The right question

To balance John Foster’s sceptical piece about the “national conversation”, the Morning Star published the following:

Talking about independence (Wednesday 29 August 2007)
KEN FERGUSON on why the SSP welcomes Scotland’s new ‘national conversation.’

THE shock waves from new Labour’s May defeat in the Scottish elections and the advent of a minority SNP government in Holyrood are rapidly rewriting the rules in Scottish politics.

A series of progressive announcements on increased resources for schools, scrapping hospital closures and halting plans for a further private prison have all hit the spot with the public.

While nobody on the left will doubt that, at bottom, the SNP is pro-business, many voters will ask, as they review the record of the last eight years of Lab-Lib governments: “So what?”

Faced with this series of progressive moves, the reaction from the pro-unionist parties has been to form what amounts to an “unpopular front,” supposedly in opposition to independence and in defence of the union.

However, with the coronation of arch market forces fan Wendy Alexander to the leadership of new Labour, a wider agenda has started to break cover.

Earlier this week, press reports – clearly sourced from new Labour – told of moves to form what amounts to a unionist coalition to “seize the policy agenda” when Holyrood reconvenes in September.

The reality of any such moves, which are now being denied in true Mandelson fashion, would be a further rightward lurch, with Thatcher’s heirs and the opportunist Lib Dems linking with Alexander’s neoliberals.

The evidence of public reaction to the left-wing ideas put up by Salmond so far suggests that the public are not likely to find more pro-market ideas very welcome.

The background against which all this is played out is the launch by the SNP government of a white paper on independence – part of which is a “national conversation” on the issue.

Despite some criticism from the pro-unionist left, the truth is that the “conversation” is a deft move by an SNP which knows that it is outnumbered in voting terms in the Scottish Parliament.

By taking the debate beyond MSPs into wider civic society, the SNP is banking on swinging support in the direction of both forcing a referendum on independence and in favour of independence itself.

These developments take place at a point where, in terms of the Scottish Parliament, the forces of the left are at an eight-year low.

The split opened up by Tommy Sheridan’s libel case simply made the already difficult situation worse and contributed to all SSP and Solidarity MSPs – including Sheridan – losing their seats.

The abject failure of the Labour left to muster six MSPs to challenge the recent leadership election speaks volumes of the balance of forces there.

Faced with this difficult challenge, the SSP has both restated its support for an independent Scottish republic and pledged to fully engage with the debate around the national conversation.

Party branches are lobbying MSPs in favour of an independence referendum and raising the issue in street activity and in the party’s Scottish Socialist Voice paper.

The party’s position was set out in detail in a statement from the SSP executive, which said: “The Scottish Socialist Party welcomes the coming ‘national conversation’ on Scotland’s future.

“Unlike the three London-controlled parties, the Scottish Socialist Party is not afraid of a wide-ranging debate, followed by a democratic vote on Scotland’s future.”

Reaffirming support for independence, the statement spells out: “We believe Scotland would be economically, politically, culturally and socially better off making our own decisions and standing on our own two feet.

“We look forward to outlining our own unique vision for an independent socialist Scotland.

“In the meantime, the SSP will also support any steps to strengthen the Scottish Parliament short of full independence. We have called, for example, for Holyrood to have control over broadcasting, energy, fiscal policy, drugs and other matters that are currently reserved to Westminster.

“However, only full independence can rid Scotland of nuclear weapons, disentangle Scotland from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan, allow us to welcome refugees fleeing famine and persecution and enable Scotland to draw up its own democratic constitution fit for the 21st century.

“The SNP vision for independence would involve a ‘union of the crowns.’ The Scottish Socialist Party, in contrast, believes in sweeping away the remnants of feudalism, inherited power and class privilege which the monarchy symbolises.

“In the coming national conversation, we will be arguing strongly for an independent Scottish republic. The SSP believes that the fight for independence involves confronting powerful vested interests at the heart of the British Establishment.

“When they site their nuclear weapons here and rely disproportionately on our sons and daughters to stock their armies and die in their wars, it would be naive to imagine that the British state will be led gently down the slippery slope to full independence.

“We believe that the forces in favour of independence – including the SNP, the SSP, the Greens, the Independence Convention and Independence First – have a major battle on the hands to win the Scottish people decisively to the cause of Scottish independence.”

Courting disaster

[Thursday]

So, Gordon Brown is claiming that the strike by prison staff changes nothing and that he will not bow to pressure from public sector workers and pay them the ammount recommended.

Brown will be fearful of “winter of discontent” talk: if there is a serious threat of co-ordinated action he will have to rethink his 2% limit.

United action might just be possible, but there was a mixed reaction to yesterday’s events.

Britain’s largest civil service union, The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents instructional officers and administrative support staff in prisons, sent a message of support to the POA.

Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: ‘PCS members fully support those Prison Officers who walked out today.

‘We understand and support the motivation behind today’s industrial action by POA members. Below inflation pay awards leading to pay cuts in real terms are completely unacceptable and is a problem that PCS members delivering vital public services also face.

‘Like POA members, PCS members are prepared to stand up for fair pay and the services they deliver which is why your fight is our fight.

‘The government need to recognise that they cannot continue to use civil and public servants as an anti-inflationary tool, by beginning to value them with fair pay.’

Asked if the courts sequestrate the Prison Officers Association, should the other public sector unions take supporting action, a PCS spokesman said he could not comment as ‘that would be up to the whole NEC to decide’.

A Fire Brigades Union spokesman told News Line: ‘The FBU has sent messages of support and FBU members have been visiting prison officers’ picket lines.’

