Issue 175 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Elections

Vote of no confidence

NHS Bureaucrats

With luck, the Tories should get a bloody nose with the election results on 5 May. Their unpopularity is as great as ever. Any local support that the Tories can claim for 'efficiency' or good management of local government has been undermined by John Major's determination to maintain a high profile in the local election campaign. That alone has ensured that the date becomes a referendum on the Major government. Any such referendum is likely to have one outcome: a resounding no for Major and his policies. All the signs point to it. The government is trailing a full 20 points behind Labour in the opinion polls. Attempts to make themselves more popular blow up in the Tories' faces.

The latest fiasco--plans to turn the D Day anniversary into a grotesque 'family day' with spam fritter cooking competitions dreamt up by an advertising agency at the cost of £62,000--led to an outcry. Opposition ranged from those who thought the battle should be remembered in a more serious way to those who saw it as a cynical government manoeuvre just days before the European elections, or even to those who dislike the repackaging of history as fake national heritage imbued with Tory values.

Paralysis at the top, as the Tory government rushes from one such mess to another, is mirrored by discontent below. So the Tories are petrified by these elections and even more so by the European ones in June, where they are likely to do even worse.

The main beneficiary of government unpopularity should be the Labour Party. Were there a general election today, the most likely outcome would appear to be a majority Labour government. Labour's policies clearly fit more closely with the aspirations of millions of ordinary people than with those of either the Tories or the Liberals. There is a majority in favour of more NHS funding, an end to privatisation, lowering unemployment and a minimum wage.

Any doubt that exists about the outcome of either election, or indeed any reluctance to see Labour as an alternative government party, is the fault of the Labour leadership. At every turn it responds in the most timid and conservative manner. Its main public argument in the local elections has been that Labour councils are more 'efficient' at saving money than the Tories--a claim which is hard for Labour to justify unless it talks about different social priorities, such as more nurseries or home helps.

Labour's record in local government is one of cuts, a worsening housing situation and more and more readiness to manage the economic crisis for the Tories at a local level. Labour councils such as Birmingham and Sheffield are more interested in prestige projects, such as building new roads or sports stadiums which attract business investment, than in the needs of ordinary people. In cities such as Sheffield the Labour councils are attacking their own workforces in an effort to improve 'efficiency'.

The housing shortage has led to greater political problems for Labour, as the ever diminishing stock of public housing puts pressure on different groups and allows witch hunts of those such as single parents or blacks who supposedly receive preferential treatment. Labour's refusal to stand up to the Tories, so finding itself increasingly unpopular, has opened the door to the Liberal Democrats, and of course to the fascists, in a number of areas. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that the Liberals can improve the housing situation. They are in favour of the sale of council houses and for partnership with private builders to sell houses at a profit. Their racist policies in Tower Hamlets have provided a fertile seed bed for the BNP.

A big vote for Labour in both the May and June elections would be a real step forward. In any referendum on John Major's government, a Labour vote represents a sign that the more advanced section of the working class which wants change and is willing to resist Tory attacks is feeling more confident than it did at the general election. A vote for Labour would be a vote for class politics.

A vote for the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, is a vote for pale imitation Tories, who are anti-union and racist at least in some areas. Labour is, unfortunately, all too happy to play into the hands of the liberals. Many of its leaders write off the south of England, refusing to organise or even canvass in some areas. Some even agree with 'tactical voting' which is much more advantageous to the Liberals than to Labour.

It is worth remembering that, of the 50 most marginal Tory seats, Labour is the second party in 36 of them, the Liberal Democrats in 12 and the SNP in two. Labour's 36 include 19 in the southern half of England and Wales, for example seats in Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol. Yet Labour all too often concedes the argument that it cannot win in such seats. The other problem for Labour is that it turns its back on the struggle which could help it to foster opposition to the Tories. Although local Labour MP Ann Clywd occupied Tower colliery in South Wales to protest at its closure and win a shortlived reprieve (later reversed by the miners themselves under pressure of bribery from British Coal), the Labour front bench did nothing around the closing of the pit.

It does nothing about the anti-union laws for fear of adverse publicity, nothing around the minimum wage and little even over the NHS. It therefore does not become a focus for those who want to fight against the system.

Labour's failure has given ground to the fascists in some areas. We do not know how well the BNP and NF will do in the local elections. But if they increase their support it will be among people who feel failed by Labour and embittered by their experiences.

Most of those who voted for the fascists on the Isle of Dogs last year, and who claim they may do so in May, are not deeply committed to fascist ideas, but see no hope of change from Labour.

Socialists have been out campaigning to try to prevent the fascist vote growing and stop Derek Beackon's re-election in the Isle of Dogs. We hope that will be successful. But we also need to build a revolutionary alternative to Labour which can begin to address the concerns which have helped the Nazis to get a hearing.


