Nuclear power: yes! This deal: no!

October 21, 2013 at 8:40 pm (economics, environment, green, Jim D, nuclear power, science, strange situations, Tory scum)

The environmentalist George Monbiot tweeted today:

Yes, I support #nuclear power, in general. But the economics of the #Hinkley deal are simply bonkers. Appalling value for money.

nuclear power symbol

Monbiot is right on both points: nuclear power must play a part in any serious UK energy plan, taking account of environmental concerns and climate change. But he’s also correct that this deal is “bonkers” – and not just because of the price guarantee/subsidy being gifted to EDF and the two Chinese companies that will deliver the new reactors: it’s simply bizarre that the privatisation-obsessed Tories are, in effect, handing the UK’s nuclear energy industry over to state-owned concerns in France and China.

The Observer‘s Will Hutton adds a further note of concern:

“This is a breathtaking step in an industry where the sensitivities over operating safety, technical efficiency and waste disposal are so acute. Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are remembered around the world. Chinese state-owned companies are a byword, not least in China, for inefficiency, loss-making and politicisation of decision-making. The party has wrestled for a generation with the reality that these companies, designed by Mao to embody the communist dream of uniting economic and social obligations, abolishing worker exploitation and spearheading modernisation, are sclerotic economic duds.”

Nevertheless, the traditional “left” stance against nuclear power (in reality, based upon Stalinist cold war anti-nuclear weapons concerns) is clearly outmoded, and must be dispensed with.

We have, in large part, George Monbiot to thank for forcing at least some in the environmental movement, and on the rational left, to rethink their old prejudices against nuclear power.

Les Hearn, writing for the AWL’s paper Solidarity in 2011, takes a similar position:

Why I support nuclear power as one of a range of alternatives to fossil fuels

Back in the 70s, like many on the left, I was alarmed by what seemed to be the cover-up of the risks of nuclear power in the 50s and 60s. The indiscriminate power of nuclear weapons to kill in large numbers also marked many on the left with a fear of nuclear energy. But, as Maynard Keynes put it, “when the facts change, I change my mind”.

We only have one planet and it is overwhelmingly likely that “we” (or greedy capitalists, if you like) are altering its climate for the worse by returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere a million times faster than it was originally locked away in fossil fuels. And, despite attempts to reduce carbon emissions, these are actually rising … by over 5% last year, from 29.0 to 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt or billion tonnes).

And, of the 13.7 Gt released by electricity generation, 11.2 Gt is “fixed” for the foreseeable future, since it will come from existing or planned fossil fuel power stations that will be operating in 2020.

The closure or cancellation of nuclear power stations makes this much worse, since these are the main proven alternative source of electricity. Countries which have reacted to recent scares, rather than evidence, include Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, Italy and Switzerland.

Truthfully, the potential risks of radiation are massively exaggerated by anti-nuclear groups in comparison with the actual risks of the fossil fuel industry to workers and the public. In particular, the environmental risks of radiation are minimal — wildlife is flourishing in the exclusion zone round Chernobyl and, as James Lovelock has pointed out, in the atom bomb test sites in the Pacific.

Furthermore, the difficulties of replacing nuclear power, let alone the whole fossil fuel industry, with renewables are minimised (see my article in Solidarity 203, 11 May).

It is said (by Theo Simon, Letters, Solidarity 204, 18 May —http://bit.ly/k8WOD9) that “nuclear power demands high security and central control”, as if these were necessarily bad.

Central control would anyway be needed to construct tens of thousands of wind turbines, on- and offshore, and the new supergrid of thousands of kilometres which would be needed to get the electricity to the cities. Already, proposals to introduce new systems of pylons have provoked mass protests in Wales, Scotland, Somerset and the West Midlands. And putting cables underground would be ten times more expensive.

Apparently, I fail “to question the projected ‘energy gap’ which is being used to justify nuclear power expansion”. The argument goes that, if the most wide-ranging programme of insulation and energy conservation is undertaken world-wide (the like of which has never been seen), then the electricity generated by nuclear power would not be needed. As the Spartans once said in a different context, if!

Once again, let’s look at the reality of nuclear power. The worst accident of all time, Chernobyl, has killed 43 people. This was due to the criminal negligence of the USSR police state. 28 workers were fatally irradiated while bringing the reactor under control. 15 young people died of thyroid cancer, entirely avoidable had the bureaucrats issued potassium iodide tablets (as was done promptly in Japan recently). Other estimates of potential deaths range from 9,000 to 900,000 but even the lowest of these seems to be way too high. So far, no other deaths have been proved to be due to the Chernobyl disaster.