Asked if other public sector unions should take action in the event the POA is sequestrated, the FBU spokesman added: ‘The POA is fully entitled to restore union rights and normal industrial relations procedures that are available to everyone else.

‘We hope the government sees sense and addresses the issue of the staged pay award which has upset people.’

The GMB trade union said the government should pay the prison officers the pay review body award in full and stop using the threat of court action to settle industrial relations matters.

A GMB spokesman offered no comment on other unions taking action in support of the POA.

UNISON had no comment.

A spokeswoman for the TGWU trade union told News Line: ‘We are not going to comment on another union’s strike.’

We’ll have to see how things pan out at the conferences…

Back to the strike itself, the Socialist Worker has this considered piece by Simon Basketter:

Prison officers’ unofficial strike rattles governmen

Some 20,000 prison officers in England and Wales took illegal unofficial action on Wednesday 29 August against Gordon Brown’s public sector wage cuts and the disastrous overcrowding in prisons.

Brown’s initial response was to turn to the anti-union laws and get an injunction against the strikers. In response to a question about the prison officers’ action, he restated that public sector pay must be held down as an “essential part” of tackling inflation.

However the action has forced Jack Straw and Gordon Brown to the negotiating table. Straw is to hold emergency talks with the Prison Officers Association (POA) on Friday.

Colin Moses, chair of the POA, said, “The POA executive has decided in the light of the offer of meaningful discussions regarding the staging of pay, to lead our members back to work, irrespective of the threat of an injunction”.

Brian Caton, general secretary of the POA, disputed that the action was illegal. “I believe every officer has human rights, and they include the right to withdraw their labour,” he said.

Prison officers were banned from striking by a court ruling in early 1993, which found prison officers had powers and authority similar to those of the police and subsequently could not strike. That was written into law by the Tories in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

The New Labour government promised to repeal a ban on strike action among prison officers. It did this – only to sign a voluntary no-strike agreement with the POA in 2001.

Wednesday’s strike came after a pay review body recommended a rise of 2.5 percent this year but the government decided that it should be staged, with an initial 1.5 percent rise followed by another 1 percent six months later. Overall, this kept the prison officers’ pay rise under Brown’s 2 percent public sector pay limit.

Prison officers currently start on a salary of about £17,500, going up to about £25,000 over ten years.

Brian Clarke, chair of Birmingham POA, told Socialist Worker, “Our pay awards are meant to be according to performance. There is a growth in prison population but not in prison staff, so our performance is increasing.

“Prison managers have received increases of £4,000 per year. That pisses me off. When they tried to serve an injunction on me this morning, I refused to take it.”

Every trade unionist should oppose the use of anti-union laws and welcome any assault on Brown’s pay freeze.

However, there are contradictions in the role of prison officers.

It is summed up by Cardiff prisoners chanting “you’re breaking the law” to the strikers.

Prison officers should have the right to strike and to a union and it is noticeable that the first response of Labour to industrial action was to head to the courts.

Getting relatively low pay for doing the system’s dirty work gives prison officers a collective identity and means they see themselves as workers.

But it should be remembered that the victims of the prison system are the 80,000 prisoners rather than the prison officers.

Those locked up in prisons are mostly poor and disproportionately black. Increasing numbers of prisoners suffer mental health and addiction problems.

Prison officers’ work, upholding law and order, frequently pushes them to accept the most right wing ideas and actions of the system. One of their main jobs is to control prisoners – and throughout the prison system, many officers have a proven record of racism and violence.

Some of the contradictions can be seen in the strike. In Liverpool the POA shop steward Steve Baines responded to the high court injunction by telling fellow strikers, “Tell them to shove it up their arse, we’re sitting it out.”

Yet when prisoners in the jail protested against their treatment, the POA members rushed back in to control the situation and end a roof top protest.

That one prisoner died locked in his cell in Acklington prison in Northumberland during the dispute should also be a reminder of the harsh reality of life in prisons.

The POA should be looking for fewer prisoners and better conditions in prisons as part of the their demands.

Traditionally prison officers – like their colleagues in the police – have been accommodated at the first sign of trouble. This is the POA’s first strike in 68 years. It is noticeable therefore that Brown’s commitment to neoliberalism means he is currently more interested in maintaining the public sector pay limit than keeping the POA onside.

The strike will have focused minds – as every strike does. The government quickly offered talks to head off the action.

There is a clear lesson for other workers here. If prison officers can take unofficial illegal strike action over Brown’s cuts and force concessions from New Labour ministers, surely other public sector unions must be able to do the same.

The prison officers’ strike is another sign of the crisis facing New Labour and another argument for workers pushing hard for action against Brown.

Yesterday I alluded to the speed with which the government was able to secure an injunction against the Prison Officers’ Association in comparison to the Stockline trial.

The conclusion of the court case, in which two companies were only charged with health and safety offenses, saw the judge fine ICL Tech and ICL Plastics £400,000 for failing to spend £405 on repairs that would have saved nine lives. This leniency will continue if Brown has his way: no corporate killers will be threatened with jail under New Labour.

