Issue 186 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
We don't need to look into the future to find out what the next Labour government will be like. Events in the present show exactly what to expect.
The focus of politics has shifted in recent weeks from how awful the Tory government is to the nature of a Blair government. The signs are that the experience will not be pleasant.
Blair looks certain to win over Clause Four. He has made noises about further curtailing the union leaders' influence on Labour's policy making. His pronouncements move further and further to the right, with praise for Margaret Thatcher being the latest attempt to win over the 'middle ground'.
The conference of the teachers' union, the NUT, gave a microcosmic view of how a Blair government and its supporters would react to struggle. A noisy protest against shadow education minister David Blunkett led to a media witch hunt, fuelled by Blunkett himself and by the union leadership. Despite this, the left was able to defeat the leadership on every key question, including the call for a ballot on strike action over class sizes.
The reaction was predictable. Blair joined with John Major in condemning the projected strike, the union leadership vowed to campaign against it and the Times editorial for 20 April thundered against the SWP:
There is great willingness to go along with Blair on the grounds that he can help win an election. But there is also a sense of foreboding and weariness about doing so.
The reason is simple. The same things which make people so desperate for a Blair victory also make them protest over all sorts of attacks on their living standards. The current protests over class sizes, over pay in the NHS or on the railways, involve people who have been forced into activity rather than see still further attacks.
The majority of them see a Labour government as the answer to some of these problems, but not as the only answer. So they also feel it necessary to demonstrate, to strike and to take other forms of action which only a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable to them.
Even some of Blair's keenest supporters in the media and the labour movement are worried that New Labour may be going too far in ignoring these people. Labour must sound a bit more radical, engage in a bit more fighting talk, if it is to appeal to the protesters. Otherwise, they fear, the beneficiaries will be those, like the SWP, who put themselves at the front of the struggle and try to lead it. Andrew Marr wrote in the Independent recently:
The problem is that if Labour promises even the smallest of reforms this can create expectations which a future Blair government may be unable either to meet or to control. There is a huge groundswell of support for Labour. But this support coupled with struggle on the ground leads to a volatile situation.
We do not know whether the coming month will see strikes over pay and class sizes, or whether Blairite counsels will prevail for the present. Either way there will be big opportunities for socialists to intervene and make a difference.
NUT president Doug McAvoy declared that a third of the NUT conference was far left revolutionaries--very far from the truth. But many delegates were prepared to follow the lead of socialists.
This is a sign of the radicalisation among teachers and in wider society--a radicalisation which Labour and trade union leaders want to ignore but which they may be forced to account with.
It is also a sign that increasing numbers are prepared to accept revolutionary arguments about how to fight.
This rotten Tory government is staggering slowly towards extinction. The level of struggle will determine how many Tory policies Tony Blair takes over and how many he is forced to abandon.
Two extreme opinions circulate on the left about the inquiry by Lord Justice Scott into the export of defence related equipment to Iraq. The first is that the report has been a shining example of how a liberal parliamentary democracy can check itself when it slides into pusillanimity and sleaze. For such people, the noble Lord Justice has behaved like a knight in shining armour, wielding, to coin a popular phrase, the shining sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play against lying politicians and deceitful civil servants. No doubt, such people hope, the Scott Report will tear aside the veil behind which government pledges and arms embargoes are broken, and lambast the entire corrupt system.
Such people are in for a shock. The first section of the Scott Report, which has been widely leaked, deals with the history of arms export control. The judge, who gleefully sequestrated the funds of the South Wales NUM during the miners' strike, is no socialist or rebel. His attitude to government control of arms exports is that it has been far too strict.
He is disgusted that the government has used a short draconian measure passed during the wartime emergency of 1939, which effectively gave ministers complete power over all arms exports. This, the Lord Justice thinks, is an appalling interference with the inalienable right of businessmen to export what they want, including the means of slaughter. He believes that, if the government wants to control such commendable free enterprise, it must move cautiously with carefully constructed statutes which allow enormous leeway for free marketeers.
Those who believe that the Scott Report will be an ideologically challenging document which might finally bring down the government are whistling in the wind.
