Fjord Focus

The financial crash of 2008 haunts the remote tundra east of Reykjavik.

In a bar in Búðir, eastern Iceland, the regular afternoon crowd looks on as the supersize TV relays a litany of bad news about the country's economy. An update on the struggling krona. Financial results from a Reykjavik bank that almost collapsed in the turmoil of 2008. More reflections on the Icesave debacle, and the rights and wrongs of the British government's tough demands for compensation from Iceland. The drinkers react like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. In this part of Iceland, it seems, there is no good news.

Fáskrúðsfjörður, the fjord where Búðir is the sole remaining village, is tantalisingly beautiful. But great views do not fill hungry stomachs, and on either side of the firth stand houses and entire villages that have been abandoned - a sorry tale repeated in many of Iceland's eastern fjords. This is not the Iceland depicted in the media. Unlike pre-recession Reykjavik, there was never anything showy about Fáskrúðsfjörður. No one ever drove a Porsche. And nobody here weeps for the Reykjavik financiers who lost their jobs and smart cars when Iceland's economy collapsed a year and a half ago.

Today Iceland has a centre-left government led by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, who became the country's first woman prime minister a year ago. To her fans, she is Saint Jóhanna; even critics concede that she is canny, sharp on economic issues and with a strong social conscience. Only time will tell whether Saint Jóhanna really can work a miracle with the Icelandic economy.

Handling the Icesave aftermath is central to Iceland's recovery. When the online bank collapsed in 2008, it took £3.3bn of British and Dutch savings with it; those countries' governments repaid savers, but are now seeking compensation. Icelandic taxpayers will decide what happens next in a referendum on 6 March. Polls show they are not keen to pay for the bankers' mistakes, but if compensation is vetoed, much-needed funding from the International Monetary Fund could be at risk. The prize for finding a solution may be a fast-track route into the EU and, eventually, the eurozone.
But in the bars and cafés of the eastern townships, the talk is not of long-term economic strategies, but of finding a way to survive the months ahead. Negative equity and fears for the future of jobs haunt the tundra as local communities wonder if Reykjavik's elite remember Iceland's distant east.

The early Norse settlers made landfall in this corner of Iceland in the 9th century, securing the country's starring role in the Old Norse sagas. Even now, history is everywhere, especially in the east. At Café Nielsen in Egilsstaðir, I meet Anna Baldursdóttir, a would-be poet. "Round here, we tried too hard to keep faith with the past," she says. "Every hillside, every valley evokes memories of that heroic past which was documented in the sagas."

Visitors have long been beguiled by this romantic view. Two centuries ago, the Scottish preacher Ebenezer Henderson was amazed by Iceland's "great multiplicity of boiling springs and steaming apertures". He wrote the script for millions of subsequent visitors, among them William Morris, Louis MacNeice and W H Auden, who felt that there is "not much that can be said for Reykjavik", preferring the far-flung farmsteads of the east. "I think even we believed all those notions," Baldursdóttir says. "Iceland was somehow pristine, virginal, untouched by the affairs of the modern world. We swallowed the whole tale. Much of Europe believed it. And then we discovered in 2008 that the bankers in Reykjavik were mixed up in a business so murky that a very different Iceland was revealed to all the world."

One way forward

Halfway between Búðir and Egilsstaðir stands Reyðarfjörður, the aluminium capital of eastern Iceland. This once-sleepy town now serves the interests of Alcoa - the Aluminum Company of America. Alcoa's new smelter is up and running, bringing jobs to an isolated community and a boost to the Pittsburgh-based multinational's profits.

Alcoa's engagement in Iceland comes at a hefty environmental price: the Kyoto Protocol's "Iceland Provision" is a concession allowing greenhouse-gas emissions from the plant to be discounted from Iceland's total. There are other issues, too. Government funding for the hydro scheme that powers the smelter comes to £2,500 for every Icelander. But now that the plant is complete and the migrant workers who built it have left, there are jobs for local people.

