Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
It is a remarkable achievement of this government to have turned two groups of workers--many of whose members only a few years ago would have described themselves as 'professionals'--into trade union militants. This month both teachers and nurses are balloting over industrial action.
Unison members recently voted 90 percent for strike action in a consultative ballot. The Royal College of Nursing voted overwhelmingly at its last month's conference to abandon its no-strike policy and ballot for action. The speeches of delegates left no one in any doubt about the anger felt by some of the previously most moderate nurses over their treatment on pay and more generally over the rundown of the health service. They reflect an anger which exists right across the board with groups like Rolls Royce and Barclays Bank workers also striking over pay.
The anger is focused on the decaying Tory government, which was humiliated in last month's elections, and which is facing active opposition to every one of its policies.
The beneficiary of this anger is Blair's Labour Party. Yet the response from him and his shadow cabinet, since their victory over Clause Four, has been to go out of their way to reassure big business that everything they hold dear will be protected by Labour.
Shadow chancellor Gordon Brown has introduced rules--called 'Brown's Laws'--aimed at holding down public borrowing and spending under a future Labour government. Just like the Tories, Labour will insist that public spending has to be 'cost effective'. Brown is 'telling all shadow spokesmen that no public spending is sacrosanct', according to the Financial Times.
In addition he will ask the government's panel of 'Independent forecasters', known as the 'wise men', to intervene even more with a Labour government and comment every year on whether Labour is sticking to the rules and keeping borrowing and spending low!
Labour's line on a minimum wage is similar. Now refusing to set any figure before an election, the party is saying it will consult with the employers as to the level they want--even though most of them are opposed to any minimum wage.
Even Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke can see no difference between his policies and Labour's. He said recently, 'I must be the first chancellor who has a shadow chancellor who is not criticising what I am doing. Gordon Brown's problem is he thinks what I am doing is working. He has not for some time opposed anything I have done.'
Everything is being done to ensure that big business is prepared to work with a Labour government--regardless of the disappointment felt by those who vote for Blair in the expectation that his government will mean the beginning of the end of low pay and cutbacks.
While those looking for such change have in reality little to hope for from a Labour government, this does not mean that prospects for change, or for a growth in left wing ideas, are hopeless.
Because of the experience of the Labour governments of the 1970s, it is common for many on the left to equate Labour governments with betrayal, disillusion, a move to the right among many workers and the eventual return of a Tory government.
On the contrary, the contradictions in the present situation present many opportunities for socialists to shift the political ground further to the left. The fight to win strike action over class sizes in the schools is held back by the attitude of the NUT and Labour leaderships, but their attacks on the left also create a climate where it is possible to win an argument for militant action.
The contest between Morris and Dromey in the TGWU election creates an arena for debate about which way the unions should be going. The fights over pay give the opportunity to argue why the rich should not simply go on getting richer while the rest of us suffer.
In all of these struggles and debates, the arguments of Labour's 'modernisers' may at least initially have an impact. But while many people are happy to back Blair, they are not happy about continuing to simply accept the dictates of those who run society at present.
The anger at union conferences, the increased number of strikes taking place, the angry demonstrations like that organised by Scottish workers outside the Tory Party's Glasgow conference, all demonstrate a volatility and willingness to fight which is in direct contradiction to Blair's politics.
Two major shifts have taken place in Brazil since the beginning of the year. The new president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who won office with promises of reform and social change, is proposing changes to the constitution which would involve a massive assault on the job security and pension rights of millions of public sector workers.
At the same time, and partly in response to these threats, there has been a revival of working class struggle. Hundreds of thousands of workers--from refinery workers to school teachers-have been out on strike in the past few weeks, despite attempts by the main party of the left, the PT (Workers' Party), to confine opposition to protest demonstrations and lobbies of parliament.
The new government is the first nominally left wing regime in Brazil since the army took over in 1964. President Cardoso (usually known by his initials as FHC) is a former Marxist and prominent opponent of the military who is now a leading member of the Social Democratic Party. As finance minister in the previous government Cardoso drew up and implemented an economic plan to defeat inflation, based on the introduction of a new currency, the Real, tied to the US dollar.