Socialist Appeal has this article by Kenny McGuigan:

Scotland’s Worst Workplace Disaster: £405 would have saved lives

In May 2004, we reported Scotland’s worst ever industrial disaster when the Stockline plastics factory in Glasgow exploded leaving 9 dead and 40 injured. It was another searing indictment of breaches in Health & Safety legislation, now a matter of course in Britain. Public anger ran high as extensive news coverage showed 4 days and nights of rescue workers in the rubble of the 4 storey building searching for survivors. Ex-employees told journalists they had been sacked after raising concerns about safety. One man claimed the gas oven was shielded by a metal door improvised from the rear end of an old bin lorry. The authorities in Glasgow launched a criminal investigation which turned into a dead end and the 2 companies jointly responsible, ICL Tech and ICL Plastics, faced only charges relating to Health & Safety. On 26th and 27th August 2007, the accused companies admitted 4 Health & Safety offences at Glasgow’s High Court. As the inquiry drew to a close, lawyers for the companies pleaded for leniency, asking that the subsequent fine be “not too severe” as to force their clients into bankruptcy. They were fined £400,000.

The court heard that risk assessments in the factory were “carried out by a student on a holiday job” who was also the son of one of the company directors. An expert stated the estimated cost of replacing the leaking, corroding pipes, which had never been properly lagged,would have been £405. The cause of the explosion was established as ignition of gas, built up due to leakages in old pressurised petroleum gas pipes that had never been lagged with suitable anti-corrosion protection.
Kirsteen Murray, whose brother died in the explosion was one of the many relatives in court. She said, “It has taken over 3 years to come to court and the result is pointless. A £400,000 is no deterrent…I spoke to a relative of mine who said his house was worth almost as much”.

But Lord Brodie, who presided, said the fine should not be equated with the loss of life. “It is balanced against the company’s ability to keep trading and providing employment,” he mused. Oh really! How considerate of the noble Lord to think first and foremost about our employment opportunities! Who would want to work in a place where bosses neglect the safety of their workers and the premises to such an extent the place goes up in a massive explosion for the sake of £405?

This single horrific fatality should never have occurred, that much is obvious. 3 years after the explosion, one would have thought that employers would have been shocked into some action to ensure the safety and health of the people who create the wealth they enjoy; sadly, the most up to date figures show that this is not the case. In the TUC’s document, “Risks” of August last year, the report showed, “Scotland has the UK’s worst prosecution record and highest fatality and injury levels. It also has the lowest penalties for safety offences”.(TUC Annual Report. Risks (219)). As recently as February the TUC website reported, “European research published today (Feb 21) exposes the myth that British workers are quick to use illnesses caused by their work as an excuse to ‘throw a sicky’. In fact the study shows that British workers are the least likely in Europe to complain about the affect of work on their health”.

The latest official figures for 2005/6 from the Health & Safety Commission (HSC) website reveal 2 million workers in Britain are suffering ill-health due to work related illness. In a section entitled, “Progress on fatal and major injuries” HSC report that their initiative to reduce these catastrophes for the decade 1999-2009 is “not on course” (their emphasis). But at the same time the number of working days lost due to illness has decreased! “There has been a significant decrease since 2000”. This is due to the constant bully boy management techniques in place, especially, but not exclusively in the private sector. Workers are faced with speed-ups to maximise profits. This raises the question: Given the scandalous figures reported by trade unions, HSC, and on the T&G website, there must surely be evidence of an increase in prosecutions against ruthless firms who disregard Health & Safety legislation? Alas, no – in 2005/6, the period covered by the HSC figures and one in which Scotland was shown to have the poorest record in workers safety, prosecutions were DOWN by 23% (hse.gov.uk/statistics). Sadly, those who perished so tragically in the Stockline plastics explosion in May 2004, will simply be lost in the figures.

Screws on strike!

I am still coming to terms with the shock of the prison officers’ strike. So I’ll let others speak. Obviously, I think that they did the right thing – and they are widely supported throughout England and Wales, and workers in Scotland will also be inspired by their courage.

First, John McDonnell:

The industrial action taken by members of the Prison Officers Association should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with the dire straits of industrial relations in the prison service. The trigger for today’s dispute is the Government’s decision to refuse to honour the Pay Review Body’s pay award of 2.5% and instead to insist that the payment be staged resulting in prison officers receiving less than the rate of inflation and significantly less than other assessments of the real rise in the cost of living.

The depth of anger amongst POA members can be gauged by the 87% vote in favour of the industrial action in its recent ballot. It is completely understandable why are they angry.

In 1993 the the Tory Government took away the POA’s right to strike. Despite commitments from Labour in opposition that this issue would be addressed, the New Labour Government refused to restore the right to take industrial action to the POA and instead established the Pay Review Body process to determine future pay awards. Any attempt by the POA to take industrial action remains outlawed under this Government and the President and General Secretary of the POA have regularly found themselves being threatened with legal action for what in other sectors of public service would be seen as normal trade union activities.

Hounded by further rounds of privatisation, under pressure from a dramatic increase in the prison population and with a £60 million savings exercise threatening less staff to cope, morale amongst prison officers is reported to be at rock bottom. Warnings are being made that the prison service is under the same pressure that resulted in the riots that saw prisons burning in 1990.

The Government has refused to meet with the POA to discuss its concerns and to resolve this dispute. As Secretary of the Justice Unions’ Parliamentary Group I have emailed Jack Straw’s (Secretary of State for the Ministry for Justice) office today to urge him to meet the POA to listen to their worries and seek a settlement to this dispute. The POA just want justice for its members.

The POA’s dispute is just the tip of the iceberg of the discontent that there is amongst public sector workers at the way they have been treated on pay, pensions, and privatisation by a Government most of them voted into office.

It’s such a shame that “Dr” John Reid’s gone. In place of Straw, we would’ve had Mr Mackay from Porridge

And from the BBC:

A strike by prison officers in England and Wales has ended after the union agreed to fresh talks with the government over pay.
All 129 prisons suffered disruption after a surprise walkout by staff began at 0700 BST on Wednesday.

Members of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) later defied a High Court injunction to end their action.