As Wade Allison (author of Radiation and Reason) states, the ability of living tissue to repair radiation damage has been wildly underestimated. In radiation treatment of cancers, healthy tissues receive up to five times the fatal dose of radiation but spread over several weeks, during which time they efficiently repair the damage.

Many accidents have occurred in nuclear power plants. In those resulting in radiation leaks, there have been … no deaths or even injuries among the public. A few workers have died, usually because they were close to the incident. Otherwise, nuclear workers are healthier than the general population. A 2% increased risk of cancers linked to radiation is dwarfed by a 24% decreased risk of death from other cancers, according to a Canadian study. It also found that nuclear workers lived longer than average. And this under capitalism!

I am accused of listing the objections to nuclear power but not attempting to answer many of them. In particular, in the areas of waste disposal, plant safety and cost, I fail to “see the reality of nuclear power within the context of a global capitalist economy”. Trading content-free accusations, I might accuse others of failing to see the reality of renewable energy within the context etc. etc.

Of course, I did deal with plant safety and waste disposal. A recent Physics World (May 2011) shows that more modern designs would have survived both the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. These include better back-up generators and containment for molten fuel in case of a meltdown, and passive (i.e. not depending on a power supply) emergency cooling operated by gas pressure or gravity. In fact, modifications to the Fukushima model to reduce radiation leaks in case of an accident were proposed by scientists 30 years ago but rejected as too expensive. Meanwhile, other similar power plants survived the earthquake and tsunami undamaged.

On radioactive waste, I said that deep storage in stable strata was perfectly plausible. Reprocessing would reduce the amount and feed back fuel to nuclear plants. The relevance of the “global capitalist economy” to this is not clear, except that they won’t pay for it. In any case, the danger of waste has been greatly overstated. Five metres of concrete would absorb all the radiation from anything. Wade Allison “would be perfectly happy” to have high-level waste buried 100 metres below his house, while James Lovelock has “offered to take the full output of a nuclear power station in my back yard.”

Alternatives to fossil fuels consist of two proven technologies, nuclear and hydroelectric power (HEP), a host of promising but unproven ones, and the mirage (at present) of a vast reduction in energy demand.

All have environmental and/or health implications. HEP requires vast dams flooding arable land and wildlife habitats, disrupting river ecosystems, destroying estuarine fisheries, reducing the fertility of flood plains, and endangering lives in case of collapse.

The Three Gorges dam in China necessitated flooding 1000 towns and villages, and “removing” 1.4 million people. Since completion in 2006, the reservoir has been plagued by pollution and algae. The dam is silting up, while the extra weight of water is causing geological problems. Downstream, the reduction in flow has led to a drought affecting 300,000 people, with drinking water reservoirs containing only “dead water”. Shipping can no longer use large stretches of the river. It is worrying that Switzerland is phasing out the nuclear power that provides 40% of its electricity, replacing it with HEP.

It is also worrying that Germany, the sixth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is phasing out nuclear power, increasing carbon emissions by 3%. If it can afford to do without the electricity from its nuclear plants, it should keep them open while closing down an equivalent number of fossil fuel plants, cutting CO2 emissions proportionately.

In Japan, phasing out nuclear power will cause massive shortfalls in energy. The optimistic scenarios of Energy-Rich Japan (ERJ — http://www.energyrichjapan.info) all involve substantial reductions in demand (so far untested), while some involve reductions in population — by up to 20%! Since an increase will be needed in order to care for the ageing population, this seems particularly unrealistic.

In particular, ERJ claims that transport energy can be reduced by 70% with hydrogen-powered vehicles. They don’t mention the following problems. Hydrogen is inefficiently produced from fossil fuels; solar-powered electrolysis of water is even more expensive. Highly flammable hydrogen must be stored in pressurised tanks, no doubt to be released in traffic accidents. A new infra-structure for hydrogen supply would have to be built, “a matter for policy decisions and market forces” (ERJ) (!?). Fuel cells to “burn” the hydrogen use costly platinum catalysts which can be poisoned by impurities in the hydrogen or air, which is also needed; their reliability over long periods is unknown; they would easily freeze in cold weather; they would be a magnet for thieves. Incidentally, ERJ assumes that much of the hydrogen would be imported (from where?).

Other aspects of ERJ’s schemes are equally vague. Much geothermal energy would be needed, though this technology is notoriously unreliable. Curiously, nowhere in 250-plus pages is there a mention of earthquakes or tsunamis!

