Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
What a difference a summer makes. As Tony Blair retreated to the hills of Tuscany, the rumblings of discontent about his leadership and the direction he is taking New Labour rose to the surface. The last few weeks have seen Tony Blair face the strongest criticism since being elected as Labour leader.
It began with the discontent over Labour's tactics in July's Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, where Labour fought one of its most right wing campaigns for many years. Attacks on the Liberal Democrats over drugs and tax increases and hints of racism in the Labour campaign made a number of Labour supporters and voters feel very uneasy.
The criticism continued with Roy Hattersley who said in the Independent, 'I understand why party members worry that we have become so preoccupied with the problems of the middle classes that we have begun to overlook the needs of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed.' Then, GMB general secretary John Edmonds said he was concerned about Labour's shift rightwards and called for 'a period of consolidation'.
So scared are the Labour leadership over a bad press that they suspended Walsall Labour Party after it was accused of being 'loony left' by the Tories, even though the Labour council was pursuing policies of cuts and privatisation that would have made the Tories proud.
There has been much made of the 100,000 new members that Labour has recruited over the past months, but this has come at a price with many members leaving and former activists dropping out. As Peter Hain said in the New Statesman, 'It [Labour] needs an enthusiastic army of activists, not simply a large reservoir of passive members whose only participation involves being consulted periodically by ballot or pestered by phone or mailshot for donations.' He argued that the fight for socialist politics must be based on an active membership who are prepared to go out and campaign for change.
The summer, therefore, has not been altogether happy for Labour's leaders. This, combined with the continuing disquiet over the minimum wage, means the coming weeks will see a further test of Blair's attempt to move Labour even further to the right.
What all this shows is that there is a significant layer of Labour members, and many more Labour supporters, worried about the shift to the right. Behind the slick image machine, some Labour members and trade union leaders are voicing concern about the fact that on many policies Labour is virtually indistinguishable from the Tories.
Some are clearly worried that Labour is not prepared to give even a paper commitment to reverse some of the Tories' most unpopular policies--whether it be over education, the NHS or renationalising the public utilities. Even though Labour has made some damning statements about water privatisation, it refuses to pledge to take water back into public ownership.
Major and the Tories are still hated throughout the country, but what angers many Labour supporters is that Blair fails to make any commitment to those who have suffered so much under the Tories.
Fortunately over the summer there have been groups of workers who have been prepared to take action--such as the rail workers who voted to continue a series of strikes over pay, although it was eventually sold out by their leadership. In Sheffield a group of local government workers took strike action over redundancy, and won. Firefighters in Liverpool are currently involved in strike action, and there have been strikes on the tube and action by council workers and health workers. The issue of the minimum wage is likely to dominate the forthcoming TUC conference.
The task for socialists is to build the resistance against Major now and not to wait for a Blair government which promises so little. Every vote for action, whether it be on the railway, in the NHS or in the councils, will not only be another nail in Major's coffin, but will also help stop the rightward drift of New Labour under Blair.
'£4 an hour-the wage issue we can't blur', was the headline on a recent article by TUC general secretary John Monks in the Daily Mirror. But then Monks proceeded to do precisely that.
In putting an otherwise excellent case for a minimum wage, Monks says, 'Millions will be pinning their hopes on a future Labour prime minister. I have no doubt about Tony Blair's commitment to bring in a legal minimum wage. And I have no grumble about his determination to decide what figure to put on the minimum wage after the election, following discussions with employers and unions.'
Here we see the reasons why there has been an argument within the TUC leadership over the setting of a minimum wage. Monks has said that to commit itself to a specific figure will cause 'damaging arguments' between the Labour Party and Labour affiliated unions. But what is interesting is what Monks goes on to say in the Daily Mirror article: 'Unions won't sit back and wait for election day. We've set ourselves a target of £4 an hour to negotiate with lowpaying employers now. And we'll set a target for the figure we'd like to see on a minimum wage later. The job for unions is different to Labour's.'
This is where the confusion comes in. How can a fight against employers for £4 an hour be separated from making just such a demand on a Labour government, which will be directly responsible for the pay of millions of low paid public sector workers? The vast majority of workers see nothing wrong in demanding that Labour commits itself to a national minimum wage of at least £4 an hour. Some 5 million workers would see an improvement from a figure of £4.15, while only 3.4 million would benefit from a figure of £3.50.
Tony Blair wants employers to have a say in setting the figure. But this is ludicrous. Why should the very same bosses paying poverty wages have a say?
The Tories and bosses hate the idea of a minimum wage because it would cut into profits. Every extra penny in a worker's pay packet is a penny that does not go to company directors and shareholders. It is these people who Blair is seeking to placate by refusing to set a figure. Few people believe the Tories and bosses' organisation, the CBI, when they say that a minimum wage of around £4 would destroy jobs. In fact, higher wages usually reflect better union organisation and a greater ability to resist job cuts.
