Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
|'A parliamentary head with no roots'?|
'I've never knocked on anyone's door and found them saying "I am not voting for you because of the unions and the block vote". It isn't a problem: This is how one of a disappearing breed of Labour activists summed up the debate which took centre stage at this year's Labour conference.
The row over One Member One Vote (OMOV) became the key issue in Brighton this year, supposedly marking the difference between the 'mods' and the 'trads' in the party. For supporters of OMOV, like Bill Jordan of the AEEU, its defeat at conference could be one of the 'costliest mistakes in political history,' while chief among those lined up against the attack on union links were the two big general unions, the GMB and TGWU.
In a Britain where unemployment is in reality over four million, the NHS is being dismantled, the welfare system is under attack and racism is on the increase, this internal wrangling over party structures is an insult to those who traditionally look to Labour to represent them. In reality the row reflects the party's continued inability to sense--much less give a direction to--the bitterness that exists amongst working people after 14 years of Tory rule.
Having swallowed the arguments about a disappearing working class taking away its traditional constituency, Labour's attack on union links is a conscious effort to attract new voters from the middle classes which the vast majority of the parliamentary party now believes are the key to it winning a future election.
Labour's stance was exemplified by shadow health minister David Blunkett with his calls for 'well managed, well afforded public services'. This falls far short of the firm promises of the well staffed, properly funded health service we need. Labour leaders opposed a motion calling for VAT to be taken off fuel should they be elected. Only eight members of the NEC voted to renationalise the coal industry.
The weakness of the left at the conference was plain to see. In fact one of the most outspoken opponents of OMOV and John Smith's leadership in general has been Bryan Gould, who campaigned for the leadership of the party last year in support of OMOV.
Tony Benn's departure from the NEC after 34 years is a further blow to the left, and his replacement by Harriet Harman is another indication of Labour's rightward romp.
The gap between the Labour leadership and its withering base of party activists was also brought sharply into focus by conference. A survey carried out just before Brighton showed that around 40 percent of Labour Party members were less active in 1992 than they had been in 1990. In 1990, 82 percent had been involved in some form of party activity whereas by 1992 this had fallen to just over 50 percent.
A quarter of Labour members who had left the party over the period blamed the abandonment by the leadership of Labour's basic principles or 'it's moved too far to the right.' At conference this was reflected around OMOV debates and debates over Labour's tax plans, with one delegate declaring 'I would campaign around higher taxes tomorrow... people would accept them if they knew they were going to pay for better services.'
However, unease about the state of the party and its lack of forthright direction was reflected in the hints of splits and dissatisfaction expressed in John Smith's leadership. The supposed rift between Smith and his deputy Margaret Beckett is both a sign of her allegiance to her union backers, the TGWU, and an attempt to distance herself from the leader. Shadow chancellor Gordon Brown's slightly more forthright comments pledging a Labour government to lessen the 'unacceptable' gap between rich and poor may also have reflected a grass roots pressure. However, the Financial Times has pointed out that Brown will probably drop such comments after the conference.
The tensions in the party also opened up a gap for the middle ground with the likes of Peter Hain arguing 'we must not replace the red flag in order to raise the white flag.' Clearly some in the parliamentary party can see that the inability of the Labour leadership to reflect the levels of anger in society, which has caused the diminishing number of activists at constituency level, can be disastrous. The party can become, as Patrick Seyd of Sheffield University pointed out after his survey of Labour members, 'a parliamentary head with no roots.'
In large part the party's fate lies not in internal wranglings over party structures but in the class struggles which are ahead. A resurgence of mass activity, strikes and demonstrations can see people looking to Labour to provide solutions despite its history of failure and betrayal, and its lack of current leadership.
But before then the opportunities are there for socialists outside Labour to pull together and organise those who want to fight back against the attacks now, and provide an alternative to the rotten record of parliamentary reformism.
Although the Tories have long since been in any fit state to carry through the kind of ritual coercion of the unions normally associated with Thatcher, commentators continue to play up the images of a movement on the verge of extinction.
Nevertheless, the internal debates of this historical relic are still regarded as important enough to merit live coverage during TUC week, the key decisions still make front page news, and the slightest hint of a more radical stance than usual is instantly condemned as potentially calamitous. Hence the uproar over the big unions' relatively mild questioning of John Smith's plans for one member one vote.