On the back of his success Cardoso received the electoral backing of all the centre, some of the left and most of the right who were unable to put forward a credible candidate of their own to defeat the PT. Cardoso won a runaway victory, encouraging the ruling class to believe that they could move to wholesale privatisation of state owned firms and grab back the concessions to public sector workers guaranteed under the constitution.
For its part the PT leadership agreed to the role of a loyal parliamentary opposition, comforting itself with the increase in its representation in congress and the fact that its candidate, Lula, won 17 million votes compared to 12 million in the first round of the previous election in 1989. In fact its actual share of the vote remained unchanged at around 17 percent.
The PT still claims to be a radical socialist party, but in practice it has moved an enormous distance to the right since its birth 15 years ago in the great struggles of the Sao Paulo workers, which spelled the end of the dictatorship.
A grotesque symbol of this change was the launch in March of the party's very own Visa credit card complete with the party's red star, designed to allow supporters to make a contribution to party funds every time they take a trip to the shopping mall. Needless to say, most of the people the PT claims to speak for get their 'credit' from the moneylender or the pawnbroker.
Even more significant was the revelation that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been contributed to PT funds by several of Brazil's largest companies. The leadership naturally attempted to shrug off the embarrassment by claiming that this was a welcome tribute to the party's growing prestige. This is from an organisation whose proud claim at its foundation was that 'A Workers' Party means a party without employers.'
All this reflects the degeneration of the PT from a party which could count on the commitment of tens of thousands of militants, and the activity of hundreds of thousands more, to a largely passive electoral machine.
The PT now has a membership of over 800,000 on paper. And the party still commands great loyalty inside the working class, in the slums, among the landless. This is partly because of its record in cities such as Santos and Porto Alegre where PT mayors have delivered some social reforms. But the PT's record at local level also includes breaking strikes and sacking workers. Local branches are often moribund. The only national party publication has a circulation of less than 20,000.
The current revival of workers' struggle partly reflects a dramatic economic upturn. After years of stagnation, industrial production in Brazil has been growing at a rapid rate. At the same time the government and employers are struggling to hold down wages and attack conditions. Control of inflation is slipping away.
Combined with the threat to established constitutional rights, the new militancy is bound to provoke sharp arguments among PT supporters and above all in the ranks of the trade unions. There are great opportunities for socialists to influence and win support from a new generation of activists.
A recent radio phone-in poll showed that only 13 percent of the 20,000 callers believed MPs could be trusted to regulate themselves. A total of 87 percent--17,428 people--said they could not.
But even many of those fairly cynical about MPs' behaviour must have been shocked at the reception given by parliament to the findings of the Nolan Committee. This committee was set up to investigate MPs' outside interests following a spate of scandals.
Despite government misgivings about Nolan--epitomised by cabinet minister David Hunt arguing that there should be no change in the present set up--it was widely expected that the committee's recommendations would be largely accepted and used to improve the image of government, even if not a lot really changed.
After all, although the committee recommended that MPs should not work for lobbyists and that they should declare in full income from outside parliament, it goes nowhere near as far as suggesting that MPs should not have other jobs.
But even these fairly mild proposals brought an outcry from backbench Tories who instead proposed 'kicking the ball into the long grass', as one Labour MP put it, by referring the committee to yet another committee--this time of MPs.
Few things in recent years have demonstrated how greedy, out of touch and arrogant most MPs are. They resent any interference in their affairs, regarding it as perfectly obvious that they cannot be expected to live on £33,000 a year. We hear a great deal about how suitable candidates will never become MPs unless they have a job on the side.
The proposed reforms barely scratch the surface. The Commons is awash with MPs who have been involved in a whole range of scandals connected with 'outside interests'. These include taking cash for questions, tabling an amendment involving a financial interest by using another MP's name, and receiving perks from companies.
Party funding is an equal scandal. During the period since the Tories have been in power, 18 life peerages and 82 knighthoods have gone to directors whose companies have donated to the Tories.
Why has John Major retreated from any commitment to implement Nolan? The short term reason is that he is being held to ransom by many of the self same MPs who benefit from the present system, who are threatening to mount a challenge to his leadership if he attempts to regulate them.
