Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Strikes

The beginning not the end

The feelgood factor

'Real personal disposable income, measured in current prices, fell 1.8 percent between the first and second quarters [of 1994]--the fastest quarterly drop since 1981. Compared with the same period a year ago, disposable incomes were 1.2 percent lower.'

So wrote the bosses' paper the Financial Times last month (24-25 September). The figures help to explain why, when economic recovery seems well under way and when most economic statistics are favourable to predictions of growth, most people feel worse off. Spending by consumers and savings are both down, while borrowing has risen. As the Financial Times put it, 'The squeeze on consumers may explain why economic growth has not yet translated into a widespread "feelgood" factor.'

There are two main reasons for the fall in incomes. The first is the tax rises which began in April and will further increase over the next months, with further rises in VAT on fuel, and taxation on insurance policies and holiday flights. The second is, according to the Central Statistical Office which compiles the figures, because of a small overall drop in employment incomes.

So wages and earnings are beginning to see a small decline after years when they rose in real terms.

It is no wonder then that pay has become the central political issue for increasing numbers of workers. Partly this is of the government's own making. Its public sector pay policy has led to the signal workers' strikes stretching out over four months, and to the nurses putting in a pay claim of over 8 percent.

There are also signs of increased levels of strike activity in the private sector, especially over pay.

The Tories cannot take any comfort from the settlement of the signal workers. They wanted to see the humiliation of the RMT but instead rail workers feel the union has won a reasonable compromise. Certainly Railtrack did not get all that it wanted.

Ministers and Railtrack boss Bob Horton talked at various times of sacking the striking signal workers and re-employing them selectively on individual contracts.

But they had to pull back from such a strategy, fearing that it could lead to further strike action. At the same time, however, they want to avoid the sort of victory for the signal workers which could generalise to those like the nurses or local government workers who want a decent pay rise to compensate for their loss of earnings. That was why they strung out the dispute for as long as possible.

The dispute was obviously political. It could have been settled months ago for a fraction of the cost spent on trying to break the strike. The government was centrally involved in negotiations between management and the union. Yet the trade union leaders still behaved as though it was a narrow trade union dispute with no political implications.

The strategy of Jimmy Knapp allowed Railtrack to gradually run more and more trains on strike days, leading to demoralisation. He constantly refused to escalate the strike, meaning it dragged on month after month. The refusal of the Labour Party to back the strikers, Tony Blair's call for arbitration and his pledge not to raise taxes even for the rich all added to weakness on the union side.

Labour's policy is moving in exactly the opposite direction from what is needed. David Blunkett has said that the nurses should probably get a rise around the rate of inflation (something like a third of what they are demanding). It is clear from the falling levels of income that much more than this is needed to compensate for the recent tax increases.

Refusal to even contemplate reversing some of the tax cuts for the rich which took place in the Thatcher years puts Labour to the right of the Liberals, as does Blair's refusal to commit Labour to increased public spending.

Despite all this, various groups of workers see that the only way to maintain their living standards is to begin to fight back. The impact of the signal workers' settlement will not be to stop them fighting. They are also seeing the improved economic situation as an opportunity for clawing back some of the conditions they have lost in recent years.

The combination of the two will hopefully mean that the signal workers' dispute will mark the beginning, not the end, of a new wave of struggle for a decent wage.


Criminal Justice Bill

It's all against the law

The Criminal Justice Bill seems set to become another time bomb for the Tories--and may even prove fatal to its architect, home secretary Michael Howard.

The bill has engendered opposition right from the start, especially among young people over its outlawing of raves and squatting. The 80,000 demonstration in July showed just how wide this opposition is, and activities since then include protests as far apart as Edinburgh and Brighton. This month's London march promises once again to pull in tens of thousands of activists from around the country.

In many ways the bill's targets read like a list of Tory Party conference scapegoats: new age travellers, opponents of road building, hunt saboteurs, ravers, squatters. But at its heart is a restriction much more fundamental than the attacks on any of these groups: a curtailment of the right to organise and protest which, if successful, will make it harder for strikers, demonstrators and defenders of civil liberties.

The bill's promoters intend to incorporate into the law the police and judicial experience of the miners' strike in 1984-85 and the Wapping dispute in 1986. This will put great restrictions on assembly and movement.

In addition, the right to silence in criminal proceedings will be abolished, so that the silence of the accused will be taken as an admission of guilt--a provision which will only add to the growing number of cases of miscarriage of justice.

As one resolution to this month's Labour Party conference describes it, 'The legislation particularly targets minority groups and interests but lays the foundation for an attack on any who oppose Tory policies and fight for change in society.'

This fact still hasn't penetrated sufficiently among many trade union and Labour supporters, who probably oppose the bill, but do not see what relevance it has to them. Once again Labour has failed to use the issue to attack the Tories. The official Labour opposition line was to abstain on the bill, claiming that it had some good things in it. Much more likely was their fear of accusations of being 'soft on crime.'