One key strand of the argument, which has been repeated ad nauseam for most of the last 10 years, has been to embroider the available evidence for declining trade union membership and offer up structural, rather than political, explanations for the weakness of the TUC.
This year we were told that total union membership in Britain is now down to seven million. Match this against a total working population of around 21 million and you come up with an average trade union density of 30 percent.
But, unless you are out to deliberately put the worst possible complexion on the figures, it is pure baloney to match up the lowest available figure for union membership against the highest available for the overall workforce, especially when the latter includes several million self employed, another few million barred from union membership (police, armed forces and GCHQ staff, for example) and when the figures take no proper account of the allegiance of about four million unemployed.
The new magic figure of seven million comes from the annual report to the TUC conference. The TUC's own estimates are always the lowest available because they exclude all unions not affiliated to the TUC. Add in organisations like the RCN, AMMA and breakaways like the UDM and you increase the total by two million.
This figure of nearer nine million is confirmed by all the official censuses and records produced by the Department of Employment, the Labour Force Survey and the annual report of the Certification Officer. Despite all the losses, no other organisation in the country could claim even a fraction of this scale of membership.
It's still a marked drop from the figure of just under 13 million recorded in 1979, but that was a peak year. Union membership today is at much the same level as it was in the 1960s, more than double the level of the 1930s, and four or five times as large as at the turn of the century.
It is important to challenge the usual distortions, if only because the usual litany of disaster can be a bit demoralising. The personnel departments of Britain's biggest companies are not so easily hoodwinked. Their everyday experience is of high concentrations of union membership, from the shopfloor right up to the lower levels of management. In the public sector, employers nowadays have to contend with levels of union membership and a framework of union organisation undreamt of 20 years ago. In health, education and ocal and national government, average union density is between 55 and 70 percent. In British Rail, the fire service and all of the public utilities this figure rises to nearer 90 percent.
Without this, it would be difficult to explain the wholesale opposition to John Patten amongst teachers earlier this year, the fact that not a single train ran during the recent one day stoppages on British Rail, or even why UNISON is now the single largest union in the country, with well over one million members (including the 350 in Tower Hamlets prepared to walk out over the BNP).
Even though much of their recent growth has been achieved through mergers and acquisitions, rather than successful membership campaigns, the five big `super unions'--AEEU, TGWU, GMB, MSF and UNISON--are every bit as powerful as anything which existed in the past.
There have been important structural shifts during the last 20 years, notably from manufacturing and to the public and service sectors, and with a much higher proportion of women working both full time and part time. But none of these factors really helps to explain the decline in morale which has been most evident in the leadership of the TUC.
Essentially this arises from its political cowardice during the Thatcher years, the performance conditioned at every turn by an even more timorous Labour leadership. Political judgements determined compliance rather than defiance of union laws and it was refusal to mobilise industrial action in support of the miners, not the lack of real power, that led to the pit closures.
The deafening silence which greeted Norman Willis's long overdue departure may demonstrate that at least some sections of the bureaucracy now recognise that the rot has set in a bit too far. It's getting to something, after all, when an enormous sigh of relief goes up simply to discover that the new General Secretary, John Monks, can put a few sentences together, in roughly the right order.
Whether the shift in presentation can be matched by effective action will be put to the test very soon as a result of the Tories' decision to press ahead with a clampdown on public sector pay for the second year. First time round the leaders of virtually every public sector union blankly refused to ratify a whole series of ballots for industrial action.
Again this was a political judgement, based on the promise that the first year limit of 1.5 percent would not be repeated. That this is no longer the intention has created a genuine sense of shock and betrayal among leaders of all public sector unions.-Let's hope it may just be the final straw which forces the TUC to start fighting its ground instead of crying about its self imposed impotence.
The Middle East 'peace' deal changes nothing. Its high talk about 'coexistence and mutual dignity' hides the reality: the racist state of Israel is still in control of Palestine, most of whose five million people remain scattered across the Middle East as refugees. Only Israel benefits from 'autonomy' in Gaza and Jericho, where Yasser Arafat becomes a Palestinian policeman who aims to crush resistance the Israeli army could not destroy.
