The Gas Men cometh

While there may be some considerable doubt about whether Goebbels was, as the ditty claims, deficient in the testicular department (he had six children, after all), there is no doubt at all that he was a master of the black arts of PR. His statement that ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it’ has become one of the guiding principles (sic) of hucksters, politicians and ‘official spokespeople’ everywhere. How proud Goebbels would have been of the activities of the press officers of the big six energy companies, and in particular Angela Knight, the former Tory minister who is chief executive of Energy UK, over the past few weeks.

Between the middle of November and the beginning of December, the energy companies all announced price increases way above the rate of inflation. SSE started the ball rolling with an increase of 8.2% in both its gas and electricity prices and the others followed its lead within days -  British Gas announced increases of 8.4% for gas and 10.4% for electricity, NPower came up with rises of 11.1% and 9.3%. EDF and Eon cannily held off for a couple of weeks, rightly expecting the Government to make some concessions to their demands for relaxations to their environmental commitments, and then announced lower increases of 3.9% and 4.3% respectively.

United Kingdom natural gas timeline

According to Citizens Advice, gas and electricity prices are rising at up to eight times the rate of increases in weekly earnings. By January 2014, the big six suppliers will have raised their prices by a total of 37% since October 2010 and gas and electricity prices will have gone up at three times the rate of inflation, which has been 10.2% over the same period. Yet the energy companies claim that it hasn’t been their fault, but partly the result of rises in wholesale prices, and that their combined profits of £3.74bn last year were ‘not particularly big’. Angela Knight insisted that energy company profits equated to just ‘four or five pence in the pound’. However, in 1998, as the market was liberalised, the regulator, Ofgem, believed 1.5% was an adequate margin for energy suppliers. Profits in other sectors like supermarkets are as low as 2%.

Ofgem estimates that the energy companies’ average net profit margin has more that doubled over the past year from £45 a household to £95. As far as the claim that it’s all the fault of huge increases in wholesale prices, Ofgem says that ‘Our own weekly monitoring…estimates that, over the last year, the cost of wholesale gas and electricity to serve a typical dual fuel customer would have risen by around £10 to £610.’

The reality is, of course, that the Big Six energy companies constitute an oligopoly. They provide about 98% of all household energy and gas. They also control 74% of electricity generation. Wholesale prices may have gone up, but for the most part it has amounted to the companies’ distribution arms simply paying more to their extraction and generation arms.

The second claim of our Angela and the Big Six’s army of spin doctors is that they are burdened by crippling ‘green taxes’ – or David Cameron’s ‘green crap’. But  only £112 of the average £1,415 energy bill is represented by green and social levies. Some of these are the subsidies to support investment in renewables, notably wind; some to promote more energy-efficient homes, typically older houses occupied by Britain’s poorest; and some to install smart meters that will help consumers to better control their energy usage as well as automatically buying for them energy from the cheapest supplier. The Government has responded to Angela’s army by announcing that it will ‘roll back’ some of these levies and says that as a consequence, the average household will see about £50 come off their annual bill – which would be nice if was not following the current much larger rises. So for example, British Gas customers have just seen their average annual dual-fuel bills go up by £123, but a £53 cut in January will still mean a £70 rise for the winter.

This reduction is being paid for in two main ways. First, the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), the scheme under which the Big Six are responsible for insulating the homes of elderly and vulnerable people, introduced only in January 2013, has had its target dates delayed by two years. Second, the Warm Homes Discount, which offers rebates to some vulnerable consumers, will come from the Treasury’s coffers, rather than the energy companies. The government says this money will be found by ‘tackling tax avoidance’, so on current form the discount could well be quietly dumped after 2015.

The companies’ response to Milliband’s very modest proposal in September that energy prices should be frozen from June 2015 to the end of 2016 has been entirely predictable. There have been a slew of warnings from energy company spokespeople that essentially all add up to  ‘if you don’t allow us to put up the bills, the lights will go out.’ Because, according to people like  Paul Massara, NPower’s chief executive, the Government hasn’t provided the industry with enough subsidy and had saddled it with ‘green taxes’, the margin between Britain’s peak winter electricity demand and the capacity of its remaining power stations is narrowing. On a recent edition of Panorama he said; ‘The amount of spare generation that is around at the peak day has gone down from about 15 per cent to about five per cent and I think next winter [it] will be even smaller. So will we get through this winter? Yes. Will we get through next winter? I don’t know’.

