GCSE chaos: abolish the grades!

Across the UK different regional governments have taken different approaches to the sitting and grading of school exams in the summer term of 2021.

In Scotland the National 5 (GCSE equivalent) exams have been cancelled and grades will be determined by “teacher judgement supported by assessment”. Scotland Education Secretary John Swinney declared that going ahead with exams was unfair given Covid-related disruption in schools.

The prospects of Sunaknomics

1. The Tories plan for government debt as a percentage of national income to increase through to 2024-5. They plan for public sector net investment to average 2.9% over the next five years, where it averaged 2.0% from 2010 to 2019. They project ÂŁ55 billion public-service spending on Covid in 2021-2: public spending on Covid is estimated at ÂŁ280 billion in 2020-1, of which ÂŁ113 billion is public-service spending and the rest spending on furloughs, business support, and loans.

Pandemic points to need to "build back fairer"

"Covid-19 has exposed and amplified the inequalities we [have] observed [before] and the economic harm caused by containment measures – lockdowns, tier systems, social isolation measures - will further damage health and widen health inequalities.

"Inequalities in Covid-19 mortality rates follow a similar social gradient to that seen for all causes of death and the causes of inequalities in Covid-19 are similar to the causes of inequalities in health more generally...

Bosnia-Herzegovina: 25 years after Dayton

There is a film nowadays rarely seen which was once, perhaps surprisingly, the most popular foreign film ever shown in China: Walter Defends Sarajevo (directed by Hajruin Krvavac in 1972) is a Yugoslav film, set in the Second World War, telling the story of the Nazis’ attempts to eliminate the mysterious Walter – based on a real person – who is the leader of the Sarajevo Partisans and a master at disguise and intrigue.

A socialist-feminist take on Xmas films

It’s my last column of the year, so time for our socialist feminist Christmas film review.

Muppets Christmas Carol: Like many Muppets movies this shows the Muppets experiencing and expressing the misery of capitalism. This is ameliorated not by working-class struggle but by benevolent capitalism, which had been faced with its own horrific reflection. This is the most liberal of the Muppets movies.

BT workers ballot

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) is conducting a consultative ballot of its members in the telecom giant BT, which could presage a formal ballot for action to resist what the union calls “a vicious programme of compulsory redundancies, site closures, and attacks on pay, terms and conditions”. The consultative ballot closes on Thursday 10 December, and CWU reps and activists say they are confident of a huge vote in favour of action. Almost 50,000 workers are being balloted.

Social solidarity to get through the pandemic months

As of 7 December, the world Covid-19 death rate neared 150% of its previous peak in April (seven-day rolling average), and was rising sharply.

It will take months, maybe many months, for vaccination to slow that death rate decisively. Strict covid-distancing rules at one level or another will be needed for those months.

The 150% figure is not driven by US statistics, though the death rate there has been rising fast since mid-October and will soon pass the local April peak.

Moroccan offensive in Western Sahara

After sixteen years of war, on 6 September 1991, Morocco and the POLISARIO, the national liberation movement in Western Sahara, reached a ceasefire agreement, sponsored by the UN, for the holding of a self-determination referendum in which the Sahrawi people will decide their fate. This referendum has not yet taken place; until November 13 this year the ceasefire agreement was still in force.

What happened then in Western Sahara?

High Court rules against trans youth

On 1 December, the High Court released its judgment in the case brought forward by Keira Bell, a woman who underwent hormone blockers followed by hormone replacement therapy as well as a gender-affirming double mastectomy (commonly referred to as top surgery) before deciding to detransition to her birth-assigned sex, as well as an anonymous claimant against the Tavistock Gender Identity Clinic.

Racism behind the deportations

On Wednesday 2 December, a charter flight intended to deport 50 Jamaican nationals from the UK back to Jamaica went ahead, though with thirteen rather than 50.

There had been a campaign with many high-profile celebrities such as Naomi Campbell fronting it. Home Secretary Priti Patel was heavily critically of the Labour MPs and celebrities such as Thandie Newton who protested, referring to them as “do-gooders”. She claimed people seeking to halt the deportation risked the safety of British people by allowing criminals to reside on British soil.

Vaccination and the frontline workers

Following the approval of the first Covid-19 vaccine last week came the announcement that the government will be rolling out a vaccination programme for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to care home residents and healthcare workers first, followed by tiers according to age and vulnerability.

Mass vaccination roll outs are intended to get the pandemic under control, prevent deaths, hospitalisations and infections. But each of these come with trade-offs in terms of who is vaccinated first, so which should be prioritised when considering public health vaccination strategies?

Trump trashes the house on the way out

During the influenza pandemic of 1918 the bishop of Zamora defied the health authorities by ordering evening prayers for nine consecutive days in honour of St Rocco, patron saint of plague and pestilence. The epidemic was according to him down to the sins and ingratitude of the population. His congregation were encouraged to kiss the holy relics of St Rocco. Zamora suffered the highest death rate from the disease in all of Spain.

Neurodivergent Labour builds on successful first year

Neurodivergent Labour marked the end of its first year with a constructive and democratic online AGM on 28 November.

Reviewing the past year, Chair Janine Booth described ND Labour’s response to political developments during the year, including taking on anti-vaccination propaganda and supporting trade union disputes while helping them to become more accessible. Campaigns Officer Andy Forse reported on ND Labour’s involvement in the ongoing campaign to stop the deportation of 22-year-old autistic man Osime Brown to Jamaica.