South Africa

Freedom now--and tomorrow?

Mandela addresses the stock exchange
Mandela addresses the stock exchange

'If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change', said a character in The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa's novel about Italian unification. F W de Klerk is clearly campaigning on the same principle in the South African elections. The leader of the party which was the architect of apartheid and which has presided over decades of murder, torture and repression now calls for an end to racial discrimination in South Africa.

De Klerk is hoping that much of the old world of white privilege can stay the same. Whether his hopes will be fulfilled depends on how much the black masses are prepared to fight in the months to come.

This month's Review is published before the results of the election are known. The ANC victory and Nelson Mandela's presidency are not in doubt, but the exact fallout from the elections may be.

In the closing weeks before 28 April the bluff of the far right wing has increasingly been challenged. In March the mobilisation of the fascist AWB and General Constand Viljoen in Bophuthatswana was defeated by a combination of mass mobilisation and the military. The victory there led to the election taking place in Bophuthatswana and increasing pressure on the third component in the right wing Freedom Alliance, Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha, to halt its boycott of the election in the Kwazulu 'homeland'.

Buthelezi was forced into a humiliating climbdown less than two weeks before the elections. Opinion polls put Zulu support for the ANC higher than for Inkatha, despite Buthelezi's claim to speak for all Zulus.

The weakness and disarray of the right wing have surprised many commentators, who expected a much higher level of disruption of the electoral process and intensified civil war in Natal province. However, the dangers are still there. The car bomb which exploded outside the ANC and PAC offices in Johannesburg days before the elections looks like the work of the AWB, which is certain to use more terror tactics to try to intimidate blacks.

Lack of electoral support for Inkatha may well lead to an intensification of the war in Natal. Already before the election there are many instances of intimidation and violence against ANC supporters or even those just explaining the election process.

Although the ANC will have an overall majority, it can be weak in two areas: Natal, where Inkatha and the National Party together may do relatively well, and the Western Cape, where de Klerk's party is looking to substantial support from the 'coloured' (mixed race) population, who fear the ANC.

The current divisions inside South Africa are the legacy of past policies of 'divide and rule' by the ruling class. Over the past two decades the ruling class has increasingly tried to buy off or compromise with different sections of blacks. Hence the 'homelands' established to allow 'separate development' of blacks, led nominally by conservative black politicians, but under the control of the apartheid government. Hence also the granting of a 'parliament' to 'coloureds' during the 1980s.

The failure of these tactics and the eventual arrival of a one person one vote election has been due to the resistance to apartheid from below, and to the changing needs of South African capitalism, which requires a stable, skilled and educated workforce. Mandela is now the favourite for president not just among blacks but among 68 percent of big businessmen.

Expectations of Mandela are high: one middle aged black woman interviewed on television said that she gave him two months to deliver his reforms. High expectations are coupled with an impatience and perhaps a wariness that change is long overdue and has to be fought for.

The series of compromises on which the election is based do not bode well for the future. Anyone with over 5 percent of the vote gets a seat in cabinet, which is to be a coalition. Only an ANC majority of 66 percent will allow it to make constitutional changes. And Mandela and the ANC leadership's tactic has always been to compromise in the face of right wing threats, rather than face them down.

The state of South African society is such that the inequalities so prevalent under apartheid are by no means likely to be eradicated. Black wages as a proportion of all manufacturing wages fell from 35 percent to 30 percent between 1988 and 1992. The substantial reforms in housing promised by the ANC will still leave many of the problems. At present 37 percent of the total black population live in a shack or hut; while 99 percent of white households have an internal flush toilet, only 10 percent of black households do. A full 42 percent of households (17 million people) live on under £110 per month; 23 million have no electricity. Government spending on health in recent years has amounted to £120 per head for whites and £27 per head for blacks. While 52 black children per thousand die before the age of five, only 8.6 white children per thousand die--mainly from swimming pool accidents.

To rectify this inequality will take a fundamental shift in the balance of wealth and power--precisely what de Klerk and his cronies do not want. The question of the class struggle in South Africa is therefore likely to come to the fore. Just before the election Mandela addressed the Johannesburg stock exchange. The Financial Times reported:

This sums up the dilemma for the ANC: brought to power by the actions and enthusiasm of black workers, it is also desperate to compromise with South African capitalism. It is worth remembering events in Zimbabwe in 1980, when the victorious black leader, Robert Mugabe, was heralded after a long and bitter war against white minority rule. Within weeks he was turning against striking workers.

In the run up to the elections there are a whole number of strikes taking place in South Africa despite the appeals of the ANC leadership for industrial 'peace'. The ANC has already warned that it will cut public spending to reduce the deficit. When there are confrontations between capital and labour, which way will the ANC in government choose to jump? Apartheid has created its own gravedigger, a strong and political working class with powerful trade unions who have already shown some willingness to criticise the ANC. They will need to preserve their strength and independence in the months to come.