English: 's wind turbines in the Sound near Co...

At the same time, the energy companies are scaling back some of their offshore wind power plans. Last month plans for a huge wind farm off the north Devon coast were shelved, while this month Scottish Power Renewables announced it would not proceed with the Argyll Array scheme, a £5.4bn, 1800MW project that could have powered a million homes.

It seems to be glaringly obvious to everyone apart from the functionaries of the three main parties of capital that a privatised energy production and distribution industry that exhibits some of the worst elements of both a fragmented and short term market and a monopoly is a ludicrously inappropriate vehicle with which to rebuild and decarbonise our energy infrastructure. A recent UK public opinion poll by YouGov showed 61% in favour of common ownership of energy and only 26% against. This shows the public are way ahead of the policy makers, at least in part because they are fed up with the way so many formerly nationalised industries are ripping us off.

Capitalism is a dynamic system that will always embrace the new and relentlessly follow the logic of prices and profit, an eternally restless agency for change. But it can only ever react to today’s prices, which cannot capture what will happen tomorrow. So, left to itself, capitalism will neglect both the future and the cohesion of the society in which it trades. The energy industry is a natural monopoly; the only rational and long term option for its operation for the sustainable common good is under democratically controlled public ownership.

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The Captain finds a new berth

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A few days ago I took part in the Founding Conference of a new party, Left Unity.

The make-up of the conference was broadly what I was expecting; mainly men, largely over forty, mostly veterans of at least one of the sects and/or the various attempts at left regroupment over the past twenty years. However, there were more women than I had expected – a quarter or a third of participants perhaps – and they were in large measure confident and assertive women too. And while there were relatively few disabled people there were considerably more than would be expected at a ‘traditional’ meeting of the ‘traditional’ far left. Sadly but unsurprisingly though, there was an almost total lack of involvement by ethnic minorities.

Three things from the conference stand out for me. First was the openness of most participants (apart from the members of the two or three tiny 1917 re-enactment societies present, of course). It really was difficult to tell which way many of the votes would go, as for the most part the bulk of the participants really did seem to listen to the arguments being presented.

Second was the lack of rancour. For example, an unfortunate choice of words on the part of a speaker opposing the guarantee of at least 50% representation of women on all party bodies was not only met by a barrage of good natured jeers by women all over the hall but also a good deal of laughter at the sight of a foot so firmly placed in a mouth. Despite a number of political differences being aired, despite the (inevitably) unsatisfactorily brief opportunities to debate those differences and despite the problems in ensuring that those debates were properly balanced, everyone behaved well and no-one walked out in a huff.

Third was the optimism that even an afternoon being taken through a labyrinthine constitutional document by me and my compatriot from the IDCC, Richard Murgatroyd, couldn’t entirely stifle. People (well, most people) stayed to the end and left the hall visibly still feeling positive about our new venture.

I was expecting the day to be stressful and at times it was. I feared that it would be chaotic and at times it teetered on the edge of being so. But like most of the other participants I spoke to, I left the conference feeling that we had made at least as good a start with our new party as we could have expected – perhaps even as we could have hoped.

1470054_469482819839611_1965432076_nHowever, this isn’t the first time such an attempt to launch a party that can unite all those to the left of Labour has been made. I was involved in the most recent of them, the Socialist Alliance, and Respect.  Both ultimately failed because of egregious mistakes on the part of the leadership of the Socialist Party and the SWP in the case of the Socialist Alliance, and of the SWP and George Galloway in the case of Respect – but both had run up against the same two huge barriers that now confront Left Unity and didn’t give any indication that they had a clue how to deal with them.

