Mark Thomas finds America on the side of the angels

I am surprised to find myself saying this, but in the case of Burma the neo-cons might just be on th

We expect politicians to say preposterous things: it's part of the pay-off for having them. They get into office, promptly ignore us and then berate us for not being interested in them. On the upside, we can always rely on them to utter something so ridiculous, it makes David Icke appear statesmanlike. Charles Clarke, for example, said he hoped to have abolished antisocial behaviour by 2010. For anyone interested in joining this vital debate, I'm spending New Year's Eve 2010 on Clarke's doorstep. As the midnight chimes usher in 2011, I'll be shouting "Wanker" through

his letter box. At present, this is on the cusp of the

legal definition of terrorist activity; God knows how it will be regarded by 2011. So if you want to join me, please bring body armour and three months' worth of reading material with you.

Despite believing we should never underestimate new Labour's reactionary capabilities, I am surprised to hear myself saying that "new Labour is losing ground to the Tories on international human rights", and "UK foreign policy should follow America's lead". Just saying these words sounds wrong, in the same way as choosing to play a Gary Glitter song does (though that doesn't rule out Blair walking on to "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)" at the next party conference). But, in the case of Burma, the neo-cons might just be on the side of the angels.

On 20 September came the publication of a report commissioned by Vaclav Havel (former president of the Czech Republic, dissident and Velvet Underground fan - so not too bad a chap) and Bishop Desmond Tutu (Nobel Peace Prizewinner, anti-apartheid activist and easily the best dancer the clergy has ever put forward - again, not too bad a chap).

The report, compiled by the international law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, is called Threat to the Peace: a call for the UN Security Council to act in Burma. The report lists the abuses and horrors of the Burmese military regime and compares Burma's record with those of other countries that have come before the UN Security Council. Burma's case is unique, in that it ticks every single one of the boxes for international action. Let's run through them:

1) Overthrow of a democratic government - the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won elections in 1990 with more than 80 per cent of the vote but has never been allowed to take office.

2) Factional conflict - the "protracted and violent oppression of ethnic groups in Burma".

3) Widespread human-rights violations - use of forced labour and child soldiers; destruction of 2,700 villages since 1996; frequent raping of women from ethnic minorities by government troops.

4) Outflow of refugees - almost 700,000 refugees have come out of Burma in recent years.

5) Drug protection and drug trafficking - it's the Afghanistan of the Far East. Nuff said.

Burma surely qualifies as a candidate for international action, even before you also consider that its military budget is between 30 and 50 per cent of total annual spending - this despite World Health Organisation rankings for public healthcare that place Burma 190th in a field of 191 countries.

It is important to say that this is not a call for military intervention. I know the Americans are backing the demand to bring Burma before the Security Council, but they have not invaded every country that has been the target of Council action (it just feels like that sometimes). The call is for the international community to focus diplomatic pressure on Burma.

Yet the British government is not following America's lead on this, nor is it supporting the call to put Burma before the UN Security Council. At the most inopportune moment, Jack Straw and Tony Blair have developed a sense of independence. This means George Bush is now in a position to defend the UK/US alliance on the grounds that it enables him to curb some of Blair's reactionary excesses.

The Conservative MP John Bercow, joint chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma, knows what should be done: "It is time the UN Security Council denounced this bunch of sadistic thugs . . . It should demand that the government of Burma stop abusing its own citizens, release all political prisoners and set out an agreed timetable for the transition to democracy. Failing this, the UN should apply rigorous, targeted economic sanctions to squeeze the junta until it bursts." A Tory said that!

Roger Lyons, a patron of the Burma Campaign, said: "This is the worst position the UK government could put itself in . . .

The Tories and America have outflanked Labour on this issue."

No doubt Foreign Office mandarins will mutter about the British way of making protests in private, but where has this got us? The newly appointed Foreign Office desk officer for Burma was due to visit the country a few months ago but, according to Lyons, he wasn't given a visa. "This is an unprecedented slap in the face for the UK government," he said.

I might not expect much from politicians, but you would have thought, at a time when the Tories and the US are outflanking Blair, that he would do the right thing - if only as an act of self-preservation.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, A very corporate loss of nerve

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.