Paris – VIJAY SHAH via JON HENLEY and The Guardian
The last stage of the French presidential elections has begun in earnest, with the European country’s voters choosing between centre-leaning former economist Emmanuel Macron and leader of the far-right nationalist party Front National, Marine Le Pen, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reports.
Akin to the recent U.S. presidential elections where Russian hackers were accused of interfering with the system to guarantee a win for current president Donald Trump, the French voting rally has been marred by recent reports of a ‘massive online dump’ of campaign data by unknown parties and attributed to Macron’s new political movement.
Ten of thousands of stolen emails and documents, some claimed to be fake, were put in the public domain. Fearful of the likely impact on the outcome of the election, the French government has made it a criminal offence for the data to be published. The Senate also declared an electioneering blackout lasting until the close of polls today at 8 pm local time.
Macron’s election team, the En Marche! movement, condemned the hack, saying that it was “clearly an attempt at democratic destabilisation, like that seen during the last presidential campaign in the US,”
The bitter and divisive at times runoffs are a litmus test for the future direction of politics not only in France, but also in Europe, particularly as politics in the developed world increasingly swings towards the far-right. Far-right candidates were recently just about kept out of the presidential palace in Austria, and are increasingly grabbing a greater share of the vote in the U.K. and Netherlands. The two forerunners in the French elections are also polar opposites. The Guardian writes: “Macron, a 39-year-old former banker and economy minister running as an independent centrist, is economically liberal, socially progressive, globally minded and upbeat. Le Pen is a nation-first protectionist who wants to close France’s borders and possibly leave the euro and the EU.”
The last polls, published on Friday, suggest that Emmanuel Macron has a lead over Marine Le Pen of around 22-23 percentage points, buoyed in part by a recent controversial televised debate, where Le Pen was said to have spent more time laying into her rival than promoting her party’s policies to the country’s electorate.
“The commission calls on everyone present on internet sites and social networks – primarily the media, but also all citizens – to show responsibility and not pass on this content so as not to distort the sincerity of the ballot,” the national election commission said on Saturday.
Most French media decided not to break the news of the hack, whose origin was not mentioned by the Guardian. France’s leading broadsheet, Le Monde, declared it would not publish any of the 9 gigabytes of leaked data, due to both its volume and the risk of influencing the election’s outcome.
“If these documents contain revelations, Le Monde will of course publish them after having investigated them, respecting our journalistic and ethical rules, and without allowing ourselves to be exploited by the publishing calendar of anonymous actors,” the paper said.
The data was dumped onto popular sharing service Pastebin under a profile named EMLEAKS. The targeted political movement, Macron’s En Marche! (On the March!) were not perturbed by the public release of the data, saying that most of the emails were from day-to-day operations, and that some files were false, put in with the dump to ‘sow doubt and disinformation’.
France’s vote will be run in stages, with residents of the country’s overseas departments and territories being the first to mark their ballot papers. Saint Pierre and Miquelon, a small dependency off the coast of Canada’s Newfoundland island, will be the first to cast their votes. French people in the diaspora will also take priority in voting, before Metropolitan France’s 47 million voters will begin visiting around 70,000 polling stations today.
With only a week to go until the UK holds a nationwide referendum on whether to remain in the European Union or go it alone, a Remain campaigner have put together a handy little table on Word of prominent leaders, British politicians, economists, historians, scientists and other significant people and organisations and their preferences for Britain to leave or stay. A quick perusal of the Leave side of the table does reveal some rather unsavoury supporters.
I should hasten to mention that as a news blog, the Half-Eaten Mind remains neutral in the debate, and supporters of both sides are encouraged to comment on this table. This is simply something to provoke discussion on a very sensitive and history defining topic, which will affect the UK and its people for a very long time.
The EU referendum takes place on the 23rd of June, 2016, with a similar format to a normal election, albeit with a simple two-question choice rather than a selection of candidates.
Swiss voters are likely to reject a motion by the country’s government to begin paying workers what would have been the world’s highest rate of minimum wage pay, according to an online report by Irish current affairs public service RTE News. The vote, being held nationally today, will decide if employers are to be made to pay their staff a minimum wage of €18 (21.98 Swiss francs, £14.65) per hour worked. If the motion survives the vote, this means that no Swiss national can be paid less than an annual salary of £32,000.
