Labour’s 75 Years: How relevant are leftist political parties today? 

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

How relevant are leftist political parties today amid the overwhelming power of financial markets? The Labour Party in England, the Democrats in the USA, the Parti Socialiste in France and the Partido Socialista Popular in Spain and other leftist parties across the world as well as the Labour party in Mauritius all responded to the demand for representing the working classes and for defending their needs and interests at a time when their numbers swelled in the wake of industrialization in Europe and in trade unions and the pre-independence movement in Mauritius.

Major inroads were made in the field of education, health care and in obtaining workers’ rights. Today, we take it for granted that people should take a rest at least one day a week. Yet, in France, leftist activists had to fight hard for this right and even harder to have some holidays and still get their monthly salary. It foreshadowed other rights such as sick leave, local leave, etc. In the early years of American industrialization in the 1900s, socialism took root in trade union movements to defend hard-pressed factory workers toiling in assembly lines like robots to satisfy the maximum profit policy of their employers. The idea was to squeeze the juice out of workers and impose a quick pace of work to obtain the highest productivity. Such had been the policy in the days of slavery and indentured labour in Mauritius and other former colonies.

In the west, under the pressure of communist parties, leftist parties in power were forced to make headway in terms of working conditions and employment allowances. In the post-independence era in Mauritius, workers’ rights were still an issue taken up by a new trade unionism. Men’s exploitation of their fellowmen is a never-ending issue. In an era of booming prosperity in the 1990s, it was a common practice for employers to unscrupulously lay off their new employees without any warning after a period of eleven months to avoid paying the end-of-the-year bonus. For decades, successive governments put up with arbitrary laws dictated by employers in the Free Zone sector. Today, just see how workers’ protests are silenced, how Indian and other foreign workers are deported without further ado while the Ministry of Labour keeps mum over such abuses.

In the context of a world market economy, which all parties have embraced and of the current economic crisis, the population is looking up to the ideals of social justice and the right public services for the development of every individual’s potential, which the Labour Party has always stood for. Much progress has been made in the field of education and health care over the last decades. Just how leftist parties manage to guarantee the social welfare of the people in an ultra-liberal economic system is the concern of one and all. How public utilities such as water, electricity and railway transport have been privatized against public opinion in England and France has been perceived as a betrayal of leftist values. It is in the public interest that core services remain state-sponsored in Mauritius.

Mauritian economy started on blatant huge disparities with a plantocracy and free labour three hundred years ago in the economic climate prevalent at the time, namely that Europeans had the God-given right to exploit all land and sea surfaces of the planet for their enrichment using other races to work for them for a pittance. In any country, it is an illusion to believe that those who hold power and wealth will ever relinquish it one day; it has never happened in the past and it is not likely to happen today or at any time in the future. On the contrary, their ambition is to expand and acquire more wealth and power, and they are ingenious enough to devise ways and means to keep it in a closed circle. People are still waiting to see how a leftist party strives to create more equality and ensure the fair distribution of the profits of a country’s workforce.

In China, the success of the Communist party is also due to the commitment of the politicians to the values of patriotism, the uplift of the proletariat by improving working and living conditions for one and all. Though these conditions are not perfect, China has avoided the widespread poverty that has plagued India for decades. Today, it seems that only a hundred politicians are committed to the values of the party, others are joining the party with an eye for self-enrichment. This is undermining the party as lots of them are in connivance with the corporate world and the police force in the provinces to further their own interests to the detriment of the population. In January, the central government vowed to regulate land speculation as foreign investors keep pouring in and local people are driven out of their homes and lands by corrupt police officers. The highest rate of suicide recorded is among the elderly population.

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Labour Party, it would be interesting to see how the honourable guests from different countries envision the future, if they foresee the disappearance of the middle class in some societies and the re-establishment of a bi-polar social structure of a powerful few and a dependent and powerless working class receiving the benefits of the ‘trickle down’ policy at the bottom of the ladder. Or how they intend to live up to the values they stand for, and hope to satisfy the expectations of a more and more educated public and the aspirations to social justice of the younger generations.

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Had it been done by the Indian forces, it would have hit the headlines in the press internationally and raised an outcry over the future of an oppressed people who should be given the freedom they are demanding. Yet, no one took to the streets in Jammu and Kashmir some time ago after the cold-blooded murder of two young girls by five young men. Three suspects are believed to be from Laskar-e-Toiba and the other two being local Kashmiris. The brutal death of the two sisters in Sopore left two heart-broken parents who never thought such a tragedy would befall them. The reason for the murder was not stated except some vague allusion to the girls having strayed from interpretation of religion. From what we know about such atrocities, wearing jeans, smiling and looking modern are enough to ignite the ire of the self-proclaimed guardians of religious precepts among the male population.

In Bangla Desh, a fourteen-year old girl was abducted from her home by a group of villagers. The reason was she had an affair with a married man who was her cousin. The punishment was a hundred lashes, and it was attended by the latter’s wife. After a week in hospital, she died. Another woman was killed for having an affair with a younger male member among her relatives.

The fear of the terrible wrath of the village males back home could have driven the Bangladeshi woman, a factory worker in Mauritius, to a state of hysteria, an uncontrollable fear of being exposed to public judgment, which prompted her to allegedly commit the horrible murder of her husband’s cousin at the foot of Corps de Garde mountain. In such a state, a suspension of all reasoning and thinking gives way to an overwhelming surge of violence. The poor hapless cousin paid the price for the violent ideology back home where angry minds have not been moderated by education.

It should be hoped that the romanticism associated with violence will disappear if there were more people like the Tunisian scholar, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, who has written on public freedoms and ‘The Way to Civilization’ among other books, and who returned to his country recently after a 21- year exile.

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God in His Mercy

One of the activists arrested in the revolutionary movement that swept across Cairo recently, a young man in his thirties, was interviewed on the Egyptian TV shortly after his release. Hardly did he begin to talk about how he had been tortured in his cell and how he heard the screams of others like him who were being tortured that he broke into uncontrollable tears and left the studio. Three hundred people had been killed in the protest movements though no information was given on the circumstances of their death.

Few qualms emanated from Omar Suleiman, the Egyption vice-president as he announced the departure of Hosni Mubarak on television. As a staunch supporter of the US anti-terrorist crackdown, he is known to have been fully co-operative with the CIA in the handling of suspects flown to Egypt. He is reported to have personally attended the torture sessions of prisoners. The BBC translation of his speech made in Arabic quotes him as saying ‘God in His Mercy…’ to announce the departure of his president. Except that the prisoners who fell into his custody did not have the benefit of his mercy.

Temptations to resort to iron-fisted methods and torture still prevail in some half-cooked democracies where police inspectors pose with the accused for media coverage. The swollen face of the suspect leaves no doubt about how confession is extorted during interrogation and the smiling face of the police inspector exudes the satisfaction of scoring points and probably the hope for a career advancement. Yet, violence and torture are absolutely unnecessary as modern methods of interrogation are available and prove to be efficient even in high-profile crimes.

In Mauritius, not apathy and indifference but constant vigilance should be expected from the general public and human rights groups to denounce violence committed in police custody and to see to it that the police authorities strive to acquire modern methods for greater efficiency.

* Published in print edition on 18 February 2011

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