There is, however, the second extreme view, even more absurd. This is that the Scott Report is of no significance to the course of modern capitalism, and can be safely ignored by all socialists.
This view is a profound misunderstanding of the crisis which brought the Scott inquiry into being. As Britain's economic role has declined, as Britain has sailed down the world league of manufacturers, shipbuilders and vehicle builders, so its exports have increasingly come to rely on the arms industry.
The advantages of arms exports are obvious. They produce a high return, and can be kept utterly secret from the public. They are in constant demand all over the world. Yet their disadvantages lead to equally obvious problems. Arms are needed most where wars are being waged--wars which 'responsible' democratic governments such as the British government are usually trying (at any rate in public statements at the United Nations) to stop.
The big conflicts which are the real honeypot for the arms exporting industries are almost always subject to embargoes. The Iran-Iraq war was no exception. To keep up its wholly unjustified reputation as a peacekeeper, the British government had to he seen to be discouraging arms exports to either side.
Hence the notorious 'guidelines' to industry, announced in parliament in 1985, which banned the export of any 'lethal equipment' to the warring countries. Against the guidelines were ranged all those who wanted to make money by killing Iranians or Iraqis. These exporters had considerable support in the ministry of defence and the department of trade. Alan Clark, a wild Thatcherite eccentric, served in both ministries from 1986 to 1992, and went on record as denouncing the guidelines. If there was a war between two sets of foreigners a long way away, he argued, why not make some decent foreign exchange by selling both sides as many arms as they wanted?
The clash between these two views--the official respectable view represented by the then junior foreign office minister William Waldegrave and the gung-ho view of Clark and co--constantly tore at the fabric of government. For most of the Iran-Iraq war there was an uneasy truce between the two sides. But when the war ended and the embargo remained, the hawks lost patience and insisted on busting the embargo.
Their greed was accommodated by a typical British compromise. Waldegrave and Clark agreed that the guidelines would be changed to allow a flood of defence related equipment especially to booming Iraq--but no one, not even the prime minister and certainly not the public, would know about it. Thus embargoed exports flooded to Iraq while everyone who asked about it was told that the embargo was still in force.
This compromise would have continued forever had it not been for another contradiction. Britain is a military power and may have to fight wars itself. Its government must therefore he careful not to allow the export of arms which might be used against it. One of the great tragi-comic figures of the whole story is one Lt Col Richard Glazebrook whose job it was to keep warning his colleagues in the ministry of defence that they should not so recklessly agree to the selling of military equipment against which, if it were turned on British troops, Britain would have no answer.
Glazebrook was mocked and outvoted, but when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, he had the last laugh. He greatly enjoyed listing the exports which he had warned against but which now were in the hands of an army ranged against British troops.
The Gulf War quickly tore the uneasy compromise apart. The embargo had to be imposed more fiercely than ever. All sorts of curious characters were caught up in the process. Three British directors of Matrix Churchill, a Midlands firm owned by Iraqi government supporters which had been happily exporting machine tools for use in Saddam's artillery factories, suddenly found themselves prosecuted.
Their defence was that the government and MI6 had supported them throughout. When their defence was proved by documents wrung from a reactant civil service, the case collapsed--and the government nearly collapsed too. Major survived only by setting up the Scott inquiry and giving it more powers to wrest the facts from the government machine than had ever been given to any public inquiry in British history.
As a result, Scott found himself beavering away in the cracks of the system. Since the whole 'solution' to the arms for Iran-Iraq problem had been based on lying to parliament and the public, Scott was horrified to discover an enormous network of deceit. There can be no doubt that his report will be a hideous embarrassment to government ministers, law officers and the civil service.
Even if, as seems likely, he lets the merchants of death off lightly, he cannot excuse, for instance, serial deception of parliament and blatant contempt for the most basic rules of fair play to defendants. The shortcomings of the whole saga quickly fade beside the altogether exhilarating prospect of at least some official confirmation of what socialists have always propounded: that lying, cheating and double talk are not just incidental to the system. They are essential to it.