The latest opinion poll on the minimum wage package, which is double that paid to workers in the United Kingdom, suggests that sixty-four per cent of voters are opposed, citing its potential negative impact on the buoyant Swiss economy. Local businesses are also fiercely opposed to the measure, which may leave smaller firms out of pocket.
The initiative was originally put forward by the SGB union and backed politically by the Socialist and Green parties. It is part of a raft of initiatives being put in front of the country’s voters to address pay inequality and the widening income gap in a country famed for its egalitarian policies, culture and low taxes, which have made this part of Europe a popular domicile for both local and foreign organisations. The liberal economy means that Switzerland does not currently have a national statutory minimum wage.
A Swiss employee’s pay rate is usually agreed via employment contracts. Companies in certain industries often arrange an industry-wide minimum wage via ‘collective bargaining agreements’ between competitors.
As in many other European countries, public anger has increased at the widening gulf in pay between top CEOs and other executives and workers at the opposite end of the pay spectrum. Those on the lower wage scales have seen take-home pay lag in real terms, while bonuses and pay cheques for executives have expanded continuously even six years after the 2008 credit crunch.
Supporters of the minimum wage package say it will put an end to the wage disparity between the richest Swiss and the poorest, and will see an average worker take home at least 4,000 francs (£2,666) per month, enabling those working in industries like retail, lower-grade office work and hospitality to live a far better standard of living. Many also cite the high costs of living in cities such as Geneva and Zurich, which attract many investors and financial high-fliers. This has led to more expensive outlets and higher property prices that disadvantage the less well off. According to the BBC, an average one-bedroom city centre flat in Zurich, Berne or Lausanne can cost 1,800 francs (£1,199.70) per month. This does not include further costs such as utility bills and health insurance, which totals around 400-600 francs (£267-400) monthly. A restaurant meal for two in a popular five-star eaterie can set diners back 100-150 francs (£66-£100). The higher cost of living also means lower-paid workers are forced to claim government benefits to top up pay, meaning in effect the government subsidises employers who refuse to pay a livable wage, supporters say. Opponents however say that the measure will damage competitiveness among Swiss businesses. Companies unable to pay the higher salaries would be forced to shed their minimum wage workforce, meaning that the policy may increase unemployment, particularly among the young and newly employed, and do more harm than good to the lower-paid.
“HEM News Agency” – The Half-Eaten Mind, Twitter LINK
The London Borough of Newham is situated in London’s eastern flanks and is well known for its ethnically and cultural diverse population, its collection of close-knit communities, vibrant workforce and more controversially, for its reputation as one of the poorest of Greater London’s 32 boroughs. Once home to part of the old east London dockyards and the crossroads between the East End and the county of Essex, Newham now has a population of over 310,500, according to the last national Census of 2011.
Traditionally, Newham was a working-class area, home to factory workers and dockers. Though demographics have changed a lot since the last century, the borough has largely remained true to its working-class roots. Politically, the borough’s working class profile and traditional ‘East End values’ of community and family has kept it a Labour stronghold, although the Conservatives and various smaller parties including the Greens, the Christian People’s Alliance and a mix of socialists and independents now also have wide support among some of the borough’s residents.
The current Mayor of Newham is Sir Robin Wales, who represents Labour. Born in 1955 in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, Scotland, Sir Wales was elected in 2002 and was the borough’s first directly elected Labour mayor at the time of his appointment. Wales also made another first as England’s first directed mayor from the party after mayoral reformations instigated in 2002, enabled Newham residents to have a direct say in who governs them. He has led Newham Council as a councillor since 1995. Sir Wales was elected twice more in 2006 and 2010.