Some Palestinians have celebrated the deal--an expression of their desperation and hope for a future free of relentless Israeli repression. Many have backed Arafat as the man with the money, for the Washington treaty has been followed by promises of massive Western aid, starting with a World Bank development plan. Its pledge of $3 billion over ten years is a drop in the ocean of poverty that dominates the camps of Gaza, but already even this is in doubt.
Gaza and the West Bank will continue to function as Arab bantustans, supplying cheap labour for Israel and acting as the largest market for Israeli consumer products. This exploitation is reflected in the grotesque inequality between Israelis and Palestinians of the Occupied Territories: in the West Bank average income is currently less than a fifth of that received by Israelis; in Gaza it is less than an eighth.
'Peace' will leave Israeli settlements untouched. In Gaza, Jewish settlers make up 0.4 percent of the area's population but occupy, on average, less than 0.0006 of an acre, making Gaza the most densely populated area in the world.
In the West Bank, for which even 'autonomy' is no more than a vague proposal, construction of Israeli settlements has accelerated under Rabin's Labour government and some 60 percent of land is now under Israeli control.
At home the Israeli government has spelt out that the treaty is a defeat for the Palestinians. It maintains that 'autonomy' in Gaza is a means of easing Israel's biggest problem--policing a rebellious Palestinian population that has been moving under the influence of Islamic activism. (Jericho, a West Bank town of only 15,000 people, has been chosen for the relative passivity of its population and added to help Arafat sell the deal.)
Israeli leaders hope the treaty will allow new agreements with the Arab regimes, bringing 'normalisation' and an end to trade boycotts and withholding of economic aid, especially from Europe. They believe that in the long run these changes will help Israel's integration into the regional economy as a centre for manufacturing and services.
This prospect does not disturb Yasser Arafat. Since the 1950s he and other leaders of AI Fatah have worked for the establishment of what they call a Palestinian 'entity'--a statelet within which Palestinian businessmen like themselves could conduct 'national' affairs on the same basis as other Arab regimes.
By the early 1970s Fatah had abandoned any idea of liberating the whole of Palestine and was committed to the idea of a 'ministate' in the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip--just 21 percent of Palestinian territory. A tiny portion of this area is now enough to guarantee Arafat's signature on the Washington treaty.
The PLO leader would have preferred more land but his extreme weakness has allowed Israel to dictate terms. This feebleness is the result of two interrelated developments--the movement's financial collapse and Palestinians' perception that the PLO is politically bankrupt.
Arafat has always insisted that the struggle for Palestinian liberation would never threaten Arab regimes. For 25 years this guarantee of good conduct brought billions of dollars from Gulf rulers, buying influence for Fatah throughout the Palestinian diaspora and in the Occupied Territories. This has been especially important during the two great explosions of Palestinian mass activity: that in the late 1960s, when Saudi Arabia first began to fund Fatah, and 20 years later when the Intifada, or uprising, challenged Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel met the Intifada with brute force while Arafat did his best to suffocate the uprising by seizing control of rank and file committees which emerged to run economic and political life in the Territories. A generation of angry, disillusioned Palestinian youth has since rejected PLO accommodation to the Zionist state, turning to the more defiant rhetoric of Islamic movements such as Hamas and Jihad.
As his political base collapsed Arafat discovered that the Gulf regimes were also deserting him. Funds began to dry up, not only because of PLO opposition to Western intervention in Kuwait in 1991, but as a result of the problems of Arab capitalism in general. A falling oil price has left even Saudi Arabia in difficulty--the $80 billion of foreign reserves its rulers boasted in the late 1980s has fallen to $6 billion today. When the Gulf rulers started to turn off the tap, Arafat's PLO apparatus--which needs $30 million to $40 million a month--went into a tailspin.
By this year Arafat was weaker than at any time since the formation of Fatah in 1959, happy to accept a 'peace' offer enforced on Israel's terms.
Arafat maintains that his 'autonomous' zones are a Palestinian state in embryo. On this basis he has started recruiting for an 'administration', of which the most important part is a 25,000 strong Palestinian police force which must first control the camps of Gaza. Israel relishes the prospect of Palestinian fighting Palestinian--a Zionist version of south Africa's 'black on black' conflict.