It is difficult to avoid James Lovelock’s conclusion that “only nuclear power can now [my emphasis] halt global warming” — but this is not to accept nuclear power as it is. The possibility of fail-safe thorium-powered reactors is ignored not only by the (capitalist) industry which will not or cannot afford the research costs but by the Left and environmentalists. Supported by eminent scientists such as Carlo Rubbia of CERN, thorium reactors do not have a chain reaction to go out of control. They rely on a stream of neutrons from a particle accelerator which could be instantly switched off. Using plentiful thorium, they can also “burn” other radioactive materials, including surplus bombs … and high level radioactive waste. Radioactive material decays into stable isotopes, usually lead. Plutonium takes about 100,000 years to reduce to 1/20 of its original amount. Thorium reactors accelerate this process greatly (Accelerated Transmutation of Waste), reducing the volume of waste and the time for which it would have to be kept safe.

A final point: Theo accuses me of ignoring the “proliferation argument”, which he seems to equate with the simple possession of nuclear power. There are many difficult steps to building nuclear weapons and it is clear that these have not proliferated anything like as fast as civil nuclear power. More of a problem is terrorism and here too it is not clear that nuclear power plants are uniquely vulnerable and dangerous targets. More importantly, many conflicts are, and will be increasingly, over resources, particularly as the climate changes. Nuclear bombs won’t be much use in these!

Yet more deaths in the UK fossil fuel industry (four workers killed in a Welsh oil refinery explosion in March; five coal miners killed in Wales and Yorkshire in September) should help put the supposed dangers of nuclear power in perspective. Multiply these figures by at least 1,000 worldwide. According to Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (www.ecolo.org), environmental opposition to nuclear energy is the “greatest misunderstanding and mistake of the century”. We should be demanding that nuclear power be expanded and improved, rather than phased out.

But let’s demand the safest forms of nuclear power, as well as support for renewable energy research.

Excellent piece by Monbiot: ‘The farce of Hinkley c’

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Sanity begins to prevail on GM crops

June 20, 2013 at 7:06 pm (conspiracy theories, environment, green, Jim D, science)

Environmental secretary Owen Paterson made a speech today in favour of GM crops.

He said that his speech was “quite long” and that it would contain “quite a lot of detail”. He’s right. You can read it here and, unusually for a speech posted on a government website, it makes very good use of links. If you read the speech online, you will find plenty of links to source material justifying the claims that Paterson was making. Paterson made some of his arguments on the Today programme this morning (9.45) , but in that interview did not include the attack on the European Union’s regulatory regime that is at the heart of the speech.

Paterson’s decision to come out in favour of GM follows years of pusillanimous evasion by British politicians of all stripes, terrified of antagonising the anti-science lobby and being portrayed as friends of “Frankenfoods.”   In large part this is due to a significant shift in public opinion: in a poll commissioned by the Independent last year, 64 per cent of respondents were in favour of experiments on GM crops, with 27 against and 9 per cent undecided. This represents a major shift from the 1990’s when public opinion in Britain was overwhelmingly opposed.

Much of the credit for this must go to Mark Lynas, an anti-GM protester from the 1990’s who studied the science and changed his mind, braving the wrath of erstwhile friends and colleagues, some of whom can turn very nasty. Lynas told the Guardian:

“I think there are several reasons why GM is making a comeback. First, the blanket opposition to GM per se as a technology is obviously untenable in any scientific sense – there is no reason why it should present any new dangers in food, and, indeed, may well be safer than conventional breeding in crops…

“With the passage of more than a decade since the widespread commercialisation of GM crops in North America, Brazil and elsewhere, hundreds of millions of people have eaten GM-originated food without a single substantiated case of any harm done whatsoever.”

Alongside Lynas, credit is due to Professor John Pickett and his team of scientists at the publicly funded Rothamsted Research Institute. Here four of the Rothamsted scientists make their case, pleading with protesters who had threatened to destroy their GM trial in May of last year:

Now, at last, it looks as though those voices of reason are winning the day.

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Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power: Fukushima one year on

March 11, 2012 at 10:30 am (climate change, environment, green, Jim D, nuclear power, science)

The first anniversary of the tragedy resulting from the Japanese earthquake may seem an inappropriate time to suggest a reappraisal of the left’s traditional hositlility to nuclear power. But, paradoxically, the Japanese events and their aftermath suggest that our worst fears are not justified.

The only rational conclusion, as a result of the ” Fukushima test,”  must be that the benefits massively outweigh the risks.

Les Hearn wrote the following shortly after the earthquake, and I think his analysis has, so far, been vindicated:

The terrible events recently in Japan have resulted in at least 15,000 deaths, of which those attributable to the overheating cores and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant amount to… zero.

However, the situation at the power plant is potentially more serious if it is not controlled. What has been happening?

Some time ago, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) decided to build nuclear power plants in an earthquake zone. They judged that their design was robust enough to withstand a powerful earthquake. They judged that safety measures were adequate in the case of interruption of the electricity supply to the coolant pumps. They hadn’t considered the possibility of a large tsunami.