When the government abolished the wages councils, regulating the pay of 2.5 million workers, wages fell. This did not create more jobs--rather, jobs fell by 18,000. In the US the only effect of a minimum wage was to create more jobs, and a minimum wage is common in other European countries.
Trade union leaders know that their members want a minimum wage and an end to low pay. That is why the firefighters' FBU union and the building workers' UCATT have refused to bow to Labour and TUC leaders' pressure to drop the £4.15 demand. The three biggest unions--Unison, TGWU and GMB--already have policies committing them to a rate of over £4.
The splits among trade union leaders are a reflection of the unease that millions of workers feel about what a Labour government will be like. Arguments about the minimum wage will continue at the TUC congress this month. The issue will connect with millions of trade unionists, whatever their pay rates. That is why the lobby of the TUC called by Start The Fight Now, on the day Blair addresses the congress, is important. Such pressure is important to channel the anger over pay into rebuilding union organisation and keep the pressure on union leaders to demand Labour pledges to implement a national minimum wage of £4.15 an hour.
The long running trial of OJ Simpson for the murder of his former wife and her lover has suddenly become focused on the level of racism inside the Los Angeles Police Department.
Arguments centre over whether former detective Mark Fuhrman planted evidence--a bloody glove--on Simpson and whether he used the term 'nigger'. Fuhrman denies saying the word within the past ten years but tapes of him which the defence has are full of racial slurs. Nor does Fuhrman appear to be too keen on gays or women.
At one point on the tapes Fuhrman says, 'We've got females...and dumb niggers, and all your Mexicans that can't even write the name of the car they drive.' Another extract says, 'All these niggers in LA city government... should be lined up and... shot.'
A private detective who has spent the past year interviewing hundreds of people who knew him says that a recurrent theme is that Fuhrman uses racist language to such an extent that it 'dominates the conversation, even if he doesn't know what your value system is'.
The idea that Fuhrman represents one bad apple in the LAPD is hard to sustain. Other revelations include that the LA police would routinely celebrate after they had shot anyone--especially if the victim was black--and that two suspects in a police shooting in 1978 were beaten 'until their faces turn[ed] to mush'.
Police Watch. a lawyer referral service for police misconduct, has five complaints on file since 1988 against Fuhrman for allegations including wrongful arrest, harassment of witnesses and use of excessive force. Apparently, this number of complaints is 'not unusually high'.
The tapes are renewing fears which emerged around the Rodney King case, where a black man was severely beaten by LA police--a beating which, unusually, was captured on camera. It led to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and demonstrated that racism was endemic to the police force, at every level.
Many are asking what sort of police force contains people with the views held by Fuhrman. The tapes demonstrate that nothing has changed since Rodney King.
These latest revelations have only come to light because OJ Simpson is rich and has been able to hire the most expensive lawyers to fight his case. For the vast majority of blacks, Hispanics and working class whites who find themselves on the receiving end of the LA police there is no such luxury.
The statement by Metropolitan Police commissioner Paul Condon 'that very many of the perpetrators of muggings are very young black people', was seized upon by the Tory press as proof of the criminality of young Afro-Caribbeans.
It is not surprising that the Sun and the Daily Star had a field day with Condon's claim that between 70 and 80 percent of muggings are carried out by young blacks. However even The Guardian was full of praise for Condon's 'courage and honesty' in tackling an issue that the paper had previously held to be too sensitive' for fear of upsetting 'good race relations'.
The history of the policing of blacks in Britain has never had anything to do with 'good race relations'. The motives behind Condon's claims were starkly shown by his announcement a couple of days later that the Metropolitan Police intended to launch Operation Eagle Eye, an anti-mugging initiative specifically aimed at pinning muggings on black youths. This effectively gives the go ahead to Condon's officers to further harass black people on the streets of London.
Scotland Yard has refused to release the full details of the survey Condon based his claim on. The survey, in which the majority of victims described their attacker as black, only covered 20 out of a total of London's 62 police divisions. These 20 divisions are mainly in inner city areas but were used to generalise about London as a whole. Furthermore criminologists estimate that between 40 and 50 percent of street crime goes unreported.
The entrenched racism of the police force and blacks' mistrust of the police mean that blacks are far less likely to report a crime against them than a white person. This is hardly surprising when you consider cases like the recent arrest of a black man who went to the police station to report that his car had been stolen only to be detained as an illegal immigrant.
For years the police and the media have tried to portray mugging as a 'black crime'. Yet all national crime surveys indicate that the opposite is true. For example, the 1987 and 1991 British Crime Surveys revealed that most muggings were white on white rather than black on white.