Last month an economically and politically desperate Turkish government sent its troops in to attack the Kurds of Northern Iraq. The invasion served to distract attention from a developing crisis at home, which was sparked by fascist attacks on coffee houses used by members of Turkey's large Alevi minority in a poor suburb of Istanbul in mid-March. The next day police shot dead at least 17 among several thousand demonstrators protesting against the attacks.
The ensuing riots and demonstrations showed every sign of turning into a general protest against poverty and government policies. The response of the Turkish state--instead of facing up to the economic conditions which fed the unrest--was to blame the riots on the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) and to launch a new offensive.
For 11 years the Turkish military has been locked in a virtually unreported war with the guerrillas of the PKK. The fighting has been concentrated in the largely Kurdish regions of mountainous south eastern Turkey. Ten provinces in this area have been under emergency decree since 1987. Since the war began, an estimated 1,800 villages and towns have been depopulated and two million Kurdish people have been displaced. The fighting has consumed an estimated 16,000 lives.
The Turkish government has invested considerable resources in south eastern Turkey in its bid to defeat the PKK. According to official sources, 220,000 soldiers and 50,000 special forces are on duty in the region along with the same number of village guards--civil recruits armed with automatic rifles and radios. They face an estimated 20,000-25,000 guerrillas. In the last year this war has consumed 40 percent of the government budget.
The increasing cost of the war has deepened the crisis of the Turkish economy. The annual inflation rate has risen to 144 percent compared to 74 percent last year. In the public sector, workers' real wages fell 40 percent in 1994.
In the latest move, about 35,000 Turkish troops, backed by American made jets, tanks and the full array of NATO conventional weapons moved into northern Iraq to destroy the guerrilla bases. Iraqi Kurdish leaders who have cooperated in the past with Turkey against the PKK were surprised by the scale of the offensive and angry because they were not informed beforehand.
Turkish prime minister Ciller's claim that this operation will be a final blow against the PKK can scarcely be believed. The military build up took several weeks and PKK guerrillas had plenty of time to prepare themselves. As a PKK attack against an 800 strong military convoy demonstrated when 18 soldiers were killed in March, the guerrillas can still muster a show of strength despite government claims that they have been brought under control inside Turkey.
The invasion was directed at the heart of the security zone established by the United States led coalition at the end of the second Gulf War to 'protect' the Kurds from renewed Iraqi attacks. The coalition forces are there to prevent Iraqi attacks, but have repeatedly turned a blind eye to Turkish harassment of the Kurdish population of Northern Iraq.
The invasion has been criticised by the German, French and British governments. Yet this has nothing to do with sympathy for the Kurds. They have spent 11 years arming Turkey. Western Europe has its own 'Kurdish problem' namely Kurdish refugees. About 600,000 Kurds live in Germany and 15,000 Kurdish asylum seekers are awaiting decisions on their applications. The German government is using every opportunity to deport these people.
Western governments would like to see a swift Turkish retreat from Iraq. However, they are trying to avoid isolating Turkey, a vital friend on NATO's south eastern flank, which acts as counterweight to the rival regimes of Iraq and Iran.
Even though Turkish troops are in complete control in Northern Iraq, they can't afford politically to maintain a force inside Iraq for too long. When the Turkish army withdraws, the PKK will return to this area--as happened in 1992--which will mean embarrassment for Turkey's rulers. As usual the cost of the war will be billed to the working class in Turkey.
When Tony Blair argues that local education authorities should make full use of their powers to prosecute the parents of children who truant from school he is making a qualitative shift in the Labour Party's move to the right. In seeking to emphasise the individual responsibilities of parents he is unashamedly and cynically blaming the victims for their own plight. Cynically, because he must know that prosecuting working class parents will not improve the attendance of their children. To argue for it, however, helps to reassure the middle classes that he is one of them and a responsible leader who can be trusted.
The statistics on the prosecution of parents are illuminating. In a written parliamentary answer earlier this year the results of a survey of LEAs show massive discrepancies between those who prosecute parents and those who don't. Take the following examples from Labour authorities between 1991 and 1994. These London LEAs had very low levels of prosecution: Islington 19, Camden 6, Lewisham 25. Compare these figures with other LEAs not dissimilar in composition: Newham 332, Greenwich 398, Barking 147.