Bosnia

Powers of partition

A new round of Western military intervention and diplomatic manoeuvring in Bosnia has produced nothing but embarrassment for the Western powers and still less hope for those suffering the carnage of war.

Many hoped that the deal which forced the Bosnian government into a new alliance with the Croat forces in February would herald the beginning of the end for the fighting. This deal was very much the result of American pressure. United Nations threats, followed by Russian manoeuvres, then seemed to bring hope to many of the main cities under siege, including the capital, Sarajevo. Commentators then talked of bringing the Serbs into an extended deal which may lay the basis for an end to the war.

However, the United Nations soon found that military intervention meant picking sides--against the Serbs. The test came over Gorazde, a mainly Muslim city (and a United Nations safe haven). On 10 and 11 April President Bill Clinton sanctioned the first ever Nato air to ground attacks against Serbian forces laying close siege to the city.

No sooner were the attacks launched, however, than they were stopped. The Western leaders then rapidly shifted their attention to the possibility of a new deal with the Serbs. Clinton covered his gyration by claiming he had merely responded to a 'technical request'. Yet soon after the attack the US government said it was willing to consider a French proposal to discuss lifting international sanctions against Serbia.

For those who had hoped Western military intervention would provide a solution in Bosnia--including most of the British left--these events must seem frustrating and confusing.

One reason for the about face was that the episode highlighted the weakness of the Western powers, and confirmed the fears of those in the military establishment who dread getting bogged down in Bosnia. After the air strikes the situation soon turned messy for the West as UN aircraft were shot down and UN forces came under attack and were taken hostage. An SAS unit sent to Gorazde in advance of the air strikes 'beat a stealthy retreat, leaving their United Nations High Commission for Refugees colleagues without saying a word'. If that were not embarrassing enough, these events took place as the US shot down its own helicopters over northern Iraq.

The on-off attack of Gorazde also illustrates the military frictions between the Western powers. The British and French governments would dearly like the US to commit ground troops. Clinton, however, has been adamant against this. According to one Nato source, 'There is no clear sign of the will to act militarily in the [alliance] capitals.'

The events also reflect the relationship between the US and Russia. The US has been keen to both assert its independent power, but at the same time keep the Russians on board as possible brokers of a deal with the Serbs. This pattern was also shown clearly in the brinkmanship that accompanied the partial lifting of the siege of Sarajevo.

The response by many liberal commentators to the actions of the last month has been predictable--to argue that more firepower should be used against the Serbs. This was also the position of Labour's John Cunningham.

But arguing this position not only ignores the weakness of the West in Bosnia, it also falls into the trap of plumping for one of the three possible ways in which the imperialist powers might attempt to stitch Bosnia up.

The US government in particular has made faltering attempts to resolve the conflict by coming in decisively on the side of the Croats and the Muslims--this was clearly the intention of the Muslim/Croat pact they pushed through earlier in the year. But the Croat, and more recently Muslim, authorities have carried out the atrocities of ethnic cleansing every bit as zealously as the Serbs.

Another option is to lift the arms embargo. But this would flood the country with more arms going to all three sides in the battle and be an open invitation to those governments such as the Turkish, who want to step up and broaden the conflict for their own ends.

The other alternative, now being considered by the Americans in particular, is to end aid operations and increase pressure for all sides to agree a final ethnic partition of the country. This has been the effective aim of all Western intervention throughout the war. Even the recent Muslim/Croat agreement, for example, was hailed by one US official as 'a sophisticated division of the Bosnian republic between Croatia and Serbia'.

Indeed, the fighting around Gorazde can be seen as a Serbian attempt to get the maximum out of a carve up that has already been agreed, 'cleansing' one of the last Muslim outposts on 'their' side of the country.

We cannot tell which of these options will be backed. The war in Bosnia is characterised by the acutest instability. We do know, however, that the war is an attempt by the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and the major powers, to ride out the storm created by the economic and political collapse in the former Yugoslavia.

The Western military presence there has not stopped a single atrocity, and the Western attacks against the Serbs have only succeeded in driving ordinary Serbs back into supporting their leaders. Indeed, Western intervention is undermining those who attempt to bring real solace to the victims of war. Cornelio Sammaruga, the president of the International Red Cross, has complained that the military presence 'undermines the humanitarian aid effort'.

As we have long argued, the only hope lies with those who have nothing to gain from war and ethnic partition--the ordinary people on all sides. They have struck, mutinied, demonstrated and deserted against both the war and its effects. Three years of Western intervention--pressing them to back their own leaders and ethnic partition, have only held them back.


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