The first of these is the severity of the damage done to the labour movement and to working class communities, culture and consciousness by the defeats of the 1980s and all that has followed on from them. The second is the continuing (if eroding) hegemony exercised by the Labour Party despite its all but complete abandonment of social democracy for neoliberalism with a human face. Left Unity now faces those barriers and must develop a strategy for surmounting them.

We are not springing up in the wake of a huge popular protest, as Respect did. We have not grown from splits or fusions in a strong radical left  tradition as has been the case in France, Spain, Portugal or Greece, but have emerged out of a fragmented and historically weak far left in Britain that has never in living memory been anything but marginal in the wider labour movement. And, of course, any hopes of electoral success in the short to medium term need to be modest in the extreme, not only because of the unfairness of the current first past the post system, but because any small voice on the left in 2015 (and our voice will still be extremely small by then) will be drowned out in the perfectly understandable clamour to avoid the catastrophe of another five years of the Tories by getting Labour back in.

All in all, these are not the most propitious of times in which to launch a new independent party of the radical left – no matter how broad based it aims to be. However, we don’t have the luxury of being able to wait for a more opportune moment – as Richard Seymour has written, ‘by then the foundations should already be laid, or it is too late.’ His view, which I share, is that ‘the challenge for Left Unity in the short-term is to stabilise itself, prove its ability to operate in adverse circumstances, collaborate effectively with those who continue to be in the Labour Party whether through the People’s Assemblies or more localised campaigns, and define a viable left politics that doesn’t simply speak in the idiom of forgotten eras of radicalism.’ 

But we do have some advantages over the earlier failed attempts, not least that many of us have lived through the experience of the Socialist Alliance and Respect and have the scars to prove it – so we are not going to make the same mistakes again (I hope). This initiative has been launched without the disadvantage of being seen as the personal vehicle for a puffed up and publicity hungry Media Personality. And it is not hindered by being stitched up from the start by the SWP or the Socialist Party; indeed the fact that it is not about being merely a regroupment of any permutation of the existing far left sects is one of its strengths.

Left Unity’s founding conference suggested that the bulk of its members have little or no interest in the hermeneutics of the sects, but do have a real commitment to building a renewed popular socialist movement – informed and enriched by feminism, ecosocialism and the insights and experience of organisations of and for disabled people, black people and gay and lesbian activists. Most important, there seems to be an awareness that we have to be in this for the long haul in our workplaces, trade union branches and local communities. The odds may be long, but I think we may have a chance.

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Why workers must work harder

I’ve written before about my huge admiration for Leon Rosselson, but I’m not apologising for mentioning him again. This is one of his poems from the eighties, entitled ‘Why workers must work harder, produce more and ask for less’. Quite.

Female workers in an H. J. Heinz can factory s...

So that the wheels

So that the wheels may continue

So that the wheels may continue to turn

So that the wheels may turn

Hours into ashes, days into dust, seasons into stone.

So that the turners of the wheels may dies of boredom every day, every day,

Until one day they die of boredom.

So that old age pensioners may feats on cardboard sandwiches of cough medicine.

So that our pensioners may be protected against inflation by investments in Cancer Incorporated.

So that the dust may drift.

So that Bernard Levin may lay his moderately well formed turds on the graveyard pages of the Times.

So that children’s heads may be marooned on high-rise traffic islands.

So that we may all join the equal opportunity queues to be tranquillised, barbiturised, amphetamised, hypnotised, exorcised, Lymbolised, expurgated, tabulated, stamped and sedated.

So that the Archbishop of Canterbury may stir the teacup of the soul with the silver spoon of God.

So that the money-lenders may lend money to pay interest on money borrowed from money-lenders to pay interest on money borrowed from money-lenders to pay money-lenders.

So that the dust may rise.

So that we may be free to choose between Tuberculosis International and the British Bronchitis Corporation.

So that a regiment of Redcoats from Butlins may lick our dreams into shape for knock-out competitions.

So that the ears may be filled with the din that the hands produce for the eyes to consume that the heart may wither away.

So that oil slick executives may dine out at Annabel’s.

So that allotments may be transformed into concrete memorials for the dead.

So that our children may dig dust from the earth for the wealthy to bury in vaults.

So that the balance of terror may be maintained.