The plants are Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) — sort of giant nuclear kettles. The core contains fuel rods of uranium-235 (235U) and plutonium-239 (239Pu) which undergo fission (atom-splitting) reactions, releasing neutrons, radiation, heat and fission products. The neutrons are fed back into the fuel rods in carefully controlled amounts to sustain a chain reaction, releasing heat which is continuously removed by superheated water under 70 times atmospheric pressure. This is allowed to boil, high pressure steam being used to drive electricity generators.

The radiation is absorbed by the core and cannot escape. It eventually contributes to the heat of the core.

The fission products are smaller atoms, usually radioactive. Most dangerous are caesium-137 (137Cs) and iodine-131 (131I). They are contained within the fuel rods, paradoxically making these more radioactive for a while than the original U or Pu.

So what are the safety features of the Japanese BWRs? If the electricity to the pumps cuts out, the chain reaction must be stopped to prevent the release of more heat. This is done by inserting boron control rods into the core. These absorb neutrons so that new fissions cannot occur. Then residual heat must be removed from the rods. The fact that the coolant water is at about 300 ºC shows that the core heat is considerable. If current is cut to the electric pumps, back-up diesel pumps come into operation. If these fail, batteries operate the pumps electrically. Before these run out, TEPCO assumes the main or diesel pumps will be working again.

What actually happened on 11 March and after was as follows. The buildings withstood one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history and the control rods were automatically inserted into the core. However, the electrically powered pumps were disabled when the earthquake felled power lines. Diesel pumps kicked in but were then swamped by an unexpectedly large tsunami. Then the shed-load of batteries took over for a few hours but, when they ran down, neither had the electricity had been restored nor the diesel pumps restarted. The core started to overheat.

This risked damage to the fuel rods, resulting in emission of caesium-137 and iodine-131. The risk of damage was increased as the heat of the core made it difficult to cool it with the seawater that the plant workers and emergency services were trying to dump on the reactors. The water was instantly boiling and being driven off as steam. The danger of the fuel rods melting and emitting even more radioactive substances was growing. It is not clear that this would lead to a more catastrophic breach of the steel containment: this would require temperatures exceeding 1500 ºC. But it would increase the danger to the workers of excessive radiation, and risk spreading radioactive caesium and iodine in the surroundings.

The problem of these substances is two-fold. Caesium compounds are very soluble and chemically similar to compounds of sodium and potassium. Caesium rapidly spreads through the environment and is absorbed by plants and animals which may be part of the human diet. Its half-life is about 30 years, meaning that it takes about 100 years to decay to 10% of its original level. However, except locally, it is unlikely to be particularly hazardous. Iodine is more problematic. It is absorbed easily and passed on to humans in food. The body then concentrates it in the thyroid gland, converting a low general dose of radiation to a much higher specific dose to one tissue. It has a half-life of eight days, making it more radioactive atom for atom than caesium-137 but dropping to less than 1% in two months. Preventative measures can easily be taken, minimising the risks.

It is not clear whether the reactors will be brought under control without substantial emission of radiation. It is clear that TEPCO should have sited the back-up pumps higher to avoid inundation by tsunamis. It is less clear but arguable that an earthquake zone was not a wise choice.

Nevertheless, the minimal injuries and absence of deaths compared with the effect of the earthquake and tsunami should help to put nuclear power’s risks in perspective. And we’re not talking about another Chernobyl.
Update on Chernobyl

According to the UNSCEAR report 20 years after the Chernobyl accident, 134 people got acute radiation syndrome. Of these, 28 died soon after the accident, and 19 subsequently, mostly from illnesses that are unconnected to their exposure.

More than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have occurred among people, predominantly children, exposed to radioactive iodine (131I). Not all but the vast majority of these are thought due to this exposure. This resulted from contamination of milk but was not an inevitable result of the Chernobyl accident. As the UNSCEAR report notes drily, “prompt countermeasures were lacking [which] resulted in large doses to the thyroids of members of the general public”.

Iodine is needed to synthesise the hormone thyroxine, which controls metabolism in adults and, crucially, growth in children. It is efficiently extracted from food and concentrated in the thyroid gland. Grazing cows would have eaten grass on which radioactive iodine had fallen and incorporated it into their milk which, of course, would have been drunk fresh largely by… children.

The countermeasures are simple: flood the system with ordinary iodine (127I, since you ask) by giving people tablets containing iodine salts. This was not done by the incompetent bureaucrats of the former Soviet Union and the result was that low whole body doses of 131I were converted into high doses in the thyroid.

