Issue 181 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
A new period of internal warfare has opened up inside the Tory Party. Its start was signalled by the humiliating abandonment of Post Office privatisation by the government.
The threat of possible future rebellion by a handful of backbench MPs was enough to persuade John Major to drop what should have been the centrepiece of his government's legislation in the coming months.
The right wing of the Tory Party was enraged, and even more so when Major declared that voting against a bill to give more money to the EC would be regarded as a matter of confidence and if defeated would precipitate a general election.
The government and its supporters are split between those who want to continue the offensive against working people with a whole number of measures, and those who are determined to do nothing between now and the next general election in the hope that the economy will improve and along with it the government's chances.
Those who want to 'consolidate' fear that anything they try to do will only rebound on them. They know that the outcome of the signal workers' strike was not a victory for the government. They know they are trailing Labour by some 30 points in the polls. They know that moves to further privatise public services could create a huge backlash. The 75 percent rise for the boss of British Gas while bills go up for the poorest gas customers is only the latest example of the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor.
They have no concern for ordinary working people but they fear that pushing too hard could result in the sort of movement which developed against pit closures two years ago. That is why this year's Tory Party conference was in such stark contrast to last year's, with few attacks on single parents and scroungers and no gloating over defeating the unions.
The Tories have not adopted a more human face: they are just more cowardly about displaying their true feelings. But they are also still pursuing cuts in public spending to appease the right wing and deliver tax cuts in the next year.
They are still implementing the job seekers' allowance and cutting unemployment pay from one year to six months. They are still refusing to provide funding for health care or education.
Kenneth Clarke and John Major are banking on economic recovery to allow them to make spending cuts and possibly cut taxation as well. Inflation is still low and unemployment is falling which means that actual spending may work out lower than the projections. But the political benefits which the Tories hoped to get from recovery are as far away as ever. A central reason for this is the growing burden of taxation--on fuel, insurance, foreign flights, as well as National Insurance--which means that most people are worse off than a year ago.
The continued cynicism over the rich lining their pockets while the poor suffer has been deepened by the revelations over MPs taking money for questions, and over parliament's obvious refusal to even pretend to reform itself. The double standards are apparent everywhere. Two cabinet ministers have been attacked by the courts for not following their own rules, yet nothing happens to them.
With all the ministers and MPs accused of wrongdoing, we are told that they are innocent until proved guilty. Yet the right to silence is being removed from everyone else charged with an offence. The Criminal Justice Act was used within days of it becoming law against road protesters and hunt saboteurs, yet there is still no criminal investigation of MPs.
We are at end of a year when the anger at government policy has begun to be focused: in the big demos against the Criminal Justice Bill, in the campaign against the fascists during the local election campaign culminating in the Anti Nazi League carnival of 150,000, and above all in the beginning of recovery of working class organisation and struggle.
The strikes in the Post Office and the campaign by Post Office workers against privatisation were one of the main reasons the government backed down on its sell off. The signal workers' strike was the biggest confrontation between government and workers since the miners' strike of 1984-85. The vote to throw out their pay offer by Jaguar workers demonstrated that private sector workers are fed up with low pay and worsening conditions.
But the recovery of working class confidence is highly uneven. The promised actions over public sector pay--which should have taken off after the signal workers' deal--have failed to materialise. Union leaders have accepted rotten settlements rather than see strikes break out.
Unevenness in confidence means while a growing minority are becoming prepared to act independently of the union leaders, there are many other workers who feel they cannot win strikes and who accept the argument that they should settle for what they are offered. The weakness of factory and office organisation means that arguments carried relatively easily when there are militants on the ground are often simply not put.
Labour's policy acts to put a brake on that recovery, with it attacks on Clause Four, distancing from the unions and talk of abandoning universal benefits.
The experience of the US elections last month shows what happens when workers are angry and bitter and put their faith in a change of government which then doesn't deliver. The past year has shown that revolutionary socialist ideas and organisation can gain a substantial audience, and can make a real difference to success or defeat in a particular dispute.
We should spend the next year developing support in the working class and the local roots which can enable us to provide an alternative to the despair caused by the system to which Labour has no answer.
Fears about increased car usage are growing. Last month all traffic into the Italian capital, Rome, was halted for several hours as pollution, coupled with unusually warm weather, led to serious health threats for the old, young and those with breathing difficulties.
In London this year asthmatics were warned to stay inside as hot weather increased pollution mainly from car engines. Even an official government study, the Royal Commission on environmental pollution, is extremely critical of government policy on road building and has recommended some fairly radical reforms.
Unfortunately the reforms are unlikely to work, even if they are eventually implemented. Certainly this government is unlikely to implement much other than cosmetic changes. Transport minister Brian Mawhinney wanted to be much more critical of the commission's report than he was eventually allowed to be. It is clear that this government is not serious in its opposition to further road building or in its commitment to more use of public transport.
Its whole record since 1979 has indeed revealed the opposite--it has given massive public subsidy to company cars and road building while turning the public transport system into the most expensive and unreliable in Europe.
The increase in car use and traffic problems, which is now so dangerous, is a direct result of government policy. Rail services have been cut back, with whole lines closed down. Lack of investment has meant slower, less reliable tube and train services. Deregulation and privatisation of buses has led to a slump in the number of passengers travelling by bus, while the number of bus miles travelled has increased.