So that the dust may fall.

So that the meek may inherit the earth because they haven’t the strength to refuse.

So that the lungs may be lined with the dust that kills

So that the blood may be choked with the dust that kills

So that the mind may be fogged with the dust that kills.

So that the dust may kill.

So that we may count the ashes until tomorrow, when, with energy, or after tomorrow, with determination, or after after tomorrow with a great national effort, or some time in the dust to come, when the stone is ripe, or children, or their children, or their children’s children, or their children’s children’s children may – if the dust – know what it is – if the dust doesn’t – to be – if the dust doesn’t get them – Happy.

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Political architecture, (or draw the blueprints before arguing about the furniture fabric)

Artist impression. Rob Thomas and Phil Cullen ...

My daughter is planning to build her own house in the next year or two – an exciting, if somewhat daunting prospect. However, when confronted by an empty piece of open ground and a blank sheet of paper, she’s found it much easier to start the process which will end up with a fully detailed blueprint by saying a) what she doesn’t want it to be like and b) saying, in the broadest terms, what elements it needs to contain. So she knows that she doesn’t want a tacky ‘executive home’, or a fake LA palace, or a Grand Designs type glossy ‘statement’ house. She knows she wants her house to have as little environmental impact as possible and so she doesn’t want to use materials that have high levels of embodied energy. But she does want to have four bedrooms so that she has room for her doddery old parents when they come to stay, she does want some open space for her kids to play in and does want her home to be light, warm and both cheap and easy to maintain.

So even though, at the moment, she doesn’t have any settled picture of what it will look like, she is well on the way to developing the basis on which a well thought out and fit for purpose home for the future can be designed and built – in particular one with a spare room for me, of course.

This is all a rather heavy handed and somewhat Thought for the Day like way of me introducing the idea that those of us who will be launching a new party of the left in a few weeks time are in a similar position to my daughter in the formative stages of designing her house – to start with, it’s much easier to say what the new party shouldn’t be like.

Respect Party

To start with, it shouldn’t be a rerun of the last two doomed attempts to establish a new left party in Britain, the Socialist Alliance and Respect. The first had a federal structure which was stitched up by the two largest sects, the SWP and the Socialist Party, and the second was a stitch-up between the SWP and George Galloway. In both, individual members had little or no say in the direction of the organisation and were seen simply as potential recruits to whichever of the sects was running things at the time. So, the party needs to be rigorously democratic – in reality rather than merely on paper. Keeping members informed of all aspects of the organisations activities, encouraging the widest possible debate on everything and ensuring that all ordinary rank and file party members make up the majority of the members of every elected committee or working group (and that at least 50% of them should be women) are the essential foundations of the democracy that is the lifeblood of a socialist party.

It shouldn’t be, or at least shouldn’t primarily be, a regroupment of the existing far left grouplets. The one thing that the left sects have achieved over the last thirty odd years is to promote the idea that socialists are simultaneously swivel eyed fanatics and dishonest opportunists. Their great crime has not just been that they have given socialism a bad name – which they have, nor that they have, over the years, managed to burn out and disillusion tens of thousands of new recruits and turn them away from the socialist cause, but that they have made radical socialism synonymous with their fetishistic 1917 re-enactment society forms of organisation. They have become embarrassing. While we should actively welcome all socialists into the new party, from the left of the Labour Party to the wilder shores of syndicalism or council communism (including individual members of the various rival comic opera bolshevik parties) – or even those like activists from Occupy or the Green Party who hate injustice but aren’t quite sure what socialism is, we should have nothing to do with the sects as organisations. They belong to the past

English: A stall run by the Socialist Worker's...

Lastly, we shouldn’t get obsessed about programmatic purity. Rather than telling the toiling masses, or students, or women, or any other group of ordinary people what they should be thinking or doing about about the plight of indigenous Amazonion forest dwellers, the intricacies of the civil war in Syria or the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from global warming (not that these issues aren’t important and worthy of serious consideration by socialists) we should be developing our programme for action and our priorities from the daily experience of workers and communities facing the concrete realities of day to day class struggle. To paraphrase Lenin (something I try to keep to a minimum) the party should always be one step ahead of the class – but never more than one step. That means that the party must base itself and its activity in the heart of working class communities and take its lead in terms of priorities for action from the actual concerns of those communities in order to assist them, both materially and ideologically, to develop their potential for self activity in response to the real life issues that they actually have to contend with.