The good (or, rather, less bad) news is that thyroid cancer responds well to treatment and only 15 of the 6000+ cases have died. There is also little evidence of more than a slight increase in other cancers. Thus the total of deaths proven to be caused by the worst accident in the history of nuclear power is not many more than 43.

* United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, Vol II Annex D Health Effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident, 2008 (downloaded from the IAEA website).

NB: George Monbiot changed his position on nuclear power some time ago.

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Copenhagen: sometimes, middle class tossers are right

December 7, 2009 at 10:35 pm (class, climate change, green, Jim D)

Something  just and sensible may or may not come out of  the global summit in Copenhagen. But , at least, the anti-science storm-in-a-teacup of the East Anglian emails seems to have made little impact, despite the best efforts of the ultra-reactionary oil lobby eminating from both Texas and Saudi Arabia. The fact remains that climate change “deniers” (when they’re not simply Saudi and Texan oil men) are a bunch of cranks, conspiracy theorists and ultra-right nutters who blithly ignore what  95% of reputable scientists in the world have to say on the subject.

It’s unfortunate, however, that the bulk of the green movement, in Britain and internationally, is made up of  middle class readers of the Guardian and similar publications round the world . That doesn’t mean they’re wrong: just that their failure to address the concerns of working class people plays into the hands of the deniers. Similarly, most of the reformist and revolutionary “left” (just like most bourgeois politicians) refuse to acknowledge that effective enforcement of  emissions requires a global enforcement reime, with the power to override national sovereignty: both US right-wingers and the  anti-EU “left” recoil from that.

But. most important of all, workers in Britain and the “developed” countries must not be driven into the hands of the anti-environmental backlash by middle class Guardian readers and ruling class parasites of the Zac Goldsmith variety. Nick Cohen (back on form) has some good stuff to say about this.

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Vestas solidarity

August 5, 2009 at 10:48 pm (Champagne Charlie, climate change, environment, green, unions, workers)

If you can organise a protest, however small, let us know about it – email savevestas@wordpress.com and we can advertise it and make it bigger!
 

Wed 5 August

  • BRIGHTON The Cowley Club, London Road, Brighton Support for Vestas Workers meeting, 7pm, tel: John 07845 183407

Thurs 6 August

  • LONDON DECC, 3 Whitehall Place, rally, 6.30pm, organised by CACC

Fri 7 August

  • SOUTH LONDON Sayes Court Club House, 341 Evelyn Street, Deptford SE8 5QT, 3pm, picket Joan Ruddock, climate change minister, tel: 07951 450370

Sat 8 August

  • MANCHESTER 1pm, Market Street, street stall; 3pm, march from Market Street to Piccadilly Gardens for a rally, tel: Hugh 07769 611320

Wed 12 August

  • LIVERPOOL Casa (the dockers’ pub), 29 Hope St, 7pm, RMT, dockers and Merseyside TUC meeting to set up solidarity campaign, tel: 0151 709 1786/07940 244718/07930 870934, email: j.tilley@rmt.org.uk
 
In the event of eviction:
Bristol: demonstrate 5.30pm same day at Bristol fountain
Manchester: 5pm same day in Piccadilly Gardens and organise a protest at 8am the following day at Vestas HQ in Warrington
 

Sat 19 September

  • LOCATION TBC 12-6pm, Workers’ Climate Action conference

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Attention, earthlings: this is the Mekon!

May 28, 2009 at 8:36 pm (BBC, blogging, Champagne Charlie, Europe, green, media, strange situations)

mekon 2 Innocent viewers of this evening’s BBC 4 news programme have been terrified by the unexpected appearance of the dreaded Mekon, apparently undefeated by his would-be nemesis Dan Dare, and still intent upon inter-galactic domination.

The Mekon’s disturbing intervention into the programme, looming menacingly over a studio discussion on the EU elections, is of concern to this blog because he claimed to be called “Alan Thomas” and to be speaking on behalf of Shiraz Socialist! He had even gone so far as to attempt to disguise himself with orange makeup, but there was no concealing the true identity of the arch enemy of the human race.

He did talk some sense about the EU and the need for a strengthening of European institutions, citing the present negotiations over the future of GM’s European operations as an example of the need for Britain to be more fully engaged with Europe.

But the Mekon’s apparently reasonable line on Europe was merely a cloak for his dastardly plan to invade earth and enslave us all: Dan Dare, where are you now?

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The US Democrats: A Dead End For Working People

January 14, 2008 at 3:16 pm (Democratic Party, Democrats, elections, green, iraq war, left, TWP, United States)

Much discussion has been taking place on various left blogs and in the left press on the upcoming US presidential election as the two main capitalist parties choose their candidates for the upcoming election in November.

