Issue 184 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Education

Last cut is the deepest

Time to learn some lessons

When the teachers abandoned their boycott of tests, education minister Gillian Shephard declared triumphantly that there would be peace in the schools for five years. But the peace had not lasted five weeks before education once again erupted, this time on a bigger scale.

Local government spending cuts threaten to be the new poll tax--and education is at the sharp end in most places. Thousands have demonstrated in once sedate towns such as Shrewsbury and Taunton. Teachers have gone on strike in Oxfordshire and, along with council workers, in Newcastle.

After nearly 20 years of cuts, teachers, parents, even school governors are all crying that enough is enough. A government which believed it could get away with worsening public services year after year is now finding that it is meeting much greater resistance.

The cabinet's refusal to fund teachers' pay was probably the last straw. In many areas schools will have to make teachers redundant and increase class sizes, or even put schoolchildren on a three day week. If school staffing levels are maintained, it will mean drastic cuts in other local government services.

The last three budgets have left a slow fuse burning which is now approaching detonation on both spending cuts and pay limits. The recent pay offer to public sector workers has caused a wave of anger, especially when contrasted with the huge increases to top civil servants or to the heads of the former public utilities.

Feeling is especially strong among nurses, who have been offered an insulting 1 percent, with a little more if they go through the divisive and hated local bargaining. As a result, even the conservative nurses' body, the RCN, is talking about reconsidering its no-strike policy.

General discontent about the poor state of public services, especially health and education, is coming together with a genuine grievance over pay which can give a focus to the anger and discontent.

The demonstration against education cuts, called by the ad hoc campaigning body FACE for later this month, can also serve as a focus for forcing the government to retreat.

We should be in no doubt that this government can be forced to retreat. It staggers from one crisis to another, and there are already signs that individual ministers are prepared to stab one another in the back.

Their weakness and unpopularity mean that they are susceptible to any campaign. There have already been retreats over post office privatisation and the Child Support Agency and there is a sense that ordinary people can win, following a number of local campaigns.

In many areas large numbers of people, including councillors and governors, have decided that illegal action is preferable to putting up with the cuts--already Gloucestershire and Newcastle councils have voted to set illegal budgets putting them on a collision course with the government.

Tony Blair's `New Labour' has rushed to try and prevent this happening. Local government spokesman David Blunkett told a recent conference that Labour councillors had to stay within the law and implement the cuts, rather than face having to issue high council tax bills.

Labour took the same line over the poll tax. Even today, many unable or unwilling to pay the tax are being hounded by Labour councils doing the government's dirty work for them.

The policy over this round of cuts is even more dangerous, since Labour now controls so much of local government, including all the big cities. If Labour took a decision to oppose the cuts, they would never get off the ground.

A government so weak and divided would then be brought down. Instead labour courts respectability and moderation and staying within the law.

Increasingly, this moderation is at odds with activity on the ground. More and more people--even those who support Blair and are desperate for a Labour government--are recognising that they have to organise in order to stop these attacks. It is a lesson they will have to remember even when the Tories are kicked out and Blair is in office, if they want to prevent further attacks on health and education.


Ireland

Union blues

Out in the cold

More than quarter of a century on from the first civil rights marches in Northern Ireland and after more than two decades of armed struggle, just what has been achieved? The long awaited framework document drafted by British and Irish politicians has finally been unveiled by John Major and the Irish Republic's prime minister, John Breton.

The document states that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom with a new assembly running its affairs. Important legislation will require a two thirds majority while a three person panel (made up of two Unionist representatives and one from the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party) oversees the assembly's work. The London and Dublin governments have powers to intervene if any party blocks the assembly's workings.

Sitting over this body will be a joint body bringing together ministers from this new assembly and from the Irish parliament, with powers over 'policy areas of mutual interest'. Britain will change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland allowing its status within the United Kingdom to be decided by its population.

The new Northern Ireland assembly will have little more power than a local council on this side of the Irish Sea. It will not control matters of security. Its decisions and funding will be subject to veto by Tory politicians in London and Dublin.