More fundamentally, the scandals are at the very heart of a political system where the supposed representatives of the people see their interests as representing big business rather than their constituents.
No one in parliament seriously challenges this. Although the opposition parties are against the level of corruption, Labour does not challenge the whole set up. The Labour leadership has done a deal with the government to sweep as much of the scandal as possible under the carpet.
But Tory defensiveness shows how far the rot has gone. MPs regard it as an infringement of their liberty to even have to divulge any outside directorships. Ministers consider it outrageous that they might have to wait two years after leaving office before taking up lucrative posts with companies they dealt with (and often privatised) as ministers.
This stance is fraught with danger not just for the Tories, but for all those who believe that parliament has to command respect.
The complacent rejection of the Nolan findings makes it more obvious to even greater numbers of people that attempts to reform the parliamentary system are doomed to fail. More and more people will therefore draw the conclusion that it cannot be reformed, and that something more radical is required to root out the corruption.
Brian Douglas, a 33 year old black man, is dead. He was killed with a policeman's baton. Also with him at the time was Stafford Solomon, whose arm was broken while being arrested. Brian's skull was fractured and he was already showing signs of brain damage on his arrival at the police station. He was left for 15 hours in this state before he was taken to hospital where he died without ever regaining consciousness. The last contact his mother ever had with him was to travel from Jamaica to switch off his life support machine.
Police produced a CS gas canister and a knife which they say were carried by the two victims. But they cannot say at which point they found these items. No charges were ever brought against Brian. He was simply unlucky enough to be travelling in a car that was stopped by the police--usual enough if you are a black man in south London. With new police powers this now carries a kind of ad hoc death penalty.
Stafford's sister explained in the Today newspaper that the police 'were going to hit Stafford on the head with a truncheon. He put up his hand to stop the blow and that was how he got it broken. The other chap didn't and got his on the head.'
The weapon that killed Brian was the new 22 inch US style steel baton which was brought in last year. The introduction of this new weapon was so controversial that the last home secretary, Kenneth Clarke, backed off from it, arguing that it was too lethal for British police to use. It was the weapon that was caught on camera in the battering of Rodney King which triggered off the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
The Tories and the police have since decided to raise the stakes. They have brought in the Criminal Justice Act and accompanied it with the sinister new weapons of killer batons and CS gas sprays.
Despite their grief and shock, Brian's family are angry. They want to fight for justice. A 1,500 strong demonstration outside Kennington police station after the killing shows that many people feel the same. Everyone knew that this could have happened to anyone. Many messages of support from trade unionists and local people were read out, expressing their determination to see the officers involved immediately suspended and prosecuted. There was a strong feeling that this must never be allowed to happen again.
London's huge annual demonstration, Lesbian and Gay Pride, will take place on 24 June this year. Despite the continuing Tory attacks on lesbians and gay men, most recently the refusal of an equal age of consent, the Pride demos just keep getting bigger and bigger.
While this is great news--reflecting more lesbians and gays attending than ever, with friends, family and workmates--the day itself has become less and less political. The emphasis is on the festival and concert at the end of the demo, rather than the political act of a demonstrating presence on the streets, heralding the slogan, 'Out, proud and fighting'.
Despite these successes, there is controversy over the venue for the final carnival. The Pride committee has moved this from Brockwell Park in Brixton, because it claims the homophobia of the black community there puts lesbians and gays at risk. The carnival will now take place in Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets. As a result of this, the group 'People of Colour' has withdrawn from the committee, objecting to the choice of Tower Hamlets on the grounds that it is a racist area that recently had a BNP councillor.
The decision to move from Brixton both smacks of racism and runs away from the idea of fighting homophobia. Yet to object to Victoria Park because of the BNP's short lived and isolated success is also flawed. There is no such thing as a 'Nazi area' in London. Beackon was booted out at the first available opportunity and subsequent elections in East London have seen the BNP's vote dwindle.
This dilemma represents the crisis at the heart of the politics of identity, of believing that being a particular race or sexuality leads to a unity of interest. If you are both black and gay, where do you stand in this debate? With whom do you identify? These politics can only lead to ever decreasing circles of division on the basis of everything from race to style of dress. With the Pride committee more concerned with promoting the interests of the pink economy than challenging homophobia, it is up to socialists to provide a focus for all of those who gain nothing by the increase in expensive gay bars, and want to unite with others to fight Tory attacks.