[…]

General secretary of the POA, Brian Caton, told BBC News 24: “After a day of what we describe as somewhat traumatic times in the history of the union, we will lead our membership back to work and we will do that in an orderly fashion and that is regardless of any court injunction.”

[…]

He defended the union’s decision to call the strike without prior warning.

“If we had given notice to anyone of our intention, we would have been taken straight to court and threatened with imprisonment,” he said.

“If they gave us back our rights and put us under the restrictions that every other trade union is under, then they would have had that notice.”

[…]

The announcement to end the strike came after officers in Bristol, Canterbury and Long Lartin had already returned to work in the afternoon, but other POA members had said they would stay out for 24 hours.

Prison Governors Association chairman Charles Bushell told BBC News all 129 prisons in England and Wales had suffered disruption.

During the day, prisoners were kept locked in their cells and senior managers took charge of duties such as distributing meals. Visitors were also turned away and court appearances cancelled.

Earlier this year the independent pay review body for prisons recommended to ministers salaries ranging from £12,000 for auxiliary staff to almost £32,000 for principal officers, representing a 2.5% rise in two stages.

Most prison officers start on around £17,700.

The POA, which has 28,000 members, said up to 90% of those who had been due on duty had joined the strike.

It said the walkout had been “widespread and unprecedented” and there was “lockdown” – where prisoners are confined to their cells – at most prisons.

At Liverpool prison, about 25-30 striking officers temporarily suspended their action to deal with three inmates who had climbed on to a roof and in Birmingham fire engines attended to deal with two minor blazes.

[…]

The prison population in England and Wales is close to capacity levels, with about 80,000 people held.

[Emphasis added.]

It was amazing. Only the other day, the culmination of a trial saw two corporations fined less than half a million pounds for failing to prevent an explosion that killed nine workers. This “punishment” – not a slap on the wrist, but a dig in the ribs – took three years. Yet today, the government could menace thousands of workers through the courts within hours of them taking industrial action.

And whilst workers are struggling against pay cuts, The News Line reports that

ALMOST a third of Britain’s 700 biggest businesses paid no corporation tax in 2005-2006, according to a study carried out by the official National Audit Office (NAO), the results of which were published yesterday.

The NAO found that 220 of the companies paid no tax, 210 paid less than £10m and 50 paid 67 per cent of the £24.4bn raised by the Treasury in corporation tax from the 700 in that financial year.

These 700 huge businesses pay only 54 per cent of the total collected in corporation tax, with smaller companies paying the rest.

[…]

According to data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) yesterday, City bonuses paid at the end of the financial year in April were 30 per cent higher than in 2006. They amounted to a huge £14bn, more than half the national total of £26.4bn.

About a million people work in so-called ‘financial services’ (money manipulation and speculation) in Britain, but only the top executives of the financial groups will have pocketed bonuses running into millions. For example, a survey of hedge funds revealed that the two top directors of GLG Partners hedge fund in London, which manages £40bn, got bonuses of between £200m and £250m each.

It will be interesting to read tomorrow’s tabloids. How will the capitalist press paint this? In 2003, they heaped a ton of shit on the firefighters for taking UK-wide industrial action. But can they slag off the POA for acting in the interests of prison officers?

I doubt it, but then, I’m sure they’ll be as inventive as the BBC. As Tony, posting at Lenin’s Tomb, notes:

We’ve not seen images like it for over 15 years. The scene outside that prison in Liverpool at just gone 2pm this afternoon is required viewing. The local Prison Officers Association secretary on a wall, addressing a mass meeting. He’d just got off the phone to “our national vice-chair, Steve Gough” whose reaction to the government obtaining an injunction against the union was “tell them to stuff it up their arse”. The sound of journos’ jaws dropping was drowned out by the roars and cheers.

The biggest success of this action so far is the fact that it has taken place. The BBC, having had it as top item, moved it rapidly down the pecking order. No one can seriously doubt there was contact with the Ministry of Justice. This image of raw, effective, illegal action with the rest of the state powerless to do anything is one that the government, state agencies and employers will be desperate to bury. Typically, the BBC website has been at pains to quote union officers saying the action has to end because of the injunction, yet strangely, the newsworthy quote above seems to be missing from their story. In addition, of two pictures the BBC is showing online, one of them is of Bristol POA members returning to work.

When I got home today and saw the reports on the news channel, I wondered what the impact of mass telecommunications would have on industrial relations. But I won’t trouble you with my thoughts on that at this time.

Highly devolved?

[Tuesday]

So here’s two items on the slow break-up of the UK as a centralised state.

First of all:

Parties discuss Holyrood powers

Opposition parties have met in Holyrood to begin talks on how to bring more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

The talks between Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems were held in response to the SNP government’s plan to hold a referendum on independence.

The topics discussed included the possibility of allowing Holyrood to raise its own revenue.

The three main opposition parties have pledged to oppose the SNP’s white paper outlining plans for a referendum.

‘Work together’

In a joint statement, Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen, Labour MSP Cathy Jamieson and former Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie said their parties would work together to fight the SNP’s independence plan.

“Our three parties share the aim of building a strong and prosperous Scotland as part of a strong and prosperous United Kingdom,” they said.

“We reject independence. The real conversation, and the one in which the overwhelming majority of Scots wish to participate, is about how devolution can develop to best serve the people of Scotland.

“Today’s exploratory meeting was to start that process. Our initiative will not be confined to MSPs alone, any single parliament, nor to any one part of the United Kingdom.

“The three parties have agreed to continue to work together on this issue, and will now hold discussions with party colleagues across the UK with a view to meeting again when parliament has reconvened.”