The national surveys also revealed that the most important factor linking muggers was poverty, not race. Criminologist Professor Jock Young says, 'Street robbery is the most amateurish crime and therefore likely to be committed by the poorest people. While they are likely to be black in London, they will almost certainly be white in Newcastle.'
Last year in London there were some 33,000 'street crimes'--a definition which extends far beyond mugging--out of a total of 837,000 reported crimes. This amounts to just 4 percent of the total crime rate. There were five times more car crimes and burglaries than muggings. The majority of these crimes are committed by white youths, but the Metropolitan Police have never made race an issue when dealing with these crimes. On the contrary the police have deliberately sat on Home Office reports which show that, far from the popular myth, the users and sellers of hard drugs are predominantly white.
Fraud made up 4 percent of the total crime rate--the same as street crime. Yet because fraud is a crime committed by the ruling class and their intermediaries in the City (both overwhelmingly white sections of the population) the rewards far outstrip that of street crime.
Nevertheless, the police regard much City fraud as accepted business practice. As one City of London chief inspector said:
The use of 'police statistics' and the fear of crime have increasingly become a coded attempt by the Tories and the media to whip up racism.
In the same week that Condon denounced blacks as muggers, Michael Howard announced a new immigration clampdown and government education adviser Nicholas Tate called for more 'British' culture to be taught in schools. In the run up to a general election the Tories are desperately trying to find scapegoats to blame for the misery workers feel.
Yet on the same day Condon launched Operation Eagle Eye, police figures revealed that blacks are increasingly becoming the victims of violent crime as recorded figures for racist attacks have gone up by 8.3 percent. Not only are the police at best indifferent to these crimes, they themselves are increasingly the ones carrying them out. Some of their most recent victims include Joy Gardner, Brian Douglas and Nigerian Shiji Lapite. Since 1969, 50 black people have died in 'suspicious circumstances' either directly while being arrested or in police custody. The Joy Gardner case was only the second time that any officers have faced charges.
Despite the initial anger of black community leaders at Condon's statement, when the Labour MP Bernie Grant boycotted a meeting with him, there has been a gradual capitulation to his argument. Herman Ouseley, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, criticised Condon's statement but still paid tribute to the 'great strides that the Commissioner had made in tackling racism in the police force.' Even Grant, who once commented that 'the police got a bloody good hiding' after the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, appealed for calm and cooperation with the police in The Voice newspaper adding, 'No one will make a fuss if people are arrested for the right reason.'
Socialists and anti-racists will be sadly disappointed if they expect New Labour to mount even a token fightback over racism.
Shadow home secretary Jack Straw's claim 'that there isn't a cigarette paper worth of difference between the Tories and Labour over immigration', was borne out by the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election where Labour attacked the rival Liberal Democrat for being soft on immigration.
Socialists can instead take inspiration from the history of black and white unity that has occurred during the fightbacks against police repression. In virtually all of the riots triggered by police harassment of blacks in the early 1980s, white working class youth fought side by side with blacks. Socialists and anti-racists have also been able to win white workers to strike action against the racism of their employers, as in the recent strike by 1,500 council workers in Hackney against the investigation of black workers with African names by the Home Office.
As the Tories see no other way to solve their problems than attacking workers' living standards, we can expect them to use more racism to deflect workers' anger. But this can also ignite battles which can produce working class solidarity and undermine racism.
Half a million people have been employed to clean up the streets and trim roadside trees in the Chinese capital, Beijing, as women from around the world gather this month for the UN World Conference on Women.
Yet the window dressing cannot hide the controversy surrounding the event. Any hopes that the conference and the parallel Non Governmental Organisation meeting would be free from interference by the Chinese authorities were dashed by the statement that they would deny visas to any delegate they claimed would 'threaten security'. This includes delegates from Taiwan.
The Chinese clampdown includes an unprecedented instruction to conference interpreters to censor debate. Chinese officials have confirmed that interpreters 'have been instructed either to switch their microphones off or remain silent, pretending not to understand', if anyone refers to Tibet or Chinese repression there.
China was never going to be an easy place to hold a worldwide conference on women with its less than noble record on women's rights, but the increasing furore only serves to underline the fact that this event will not be a radical forum to discuss the issues that confront poor and oppressed women around the globe. Instead, like the previous UN world conference on women held in Mexico in 1975, this will be little more than a jamboree for the rich and powerful.
Back in 1975 it was a gathering of 'first ladies' past and present and other loyal representatives of the ruling class, and was memorable more for highlighting the vast differences between the experiences of women than for any celebration of unity of interests. The conference did nothing to change the lot of women in the following 20 years. Far from heralding a new era of equality worldwide, the income gap between rich and poor is wider than ever in the world's wealthiest 20 countries.