Far from being a first step to a Palestinian state, the treaty is a move by Israel to install a puppet administration whose survival depends upon its ability to crush Palestinian resistance. This complements US aims in the region. Clinton, the most pro-Israeli president ever, has been quick to round up Arab leaders in support of Arafat, emphasising that they too face opposition from Islamic movements for whom Palestine is an important mobilising issue.
The Washington treaty is not a historic peace deal but it does mark a key moment for Palestinian activists, who are facing the biggest challenge for a generation. Some sections of the Islamic movement will probably continue to grow, even though organisations such as Hamas, which has its own connections to the Gulf regimes, are always open to compromise and may strike a deal with Arafat. At the same time, secular nationalists are looking for a more radical solution--a development which parallels changes in Arab states where the collapse of nationalism and of Stalinist Communism has encouraged the Islamic movement but also allowed the emergence of an embryonic revolutionary left.
As economic and political crises deepen, there is a growing audience for those who argue that only independent working class struggle can bring real change.
In August 1991 a section of the ruling bureaucracy in Russia attempted to ban strikes and street demonstrations and to enforce this decision with tanks. They were beaten off by tens of thousands of people in bloody clashes on the barricades in Moscow. Another section of the leadership grouped around Boris Yeltsin did everything to hold the mass movement in check, but were unfortunately handed the laurels of victory.
The recent events in Moscow are very different. Just as in 1991, the ruling class is deeply divided over how to stop the slump and halt the break up of Russia and its former empire. Neither side is the slightest bit interested in democracy.
But today, unlike August 1991, it is not clear to most Russians where the immediate danger is coming from: Yeltsin or the parliament.
Yeltsin has used troops to smash democracy and strengthen Russian imperial interests within the former USSR. But his military operations in Moldova, Georgia and Tadjikistan have been carefully packaged: troops have gone in under the cover of 'peacekeeping forces', ostensibly to stop bloodshed and separate the warring sides.
In contrast, in August 1991 the memory was still fresh in people's minds of Russian forces storming television stations in the Baltic States, thundering into Baku a year before, and killing women demonstrators with spades in Tblisi the year before that.
Yeltsin has time and again proved his willingness to scrap democracy when it suits him. He postponed elections indefinitely in November 1991 and set up anti-parliamentary organs to concentrate power in his own hands.
In March this year he disbanded parliament, introduced direct presidential rule and cancelled a proposed referendum on the extent of his own powers, only to back down quickly under pressure. His decision to disband parliament again in September was a coup against an organ elected during an upsurge of democratic struggle in spring 1990.
A referendum in April called for new elections to parliament. But Yeltsin has ignored this result and proposed an altogether new parliament (the Federal Assembly), the 'upper house' of which (the Council of the Federation) is like the British House of Lords and consists of his own handpicked people.
But despite the abundance of muck, very little of it has managed to stick. People have been so sickened by the daily television scenes of schoolboy antics in parliament that Yeltsin has got off relatively lightly. Yeltsin has used his vast control of the media to reinforce the myth that this was another struggle of gallant democracy against the evil Communists in parliament.
The parliamentary forces were certainly evil enough: Rutskoi's defence minister Achalov, for example, organised Gorbachev's invasions of Baku and Vilnius and was military adviser to the leaders of the 1991 coup. His deputy, general Makashov, is a leading fascist.
Only days before the coup, Khasbulatov, the speaker of parliament (and also Yeltsin's closest collaborator from 1990-91) made his first address to a large redbrown gathering, which also points to a growing willingness within ruling circles to flirt with the extreme right.
Parliament's economic policies are pro-market and indistinguishable from Yeltsin's. For example, Dyen (The Day), the leading red-brown paper which backed parliament during the coup, carries articles praising Stalin alongside full page ads for racy private banks and stock exchanges.
|Yeltsin: steering a rudderless ship|
Just like the parliament, the Yeltsin camp is made up of ex-Communist Party bosses, Yeltsin himself being the prime example. For months now he has been busy horsetrading with his opponents.
His accommodation to the extreme right is reflected in the fact that two leading fascists back his plans for constitutional reform. Only days before his coup, Yeltsin appointed Golushko, an experienced KGB hardliner, to head the security forces.