Shutting down all the apps

On Wednesday 25 November the majority of the takeaway food delivery workforce in Sheffield struck.

The strike affected all of the big apps — Stuart, Deliveroo and UberEats — and involved over 100 drivers. It effectively shut down the delivery service across the city. On the drivers’ WhatsApp, pictures flooded in of restaurant order boards overflowing with uncollected orders.

Labour suspensions spread

Following the suspension of multiple members of Bristol West Constituency Labour Party (CLP) Executive (EC) from the Labour Party for allowing a motion to be discussed, the regional office has postponed the CLP’s Annual General Meeting with two days’ notice, because of alleged “problems” with communication about it happening. It has been postponed until February, and our CLP meetings banned during the same time period.

Labour must oppose a Tory Brexit deal!

The more-than-rumour is that Keir Starmer’s leadership will impose a parliamentary whip to force Labour MPs to back the Tory Brexit deal possibly coming soon — even a high-pressure “three-line whip”.

There is no good Brexit. But any possible deal will fall at the hard, economically destructive, socially regressive end of the Brexit spectrum.

The left and labour movement should oppose this big, convulsive step backwards. We should refuse responsibility for the Tories’ disastrous plans, and loudly tell the truth about what they represent.

"Whataboutery" on China and the Uyghurs

“Whataboutery” is an old trick much favoured by Stalinists whenever difficult questions about human rights under “socialist” regimes are raised. Apparently the correct term is “tu quoque” — a debating technique based upon the perceived hypocrisy of the opponent rather than the merits of their argument.

Some of the most blatant cases you’ll come across involve the Morning Star and its increasingly desperate efforts to deny or justify the Chinese state’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Fight job cuts in retail

Arcadia, the owner of Topshop, Burton, and Dorothy Perkins, has gone into administration, putting 13,000 jobs at risk. In retail, 85% of Arcadia employees are women, while at head office 71% are women.

It is also a young workforce. 75% of the retail workforce is under 35 while at head office 63% of the workforce is under 35.

The company said the pandemic had had “a material impact on trading across our businesses”, and in fact it was already in difficulties due to a chunk of its traffic moving to competitors more adroit about going online.

In the bleak midwinter

Three blows are likely to hit us in the first months of 2021: Brexit, a new pandemic lockdown, and a new wave of job cuts and closures.

Lockdown pushes down many people who fall through the furlough net, or were looking for new or first jobs.

Back in spring it looked like the biggest job cuts among previously well-established workers would come as lockdown eased. Companies which had stuck it out through lockdown with furlough money and government loans would then shut down or shrink, and those shutdowns would be magnified through their supply chains.

Win for Manchester students

Following protests, a still-ongoing rent strike and a two-week occupation, Manchester University students have won a 30% rent reduction for semester one. This will cost the university around ÂŁ12 million, making it the biggest win for student rent strikers in the UK.

The student union will now hold a vote of no confidence in Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell, and the rent strike will continue next term.

"Love jihad": why Hindu fascists are attacking Netflix

The Hindu nationalist far right in India and beyond is waging a campaign against Netflix for showing the BBC TV series A Suitable Boy (adapted from Vikram Seth’s novel, set in India in the 1950s).

Their objection is to a romantic relationship between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man (though it's clear they object to other aspects of it too). They have minimally dressed up their bigotry by saying they are offended by the lovers kissing by a Hindu temple.

Fight the cuts, fight the pay freeze!

Chancellor Rishi Sunak claims he is not “returning” to austerity. This while:

• All public sector workers outside the NHS get a pay freeze. And the government will not confirm that NHS workers will get a pay rise! It also seems it will cancel the planned 49p rise in the minimum wage in favour of something more like 19p.

• Councils are saying they need billions more just to avoid yet another round of even deeper cuts.

• The government refuses even to make its measly £20-a-week increase to Universal Credit permanent; it will be withdrawn in April.

Fighting Covid: the police or workers' control?

A new campaign was launched on 14 November, called ZeroCovid. It takes up full isolation pay and public-sector Test and Trace, two of the demands raised by campaigns like Safe and Equal, and it is backed by a number of left-wingers, notably in and around the SWP.

Yet its chief demand is a “full” and indefinite lockdown of everything which is not “absolutely essential” until we get to zero or “near-zero” infections.

Virus: getting through the months

The news is good on vaccines for Covid-19. But, as every expert says, it will be several months at least before vaccination shrinks the need for covid-distancing and quarantining. Longer, if the vaccines block symptoms but not the virus itself or transmission. (We don’t yet know).

As of 24 November, infection rates have been edging down in Europe since 8 November. They look like plateauing worldwide, after rapid growth since mid-October, but are rising sharply in the USA.

Betterment without emancipation?

Marie Stopes International (MSI) has changed its name in recognition of the need to break association with the pro-eugenics views of Marie Stopes. The abortion and contraception provider will go by the name MSI Reproductive Choices. There had been debate in the organisation for some time about a name change, and they were spurred to action by the Black Lives Matters movement and subsequent discussions.

Four points from NEC poll

Four points to take away from the Labour Party National Executive (NEC) election results announced on 13 November.

• The balance between broadly-left and broadly-right in the membership is not much changed. The left slate (not a good left slate, in our view, but the left slate) did better than it expected, winning five constituency seats. The “old” right won three, and the ninth place was taken by Ann Black, an NEC member on the “centre-left” slate from 2000 to 2018 but now seen as definitely “centre”.

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