Sunday 8 March 2009

Put Gordon Brown First?

As the London G20 summit of world leaders fast approaches, it might be worthwhile to cast our minds back to 2005 and to the warning by George Monbiot that protests at the G8 summit at Gleneagles, the focus of the mobilisation by the popular ‘Make Poverty History’ (MPH) campaign, would be “far too polite”. He argued that by following the agenda set by Bob Geldof and the millionaire tax-avoider Bono, to “turn the political campaign developed by the global justice movement into a philanthropic one,” there was a real risk that MPH would be “sell us down the river.” Like Monbiot, others were warning that a number of the aid agencies, notably Oxfam, and the TUC were complicit in allowing the co-option of MPH by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, leading to campaign demands that largely mirrored the issues that the government wanted to press. And so it proved: protests in July 2005 were overshadowed by the Live8 concerts and by Bono and Geldof’s praise for the world’s leaders for promises that turned out to be completely bogus.

Now, in response to the economic crisis and the forthcoming G20 summit, we have a new campaigning coalition that, like MPH, seems impressively broad. ‘Put People First’ is organising a protest on 28 March in London and has 100 organisations supporting it, predominantly trade unions and development NGOs. Unlike MPH, the ‘celebration of celebrities’ seems to have been avoided this time, although once again, many of the ‘12 key policies’ for the UK government proposed by Put People First – particularly on ‘governance reform of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’ or ‘a green new deal to build a green economy’ – are unlikely to greatly trouble Gordon Brown. What we do know is that the G20 summit is enormously important to the UK government, one of the last opportunities before a general election to present Brown as a potential ‘saviour’ of the global economy. For his Labour Party allies in the TUC, this is enormously important too. That’s why it is hardly surprising that two separate sources have now told me that the TUC comrades within Put People First are busy vetoing any speaker at the Hyde Park rally on 28 March who may be tempted to utter damning criticism of Brown or his efforts to bail out free-market capitalism with our money. So no change there then.

What seems to be completely missing from the Put People First initiative is any reflection on the causes of the disaster we face. Its website says, “the world has followed a financial model that has created an economy fuelled by ever-increasing debt, both financial and environmental.” But it makes no mention of the fact that it has been the politicians from the ideologically dominant players within the G20 – particularly Gordon Brown during the decade when he was Chancellor – who have helped create the crisis by vigorously defending this model, which for the sake of argument, let's call "capitalism". This failure to point the finger at those who are guilty of leading us into the global financial and ecological crisis goes to the heart of the dilemma facing the ‘polite’ campaigners: the crisis is not simply a natural disaster, but the result of the actions of governments. The banks acted in the way that they did because state governments favoured ‘light touch regulation’. The World Bank and WTO are undemocratic and accountable because it has suited state governments to maintain them this way. Multinational corporations are neither transparent nor answerable to global citizens because state governments have no interest in challenging their power. And efforts to combat climate change have been undermined by the desire for continued growth - or now, in a recession, the desire for a rapid return to growth. "There can be no return to business as usual," say Put People First. But governments have other ideas and the campaign is more concerned with how we can talk to them, not how we might stop them.

If there is one lesson to take from the experience of MPH, politely suggesting to the arsonists that they put out the fire simply doesn’t work. It's one that Put People First seems not to have even considered.

There will be a 'militant workers bloc' on the Put People First protest and other demonstrations in the Square Mile - see G20 Meltdown in the City

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