Reyðarfjörður has the air of a town enjoying a minor boom, and locals are understandably tight-lipped when outsiders suggest it has sold out. Glaciers and geysers cannot fuel a national economy, and Reyðarfjörður offers an example of one way forward. But it is a model viewed with great suspicion by many Icelanders.

The rural roads north of Egilsstaðir traverse a landscape of stark beauty. Here, the clear, cold waters that drain down from the Vatnajökull ice cap run into the sea. The rough road climbs slowly over the fells, then drops down to the very end of Iceland, a wild and rocky headland called Landsendi. In 1306, early settlers erected a crucifix here overlooking the ocean. The cross has a simple inscription, urging the traveller to pause and reflect. It is a petition that Saint Jóhanna would do well to observe as she plans a future for Iceland's troubled economy.

 

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on

CREDIT: ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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The Corbyn ultimatum

“Corbyn-hating” MPs must end their shameless smears – or face the consequences

Here are two truths about the state of the Labour Party today. First, there are a small number of members expressing entirely unacceptable anti-Semitic views and attitudes, especially on social media. The second is that this issue has joined a line of others in being used by a group of backbench Labour MPs to attack and undermine Jeremy Corbyn and the progressive leadership of the party.

The first issue is in a way easier to deal with. People holding anti-Semitic views have no place in the party, and they should be dealt with under rule as rapidly as possible. With Labour Party headquarters now under new management, I believe that this will at long last be done – that the backlog of complaints will be speedily addressed and that the Chakrabarti report will finally be implemented in full.

We should also see the high-profile cases such as that of Ken Livingstone, whose remarks linking Hitler with Zionism caused so much understandable offence, resolved. And a new political education programme will help members understand and identify anti-Semitism whenever it rears its head in future.

Let me say that I accept there are anti-Semites in the Labour Party – few in number for sure, but any is too much – and that raising the issue of combating their views is not merely legitimate, but essential. When I said that I had never encountered such attitudes in my 47 years of party membership I was speaking the truth, but of course I accept that others, and Jewish members in particular, may well have had different experiences.

There is no doubt the advantages of social media in combating the right-wing media also carry with it the darker side of cowardly individuals feeling able to use vile insults with impunity – the sooner they are routed out the better. Certainly, cleansing Labour of any trace of anti-Semitism is critical. No party committed to equality can play host to this virus. I have fought anti-Semitism and anti-Semites all my life, including physically on the streets on occasion, and I need no lectures from anyone else on the subject. I am not sure that some of the voluble backbench critics of Jeremy Corbyn can say as much: just as it is legitimate to raise and combat anti-Semitic views, it is also legitimate to contextualise the attacks of right-wing MPs without being accused of minimalising or denying anti-Semitism.

That leads on to the second issue we have to grapple with – the activity of a few dozen Labour MPs who appear to wake up each morning thinking only: “how can I undermine Jeremy Corbyn today?”

I do not doubt they are sincere in their opposition to anti-Semitism, but they need to understand that if you attack your party leader about everything, it devalues your criticisms concerning anything in particular.

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If you look at the list of MPs who rebel on one issue after another you see the same names. There is, to say the least, a marked overlap between those who backed Theresa May in risking a new bloody intervention in the Middle East, and those who work overtime trying to present the Labour Party as a morass of misogyny, anti-Semitism and bullying.

How dare they try to toxify the Labour Party that has been the voice and hope of millions of ordinary working people for generations, including the nearly 13 million people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2017? His critics enjoyed dramatic increases in their own votes – and I have to advise them that this was down to Corbyn’s campaign and his radical manifesto, not their own personal charisma.

Of course, they have a right to express their own views, a right Jeremy Corbyn exercised in his backbench days; but you would have to go back a long way to find such a sustained smearing by MPs of their own leader and their own party as we are seeing now. MPs such as Chris Leslie, Neil Coyle (my own MP), John Woodcock, Wes Streeting, Ian Austin, and others, have become a dismal chorus whose every dirge makes winning a Labour government more difficult.