Despite the official line 44 Labour MPs voted against the bill at its third reading. It also received a mauling in the House of Lords. Howard still has real problems getting it through in the shape that he wants it. A huge demonstration can help to mobilise the very large coalition of opinion which is against the bill.

In addition, Howard's political stock is at rock bottom. He has increased the prison population by 25 percent in under two years, reversing previous Tory and Home Office policy which recognised that prison sentences did nothing to stop crime or help offenders. This change in policy was carried out for the most blatantly populist reasons.

Now Howard finds that Home Office civil servants do not trust him. In addition, the planned privatisation of the prisons has led to deep disaffection among the prison officers, a group who at one time the Tories would have regarded as natural supporters.

Even the Tory faithful are likely to be less than enthusiastic about Howard's rhetoric at this year's conference since, as the Financial Times editorialised: 'he has presided over the loss of the Tories' advantage over Labour as the party of law and order.'

The Tories' weakness on the issue means that it should be possible even at this late stage to defeat the bill--it would certainly be defeated if Labour came out strongly in opposition.

Even if the bill eventually becomes law, that same weakness may make it hard to implement. Although there are signs that the police in some areas are already keen to attack groups like squatters, there are also signs that when various protests arise they can be very hard for the law to contain.

If a protest over roads, closure of hospitals or whatever is able to gather enough support, and if that support can be harnessed to working class organisation, then the authorities may be reluctant to use the law. Many of the pickets of signal workers have been larger than the six already stipulated by law, but there has been no attempt to break them up.

Protests of various sorts are growing, not diminishing, in Britain today. The Tories have to get this law through parliament--not such an easy task as they once envisaged. They also have to implement it, which is a very different matter.

See interview with Mike Mansfield, p.18-19


Students

Debt drop outs

End education on the cheap
End education on the cheap

Where have all the students gone? So asks the Times Higher Education Supplement as it attempts to explain the shortfall in student numbers at the beginning of the academic year. At the time of writing there were still 7,000 places to be filled on university courses compared to this time last year, and the number of university students looks set to fall for the first time in 20 years.

The Tories claim to have opened up education for all, yet this has been done on the cheap with cuts in funding that have created conditions of poverty and overcrowding. The cost of going to further education is forcing many potential applicants to have second thoughts. Students simply cannot afford to go straight from school to college without having time off to try and save some money to get themselves at least part of the way through their course without such a massive burden of debt. And many are clearly weighing up the cost of further education with the 'benefit' of a degree, but with many years in debt.

Even the Economist admits that Tory cuts are the main reason for the shortfall in student numbers: 'Students', they say, 'regularly leave university with debts of £2,000-£3,000, a fact that may help to explain the recent downturn in applications.'

The facts about student hardship, however, are more harrowing than this as a recent report fron the National Union of Students (NUS), Values For Money, revealed. The average level of debt for those students aged 17 to 21 was £2,476, for students aged 22 to 26 it was £4,856, and this rose to £6,105 for those aged 26 and over. The survey showed that 87 percent of students are worried about finance and 39 percent believe themselves to be in serious financial difficulty, with one in five considering dropping out of their course because of it. Reports from some colleges at the beginning of term reveal that many students are simply not turning up because of the prospect of years of debt.

On top of this comes a rise in hall fees for 1994-95 with many colleges charging more in accommodation costs than students actually receive for a grant. A student in halls at Leeds University, for example, will have to find £500 on top of a full grant just to pay the accommodation fees for a year (and this is before a penny is spent on living expenses). And over the next two years the student grant will be reduced to its 1983 level. As the NUS concludes, 'Even after taking the maximum student loan of £1,150 students will not have enough to eat, buy books and travel home to visit their parents... The inevitable result will be that students will be forced to drop out of university, and many potential students from poorer backgrounds will be deterred by debt.'

Coming on top of overcrowded lectures, poor facilities and lack of books there is a potentially explosive situation developing in the colleges.

This is accompanied by reports of massive handouts to those at the top. A storm has erupted at Huddersfield University where it's reported that the vice-chancellor will take a £500,000 handout when he retires in January. This includes three years salary, a car and BUPA health care for life. And earlier this month it was revealed that the head of the Student Loans Company (which pursues students for years over their debts) had such 'perks' as pop concert tickets, gifts of perfume and expensive lunches, and was granted a 17.5 percent increase in pension payments. Such lavish expenditure and wealth at the expense of poor students will do nothing to dampen the bitterness felt by many as they go to college this month.

Last year we saw the glimmer of a fightback against these when some students occupied their colleges against the cuts. The increase in student hardship for those who have decided to make the sacrifice to go to college could make the situation much more explosive this year. Already the NUS has been forced to call a national demonstration against the cuts for 9 November--the first time for many years it has called a national demonstration before term started.

It could be the beginning of a fightback by students that will turn the tide of Tory cuts. All this could spill into the general anti-Tory mood that exists at the moment and fuel rising working class discontent.


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