The politics of identity have nothing to say to lesbian or gay teachers fighting against larger class sizes, or nurses campaigning for a decent wage. Yet these struggles not only hold the potential to beat the Tories but experience shows that, linked to an argument for socialist ideas, they also provide the best possibility of homophobic ideas being broken down.
'The privatisation of part of the nuclear power industry, set out in a white paper on 9 May, looks likely to be a particularly creative example of the well honed technique of bribing voters with their own money. In this case, the bribe may be financed not just by selling assets that taxpayers have already paid for once, but by money borrowed from future tax payers too.'
Believe it or not, that is the verdict of the Economist magazine, once the mouthpiece of Thatcherism, privatisation and deregulation.
It is a pretty good summary of Michael Heseltine's plan to sell off Britain's eight newest nuclear power stations, while keeping in state hands the nine oldest, dirtiest, Magnox reactors which will soon need to be decommissioned.
The Tories tried to sweeten nuclear privatisation by announcing that they would abolish the 'nuclear levy', a 10 percent surcharge on all electricity bills. It was claimed this levy was to fund the dismantling of old nuclear power stations. In fact much of it has gone towards Britain's newest nuclear station, Sizewell B.
Electoral considerations dominate this privatisation. The sale is being pushed through to provide cash for pre-election tax cuts while the electricity price cuts are conveniently timed, close to the likely date of the next election.
The economics of nuclear privatisation are ridiculous. The government hopes to raise £2.5 billion from the sale, but this is no more than the cost of constructing Sizewell B.
Now, a year after it was opened and before it is even running at full capacity, the official valuation of Sizewell B is put at just £700 million. Independent experts say that even a valuation of £500 million, a fifth of its construction costs, is optimistic.
The economic madness doesn't end there. It has always been impossible to get honest costs for electricity generated from nuclear power. Governments, both Tory and Labour, have always conspired with the nuclear industry to hide the real costs by creative accounting.
Figures in the accounts provided by the state owned Nuclear Electric and British Nuclear Fuels show that none of the money raised from privatisation would be available for tax cuts. Every penny would be needed to pay for decommissioning the nuclear power stations that will remain in state hands.
To avoid embarrassment Heseltine's Department of Trade and Industry has simply used accounting tricks to knock £2.2 billion off the estimated costs of the final nuclear clean up. This sort of sleight of hand--to manipulate company balance sheets--was common in the 1980s among the Tories' business friends, like Polly Peck chief Azil Nadir. And like Nadir, Major and Heseltine will eventually get found out. But in the case of the nuclear industry, taxpayers will pick up the tab.
If the privatisation of nuclear power seems crazy, it is no more so than the last 16 years of Tory energy policy. The Tories shut down most of Britain's mines claiming electricity generated from coal could not compete with nuclear power. Yet all the time coal has been subsidising nuclear generated electricity.
They have allowed the construction of gas fired power stations even though in its pre-privatisation days British Gas would not sell gas for electricity generation, preferring to conserve Britain's limited reserves for domestic and industrial heating. What is more, the electricity generated from gas stations is more expensive than that generated from coal.
Now the government is trying to privatise nuclear power at the same time as its electricity regulator told the two main generating companies, National Power and PowerGen, to shut down or sell off 6,000 megawatts of capacity. Meanwhile nuclear industry managers are talking about opening up new gas, not nuclear, power stations.
The anarchy of the market, combined with political interference, has produced an enormous mess. The Tories may have hoped that nuclear privatisation would offer them a fallback position if the sell off of the railways hits the buffers. In reality it should be one more nightmare haunting their last months.
Unnoticed by all bar a handful of actuarial experts, the government is planning to slash the living standards of millions of people. The changes proposed in the Pensions Bill, currently working its way through parliament, will lead to a dramatic drop of incomes for pensioners--up to £15 a week per person by the year 2040 at today's prices.
This has been coupled with a relentless chopping away of other areas of our pension rights, including women being forced to wait five more years to the age of 65 before they can draw a pension.