My co-blogger, Voltaire’s Priest, has endorsed John Edwards after briefly backing Barack Obama. I have spoken out against this on simple socialist grounds and so too has Martin Smith in the latest issue of Socialist Worker in his article “Are the Democrats Any Different?”

I believe both Volty and Smith are missing the point – but from different angles. Smith is correct in pointing out the record of the Clinton years:

“The gap between rich and poor increased almost ten-fold. The number of federal prisoners nearly doubled. Clinton ordered US forces into combat situation as many times as his four previous predecessors combined and ended the federal welfare system – something right wing president Ronald Reagan could only dream of doing.”

This is fundamentally correct and is why Volty’s attempts to garner support for the Democratic Party by claiming that one must “if it is even temporarily in the interests of working people to do so” are utterly false. It has proven time and again to be in no way in the interest of working people to support the Democratic Party.

But Smith misses the point too when he goes on to describe the Democrats as a successful amalgamation of social movements and US capitalists and then concludes they are exactly the same as the Republicans. The fact is that they are not exactly the same as the Republicans.

The popularity of the Democratic Party as evidenced by last year’s congressional defeats for the Republicans is down to a number of factors, but most importantly the war. This is an incredibly contentious issue and is one of the first times in many years that the US public may be voting on their president based in large part on international policies and not solely domestic ones.

Smith claims that working people have been suckered into supporting the Democrats, but it is absolutely true that the Dems have been talking left on the war for some time now – and the American working class are responding to it. This is why Clinton has had to apologise and dodge questions time and again on her record of support for the war – something unthinkable even two years ago.

Now it has to be said that the majority of the US working class are not opposing the war in Iraq for “political” reasons in the same way those of us on the left in Britain may be doing so. Most often the opposition is based on the fact that Iraq has been a “failure” and one gets the impression that if it had been successful, a number of people would’ve supported it. In addition, there is still a huge amount of support for the war in Afghanistan and even Obama has said he wouldn’t rule out military action against Iran.

So what makes the Democrats different in this case is that they are tapping into this populist and quite frankly isolationist sentiment amongst the US working class. But so too are some of the Republicans. Right-wing populist Mike Huckabee has been expressing sympathy with the sentiment that the war should end immediately, but insists that America’s “prestige” and ability to fight future wars will be irreparably damaged if there is an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

In addition, the Democrats are different because two of their top candidates are a black man and a white woman – the first time in United States history that this has ever occurred. This creates a sense among all voters that the election is something historic, something to participate in and will most likely increase voter turn out. It would be a change in the United States to have a female or African-American as president – but this would merely be a superficial change.

The US working class does not necessarily recognise the change as superficial but will consider it dramatic. This is why, with the amnesia about Clinton’s actual record, it is a very real possibility that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. In fact, polls done in the last two elections indicated that people would’ve voted for Bill Clinton above Bush if he were to have run again. This is their opportunity to put Clinton back into the White House. Don’t forget that while the gap between rich and poor increased during the Clinton years, a number of people participated in the dot-com boom and the seeming “end of history” as liberal democracy appeared to be the triumphant order of the day and everything was on the up and up before those halcyon memories were destroyed in an instant with a dodgy election, 9-11 and the war on terror.

But just because the US working class and trade unions will largely be supporting the Democratic Party does not mean that socialists should. As much as it is easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm for a change from the debacle that was Bush, it must be remembered that big business is looking for a change as well. They don’t want the instability of the Bush years and will do their best (and indeed have done their best in the form of campaign contributions to the Democratic Party) to get Hillary or Barack into office. And one can rest assured that no matter how much money the trade unions donate to the Dems, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the corporations – corporations which are going to expect return on their investment.

However, none of this should be surprising. The Democratic Party never was a working class party. It was never set up in the interest of working people and only acted in their interest as a result of saving “free enterprise” as during the New Deal of the 1930s, as Martin Smith correctly points out. (It should be remembered that it was none other than Bill Clinton who dismantled a number of the gains from this time period while in office).

In fact despite large left organisations in the form of the Socialist Party in the 1930s, the embryo of a US working class party was destroyed by internal contradictions and external smashing up by the state. This organisation was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or the “Wobblies” as they were known. While it is often dismissed as a simple “anarchist” or “anarcho-syndicalist” organisation (of which it bore some elements) the truth is that the same kind of cadre that made up Hardy’s Independent Labour Party in Britain were those who found themselves in the IWW. It was a very heterogeneous organisation. Most of this leadership was executed or imprisoned by the state whereas, for a variety of reasons and differences between England and the US, the leadership of the ILP was actually incorporated into the electoral system.