It is thought the opposition MSPs may set up a special committee to consider the parliament’s future.

However, the parties have played down suggestions they will look at forming a shared programme and use their combined total of 78 MSPs to drive through their policies.

In response to the statement, a spokesperson for First Minister Alex Salmond said the talks proved there was now no party at Holyrood opposed to increasing the Scottish Parliament’s powers.

He said: “These talks come in the wake of the Scottish government’s national conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future, which is driving forward the entire process.

“By talking about developing the parliament, it’s clear that the status quo is no longer supported by any party. We are delighted.

“The national conversation train has left the station – it’s a matter for the London-based parties which compartment they want to get on.”

The significance of the meeting is analysed by Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s political editor, on his blog:

Here’s what I think they’ll come up with. A formal parliamentary mechanism to consider and consult.

Think they’ll table a motion at Holyrood, jointly, setting up an ad hoc committee of MSPs to look at the devolution settlement, 10 years on.

Think that committee will then open up a public consultation, engaging with civic Scotland, business, unions etc.

Not convention mark two. “So 80s”, as one put it to me.

Plus there is now a Parliament in place with elected members, with real (if devolved) clout. That cannot be sidelined. Indeed, the opposition parties will argue, it should take the lead.

Which leaves the SNP executive where? Watching with interest.

I do not believe the SNP would nominate members of this parliamentary committee. For why? Because, they argue, it is for those of a Unionist persuasion to come up with their alternative to independence.

Nationalists say they know what they want: a referendum on Scotland becoming a sovereign state. It is up to the Opposition parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – to decide what they want.

Potentially, as Alex Salmond envisaged when he launched his “conversation” white paper, there could then be a referendum providing people with three choices: the status quo, independence and the scheme for enhanced devolution adopted by the opposition parties.

There is, of course, one other aspect to be borne, strongly, in mind. If further powers are to accrue to Holyrood, that would require Westminster legislation.

The opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament have already pledged to involve Westminster in their consideration.

From a sluggish start, this is beginning to get intriguing.

Indeed. And the movements towards further devolution in Scotland are having an impact on Wales.

Which brings us to the second item of news:

Plaid independence inquiry on the cards
PLAID Cymru is likely to set up the biggest inquiry ever into the implications of independence for Wales, we can reveal today.

Despite forming a coalition Assembly Government with a Labour Party that is firmly Unionist, Plaid’s national executive will over the next couple of months discuss setting up its own commission on independence.

Llanelli AM Helen Mary Jones, Plaid’s director of communications, told the Western Mail, “My own extremely personal view is that the time is right to update our understanding of what independence for Wales would mean.

“The party has done work on this in the past – Dr Phil Williams (Plaid’s economics guru, who died in 2003) in particular examined the question in detail. But there have been such enormous political changes in Europe over the last 10 years that we need to look again at what an independent Wales would mean, be and look like.

“Things are at a very early stage, but I know that a number of colleagues share my view that setting up a commission on independence would be a good thing to do.

“Obviously it would be appropriate to get expert contributions from people who are not necessarily party members, just like the policy commissions we had in the run-up to the recent Assembly election.

“It would also be worthwhile to look at how newly independent small nations in the EU have managed their new status, like the Czech Republic and the Baltic states. A commission would look at the whole picture, from economic, cultural and linguistic points of view.”

Ms Jones said one of the big bugbears for all who wanted to assess what the economic impact of independence on Wales would be was the lack of accurate information about the amount raised in the country from taxation.

“The UK Government does not have an all-Wales breakdown,” she said. “That is something we would like to see addressed. There are those who argue that independence would be unaffordable. We don’t agree, but there is a clear need to have accurate information about the amount of tax raised in Wales.

“If the NEC does decide to set up such a commission, it would obviously be quite a long time before a report was published.”

Ms Jones said a fresh look at independence by Plaid did not conflict with the terms of the One Wales coalition agreement with Labour.

She said, “It is made very clear in the preamble to the One Wales document that it is a programme for government that lasts for one term. Both parties are committed to campaigning for a Yes vote in a referendum on full law-making powers for the National Assembly.

“But the question of independence for Wales goes beyond what is contained in the One Wales agreement. Plaid Cymru has a long-term aspiration for Wales to be an independent nation, and the time is right to look at all the implications of that in the context of contemporary Europe.”

Opinion polls suggest that only around one in five of the electorate supports independence for Wales.

A poll conducted for the BBC in January this year put the figure at 19%. Some 33% in Wales thought independence would enhance Welsh culture, but 49% believed the nation would lose out economically. Only 14% thought that Wales would benefit financially.

Nevertheless, Plaid MP Adam Price argued last week in his column in the Welsh language magazine Golwg that Wales was likely to be independent by 2020 and that people needed to get used to the idea.

Earlier this month the SNP Government in Scotland launched a White Paper on independence. Although the SNP wants to hold a referendum on independence before 2011, that is unlikely to happen because the party runs a minority administration and opposition parties do not want one.

Cops policing protests – with rocks?

[Monday]

Quite an interesting story this one. Agent provocateurs or legitimate policing of protest? You decide:

Quebec Police defend Rock-Wielding Undercover Officer by Max Harrold

Published on Saturday, August 25, 2007 by the Vancouver Sun/Canada

MONTREAL – Quebec’s police force found itself caught between a rock and some hard questions Friday, as it defended an undercover officer’s prop at the Montebello summit earlier this week.

“Of course we wish it hadn’t happened,” Securite du Quebec Insp. Marcel Savard said, as he explained why one of three undercover SQ officers was caught on video holding a rock while infiltrating a group of protesters.