Just recently Angela Smith MP moved seamlessly from not supporting Labour’s whip on the democratic issue of giving parliament a vote before government commits the country to war to rallying to the defence of the rip-off private water industry, attacking the manifesto commitment to renationalise on which she stood last June.

Their determination to divide the party into pro- and anti-Corbyn factions, despite the huge increase in Labour’s vote secured last year under Corbyn’s leadership, ultimately pollutes everything it touches. That includes the work against anti-Semitism, which is not helped by the frenzied hostility to the party leadership that is often displayed, when calm counsel would be the better option.

Take, for example, the utterly outrageous letter to Corbyn from the leader of the Israeli Labour Party, Avi Gabbay, severing relations with the Labour leader’s office. Gabbay denounced Jeremy Corbyn for “the hostility that you have shown to the Jewish community and the anti-Semitic statements and actions you have allowed”.

If no one else will say it, I will: Gabbay is guilty of a cynical and outrageous smear. The idea that Corbyn has ever shown hostility towards the Jewish community, or allowed anti-Semitic actions, is a disgusting libel of which Gabbay should be ashamed. In my view, withdrawing those remarks is essential for any resumption of normal relations with the Israeli Labour Party.

Yet I have not heard a single one of the Labour leader’s critics on this issue, including my friends in the Jewish Labour Movement, acknowledge that Gabbay had gone too far. It would seem that hostility to the party leadership trumps all other considerations, even to the point of allowing a malicious attack which could poison Labour’s standing among Jewish men and women to go unchallenged. For anyone to blame Corbyn for some vile comment made by a so-called Corbyn supporter is an affront to natural justice.

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Let me declare here my support for the Israeli state on the 1967 borders. But let me also say without hesitation that I oppose the most right-wing Israeli government in the same way I oppose all right-wing governments around the world. And I have much admiration for those Jewish socialists inside Israel who fight against their government and for peace and justice.

This all fits a pattern in which no attack on Jeremy Corbyn is considered too wild or outlandish to suffer even the mildest rebuke. I didn’t hear any criticism of outgoing general secretary, Iain McNicol, for not implementing the Chakrabarti Report – which was his responsibility. No, it was easier to blame Corbyn.

I didn’t hear any criticism over the EU referendum of Alan Johnson who was responsible for Labour’s Remain campaign. No, it was easier to blame Corbyn (even though Corbyn attended more Remain meetings than anyone).

I didn’t hear anyone question Margaret Hodge who, in the wake of the referendum, blamed Corbyn and moved a vote of no confidence against him when her own constituency, Barking, voted overwhelmingly to leave – one of only three London constituencies to do so – and whose actions were repudiated by 40 per cent of the British electorate at the first opportunity.

I am personally not in favour of mandatory reselection; I believe our present procedures for holding MPs to account are quite sufficient. However, I lost that argument overwhelmingly with the Unite executive council and at our policy conference in 2016 in the wake of the misjudged and cowardly coup against Corbyn by most of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).

I look with disgust at the behaviour of the Corbyn-hater MPs who join forces with the most reactionary elements of the media establishment and I understand why there is a growing demand for mandatory reselection.

I had hoped, after the great advances in last year’s general election under Jeremy’s leadership – advances that obviously stunned much of the PLP, even as they enjoyed their highest-ever votes in most cases – the issue could fade away. It seems I was wrong.

To watch as these so-called social democrats tried to demean and attack, in front of our enemy, a decent and honourable man who has fought racism and anti-Semitism all his life and who has breathed life and hope back into the hearts of millions, especially the young, made my stomach churn. To see Tory MPs cheer and applaud them was shameful.

Promiscuous critics must expect to be criticised, and those who wish to hold Corbyn to account can expect to be held to account themselves. 

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite.

 

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on