Nobody could conceivably argue that the levels of truancy in these boroughs bear any correlation to the levels of prosecution. Would anyone seriously argue that prosecution prevents truancy?
Outside London the statistics are just as stark, Sheffield, with 53 educational welfare officers responsible for pursuing non-attenders, prosecuted 58 parents whereas Manchester, with 29, prosecuted no less than 419. Would anyone seriously argue that there was less truancy in Manchester as a result of these prosecutions?
Socialists have always argued for compulsory state education in order that everyone should have the opportunity to develop their full potential and in order to prevent employers exploiting child labour. But there is a world of difference between a legal obligation for parents to send their children to school and using coercive measures against them if they are not able to.
There is hardly any collusion between parents and non-attending children. Most parents want their children to have the benefit of formal education. Non-attendance occurs when children lose their motivation and become disaffected with school. Parents with children who are chronic truants can often do very little to make them attend. The idea that they should then be prosecuted for something they have no control over is not only ineffective, it is barbaric.
It is also a question of class. Very few middle class parents are prosecuted for the non-attendance of their children because they have more options if their children are unsettled at school.
The threat to prosecute parents has been paralleled by increasing pressure on schools to improve attendance and eliminate 'unauthorised' absences. The whole thing becomes a statistical exercise with no concern for the children as individuals or their circumstances. In fact the increasing emphasis on testing and the publication of individual pupils' results will lead to more disaffection and the marginalisation of working class pupils. Ironically these are developments that Blair wholeheartedly supports.
My own experience as a teacher bears this out. Two brothers in the same form were absent at the same time. When their absences were investigated their mother explained that she was waiting until she could afford to buy them shoes.
Another mother was sick with worry because her son refused to attend school. He had instead been given casual employment by a local greengrocer. The boy simply hated school and felt happier trying to make a few pounds in casual work. The mother was in fact taken to court 'just as a warning'. I had to argue that she should be represented and was able to persuade the magistrates that she had made every effort to get her son to attend and was in no way blameworthy.
Part of Blair's argument was that the threat of prosecution would act as a deterrent. But it was the mother, a single parent, who was threatened. It was she who had to go through the humiliating trauma of a court appearance even though she was powerless to act. Legal threats to parents or children are coercive and ineffective.
There is a more positive function for local authorities. They can use educational welfare officers to do what their name suggests they should do and not as attendance police. Encouragement and sensitivity to the needs of children are much more likely to succeed. If necessary there should be adequate out of school provision to support children refusing to attend mainstream schools.
In Islington, for example, there is a well established system of off site units. The problem is that they are bursting at the seams--demand is outstripping provision. Not all children will fit into the mainstream system--a minority will reject formal schooling often for understandable reasons.
Blaming parents for irresponsibility is aiming at the wrong target; turning them into criminals is indefensible.
Hilda Upward, who died in March at the age of 85, had a lifelong commitment to international socialism. Born in Brixton, she trained as a teacher and joined the Communist Party in 1929. She took part in all the struggles of a period which saw the full horror of capitalism in crisis, as well as the potential for workers to resist. She was involved with the CP in defeating Mosley's blackshirts and building a strong presence in the London bus depots, where she sold papers.
In the 1930s, with the Labour Party attacking workers and its leader even joining the Tories in government, the CP was the only party fighting against unemployment, poverty and fascism. Critics of Stalin and the Soviet Union could easily be seen as aiding the enemies of the working class. Like most socialists at the time, Hilda and her husband at the time, the writer Edward Upward, believed workers still had power in the USSR. But by the end of the Second World War they realised that the CP in Britain was no longer revolutionary. They took a stand against its support for the bosses' production drive and its condemnation of strikers, seeing that these were part of a wider abandonment of Marxism. Hilda and Edward fought to convince close comrades and party leaders of their case, but found few willing to listen. Leaving the party in 1948 they hoped that a new, genuinely Marxist party would emerge in the future.
Hilda continued her political activity with great energy, in CND and many other campaigns, and she and Edward were involved in founding a socialist group in the Isle of Wight. She always read avidly about socialist politics and was especially enthusiastic recently about the work of the Anti Nazi League. Hilda never lost the conviction that workers right around the world can fight for and win a better society.