Ever since the disintegration of the IWW, various attempts as mass organising were tried which included the creation of the Communist Party, Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party – all of which contained old Wobblies – but the sad fact remains that never again was there a mass organisation with the strength and militancy of the IWW. In addition, as the CP became Stalinist, their support and wedding to the Democratic Party grew. This is in spite of CPers being blacklisted and expelled from their trade unions by Democratic Party members in one of the blackest periods for the US labour movement in its history – McCarthyism.

Today the remnants of all three parties still exist in incredibly degenerated forms with the CP still wholeheartedly backing the Democrats despite their treachery during McCarthyism. The most interesting point to take from this is that when the working class in the US organises, it organises outside of the Democratic Party. At no point in the Democratic Party’s history has there been a break to the left to form an explicitly workers’ organisation.

However, something that is overlooked by those on the left in Britain (with the exception of Derek Wall it has to be said) is the break from the Democrats by Cynthia McKinney. Cynthia has announced her break and is now standing as a candidate for the Green Party, putting forward a number of very progressive policies, with particular emphasis on rebuilding the areas still suffering as a result of hurricane Katrina. Anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan who supported the Democratic Party for some time has also broken away in disgust over the Dems rolling over when it came time to vote on increasing war spending while hypocritically talking tough against the Bush administration. In fact there has been a massive debate taking place in the anti-war group United for Peace and Justice (UFP&J) after the leadership decided they would place emphasis on getting the Democrats into office in November and writing letters instead of holding more anti-war rallies. The outcome has yet to be decided, but the debate is ongoing with the possibility of an alternate coalition being formed.

Time will tell if, for the first time in history, a break from the Democrats results in the creation of a working class party or organisation. But it is the Cindy Sheehans and Cynthia McKinneys that are every socialist’s ally in the United States today and it is to them and those who are critical of the Democratic Party that we should be looking to – not the capitalist party candidates which have always represented and will continue to represent the interest of the United States ruling class.

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Heathrow: to hang with the hippies or not?

August 14, 2007 at 8:56 am (Civil liberties, environment, green, left, rcp, voltairespriest)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThere’s a mini-debate going on at the moment about whether or not to support the eco-protestors’ gathering at Heathrow Airport in protest at proposed expansion plans. Whilst on the one side there’s overwhelming backing for the stance that climate change is one of the greatest threats that humanity has ever faced, on the other there’s a certain queasiness in sections of the Left about some of the Green movement’s more hair-shirted solutions to the issue. Regarding airports in particular, this largely surrounds the point that if the volume of air traffic were radically reduced through the likes of Heathrow, the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair would be forced to either raise their prices to cope with a squeeze on passenger numbers, or to go out of business. The knock-on consequence of this would be that whilst middle-class hippies would still be able to go mountain trekking and spritual journeying in the Himalayas, your average working class family would be left with little option other than a return to Blackpook beach. A worthwhile sacrifice obviously if you happen to be one of said middle class hippies, but if you work on the checkout at Tesco you might be wondering if there’s another alternative which still enables you to go on holiday with the kids once a year.

Janine has had a careful think about this already, and comes down on the side of not attending, albeit in thoughtful fashion. She is concerned precisely about travel once again becoming a preserve of the rich, and as a consequence is reluctant to support the protestors, at least until they make it clear that they don’t support this outcome. She says:

“I think the fact that many working-class people regularly travel abroad is a Very Good Thing. From my parents’ generation where only the rich set foot outside these shores, we have progressed to a society where most people in most developed capitalist countries have seen a bit of the world. That’s good for quality of life, for broadening horizons, and – union jack boxer shorts notwithstanding – for integration and internationalism. I have no desire to curtail it by objecting to airports or demanding hikes in taxes on flying.”

She is of course quite correct to say that travel expands the mind, and is tremendous fun to boot. As someone who has been fortunate enough to visit several countries other than the UK, and to live in one of those for some time, I can honestly say that I found all of those experiences tremendously valuable. However, if the cost attached is of the pollutants partly stemming from mass air travel eventually reducing all of these places to devastated wastelands that future generations will not be able to enjoy, then is it really worth it just for the sake of my enjoyment?

Janine does seek for alternatives around targeting specifically business air traffic, and she does acknowledge the reality that climate change is a problem. I’m far from accusing her of being a Nigel Lawson-style climate change “sceptic”. However I simply cannot see how purely slapping restrictions and taxes on business traffic, with no concomitant restrictions on leisure travel, would adequately tackle the issue. And let’s face it, no one ever really suffered a collapse in quality of life because they had to holiday in Scotland rather than Spain.