These factors explain why Yeltsin still has an edge over his opponents, but also why the population was largely indifferent to the September events.
A poll during the coup showed that only 30 percent of Muscovites were prepared to go to a meeting or demonstration in support of Yeltsin--this figure is probably even lower outside the capital. A Moscow evening paper ran the headline: 'The powers that be are fighting while the people dig potatoes'--a reference to the fact that many people now have to eke out their diet on allotments and are disillusioned with politics.
But if there was so little to choose between the two sides, why was there a coup?
Russia is in the throes of deep social crisis which could yet reach the scale of Germany in the 1930s. The ruling class is in such a panic that it clutches at 'solutions', programmes or individuals that cannot possibly do the job.
The coup is the result of such over heated infighting and came as no surprise. If neither side had made a quick breakthrough the result could have been civil war, similar to that which has gripped several former USSR republics in recent years. In Russia civil war at present would be a shoot out between professional troops, unlikely to involve significant numbers of the population. Few are ready to die for Rutskoi, Khasbulatov or Yeltsin.
Yeltsin's fragile victory has won him another small breathing space. But the factors behind the Moscow drama have not gone away, and the relative calm could shatter at any minute.
The economy is on the verge of another downward plunge, and Yeltsin long ago realised that it would be disastrous to let the market rip. As the Washington Post noted after the coup, 'The new government cannot take such a step without condemning millions to unemployment. In some cases, entire cities built around one huge factory would die.'
Yeltsin has his hands on the wheel, but the ship is rudderless.
The election results in Poland last month showed a clear shift to the left in public mood. They were a defeat for the president, Lech Walesa, all the government parties, the right wing populists and the church.
People were so sick of the broken promises of the last four years that the most votes went to the democratic left alliance (SLD). The SLD is an alliance headed by the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland (SDRP), the direct successor of the old Communist Party in 1990. The second highest number of votes went to the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) which used to be part of the 'Communist' coalition until 1989.
Only one government party out of seven managed to cross the 5 percent threshold of votes achieved nationally and enter parliament. This was the prime minister's party, the Democratic Union (UD), which includes well known former dissidents such as Jacek Kuron and former worker Solidarity leaders like Wladyslaw Frasyniuk. The UD got a worse vote than before, not least because it used the prime minister as its main election campaign tactic.
Much press coverage has concerned whether we are seeing a return, even partially, to the old Communist system, to rule by the old nomenklatura ruling class. The result was not a victory for the old Communists taken as a whole. These people have had the best access to capital in the last four years, have taken top jobs in banking, opened businesses and remain comfortably esconced in the state military, civil service or industrial apparatus. The SLD contains some of them but not most, who are more likely to be associated with the liberals and other right wing groupings.
The SLD is more than a grouping of some of the old CP bosses--it includes trade unions in the OPZZ federation, the biggest teachers' union and the biggest miners' union. This integration with organised labour gives the SLD a social democratic character. This time they were joined by part of the tiny Polish Socialist Party who were guaranteed a couple of seats in return for providing the SLD with some left wingers who had fought the old regime.
According to a recent estimate by Aleksander Malachowski, an old dissident from 1956 and now a parliamentarian for the Labour Union (UP), there were 30 percent former CP members among the SLD deputies in parliament before it was dissolved, and he reckoned that not many other parties could boast such a small percentage.
It is true that the new social democracy is led by some figures from the old regime. But the disgust many people feel for the government after four years of cuts, unemployment and lower wages means that they don't care about the SLD leaders' past.
The second beneficiary of the elections was the UP, led by Ryszard Bugaj and former Solidarity leader Zbgniew Bujak. In 1989 Bujak and former Marxist opponent of the old regime Karol Modzelewski collected the names of 28 leading Solidarity figures who agreed to join their short lived Group for Defending Workers' Interests.
Last year Modzelewski and Bugaj were joined in the new UP by some well known regional names from the old CP and Bujak's Social Democratic Movement. Since its formation the UP has refused to draw closer to the SLD, portraying itself as the left party with clean hands, but it has many former Communist members in local branches.
Apart from the UP, the only other left force to emerge from Solidarity is the union itself which just failed to get into parliament with 4.9 percent of the votes. A Solidarity miners' MP proposed the vote of no confidence in the government which led to the new elections. Under pressure from below, Solidarity leaders have been prominent at the head of recent disputes, and have for the first time this year come out hard against privatisation.