The results of the first round of the French presidential elections were a big surprise to everyone--not least the Socialist Party.
The results put the party's Lionel Jospin first, followed by the Gaullist Jacques Chirac. These two will now go into the second round of voting with Chirac tipped to win. Out goes Edouard Balladur, the prime minister who only two months ago had been hot favourite to take the presidency. The results testify to the current state of volatility and instability in France.
What has intervened to completely redraw the electoral map in that time has been a huge wave of workers' struggle which has dragged the political terrain that all of the candidates were forced to fight on significantly off to the left.
There have been repeated strikes on the Paris Metro and other parts of the capital's transport system over wages and privatisation plans, strikes and occupations at Renault's truck factories, strikes in the post office and unemployment benefit offices. There have been countless demonstrations and protests from students, the homeless and old age pensioners.
All three candidates scrambled over each other to speak in favour of those protesting. Balladur talked about the need to 'push society towards reform', while Chirac spoke out in support of France's highly organised squatters' movement, expressed sympathy for many of the strikes and spoke of the need for wage increases.
But it has been the Socialist Party's Lionel Jospin who has promised the most for French workers, calling himself a 'man of progress, a man of the left' and talking of 'two Frances', one for the rich and 'a France of people threatened with marginalisation and living on the borderline'.
However, we should have no illusions about what the Socialist Party actually stands for. The president of France for the last 14 years has been the Socialist Party's François Mitterrand who presided over massive attacks on workers. Jospin's ally Michel Rocard said recently, 'It's no longer an issue of collectivism versus liberalism, but how to correct the injustices of the market', sounding like our own Tony Blair.
The results reflect the depth of disillusionment with official French politics with only just over 60 percent of the votes being cast for the three mainstream candidates. This presents great potential for French socialists but also great danger. The extreme right in France altogether polled 20 percent of the vote with the fascist Jean Marie Le Pen gaining his best ever result at 15 percent. Le Pen continues to exert a great pull to the right on French political leaders. Chirac is aiming to capture Le Pen's vote, which means moving on to his racist territory.
However, the votes clearly reflect the militant mood and move to the left of a high percentage of French workers. Along with Jospin's vote Robert Hue of the Communist Party got nearly 9 percent of the vote while Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle) polled 5 percent, or 1.6 million votes. Unfortunately, despite the biggest possible vote for Jospin in the second round giving a boost to the left, LO is calling for an abstention.
The danger from the racist right remains a constant threat and socialists need to be politically armed and organised to combat it. However, Le Pen and the racists have very little to say as soon as workers take action. All presidential candidates have spoken to varying degrees of the legitimacy of workers' struggles over the past month. Levels of expectation will have been very much raised. The volatility of the situation means that the likelihood of continued protests, demonstrations and strikes--whoever finally wins--is high.
As the Financial Times said on the day after the first round result, 'The France that voted yesterday is a discontented France... It has been encouraged by all the candidates, and not least Mr Chirac, to think that things can be better. If Mr Chirac wins... he will face expectations he can hardly satisfy.'
When the Tories announced they were going to remove control of FE colleges from local government into the hands of quangos, the leaders of the college employers' federation, the CEF, boasted that the lecturers' union Natfhe would roll over and die within three months, and that FE lecturers would be working longer hours with less holidays by 1 April 1993.
They had some justification for this belief. In the previous ten years Natfhe had only had two all out strikes. Its only previous national action in FE had been a few one day pay strikes in the 1980s. The new universities (former polytechnics) sector had lost a similar battle over the imposition of new contracts without putting up much of a fight.
Two and half years on, the majority of main grade lecturers in the majority of colleges are still on previous conditions--'the silver book'. Colleges have been hit by strikes and lecturers have gone from seeing themselves as a privileged middle class group, to workers fighting management. The resilience of FE lecturers has taken everybody by surprise.
The worsening of conditions, the massive sleaze factor where college principals earn over £100,000 a year with huge perks, and the crisis of the Tory government have all helped this along. College lecturers have became proletarianised. They go on strike, sometimes unofficially. The strikes are solid, with high levels of picketing.