For the first time there is a delegation of women from the Vatican, whose leader, Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon, has made her agenda clear by stating that women became feminists in the 1960s and 1970s because they were unable to find enough men to marry! She claimed in a recent speech that this old style feminism was characterised by 'a negative attitude towards the family, the defence of gay rights and abortion, and a disconcerting combination of anger and sexual aggression'. She has said that she wants to use this conference as an opportunity to show that these ideas are outdated and unpopular and will be replaced by a new style of feminism of the sort the Pope would approve.
She need look no further than Hillary Clinton for support, who, in the face of fundamentalist right wing critics of the conference in the US, has turned into the loudest promoter of family values. In fact she now says she is going to the conference because it is 'a celebration of women, a celebration of the family'.
Yet the Human Development Report that has been drawn up for the conference shows that the biggest issue for the majority of women is poverty. Women make up 70 percent of the world's 1.3 billion poor and two thirds of the illiterate. They are the first to suffer from lack of healthcare, safe contraception and abortion.
The economic inequality of the richer countries is reflected in the position of women--Britain comes 13th among 130 countries in measuring sexual equality.
It is the interests of the women most in need which will be least served by the glitz of the UN conference.
In the 12 months since the IRA ceasefire much has changed in Northern Ireland. In the run up to the anniversary Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, promised changes in parole which might release 100 Republican and Loyalist prisoners, reviews of Northern Ireland's non-jury courts, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Powers Act, plus a review of the Royal Ulster Constabulary's performance.
Yet the most obvious change over the last year is the way that Gerry Adams is now feted in Washington and Dublin, precisely because his message is that there need be no radical change in Northern Ireland and more especially in the Republic.
That the ceasefire is popular among the ordinary people of Northern Ireland--Catholic or Protestant--is in little doubt. But the official 'peace process' is about change at the top. It has done little or nothing to change the lives of those same ordinary people.
There is every sign that sectarian divisions could be worsening. Following the annual Orange marches on 12 July there has been a spate of arson attacks with both Orange halls and Catholic churches and schools targeted. Catholic residents of Bombay Street in Belfast's Lower Falls, which was burnt to the ground by a Loyalist mob in 1969, demanded last month that the wall dividing them from the Protestant Shankill should be heightened. In Newbuildings, outside Derry City, one catholic family was driven out of the village after sectarian slogans demanding 'Taigs Get Out' appeared on gable walls.
Why should this be? The answer lies in the fact that the peace process is not concerned with loosening the grip of sectarianism. It is about managing sectarianism.
A common theme runs through the peace process--accepted by Britain's Sir Patrick Mayhew, Irish premier John Bruton, the various Unionist and Loyalist politicians and Sinn Fein. It centres on accepting that Catholic and Protestants have separate identities (a phrase which keeps cropping up in the official negotiations). At best Catholics and Protestants can live beside each other, but never as one.
Northern Ireland would be jointly administered by Nationalist and Republican politicians on the one hand and Unionist and Loyalist politicians on the other who would 'represent' their communities. Above them Britain and the Irish Republic would exercise a watching brief with a final say on any key decision. This would entail those Northern Ireland politicians policing their communities. Gerry Adams would find himself in a situation like Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip who is dependent on the goodwill of the Israelis.
Even if this all worked out it would mean that each 'community' would be competing for every scrap of economic investment or welfare spending.
On all sides there is discontent with the lack of any real change. Britain's determination to insist on the IRA handing in arms has stalled the peace talks at the top. The promised release of 100 political prisoners over the next 12 months is a drop in the ocean. The RUC has been seen to act brutally to both Catholics and Protestants. Meanwhile the promises of American and European investment have largely remained a dead letter. Disillusionment with the failure of the peace process to bring change can easily be channelled into sectarianism.
But behind the idea of 'separate identities' is the belief that the very victims of a divide and rule society are to blame for the divisions. Yet sectarianism has very real material roots. It was fostered in the hot house atmosphere of 19th century industrialisation in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants were pitted against each other for every low paid job, slum house and plot of land. When the Northern Ireland state was established in 1921, sectarianism was built into its foundations.
But there has always been another side to this. Communal identity was and is important in Northern Ireland, but on a daily basis Catholic and Protestant workers organise and fight alongside each other.
Here lies a pointer to the only way sectarianism can be overcome. That lies in developing those elements of working class unity against both sectarian division and the exploitation and oppression in both Irish states.
Sinn Fein would say this is 'unrealistic'. It would be applauded in this by its new found friends, precisely because they are bitterly hostile to the one force which can bring real change--working class unity.
One year ago the ceasefire came after ordinary working people in Northern Ireland took to the streets and struck against sectarian killings. That was and is a source of hope for socialists. Yet we cannot be blind to the dangers the official peace process carries with it.