The cost of public transport has risen far faster than that of private motoring. Between 1981 and 1993 rail, bus and coach fares increased by 130 percent while motoring costs in the same period increased by 80 percent. Rail freight accounted for around 40 percent of freight journeys in 1952--now it is only 7 percent.
The cuts in jobs on public transport means that the use of buses and trains becomes more difficult for many people. For example, old people or those with young children find it much more difficult to use buses and trains when there are no conductors, guards or station staff on many routes.
The pressure of cost and convenience means more and more people have turned towards cars in recent years. As more people do so, everything becomes more geared to cars, public transport becomes worse--a vicious circle.
Yet the increased use of cars makes little sense. This is true not only on grounds of pollution. The cost of running a car is twice in real terms what it was in 1971. Along with food and housing, transport now accounts for one of the major items of household expenditure. And although car ownership has risen, nearly a third of all households have no access to regular use of a car. In Greater London this figure rises to 38 percent. And for most households where there is use of a car, different members of the family may not have any or much access to it.
Throughout the 1980s Margaret Thatcher encouraged what she called the 'great car economy'. The consequences now are all too obvious and harmful--congested roads and environmental damage. This has led to a backlash against further road building and a growing consensus that car use needs to be restricted.
However, many of the 'green' solutions put forward do nothing to alter patterns of transport but simply try to penalise car drivers financially. 'Road pricing' is one such example, where motorists would be charged for entering city centres. Another is the virtual doubling of fuel prices over the next decade to discourage motoring.
Both these would penalise the poor, who already pay heavily in taxation on petrol and road tax. The rich would still manage to pay their way into city centres. In any case, although 64 percent of commuters in general travel to work by car, of those travelling into central London only 18 percent do so. The majority of these have subsidised parking and company cars, and would probably also get subsidised to compensate for road pricing. Similarly the large number of commercial vehicles which account for much of city traffic would also be subsidised by their companies.
Much could be done to change the way people travelled if there were decent cheap public transport. At present it is nearly always cheaper to travel by private car if more than one person is travelling. London Underground journey figures fell to a modern low point in 1982 when fares were nearly doubled by the House of Lords. A cut in fares of 27 percent the following year led to a sharp rise in journeys. If people could travel more cheaply by public transport then they would switch to it in much larger numbers. But the move towards the 'car economy' has done long term damage. The spread of suburbia into the countryside, the increase in shift working and the growth of out of town shopping have all made it more difficult--and sometimes nearly impossible--for people to live an active working life without a car.
There can be few greater indictments of the capitalist system than the encouragement of completely unnecessary travelling in order to work or even to shop. People today travel on average around 200 kilometres a week--75 percent more than 30 years ago. The vast bulk of this increase takes place in cars.
Building a public transport system which could cope with the needs of this amount of travel would take investment of billions of pounds--something which British capitalism needs but has neither the reserves nor the strategic ability to deliver.
It is becoming more and more obvious that capitalism can only destroy the environment. The market and the profit system are incapable of planning a world where millions can move around safely without threatening their and their children's future.
So you didn't win the lottery? With a one in 14 million chance of having the winning numbers, it's not surprising really. If you lived to be 280,000 years old, you would only have an even chance of getting the winning ticket.
We are witnessing nothing more than a nasty Tory con trick.
The warning bells sounded when John Major announced as he bought one of the first tickets that 'every man and woman in this country will be a direct beneficiary' (he filled in his ticket wrongly and it was declared void). The companies behind Camelot, the lottery operators, are some of the biggest capitalists in the country: Cadbury Schweppes, De La Rue, ICL, Racal electronics and GTECH. They will be the real winners, with an expected turnover of £32 billion in seven years, and expected profits of £1.6 billion.
Where is this money coming from? Studies of lotteries from the US and Canada show that the poor spend a larger proportion of their income on tickets than the rich. The lottery has a £40 million advertising budget, and research by Saatchi and Saatchi shows that manual workers are more likely to buy tickets than white collar workers.
One of the selling points of the lottery is that loads of good causes--such as local sports centres, museums or arts complexes--will benefit. But there is concern that the Tories will use the allocation of lottery money to cut back on state spending in these areas.
The middle and upper classes benefit disproportionately from the distribution of this money. Manual workers and low paid white collar workers are less likely to play sport or pay to watch sport, less likely to visit stately homes and castles and less likely to go to the opera and theatre than middle and upper class people. As the Economist states:
The other myth is that charities will benefit from lottery proceeds. On the contrary. The National Council of Voluntary Organisations (KCVO) has calculated that charities could lose between £190 million and £270 million a year. Research into the Irish lottery shows that 4 percent of those buying tickets would otherwise have given that cash to charity. A survey of 100 Irish charities revealed that a third had experienced a drop in income since the lottery was introduced, with 50 percent of Irish lottery proceeds substituting for government spending. No wonder that the NCVO is concerned that the lottery will lead to a drop in charity funds.
And remember when you hand over your next pound for a ticket that the government is raking in 12 percent from every ticket sold. Kenneth Clarke will be laughing all the way to the bank.