While the Mayor has been lauded for his efforts in raising the borough’s profile, including new opportunities in education and training for Newham’s unemployed residents, helping the borough secure holding rights for most of the 2012 Olympics events and sites; and establishing reading, sports and musical programmes for the borough’s schoolchildren; he has also come under controversy. He tangled with traders in the Queen’s Market in Upton Park who protested against the demolition of their businesses for a housing development project and has come under fire for awarding himself a 4 per cent pay rise at a time when Newham Council has lost a significant amount of central government funding and has been financially pressured into forcing through devastating cutbacks in council services. The Mayor has also affected his political standing and overall popularity slightly with Newham’s ethnic minorities while realising his vision of ethnic cohesion. His bid to promote greater integration between Newham’s many peoples has seen council premises been closed to events celebrating individual ethnic groups and the removal of foreign language newspapers from all of the borough’s libraries in a bid to pressure immigrants into acquiring English skills. Funding for the borough’s highly regarded translation services has been slashed and Sir Robin Wales has been accused of veering to the right and suppressing diversity to attract white middle-class voters, while the Mayor’s office claims he is putting an end to ethnic ‘apartheid’ and has helped non-white residents and recent immigrants by tackling poor housing conditions for example. Recently, the Mayor has come out in support of working people, supporting residents’ desires to improve their lives and being accessible to locals in listening to their views and concerns. He aims to give people a better standard of living and spending appropriately council money on services people need, according to a statement published on the council’s website.
Newham’s next mayoral elections are scheduled for 22 May 2014. As many people grow increasingly weary of government cutbacks in services and financial support and the disillusionment among Newham’s working poor and unemployed remains as strong as ever, a new political party has began making its presence felt in the borough, while other mayoral candidates from parties big and small begin canvassing voters to appoint the possible successor to Robin Wales.
The Newham Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is an alternative newcomer to the borough’s political scene – it is a local branch of the countrywide socialist political activism group of the same name, as is the norm with the mainstream ‘big three’ parties. Their website and blog only began operations in February this year, and were formed as a political reaction to the government’s austerity cuts, including the benefits cap which has become hated by many Newham residents struggling with rising rents and prices and declining income, as Westminster tries to cut expenditure in public spending and the billion-pound strong welfare bill. The party made up of a coalition of locally based trade unionists and left-wing politicians who have united to fight via the ballot box what they call “the 100% New Labour council that has carried through the Con-Dems’ cuts”.
The TUSC have put forward Lois Austin as their candidate to usurp Sir Wales at the May local elections. A dyed-in-the-wool trade unionist and activist, she has supported working people’s rights since her teenage years and participated in protests against the despised Poll Tax instituted by the late Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in the Eighties. She has also being involved in anti-racism campaigns after the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence, a Caribbean-British teenager in 1993 and was a member of the Stop The War Coalition protesting against British involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan at the turn of the 21st century. Just before joining the TUSC and throwing her hat into the Mayoral candidate race, Austin was working in a trade union campaigning against privatisation of government services and job cuts, while also a housing activist defending the need for social housing, ironically a policy established all over the country by the current Mayor’s ‘Old Labour’ predecessors.
Austin has been billed as the ‘Worker’s Mayor’. While Sir Robin Wales has awarded himself a pay rise that has pushed up his yearly mayor’s salary to £80,029, the TUSC candidate for Newham’s highest political prize promises to only award herself the salary of an average working Londoner which is around £24,000 as of 2012 levels. Both her and her party have championed themselves for the causes and representation of working people’s rights, which could well see her donning the Mayor’s robe and chains as mainstream politicians still reel from the recent expenses scandal and frequent accusations of wasteful spending. The TUSC condemns Newham Council for allegedly calling out bailiffs on almost fifty per cent of its properties to chase council tenants for rent arrears while at the same time spending £111 million of taxpayer-sourced funds on the modern Building 1000 office complex which aims to centralise Newham Council’s various services, which are currently dispersed across the borough. The Labour-led council has also been slammed by the TUSC for pushing forward the benefits and council funding cuts ordered by the Cameron-Clegg administration despite having a reserve funds kitty of £185 million, according to Austin.
While taking an average worker’s salary in solidarity with struggling average and low-income Newhamers, Austin will donate the rest of the mayoral salary to charity, especially campaigns for social justice for working families, and additionally has pledged to only claim the bare minimum in expenses needed to do her job as Mayor if she is elected in less than two months’ time. Her election manifesto for Newham includes a cap on private rents rather than benefits and a complete reversal of the Cameron austerity cuts alongside a war on rogue ‘rip-off’ landlords who charge above-market rents to desperate homeseekers. Austin also proposes to bring private rents in line with the council’s social housing rents. She wants to make housing more affordable and more available by building extra council housing stock on unused brownfield sites in Newham as well as acquire empty properties to house the borough’s rapidly growing population.