Republicans attach great importance to the new 'cross border institutions'. These have also been targeted by Unionists like Ian Paisley. Both, for their own reasons, present these as stepping stones to a united Ireland. But the Republican leadership talks of any such development taking decades.

Yet just what will these 'cross border institutions' bring to the people of Ireland? One area they will have some control over is health care. In the North, health provision is under attack from Tory privatisation and cuts, while across the border there is no full welfare state. Any 'cross border institution' will do nothing to improve this situation.

Similarly, there is talk of 'a parity of esteem' where both the Nationalist and Unionist 'identities' receive due respect. The British government will openly recognise the right of Nationalists to carry an Irish passport, to fly the Irish flag in certain areas, to provide a degree of funding for the Irish language and will possibly back moves to establish a local peace force acceptable to Catholics.

But talk about recognising separate 'identities' and a 'parity of esteem' is about restructuring sectarianism rather than abolishing it.

Northern Ireland is a low wage economy dominated by poverty and unemployment. Catholic workers have always suffered more. Yet Protestant workers pay the price too. One engineering worker in a major Belfast plant showed Socialist Review his wage slip which gave him 90 less per week than workers at its sister plant in England. The traditional image of a Protestant worker as well skilled and well paid in a secure job was always largely a myth. Nowadays any such jobs are fast disappearing and most Protestant workers find themselves working in low paid, unskilled jobs in public sector or service industries, alongside Catholic workers.

When the civil rights marches began in 1968, demands for jobs and homes were to the fore. The Anglo-Irish framework document will do nothing to provide either for Protestant or Catholic workers. Meanwhile, political prisoners can expect no early release.

The Republican leadership continues to sell all this as a major advance. Yet in Derry, the RUC raided Sinn Fein's office and arrested seven Republicans, including two councillors, hours before the framework document was published. In the Crossmaglen area heavy construction equipment was moved in to reinforce the security wall along the border with the Republic. Meanwhile the RUC has continued to harass people in its attempts to recruit informers.

The allies to whom Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein now looks are the political representatives of Irish capital--Fine Gael prime minister John Breton and Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern--and, beyond them, US president Bill Clinton. It's a long way from talk of a socialist republic or even a 32 county republic. A merger between Sinn Fein and the 'moderate' SDLP is being openly touted, while south of the border there is little to distinguish Sinn Fein from Fianna Fail.

There is much unease within the broad 'Republican family' yet there is little or no alternative on offer from within that tradition. Republicans know just how bloody the two major splits which rocked their movement in the 1970s were. There might be muted talk about a return to the armed struggle but it would be difficult to relaunch such a campaign--and it was the failure of a purely militaristic strategy which ushered in the current Republican leadership.

Behind the ranting of Ian Paisley and the more moderated tones of James Molyneaux on the Unionist side lies precious little. When Northern Ireland was established in 1921 the Unionist bosses presided over a vibrant industrial economy and carried real clout within British economic and political life, but 70 years on this has all changed. The only echo of the old slogans in England comes from the sort of Nazi thugs who rioted in the Dublin soccer international and from a few neanderthals on the Tory benches. Any weight attached to Unionist votes in Britain is more a sign of Tory disarray than Unionist strength.

The Unionists have no real alternative. Despite all their huffing and puffing the popularity of peace meant the Unionist response to the document's publication was muted. Much attention has been focused in this situation on the two parties associated with the Loyalist paramilitaries, the PUP and the UDP, who have attacked Molyneux and Paisley for not representing Protestant workers. Yet this does not imply a break from sectarianism. David Ervine of the PUP complained his party had not been invited to a joint meeting of the 'Unionist family' called to oppose the framework document and promised 'all hell would break loose' if the British government accepted 'cross border institutions'. It takes little imagination to realise what those words imply, given the history of the Loyalist gangs from which the PUP and UDP emerged.