Just being right (always assuming we are) isn’t going to give us any particular credibility with real life working people – indeed because much of what we have to say so conflicts with ‘common sense’, which Gramsci described as ‘the folklore of bourgeois ideology’, that our politics, if delivered as a sermon, are likely to actually undermine whatever credibility we might have. The only way that we can earn the opportunity to be taken seriously and listened to is by being seen to be the most stalwart and reliable defenders of local communities against any and all attacks on any part of them. In the process, we will learn from those communities and the party and its program will be enriched. As my old comrade Harry Wicks, a founder member of the YCL, used to say, the party has to become the university of working people, but a university in which they come to teach as well as to learn.

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An open letter to the members of Green Left

TUC Day of Action

Comrades,

An event in Manchester last month served to demonstrate to me the limitations of the politics of the Green Party. It was on the TUC demonstration in support of the NHS; a huge, cheerful and largely working class march, the biggest in Manchester in living memory, according to the local police. There were two or three Green Party banners in evidence and a scattering of people carrying Green Party placards, apparently produced specially for the march, with a variety of limp slogans along the lines of ‘Halt Austerity – we have the answer’. However, the only really significant Green Party presence that would have been noticed by most marchers was to be found on the pavement at the point were the march passed closest to the Tory conference venue. There assembled was a group of thirty or forty Greens, some in fancy dress, staging a demonstration against the culling of badgers.

Now, despite what the idiot who has taken upon himself the hand crocheted mantle of the Green Party’s Senator McCarthy may say, we ecosocialists have nothing against badgers, indeed, some of my best friends are badgers. We would all agree that the current badger cull is a bad thing, that it flies in the face of scientific evidence, that it’s likely to actually make matters worse etc, etc. However, on that day, in that place, to stage a ‘save the badger’ demo was an act of naive sectarianism.

It was sectarian in that rather than try to demonstrate the integration of the Green Party within the wider movement, so clearly represented by the huge crowd that day, the Greens in their badger masks actually sought to differentiate themselves from that movement. The demonstration was for them, at least in part, an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the broad movement against cuts to the Health Service and preach to it about badgers, and no doubt about ‘speciesism’.

As the great American socialist Hal Draper put it; ‘What characterises the classic sect was best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves.’

It was naive because, clearly, the Greens demonstrating on behalf of the badgers as the largest labour movement march in the living memory of Manchester went by just didn’t understand the significance of what was happening. They were watching a tiny flicker of resistance by the one force capable of really challenging the Tories and their bag carriers, the only force with the potential for implementing the fundamental changes to society that all of us – including the badgers no doubt – believe are vital. They were watching the giant of organised labour starting – perhaps – to stir from its long sleep.

But they didn’t get it – and the Green Party corporately doesn’t get it. For most Greens, the political landscape is timeless and largely unchanging. It is inhabited by two and a half ‘major’ political parties who compete to gain or keep political office through marketing campaigns aimed at what they see as key sections of a passive and largely apathetic electorate. The dominating urge of most Greens is to join in that competition, but with a different set of paper policies to sell. The idea that the political consciousness of ordinary people is not fixed and that they can become active participants in changing society in fundamental ways just doesn’t seem to occur to most Green would-be politicians, nor the idea that real political change will only come about through the self activity of working people organised in a mass movement.

Eighteen months or so ago, in a paper on the future of Green Left, I argued that we had to make the membership of the Green Party realise that its future had to be as ‘merely one part of a much larger, though inchoate, movement of working people who share our fundamental goal of a just and equal society.’ I suggested that Greens could play a crucial role in helping to mobilise and focus that movement and bring to it valuable insights into the ecological aspects of the crisis humanity faces, but that ‘we cannot substitute ourselves for it.’ While many members of Green Left have attempted to play such a role, their influence on the direction of the Green Party as a whole has proved to be minimal.