The protesters were gathered to voice their opposition to the meeting of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon Aug. 20 and Aug. 21 as they met in Montebello, Que.

At no time did the officer with the rock threaten anyone with it or use it to incite violence by the actual protesters, Savard said.

“He only had the rock because he was trying to blend in with (a crowd of) extremists he had been with earlier.”

Savard said a video of the incident that was posted on the YouTube website was taken out of context. But the video, one version of which lasts for nine minutes, does not show any ‘extremists’ or any else dressed like the undercover officers, who wore dark clothing and bandanas to cover their faces.

“When they were with the extremists, (the undercover officers) were given a rock and were formally asked to throw it,” Savard said, acknowledging that it became apparent that the undercover officers were not protesters.

The SQ did not arrest the three officers, but handcuffed them and removed them to question them.

“The (SQ) officers on the front line did not know (at first)_that they were undercover officers,” Savard said.

The SQ is reviewing its procedures for policing protests and may alter some of its methods in future, he said.

In Quebec City, provincial opposition leader Mario Dumont said he wanted the Quebec government to explain the actions of the SQ.

“I await an explanation from the minister of public security,” Action democratique du Quebec opposition leader Mario Dumont said.

“For the moment, this (measure) has been presented as a necessity. I’m not a specialist in the various operations that can be run by a police officer. At first glance, this one looks pretty special.

“I asked the minister of public security to provide explanations as soon as possible.”

Genevieve Guilbault, a spokeswoman for Quebec Public Security Minister Jacques Dupuis, said Dupuis does not comment on police operations.

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: . Leave a Comment »

And after the talks?

This week’s edition of The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party of England and Wales, has good coverage of the posties’ fight with Royal Mail….

Postal dispute: If talks don’t deliver – escalate the action

Two 24-hour strikes, followed by sectional action has forced Royal Mail management into negotiations with the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU). Should these talks result in a deal not acceptable to CWU members, then strike action should be escalated with at least a 48-hour national strike.

Jane James

Sectional strikes definitely had an effect but led to ‘unofficial’ action, particularly in Scotland. Postal workers have an excellent record on not crossing picket lines of other workers in dispute. And many union reps were attacked by management for organising not to cross the picket lines of the workers whose turn it was to strike.

Escalated national action with a national demonstration, as planned before the suspension of action, will be an essential part of any continued action.

Meanwhile, CWU members who work on the counters of (Crown) post offices are still taking action against closures. The next planned action is on Friday 24 August from 4pm and all day on 25 August.

By de-regulating the postal service the government have invited private firms to compete with Royal Mail. By paying lower wages, imposing worse conditions on their workers and leaving the final mile delivery to Royal Mail the private firms are making large profits from a public service. Even some government departments have switched to private companies to collect and sort their mail.

Many workers will question why the CWU is still funding the Labour Party whose leaders are attacking postal workers and ruining the postal service.

Workers are demanding an above-inflation pay rise and opposing Royal Mail’s ‘modernisation’ plans which would include job losses, cuts in pay, extra workload and a worse service to the public.

There is much support from the general public for the postal workers’ struggle. Working-class people value the postal service, are opposed to privatisation and back postal workers against their bosses. Demonstrations and other protests organised by the CWU would get huge support.

Other public-sector unions are also opposing Brown’s pay freeze and demanding an above-inflation pay deal. A 24-hour strike of all public-sector workers is therefore needed.

All unions that have agreed to take strike action for their claims should aim to co-ordinate their action with each other.

“Determined to fight this one out”

The good thing about being a postman/woman, is that you usually finish work when everyone else is still busy. The bad thing is, when you finish you are usually ‘done in’, hungry, thirsty and badly in need of the toilet and a shower!

A Sheffield postal worker

One weapon Royal Mail use to try and justify their poor pay deal, the threat of forty thousand job losses and undefined modernisation – is competition. Unfortunately, they fail to disclose to the public that the postman/woman, in the majority of cases, is still delivering the final mile.

Yes, the Amazon contract has gone to the competitor, but guess who has to deliver the bulky parcels? And thousands of letters are delivered everyday, with ‘UK Mail’, or ‘TNT’ etc printed on them – for everyone to see – by the humble Royal Mail post person.

Somehow this is meant to be achieved with no extra cost to Royal Mail. We are made to feel that the loss made through competition is our fault, because we aren’t working fast enough or hard enough. According to Royal Mail we are ‘25% overpaid and 40% under worked.’ This is an insult to any post person.

Instead of being given a reasonable basic, pensionable wage, we are set unreachable targets. If by some chance we do hit them, we may get an extra £400 a year, or even a ‘Phantom Share’. What is that meant to be? Maybe it is a ghostly carrot, that floats about in front of our noses as we walk around in the pouring rain – delivering junk mail.

Most of us have been pleased to be striking. It is an opportunity to express how we feel about all these issues and more. Taking working hours out of each delivery office, whilst still expecting us to deliver mail that belongs to the competition at no extra cost, is just a joke.

Some people are struggling financially, but there seems to be a real determination amongst everyone to fight this one out.

Strikes have forced concessions

Our action has forced Royal Mail management into a series of small concessions. They have moved from a position of no talks, there is no more money on the table, to suddenly finding money to fund the early shift allowances for all existing staff and an extra £23 million.

Gary Clark sub area rep, Scotland No.2 branch CWU

The strikes were supported by 95% of the workforce. There was a backlog of over 130 million items of mail up and down the country and the whole system was on the verge of total collapse. Management were surprised by how strongly supported the action was.