An altogether more hard-line stance on the camp comes (perhaps predictably) from Ethan Greenhart of Spiked Online magazine, who seems to think the whole thing is totally risible. Posing satirically as someone who supports the camp, he says:

“We Climate Campers are taking on the World Capitalist Oil-Producing Neocon Superstructure that privileges the right to sunbathe over the right to life… we’re calling for LESS choice and LESS freedom in the name of saving the planet from the poisonous gases of the holidaymaking hordes. My chant during the Climate Camp week will be: ‘What do we want?’ ‘A 65 per cent reduction in all forms of greenhouse gas emissions by 2017, a minimum tax of £1 per mile on all short-haul flights under 600 miles, and greater investment in pro-cycling policies including the painting of at least a 175cm cycle lane on all major thoroughfares!’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now!’”

Of course, I’m aware of the RCP’s rather wacky politics on this issue, and therefore of the probable roots of Ethan’s indignation. However, what he says isn’t simply nonsense, at least in the context of the misanthropic tendencies in sections of the Green movement. If there’s a solution to this issue then it has to square to circle of firstly (and obviously) actually working, but secondly also being humanitarian.

Would I support the camp? I think there are two issues here, both of which lead me to the conclusion that I would do so. Primarily, I would support the camp because I believe that climate change is an overriding issue affecting every man, woman and child on this planet. I think that protests of the sort that this camp represents (whether or not their politics is somewhat flawed) serve to highlight the issue in the minds of a general public who would often seemingly rather talk about anything else. And secondarily, I support the camp on civil liberties grounds – for its right to be there per se. The police are proposing to use anti-terror legislation to dislodge what is essentially a group of dog-on-a-rope crusties from a field full of tents. If this is the kind of responsible use of such legislation that the Blair government promised, then I’d hate to see them using it recklessly.

So support the camp, go visit the crusties and if they say something you disagree with, discuss it with them. You might get muddy feet, but it’ll be far more productive than sitting at home and sulking.

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A great day for free speech in Britain

August 7, 2007 at 9:31 pm (Civil liberties, environment, Free Speech, green, Jim D, libertarianism)

“Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently” – Rosa Luxemburg.

 Yesterday (August 6, 2007) was a great day for freedom of speech in the UK: two landmark decisions were delivered by the British courts that, together and separately, go a long way towards reversing the gradual erosion of free speech that has taken place over the past three years or so. Firstly, a High Court judge refused British Airports Authority’s request for a blanket ban on all protestors intending to attend the Heathrow Camp for Climate Action, going ahead next week. BAA’s requested injuction would have restricted the movements of five million people, including the members of such subversive organisations as the National Trust, the RSPB and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England – not just at Heath Row itself, but also throughout swathes of London and the South East. BAA and its legal eagles had attempted to misuse the Protection of Harassment Act (1997) – a piece of legislation intended to tackle the problem of stalkers!

Thankfully,  Mrs Justice Swift struck out the blanket application and only imposed a limited injunction against three individual members of the ‘Plane Stupid’ direct action group. She also ordered BAA to pay the costs of the groups who had challenged the application.

Secondly, and by pure co-incidence, on the same day the Lord Chief Justice  dismissed an appeal by the Director of Public Prosecutions attempting to restrict the rights of the one-man anti-war protestor Brian Haw.

Mr Haw has been camping in Parliament Square in protest against the Iraq war for over three years and his one-man gesture has already resulted in pathetic legislation outlawing protests around parliament. More recently, the police have attempted to impose further restrictions upon Haw’s protest, including the removal of his placards and his boxes and sheeting.

The law that was invoked against Mr Haw was the Serious Organised Crime Act – a piece of legislation intended (as the name suggests) to combat major organised crime – not a lone eccentric embarrassing the government with a ramshackle protest in Parliament Square.

Another great victory for free speech and the right to protest, then.

None of which means I have much sympathy with the Heathrow protestors, who seem to me to be (in the main) self-righteous middle class reactionaries who want to stop working class people holidaying abroad and who would recoil from the one effective answer to the problem that is Heathrow: close it down and build a new airport along the Thames estuary.

Equally well, I have little sympathy for Mr Haw, who strikes me as a seriously deranged religious fanatic, who has never expressed the slightest concern for what democrats, socialists, women, ethnic minorities or trade unionists suffered under Saddam – or would suffer as a result of a precipitate withdrawal of coalition troops. 

If you revisit the Rosa Luxemburg quote at the top of this article, however, you’ll understand why I still think these two decisions are major victories, and are to be celebrated.

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And lest I be misinterpreted…

July 21, 2007 at 8:13 pm (environment, green, truth, voltairespriest)

Just in case there are any anti-scientific climate change “sceptics” who have read my last two posts and think they’ve got a convert, let me assure them that I know it’s happening.

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