This Spring, in a paper for the Green Left AGM, I argued that the vacillation and programmatic zig zagging displayed by the Green Party was entirely predictable, given the sharpening political situation, the Party’s narrow social composition and the skewed and shallow nature of its radicalism. Since then, the ground has shifted even more. The Party has, in my view, begun to move to the right, with a series of significant defeats for the left at the recent party conference, the election or co-option of a number of right wingers to the Executive and the appointment of a number of wanna-be careerists as party spokespeople. At the same time, the need for a conscious and systematic attempt to work within working class communities to assist them in the concrete daily struggles that they face, with the aim of building a popular base that can begin to challenge Labour’s slowly crumbling  hegemony, has never been more urgent.

If there was no alternative to fighting what I suspect many members of Green Left know in their heart of hearts is an unwinnable battle to lever the Green party out of its comfortable niche of liberal radicalism, then a case could, I suppose, be made for continuing with it – although there are many useful single issue campaigns, along with trade union activity, that would probably be more useful. However, the world has moved on since the Spring and there is now an alternative, or at least there may be one in the next few weeks.

Ken Loach

Ken Loach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The remarkable phenomenon of the Left Unity initiative is potentially a game changer that ecosocialists would be ill advised to ignore or dismiss. The response to Ken Loach’s appearance on Question Time on 28 February, in which he said that we need a broad movement of the left to fight against the sell-off of the NHS and privatisation – ‘a UKIP of the Left’ – was extraordinary. His appeal for people ‘to discuss the formation of a new political party of the Left to bring together those who wish to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity’ was put up on Andrew Burgin’s Left Unity website a few days later and within hours hundreds of people were signing up to it. As of now, over 10,000 have signed up to Ken’s appeal and around 1,000 of those have already committed to being ‘founder members’ of the new party that will be launched at the end of November. There are 83 local groups are at various stages of formation, with perhaps half of them already active.

The key point about this initiative is that it is explicitly NOT yet another pre-doomed attempt to regroup the existing grouplets of the far left – rearranging the deck-chairs on the Potemkin, as it were. It is, rather, an attempt to build a base among the hundreds of thousands of former Labour Party members or supporters who now feel – rightly – that they have been disenfranchised. In other words, the Left Unity initiative wants to see the development of exactly the sort of broad based party of the left that Green Left has, sort of, argued the Green Party should aspire to become and it is gaining its support from exactly the constituency that we have argued that the Green Party should focus on.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this initiative will get off the ground. There is already some division between those who want the new party to follow the route described above and those who want it to be a rather more sharply drawn party which is, in effect more a regroupment of the existing organised far left (a sort of Socialist Alliance Mark II), which may or may not be resolved at the founding conference.

In my view, it’s a long shot. The odds are probably against this attempt to build a ‘party of a new sort’ succeeding. Nonetheless, it is a genuine attempt to build a mass, democratic, socialists party that is green, feminist and anti-capitalist but which is rooted in the day to day realities of the lives of ordinary people rather than concerned with telling them what they jolly well should be concerned with. That, it seems to me, has to be the highest priority of any socialist in Britain today and it is, I believe, the key priority for most members of Green Left. The decision we have to make is how best we can build such a party.

We shouldn’t continue to deceive ourselves that there is any chance that the Green Party, despite its environmental concerns and programmatic radicalism, can be transformed into such a party – indeed, the vast majority of Greens absolutely don’t want their party even to aim to be an organic part of a wider labour movement. It is a middle class radical/liberal party which, if it is not marginalised by a revival of Labour and the Lib Dems and succeeds in growing its niche audience, will be forced inexorably to the right, as all other green parties in similar circumstances have been. The Left Unity initiative may be a long shot, but unlike the Green Party it does want to build the sort of movement that most of us believe to be vital. To me, a choice between a slim chance and no chance at all is a no brainer. I will be joining the new party when it is established on 30 November and I urge all my friends and comrades in Green Left to do the same.

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Reunited at last

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Margaret Thatcher dies

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Good.

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