But some CWU members feel that the union leadership were only too quick to call off the action. There was no new offer, apart from talks, and both sides have signed up to a confidentiality clause. This means no information will be given to the membership until the talks have finished.

There is a major danger that, with the action being called off, Royal Mail can use this period to clear the backlog of mail and give up very little else. They could continue with their plan to introduce change without agreement on 17 September.

The membership must keep up the pressure not only on the management but also on the union leadership. We do not want a done deal put to us. There must be no climb-down on the key issues around the future of our industry and our pensions. We must also keep planning for future industrial action.

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , , , . 4 Comments »

Brown to battle US for Europe?

[Sunday]

There is one argument in justification of the EU that has been circulating for the last few years, hoping to win support off the back of anti-war feeling: it is that Britian should distance itself from the US and engage in closer ties with Europe.

I don’t know how seriously this suggestion is taken by the British ruling class, but most people find it a rather ridiculous idea. I do wonder if it will come to be used, at some point in the future, by the Brown government.

If he is forced to keep Labour’s manifesto commitment (one worth keeping!) and holds a referendum on the EU Constitution, Brown can either keep quiet and gracefully accept the inevitable defeat, or he can go on the offensive. If he chooses to fight for a yes vote, aruing against the US and for Europe might lessen the impact of the inevitable defeat. (Of course, he wouldn’t make this case, he’d have one of the many New Labour sock-puppets wisper it in the ear of the odd journalist.) His current supposed lead in the opinion polls has been attributed to his subtle (very subtle, I didn’t notice myself) attempts to distance himself from President Bush.

I know it’s unlikely a referendum will be held, but it is likely that the British Army will exit Iraq (early news reports today suggested that an Iraqi resistance group had taken over the Basra police HQ shortly after the British had withdrawn) and more troops will be sent to die in Afghanistan (where three young soldiers were killed and were two left injured on Thursday in an absurdly named “friendly-fire” incident; US planes called in to give air support accidentally bombed them, instead of the Afghans they were fighting).

Anyway, here’s a great article by Chris Marsden from the Word Socialist Web Site:

US fears of British pullout from Basra raise transatlantic tensions to new pitch
Military circles in Washington and London are engaged in mutual recriminations over the proposed drawdown of Britain’s troop presence in Basra, with US top brass speaking of the UK’s “Saigon moment” and full withdrawal. The British Army has made clear its anger at such open criticism and the media has responded by accusing the US of scapegoating Britain for the inability of America’s own forces to defeat the Iraq insurgency.

Britain has effectively lost control of not only Basra, but of the whole of southern Iraq. However, this is only the most developed manifestation of the wider military and political catastrophe facing the US-led occupation and the failure of the US military “surge” in particular.

The government is already pledged to reduce Britain’s troop presence by 500, to just 5,000. Militarily, there is little point in the rest remaining other than as part of a bigger US-led force. But a total pullout is not so far being proposed, in order to safeguard Britain’s alliance with the US and so as not to be seen to have been routed.

At his Camp David meeting with President George Bush, Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged that “we have duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep” and to wait on any decision on troop numbers until after the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, reports to Congress on the results of the US “surge” on September 15. He pledged a full statement on Iraq when Parliament resumes in October. Defence Secretary Des Browne has also said further reductions would only take place in agreement with the Americans.

The August 19 Independent on Sunday reported two senior British generals have “told the Government that Britain can achieve ‘nothing more’ in south-east Iraq, and that the 5,500 British troops still deployed there should move towards withdrawal without further delay.” The military advice given to Brown was, “We’ve done what we can in the south.”

The report continued, “Commanders want to hand over Basra Palace—where 500 British troops are subjected to up to 60 rocket and mortar strikes a day, and resupply convoys have been described as ‘nightly suicide missions’—by the end of August. The withdrawal of 500 soldiers has already been announced by the Government. The Army is drawing up plans to ‘reposture’ the 5,000 that will be left at Basra airport, and aims to bring the bulk of them home in the next few months.”

Noting the scale of the debacle in Basra, the Independent continued, “As the force has dwindled, losses among British troops have accelerated. So far this year, 41 servicemen and women have died, compared to 29 in the whole of 2006. Their area of operations has, in effect, been taken over by three competing militia groups, the Mehdi army, SCIRI and Fadhila, all of which are heavily implicated in oil smuggling, intimidation and death squad activity.”

Maintaining troops at Basra Airport is not sustainable in the long-term and means they will be largely occupied with defending themselves from attack by insurgents. A bluntly titled piece in the August 20 Financial Times, “How the British army lost Basra,” quotes a retired brigadier stating that the objective of the remaining force “appears to be largely to provide a symbolic show of support for Washington and the Iraqi government.”

The reaction of the US military to the cutback in troops and possible withdrawal is bitter and has been echoed by figures close to the Bush administration. The Sunday Telegraph quoted a senior US officer stating, “The short version is that the Brits have lost Basra, if indeed they ever had it…. Americans are disappointed because, in their minds, this thing is still winnable. They don’t intend to cut and run…. There will be a stink about this that will hang around the British military.”

US General Jack Keane, the architect of the surge strategy, told the Sunday Telegraph, “It is disappointing and frustrating to see a situation in Basra that was once working pretty well, now coming apart.” Stephen Biddle, a military adviser to Bush, told the Sunday Times that a British withdrawal would be “ugly and embarrassing.”

An unnamed US official stated that White House officials were disappointed not to win a firmer agreement from Brown to keep British troops in Basra: “They don’t mind a change in rhetoric, but the bottom line for the president was to keep Basra as a British responsibility. He didn’t get as much as he wanted. There was a whiff of double-dealing about it all.”

