his policies are very much a continuation of those of the Bush administration. There has also been a new round of sanctions, which includes serious restrictions on Sharif University, a leading educational institution in Iran, along with the Razi institution, a developer of immunisation medicines and a textile plant in the north of the country.

“I really fail to see how you can build a nuclear bomb with immunisation medicine or textiles, said comrade Mather. “But these sanctions have a real effect in that doctors and hospitals in Iran tell us that they can’t get hold of so-called ‘dual use’ equipment.”. It is not the senior clerics’ welfare which is harmed by the sanctions. They can buy the goods they need through the black market, but “at a price that the poor simply cannot afford”. The Iranian working class is hit thrice: it is hit by sanctions, the disastrous economic policies of the Islamic government and by world recession.

Clearly, sanctions are an important weapon in imperialism’s arsenal. They are supposed to pave the way for regime change from above.

However, Iraq and Zimbabwe are two countries that show where these efforts lead: sanctions strengthen the leaders of those countries and at the same time disempower the working class, which is struggling just to survive. “But this is the only force that can bring about real regime change – change from below,” said John McDonnell. “These are not smart sanctions: they are insane! They force people into poverty, giving them little opportunity to rise up to challenge the regime.”

He suggested that Hopi should do some work in explaining that the sanctions on Iran are of a qualitative difference from those imposed on South Africa, which many people on the left campaigned for: “For a start, British capital had a lot of money invested in and profited from the apartheid regime. And, of course, the people in South Africa asked for our solidarity to impose those sanctions.”Jenny Jones agreed with both speakers and added that in today’s media culture it would be useful if Hopi could find some concrete examples of Iranians suffering from the sanctions.

The meeting went on to discuss the campaign and concrete ways to spread the message. For example, comrade McDonnell is preparing an early day motion, a request to the foreign affairs committee to investigate the effect of sanctions on the Iranian people and a letter from the Labour Representation Committee to political parties on the European Left.

There were also suggestions that Hopi should contact the National Union of Journalists regarding the internet ban which affects millions of students in Iran, to link up Hopi supporters in Unison with Iranian health workers in hospitals, where staff are complaining about the effects of sanctions, and to mobilise student activists and academics to oppose sanctions on Iranian universities.

You can listen to the three speakers on Hopi’s website: www.hopoi.org

Smash the Sanctions campaign to be launched by John McDonnell MP

John McDonnell MP

John McDonnell MP will launch a new campaign at the Hands Off the People of Iran (Hopi) annual conference (details see below). This campaign will focus on the need to overturn the existing sanctions – as well as fight against any new ones.

Sanctions constitute a ’soft war’ on Iran. The programme of sanctions imposed so far has on the one hand strengthened the theocratic dictatorship in Iran whilst on the other hand has drastically worsened the situation of the vast majority of Iranian people. Whilst inflation and unemployment have more than doubled over the last 2 years, the Iranian regime’s expenditure on its apparatus of repression has quadrupled.

To make matters worse, the US president elect Barack Obabma has proposed a new raft of sanctions against companies exporting refined petrol to Iran – this again will hit the poor and the working class the hardest. Thus, they will disrupt and demoralise the very section of society that we look to for consistent anti-imperialism and internationalism.

Come along to our conference to hear arguments against sanctions and get involved in the campaign.

HOPI Annual Conference – December 13
11am, Caxton House, 129 St John’s Way, London N19 3RQ

(for a map, click here: http://www.caxtonhouse.org/index_map.htm)