In a direct challenge to the Government’s programme of austerity cuts, Austin also plans to abolish the council’s policy of imposing the widely derided ‘ bedroom tax’ – where people with spare bedrooms and who claim housing benefits are forced to take a cut in their welfare payments – as well as the new council tax payments that Newham’s current adminstration have imposed on benefits claimants due to Whitehall’s decision to no longer fund Newham’s welfare bill – the same claimants who were previously exempt from paying any council tax pre-recession. She also plans to write off council arrears caused by austerity and to shield Newham’s NHS medical trusts from the government’s bid to outsource their services to private companies to save money. Her manifesto is also good news to the homeless and people trapped in ‘zero-hours’ contracts – jobs whereonly the minimum wage is usually paid and hours are arbitrary and given at short notice – who have particularly felt the post-recession austerity impact while their numbers have increased. Her manifesto proposes the introduction of a borough-wide minimum wage of £10 an hour, somewhat higher than the current London Living Wage of £8.80 per hour and resurrect the Educational Maintenance Allowance supplement for college students from poorer backgrounds, another victim of costcutting decisions from central government.
Lois Austin has already proved an obstacle for the current mayor, who may well seek a fourth term. Last week, at the Manor Park Library, she and a group of mothers from Focus E15, a Stratford-based charity for single parents and teenagers from deprived backgrounds, confronted Sir Robin Wales at a ‘Meet the Mayor’ event. In a blog post she is shown confronting the mayor with a group of mothers from Focus E15, who have allegedly been threatened with eviction while the Mayor, wearing a suit andhis regalia, is seen in a photo discussing the council’s position. Activists from the TUSC have also commenced canvassing potential voters with brightly coloured leaflets. One was seen distributing the A4 sized pamphlets to commuters returning home at the exit of Plaistow tube station this past week and the TUSC are organising a meeting at the Katherine Road Community Centre in Forest Gate. The meeting is scheduled to take place on the 5th of April where Austin will be in attendance with other party candidates, which will also mark TUSC’s official election launch.
The official position of the Mayor’s Office on the new socialist challenge from Lois and the Newham TUSC is not clear, but the Socialist Party claimed on its website that the Mayor was seen behaving dismissively towards campaigners in a 2011 protest against the Labour-led cabinet at Newham Town Hall in East Ham. 150 trade unionists and local residents had assembled in front of the large redbrick Victorian complex and were petitioning the cabinet against the first wave of post-recession cuts – which included the loss of 200 council jobs and a seven per cent rise in council tax bills. Sir Wales was said to appeared on the town hall steps ‘smirking’ and was then alleged to have made ‘provocative gestures’ towards the protesters before ‘retreating behind police lines’.
DISCLAIMER: The Half-Eaten Mind is a news blog. It is not affiliated with any political party, politician or political movement or ideology and is independent of the author or site owner’s own political views and opinions, unless otherwise stated in the articleor in a disclaimer like this one.
“London Borough of Newham” – Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. LINK
“Robin Wales” – Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. LINK
“Newham mayor accused of attack on immigrants after launching ethnic integration plan” – Joseph Watts, London Evening Standard/Evening Standard Limited (19 September 2013) LINK
“Elections – voting” – Newham London/Newham Council LINK
“About” – Newham TUSC Against Cuts/Newham TUSC LINK
“New UK Living Wage £7.65 New London rate £8.80” – Living Wage Foundation/Citizens UK (4 November 2013) LINK
“Newham TUSC mayoral candidate joins Focus E15 mums to confront austerity mayor” – Newham TUSC Against Cuts/Newham TUSC (22 March 2014) LINK
“Mayor’s priorities” – Sir Robin Wales, Newham London/Newham Council LINK
” ‘One-party state’ Labour regime in Newham imposes cuts” – Socialist Party (2 March 2011) LINK
“Where’s our recovery? – FIGHT BACK AGAINST THE CUTS ” – Bob Severn & Lois Austin, Newham Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (leaflet)
“File:London Borough of Newham.jpg” – Atelier Joly, Wikimedia Commons (14 November 2004) LINK
“tmp_20140329_1149491578539522” – Vijay Shah/The Half-Eaten Mind, Flickr (29 March 2014) LINK
“File:Newham Town Hall.jpg” – Piolinfax, Wikimedia Commons (16 February 2005) LINK
“File:TUSC transparency.png” – Ben Robinson/TUSC, Wikimedia Commons (2 February 2010) LINK