The recent Southwark strike was a culmination of two and a half years of bitterness and struggle. The employers wanted to introduce compulsory redundancies as a way of breaking one of the most militant colleges and forcing lecturers on to worse conditions. Just before Christmas the Times Higher Education Supplement predicted an employers' offensive over the question of redundancies. Yet, as in the fight over the contracts, the employers got far from their own way.
The Southwark strike was solid, hugely popular and collected over £25,000 in less than three weeks, not just from college lecturers but from all workers.
The result of the strike is best described as a points victory after seven rounds of a ten round fight. Management has agreed to consult with the union, and now talks about compulsory redundancies as a last resort. A significant minority pushed to hold out despite the deal. The strike has only been suspended with the threat of renewal if compulsory redundancies return.
Natfhe has changed as a result of the last two years and the role socialists have played has been key. A grouping of lecturers based on defence of existing conditions and defence of FE, 'Fight The Contracts Now,' has been central to keeping FE lecturers informed of the struggle. It has had three national conferences attended by over 100 lecturers and has produced eight news sheets. Local activists have called meetings in individual colleges and regions. The work of the SWP and Socialist Worker has been key to all this.
It is not clear what will happen this term. The guerrilla war over the new contracts will go on. The question of pay is raising its head, because most lecturers have not had a pay rise for two years. What is clear is that Natfhe is no longer a joke union. FE lecturers, whether they like it or not, are becoming part of the working class.
College employers announce that after April 1993 FE lecturers will have to work new contracts.
February: Birmingham lecturers strike for one day against new contracts. Lobby of 200 lecturers at FE sector conference. Natfhe call strike for 1 April.
March: Further one day strike in Birmingham joined by other colleges in West Midlands. Southwark College strikes for one day.
April: Natfhe calls off one day strike with promise of talks with employers. North West College London strikes anyway. Southend employers begin union busting operation, and 70 employers begin implementation of new contracts.
May: Natfhe call one day strike for 20 May but exempts colleges where new contracts have been introduced. One day strike solid.
June: Natfhe FE sector conference rejects calls for another one day strike and instead calls for escalating action. Westminster College strikes for two days over attempts to dock pay of lecturers engaged in work to rule.
July: Natfhe conference votes for one day strike in September but also opens negotiations.
September: Strike called off pending talks.
January: FE sector conference overturns leadership attempt to sell Natfhe contract. Vote for all out strike defeated. Recall conference calls for escalating action.
February: Vote for national action on 1 March. Bath College strikes against sacking threat.
March: Three colleges strike illegally for one day. Natfhe argues way forward is for locally negotiated agreements. Employers attempt to get lecturers on new contracts through intimidation and bribes.
May: Bath College accepts new contracts after union leadership claims it's the best deal on offer. Employers declare Bath the standard contract they want in all colleges. Natfhe calls escalating action in 100 colleges based on local ballots from 13 June. Barnsley and North Tyneside Colleges strike for one day. Sheffield strike for five days.
June: Employers step up attempt to get lecturers on new contracts. In total over 70 colleges on strike.
July: Rank and file conference calls for strike during enrolment. National negotiations break down. Employers withhold 2.9 percent pay rise.
September: Natfhe calls off enrolment strikes after promise of talks. Kingsway, Barking and Suffolk Colleges strike against new contracts.
October: FE sector conference rejects worsening of conditions and calls for national action. Over 40 colleges strike against new contracts.
November: Threatened victimisation of Liz Knight at North London College. More strikes.
December: More strikes. Dave Gibson at Barnsley threatened with victimisation.
January: Campaign to defend Liz Knight and Dave Gibson successful as victimisation attempts fail. Lewisham, Nelson and Colne, Rochdale, Weald, Rotherham, Barnsley and Uxbridge Colleges strike. Rotherham strike takes place despite majority of lecturers being on new contracts.
February: College Glahafren, Barry, strikes. Around 120 lecturers attend rank and file conference pledging support for colleges fighting redundancies.
March: Nationally 60 colleges strike. Southwark College begins all out strike over 38 compulsory redundancies. Southwark strike ends in partial victory after 13 days on strike.