Lech Walesa is no longer trusted. Soon after dissolving parliament he set up his non-party bloc for supporting the reforms (BBWR), the initials being identical to those of an organisation set up by Poland's pre-war dictator, Jozef Pilsudski. But the BBWR won only 5 percent of the votes. He is now likely to seek the support of defeated right wingers.
The Catholic coalition, which included the worst fundamentalists who initiated the current abortion ban, failed to get one MP The church boasted that this time priests did not tell people how to vote (the voting was on a Sunday). If it had tried, few would have listened to its advice.
The elections were called after strikes by teachers and public sector workers provoked a mood for general strike in May. The Solidarity leaders deliberately used their MPs to call the vote of no confidence as an alternative to general strike. There have been no national stoppages in the interim. But a few days after the elections miners from a pit in Upper Silesia struck to defend jobs and at the time of writing are still striking.
Greece was due to go to the polls on 10 October following the collapse of the government of Constantine Mitsotakis and his conservative New Democracy party.
The defection of two MPs to the breakaway group of sacked foreign minister Antonis Samaras triggered the election. The government lost its majority in parliament just as it tried to rush through a bill to sell off the telecom industry.
It brought to a head a long running political crisis that has seen New Democracy repeatedly on the brink of collapse. Polls at the end of September gave the socialist party, PASOK, a ten point lead.
Samaras appeared to have miscalculated in his bid to be a power broker in the next parliament, with polls giving him less than 6 percent of the vote. However, the Coalition of the Left--led by the former Communist Party--looked even weaker, struggling at around 3 percent. It remains tainted by its alliance with New Democracy in 1989-90.
The return of a PASOK government seemed the likeliest outcome, headed by Andreas Papandreou, prime minister for eight years through the 1980s. Papandreou has made vague promises to raise living. standards and provide jobs, under the campaign slogan, 'A quiet force for change.'
Papandreou no longer mentions restoring the jobs of the Athens bus workers sacked a year ago. He no longer pledges to reverse the stalled telecom privatisation--talking instead of allowing no more than 49 percent of shares to go into private hands.
Papandreou has now proposed a post-election meeting with representatives of 60 of the biggest companies in Greece. 'Business knows it can trust us', he proclaims, 'It did very well in the eight years of PASOK government.'
Those eight years proved a profound disillusion for Greek workers--resulting in the election of a Tory government that prided itself on a Thatcher-like approach. New Democracy claims an alliance of PASOK and big business interests bought the cooperation of Samaras and his 'traitors' to bring down the government just when 'the years of sacrifice are over'. It threatens a currency devaluation and economic collapse if PASOK wins.
But New Democracy's austerity programme has done nothing to ease the crisis in the economy. Industrial output has fallen for the last three years. Unemployment is almost 10 percent and rising. Inflation is 15 percent--the highest in the EC--and shows no sign of coming down.
Mitsotakis made savage cuts in pensions and in spending on schools and hospitals, but the government debt goes on rising. At 1.3 times the country's GNP, it is more than double the limit demanded by the EC.
New Democracy did succeed in cutting workers' pay. Wages have failed to match inflation for the past three years.
But Mitsotakis never succeeded in making a decisive breakthrough against union organisation.
The past three and a half years have seen a series of huge strike waves, most notably in autumn 1990 and the summer and autumn of 1992. Strikes and demonstrations have become routine.
The gains Mitsotakis has made have come in concessions from union leaders afraid to bring down his government. Even the relatively quiet summer days immediately before Mitsotakis fell saw Athens blacked out by a power workers' strike and a 24 hour public sector strike. The unions are stronger and more militant now than four years ago.
Workers anticipate a real change after the election. Athens busworkers, for example, believe they will get their jobs back. A year after being sacked, they staged a pre-election rally in the capital and planned a mass meeting on the night of the vote. There were even calls for them to mark a PASOK victory by marching on the scab bus depots.
There is a similar mood among shipyard workers who have seen their yards close, and among the former workers of shutdown state factories. The expectations in a PASOK government are huge, and a victorious Papandreou could be in for a rough ride.