25th January 2013
Jeremy Corbyn MP contrasts two parliamentary debates from earlier this week: one which capped the incomes of the poorest, the second which seemingly committed to open-ended ‘anti-terror’ activities in north Africa
The House of Commons managed in one afternoon on Monday to juxtapose issues of international war with voting the Welfare Up-rating Bill into law.
That’s the Bill which restricts everyone receiving of benefits to a 1 per cent rise, well below inflation, for each of the next three years.
Afterwards it restricts all increases to the consumer prices index, a cut by any other name as unlike the retail prices index it doesn’t include housing costs.
Taking money out of poor people’s pockets isn’t just cruel, it’s bad for the economy. Back in 2008 then prime minister Gordon Brown’s response to the banking crisis was rather limited, but he did bring the banks into a form of public ownership and raise pensions and benefits as a way of boosting demand - poor people spend money, the rich save or export it.
No such logic occurs to the Tories. In those days Iain Duncan Smith was presenting himself as a man genuinely concerned about the poor and “broken Britain.” At his visit to Easterhouse in Glasgow just before the last election he talked at length of his worries over those who grew up in deep poverty.
He was right to be worried if he had a premonition of his own policies in government.
His mask started slipping a while ago and on Monday it disappeared altogether.
Two-and-a-half years of Tory-Lib Dem austerity have led to the opening of three new food banks a week, used now by a quarter of a million people.
As the years go by the poorest, most marginalised people in Britain get worse and worse off.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that child poverty will rise by 400,000 by 2015 and by 800,000 by 2020 as the cumulative effect of pegged 1 per cent benefit increases grips the most vulnerable families.
When MPs argued that benefits should rise at least in line with inflation Tory MP Charlie Elphicke claimed this would cost £3.5 billion and wanted to know where this was coming from and how it would affect the national debt.
Not a concern raised over our foreign military adventures, but we’ll come to that later.
Liam Byrne in his reply from the Labour front bench was quite correct to condemn the government for refusing to protect working people or offer any safeguards for those with disabilities, but a clear commitment on what Labour would do was sadly lacking.
He was right to point to rising unemployment and the poverty of people in work as linked problems, but to deal with that we need to convert the minimum wage into the living wage and to establish a programme to eliminate poverty from Britain.
Amid the sound and fury of the benefits debate Labour can only credibly oppose the cuts by not merely opposing this Bill, but by promising to return all benefits to the real value they had at the election of the current government and then increase them in line with inflation at the very least.
And if the Tories keep up their “how will you pay for it” howling we can take a look at the military budget.
Britain has been involved in continual conflict since 2001, raising annual defence budgets to over £35bn. We’ve spent over £30bn on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars alone.
After the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York Tony Blair couldn’t get Britain involved in the Afghan war fast enough.
Nearly 12 years later and we’re still there, with 440 of our soldiers dead alongside thousands of Afghans. The government we prop up is deeply corrupt and poverty is more widespread than ever.
The enduring symbols of the Afghan war will forever be the brutality of the secret prisons of the occupiers and their allies in the Afghan government and the drone aircraft bringing mayhem and death to impoverished villages on the borders of Pakistan.
As the Western troops withdraw they are not even able to remove all their military equipment and will thus be leaving piles of junk scattered across the country for decades to come.
Perhaps one day scrap-metal dealers will benefit from this, but one shudders to think of the pollution and the danger of unspent ordnance.
After we invaded Afghanistan we invaded Iraq. On top of all the killing were the terrible health effects of using depleted uranium - used both in the more recent conflict and in the 1991 Gulf war.
Within the last week the conflict in Mali has intensified. As the hostage crisis at the Algerian gas facility of Ain Amenas unfolded it became clear that a new wave of Western involvement in north Africa is on its way.
Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday that three-quarters of terrorist plots targeting Britain had links to the region and that al-Qaida franchises have grown in Yemen, Somalia and north Africa.
The role of the government is to “support the governments of the region in their resolve to combat this menace, as many are doing at a high cost.”
Britain, he said, supported “the French intervention that took place at the request of the Malian government, and we are working to ensure that an African-led military force can help to ensure Mali’s long-term stability.”
Strangely he didn’t dwell on the coup that brought the current Malian government to power, the systematic discrimination against Tuareg people and the failure by former colonial powers and post-colonial governments to recognise any of their legitimate demands.
In fact he paid little attention to the causes of the conflict at all.
If we go all the way back to 1979, the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan at the request of its then government in order to help it defeat an insurgency that would nowadays be called Islamist.
The US immediately authorised huge financial and military aid channelled through the CIA to the opposition forces there, which eventually morphed into the Taliban and led to the original formation of al-Qaida.
So the seeds of the global “Islamist threat” so beloved of George Bush and Blair were sown.
No lessons were learned from what was essentially the unwitting financing of Saudi Arabian radicals by the West.
That was clear enough during the Libyan war of 2011, when - again without much thought - the French and British engaged in a massive bombing campaign and started arming forces which only a few months before were dangerous terrorists.
It’s clear enough from the enormous resources being poured into the conflict in Syria, whether by the Russians in the government’s favour or by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of the opposition - including, it appears, in the form of salaries for its fighters.
What’s unclear is where all this will end and what sort of government - if any - Syria will have when it does. The most likely outcome seems to be a partitioned state with minority Kurdish and Christian groups at enormous risk as the zealots take over in certain areas.
It’s also seen as a preparation for a putative war against Iran, starting with a bombing campaign by Israel.
The fact that we’re involved in seemingly opposite missions in Syria and Mali - either supporting or opposing revolts increasingly dominated by religious extremists - didn’t faze Cameron, who was more concerned with gearing up for the role of chairing the G8 later this year.
He seems to relish the idea of the G8 leading a global “war on terror.”
He couldn’t assure MPs that we wouldn’t get further involved in the region, though he was quite specific that Britain and France should stick to “their own areas,” namely their former colonies.
It’s strange that this loyalty to former colonies extends to military situations, but is never present when it comes to immigration law or the desperate poverty of the Sahel region.
We urgently need a debate on that poverty and the injustice faced by these peoples. Al-Qaida does not provide any way out of it, but can be seen as a cause opposed to Western domination.
But as on so many occasions of the last 15 years Britain seems to have almost unlimited money available for war despite a bare cupboard when it comes to tackling the disgraceful conditions that many will be forced to live in when the new benefits system comes into force on April 1.
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