Such open and derisive attacks provoked numerous complaints in the press. Writing in the Telegraph, Con Coughlin stated, “It’s not the constant barrage of rockets raining down on their heavily fortified compound in Basra that is sapping the morale of British troops. It is the seemingly endless salvos of invective that are being directed at them on an almost daily basis from across the Atlantic by America’s top brass.”

Complaints of Britain cutting and running are little more than sour grapes on the part of the Bush administration and the US military in the face of their own mounting crisis. President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair went to war against Iraq based on the assumption that superior US firepower would make short shrift of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Coalition forces would then be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqi masses, a puppet regime would be established and the plunder of Iraq’s oil reserves would proceed. Insofar as either Britain or the US had an “exit strategy,” it was based on a smooth transition from occupation to rule by their Iraqi proxy’s security force.

From the invasion onwards, Britain played a subordinate role militarily. In an extended August 22 riposte to US complaints, “History will judge who lost Iraq,” the Financial Times correctly notes that “Britain’s political cover was always prized by the Bush administration but, as Donald Rumsfeld, the former defence secretary, made humiliatingly clear, its military contribution was considered optional.”

It could hardly be otherwise. Britain’s standing army is less than 100,000 strong, with an additional 25,000 in the Territorial Army. It could never sustain a prolonged occupation of Iraq and began scaling back its troop presence—which at its height was 35,000—almost immediately after the capture of Baghdad. However, Britain and the US have been forced to keep their forces stationed in Iraq—year after year—due to the insurgency against the occupation and the civil war between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups which their own actions precipitated.

The US “surge” has done nothing to reverse this situation. The August 21 Independent comments, “Rather than stemming the violence … the ‘surge’ seems increasingly to have displaced it—[from Central Iraq] to the fringes of the Kurdish north and to the Shia south, both of which enjoyed relative peace before. The inescapable conclusion must be that even the present US troop level is too low to pacify all Iraq.”

The Financial Times also notes bitterly, “To begin with, south Iraq was never Britain’s to lose. The Rumsfeld Pentagon’s incompetence probably lost Iraq in the anarchy triggered immediately after the fall of Baghdad. The southern provinces were spared that chaos, but only because the Shia clerical hierarchy led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani compelled restraint. It held the ring until the political process—a new constitution and representative elections—delivered Iraq to its Shia majority. Unlike the Sunni centre and west, where Baathists, Sunni supremacists and jihadis launched a lethal insurgency against the Anglo-American occupation, the south was relatively quiescent. That deceptive calm has been torn to pieces by the intra-Shia jostle for power between three rival clerical dynasties and their armed allies.”

The Blair government did everything it could to ingratiate itself with Washington and Brown wants nothing more than to continue doing the same. But the subordinate relationship between British and US imperialism—through which it has sought to secure its own global geo-strategic interests such as access to oil—has also taken UK troops into Afghanistan. The British military is anxious that it faces defeat there as well unless it reduces its commitment in Iraq.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the general staff, has admitted that deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have “stretched” the armed forces to the breaking point. The Ministry of Defence is considering sending 2,000 of the troops freed up in Iraq to reinforce the 7,000 already involved in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. This is made all the more necessary by the refusal of Germany, France and Italy to commit any significant forces to the conflict, instead hoping that Washington’s debacle in the Middle East will help them strike a better bargain than Britain did in return for any military assistance they might offer.

The August 21 Daily Mail reported, “The mission of controlling Helmand Province, where most British forces are fighting, is increasingly seen as a divisional task, requiring nine battlegroups of around a thousand fighting men each. But at present the UK only has three battlegroups available and, despite repeated appeals to NATO allies, there is no sign of other countries providing the scale of support required.”

An Army source told the Mail, “The West’s dirty little secret is that we don’t have enough infantry to hold the ground. It’s now very likely that the numbers freed up from Iraq will be soaked up in Afghanistan.”

One of the most significant aspects of the complaints against Britain emanating from Washington is that Brown is bowing to domestic pressure—unlike Bush and Blair who both repeatedly proclaim their readiness to continue occupying Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition.

But no one should believe that Brown will make a substantial shift away from this antidemocratic stance. It remains to be seen what Brown will do in terms of cutting troop numbers in Iraq in order to appease the clearly conflicting demands being placed on him by Washington and the ruling elite in Britain. But any move he makes will take place within the framework of the neo-colonial strategy pioneered by Blair—and in continued alliance with the US.

There are growing demands in sections of the British media for a full Iraq withdrawal. But of the major parties, only the Liberal Democrats have supported a pullout. There is no reason to assume that Brown will heed such calls if it risks incurring the wrath of the US. Moreover, the situation in the Middle East can only worsen given the conclusion of many key neoconservatives that stabilizing Iraq means extending the conflict into Iran.

Whatever happens, no faction of Britain’s ruling elite articulates the genuine antiwar sentiment of working people. Those such as Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell calling for a “framework for withdrawal” from Iraq want only tactical military and political shifts in order to better safeguard the interests of British imperialism. This focuses on demands for more troops to be sent to the supposedly “winnable” and “just” war in Afghanistan. As the Independent editorialised on August 19, “Iraq and Afghanistan are two different fronts, two very different campaigns. In Afghanistan the presence of our troops is justified and useful; in Iraq, there is no further rationale for their presence beyond the political imperative to show solidarity with the US administration…. We should retreat from Basra and redeploy in Afghanistan.”

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , , , . Leave a Comment »