The only way to make poverty history is to make the G8 history. I don’t mean simply the annual jamboree for the leaders of the world’s richest and most powerful states. I mean the whole nexus of exploitation and privilege that the G8 and its attendant institutions represent.
They are a gigantic siphon sucking up vast quantities of wealth from the poor — whether they live in the poorest countries or in the G8 states themselves. The G8 is not the solution — it is the problem.
Some of the most dangerous men in the world are in Gleneagles Hotel this week. They are responsible not only for the renewed and terrifying drive to war that characterises the start of the 21st century. They also preside over a system that is itself the biggest killer in the world.
Why does a child in Africa die every three seconds of preventable causes? Why did the tsunami last Christmas devastate so much of south and south east Asia? Because the people there are poor. There is no other reason.
And why are they poor? It’s because a tiny number of people standing at the head of the multinational corporations that bestraddle the globe are obscenely rich.
We assembled in Edinburgh, London and many other places at the weekend to make poverty history. But it’s not enough.
You can’t get slim by eating low fat chocolate — it has to be part of a calorie controlled diet.
You can’t make poverty history by writing off some of the debt of some of the countries in Africa and pretending you have made up for centuries of exploitation and injustice.
Most countries in Africa are not included in even the limited debt reduction plan. Those that are included are being told they will have to privatise, deregulate and turn further towards the neo-liberal policies that are impoverishing them if they are to qualify.
Most of the world’s poor don’t live in Africa. They’ve been scandalously disregarded this week.
More than half the world lives on less than $2 a day. Cows in western Europe are subsidised by $2.40 a day. Add to that the cost of feeding the cow, and it comes to $6.40 a day. It’s a similar picture in the US.
Tony Blair and George Bush are pushing for free trade because they know that it favours the already wealthy. Forcing people in the poorest countries to open up to the world market means accelerating the conveyor belt that transfers wealth into the hands of the multinational corporations.
What does this mean in real human terms? I went to Bangladesh this year and visited a sweatshop. There were hundreds of workers, mainly girls of 15 and 16, sleeping in quadruple bunk beds in the sweatshop compound.
They work from 6am to 7pm, six days a week, for 60p a day. Most of them do not leave the compound.
What were they making? Tesco jeans. They made hundreds of pairs every day for Tesco, which made £2,000 million profit last year selling things that other people make.
How are their profits that huge? Through the exploitation of workers in Britain, the exploitation of suppliers at the lowest margin and the exploitation of workers abroad, like in the sweatshops in Bangladesh.
Poverty at home and poverty abroad are connected — there is no separation. The hard pressed worker in a Tesco supermarket or depot, deprived of the basic right to sick pay, may not be on the edge of starvation — but they share a common bond with the girl in the sweatshop in Bangladesh.
Did Tesco behave illegally? No. What they are doing is their duty — to maximise profits for shareholders. They are behaving like upstanding capitalists.
In fact, shoring up their power means turning to far more direct methods of killing people.
War and capitalism are interlinked. We are unlucky to live under two of the worst leaders in the world — the messianic, fundamentalist Tony Blair... and George Bush.
But that isn’t the reason for war. War comes from capitalism.
There are five Arabian Gulf countries containing vast amounts of oil, which is very important to the US. It has 4 percent of the world’s population but consumes 25 percent of its energy.
That oil is too valuable to be left to Johnny Foreigner. Puppet presidents and corrupt kings might fall to leaders who would kick the US out, oppose Israel and use their money to develop their own countries.
They might also stop buying the West’s arms. In September the arms dealers will be coming to an arms fair in east London.
They’ll sell weapons to dictators who in future our government might oppose, and send British soldiers to fight and die against weapons sold by British arms companies and paid for by the British taxpayer under the export credit guarantee department.
In the old days you had plain, naked imperialism. We went in and took everything we could carry.
In Africa we took people too, in holds of ships to become slaves. Then there came a time when the colonies said, “We want to become independent and free.” Now we are returning to the colonies we were driven out of.
The most significant of these is Iraq. We cannot go on like this. We have to change course, not only abroad, but also at home. For the same disastrous policies are being inflicted on people here in Britain.
It is possible
Take something as fundamental as housing. Constituents are coming to my surgery in Tower Hamlets every week with appalling problems of overcrowding, unfit conditions and endless waiting lists.
The neo-liberal answer from the government and local council is to privatise what is left of the council housing stock. The ineluctable result will be tenants made more insecure and more exploited as they are put at the mercy of private companies.
That will make it easier for millionaires in the City and Canary Wharf to get their hands on the land and housing, completing a process of social cleansing of the East End.
What’s modern about that? What’s Labour about that? This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Within a few years this country built a vast number of council houses to make good the destruction of the Blitz and end the slum conditions of the 1930s.
Now, with the country much richer, why isn’t it possible to have just such a building programme today?
Of course it’s possible. Just as it’s possible to have a minimum wage set at the European decency threshold.
To accomplish any of this we need two things. The very fact that the issue of world poverty has been put on the agenda of the G8 summit meeting at all is testimony to the tremendous movement to oppose corporate globalisation and war we have built over the last six years.
There are those who want to derail this movement, to blunt its radical edge, take it off the streets and transform it into a handful of unaccountable figures seeking crumbs from the rich and powerful on behalf of the mass of suffering people in the world.
That way lies disaster. No good has ever come of supplicating the likes of Bush and Blair. Progress has only ever come through the mass of people struggling for it.
Confronted with just such pressures to demobilise at the critical moment of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, Martin Luther King said the key thing was “to keep the movement moving”. We should heed those words today.
The second thing people are crying out for in Britain is political representatives who are of the movement and who seek to crack the neo-liberal consensus of the main parties.
I’ve just been part of an immensely successful speaking tour organised by the Respect party. We held some of the biggest political meetings for many years in towns, cities and at union conferences.
At each there was tremendous enthusiasm for what Respect has to say. The rallies helped breathe life into dozens of local campaigns and the G8 mobilisation.
They were also a significant step forward towards our goal of mounting a major challenge at next May’s council elections.
In shaking up the cosy political consensus at the general election, Respect has added to the sense of revolt in Britain.
We have drawn together pensioner activists, students, immigrant communities, trade unionists, anti-debt campaigners, anti-war activists —people who have been shut out of official politics.
We are a work in progress and we are a vehicle for radical change. The most pressing problem we have is that we are not big enough. You can do something about that.
Respect website www.respectcoalition.org