Clearly there is the danger the Loyalists can gain from a situation where Protestant workers feel that every job or house offered to their Catholic counterparts is a loss for them. Yet there is nothing inevitable in this. In a by-election in Belfast's deprived Rathcool estate, where the Loyalists boasted of their strength, just 22 percent of residents voted. Although the Official Unionists won, the two Loyalist parties were beaten by a Labour candidate.

The overwhelming feeling among Protestant workers is that Britain has dumped them. This is mixed with bitterness at the ravages of 16 years of Tory rule. The old allegiances and loyalties are weakening as Unionism, Loyalism and Republicanism offer no way forward. Just as importantly that is also true in the Republic of Ireland.

Peace is popular within Northern Ireland. Yet while welcoming peace we should oppose the sort of peace process being imposed on the working people of Ireland. The only way to do that is in class terms. That requires socialist politics which can build working class unity against sectarianism, poverty and repression. What has opened up is the best possibility of doing that in generations.


Social Trends

Lies, damned lies...

The Publication last month of the government's annual Social Trends survey sparked a bitter row in the normally stately world of professional statisticians.

This year is the publication's 25th anniversary. Its first editor, Muriel Nissel, was invited to write on the survey's history and development. But the current editors dropped the article as 'too opinionated'.

The original aim of the survey launched in 1970 was to lay bare the real state of society in tables of facts and figures, to make social debate grounded on hard evidence available to all.

Nissel's essay was censored because she pointed out how under Margaret Thatcher's governments the way statistics on society were presented began to change. Coverage of politically sensitive issues like poverty, income and inequality shrank. Tables of figures concentrated on Mr and Mrs Average.

The latest edition shows that the process of changing the way statistics are presented to cover up the reality of society is still continuing at Social Trends.

Take what has happened to living standards over the last 16 years. For the years from 1979 to 1986 this is reasonably straightforward Social Trends shows the poorest 40 percent of households were worse off in 1986 than in 1979. The middle fifth of households were just 1.9 pert better off while the top fifth were 20 percent richer in real terms.

What has happened since? You won't find the answer in Social Trends. In small print it says that, in the years since, 'major changes in the methodology' mean figures 'are not comparable with figures prior to 1987'. They are not kidding! According to Social Trends everyone in Britain saw their real living standards jump by at least 16 percent in 1987 and 1988. Didn't you notice?

On almost every page a comparison with previous years shows the kind of changes the Tories have pushed to the presentation of statistics.

Take leisure. Until a couple of years ago Social Trends gave figures each year showing haw people's time was divided up on average between work, sleep and leisure. Through the 1980s people worked longer and spent longer travelling to work.

Suddenly, however, in the 1991 Social Trends this fact was matched with other figures showing that at the same time people had more free time each day. How? The small print reveals that the government had simply decreed that people now slept eight hours a week less!

The new Social Trends contains another crop of changes. The biggest shift is a continued move away from presenting figures in relation to class (in the past many figures used the, limited but still of some use, government categories of social classes A, B, C etc).

This year tables of figures on disposable income are no longer given in terms of jobs and social class, but in terms of size of household.

Again there used to be tables on holidays in relation to social class. In 1990 these showed that 59 percent of people in 'classes' D and E (semi-skilled and unskilled workers, pensioners and the unemployed) had no holiday away from home. Even among the C2 'class' (skilled workers, foremen and some managers) 40 percent had no holiday. Meanwhile almost half of those in 'classes' A and B had at least two holidays. Now this class breakdown of holidays has simply been dropped.

Alcohol consumption figures were also given in term of class until last year--and showed that the worst alcohol abusers were 'employers and managers'. This has been dropped in favour of classification by age.

Figures on the NHS have been especially carefully massaged. Last year figures were given showing the average number of beds available each day in NHS hospitals. They showed that throughout the 1980s this had got worse. This year the figures have simply been dropped.

Statistics can tell us real truths and give us insights into society. But they are open to political abuse, and Social Trends is increasingly a victim of Tory distortion.

The figures cannot completely mask reality. With facts such as that two thirds of taxpayers earn less than 15,000 a year and fully 78 percent get less than 20,000, Social Treads still shows a society more divided than ever.
Paul McGarr


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