There is also the continuing dismantling of people's earnings-linked pensions, called Serps. By tying them to inflation and not earnings, the real value of what we will get is set to drop to a fraction of what we previously had. At the same time, one of the few remaining rights enjoyed by public sector workers--that of a pension linked to inflation when they retire--is being undermined by waves of successive privatisations of the state sector.
The net effect of these cuts, if unchallenged, will leave anyone under the age of 35 with half the retirement income they now get--the pension will go down from an already paltry 19 percent of a person's average wage in 1979 to less than 10 percent in the next century.
Moreover, anyone in a company scheme is likely to find that--even if their bosses don't do a Robert Maxwell with the money--the link to pre-retirement earnings will gradually disappear.
Small wonder that many millions of people are being panicked into starting personal pensions with big insurance companies. Their salesforces have been scouring pit villages, teachers' common rooms and nurses' homes, selling grotesquely expensive and insecure products--linked to a volatile and crisis prone stock market--to all and sundry.
Most frighteningly, these cuts have been accompanied by a deafening silence on the part of Labour politicians and trade union leaders. They mostly accept the arguments put forward by the Tories--that current levels of state pension can no longer be afforded.
Within the next 40 years the number of people of working age will fall to 2.4 for every retired person whereas it now stands at 3.7. The Tories say we won't be able to pay taxes to give ourselves a decent pension. This assumes that they will keep up their programme of tax cuts for the rich. It also assumes that under their rotten system the economy won't grow any further.
By comparison, workers in other countries such as Germany and Italy enjoy far more generous rights. And in Italy when the Berlusconi government tried to change the law last year to stop people retiring after 35 years of work--no matter what their age--millions of workers walked out on unofficial strike. What's more, their action forced Berlusconi on to the ropes.
It is important to remember that our pension rights are the product of decades of successful battles by working people. They represent, with all their flaws, a view of society in which vulnerable people receive at least something in their old age.
Basic pensions were first won during the pre-1914 period of labour unrest. While stingy at first--75 pence a week for people over 70 when most tended to die well before that--they were boosted after 1945, in the postwar Labour government's welfare reforms. The introduction of Serps in 1978 was part of Labour's trade off with the TUC, as it sought to keep workers' wages down during the years of what was known as the Social Contract.
All this is disappearing before our eyes. If the Tories get their way, for most people retirement will mean an even more miserable end to their working lives. The alternative is to fight to keep what we've got and in the process fight for a different sort of society.
Ten million elderly people now living on the breadline deserve no less, as do all the rest of us who are bound to join them sooner or later.
New laws proposed on divorce will mean that the 'quickie' divorce will be abolished to be replaced by a 'no blame' divorce with only one cause--marriage breakdown. Some church leaders are horrified and are claiming it will mean 'divorce on demand'.
In fact this is far from the truth. Whether you want a divorce because you've fallen in love with someone else, or you just can't stand your spouse any more, or even if you are being beaten and abused, all couples will now have to go through a year's 'cooling off' period. This is where, according to the marriage guidance charity Relate, 'many couples can find a way of saving their marriage'. Then everyone will have to take part in a information session, which to save money will be done in large groups! There all couples will be subjected to a lecture and video about the CSA, legal aid and the availability of mediation services. Only then will two adults who have made a decision to split be allowed to legally divorce.
The government's concerns are clear. It wants absent parents, usually the father, to commit themselves to paying for the upkeep of any kids so the state won't have to pick up the bill. It wants the 120,000 couples a year who divorce within three to six months of seeing a solicitor to have to go through a humiliating procedure and year long wait before they will be given permission to separate.
Experience of mediation has shown that--although many couples find it means their divorce may be less acrimonious than otherwise--it rarely results in a marriage being rescued, Far from being a step forward, this legislation reflects the prejudices of a ruling class intent on holding the family together at a time when nearly four out of ten marriages currently end in divorce--making Britain's the highest rate in Europe--and over a third of babies are born outside marriage. Yet no legislation can make two people who are miserable together want to prolong their relationship as the patronising officials who drew up this new law seem to believe. 'Divorce on demand' is still a long way off.