Issue 191 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
This year's party conferences demonstrated the shape of things to come as we approach what is likely to be an election year. Tory Blair succeeded in removing virtually everything controversial from the Labour Party conference agenda and won everything comfortably.
At the Tory Party conference the rank and file Tories loved the rabid rantings of Michael Portillo when he pronounced that British soldiers would not die for Brussels. The conference showed that John Major is a prisoner of the right as they strive to put 'clear blue water' between themselves and Blair. The dominant mood of the Tory activists is well suited by calls for more law and order, a crackdown on immigrants and attacks on benefits.
They believe that these policies will appeal to the most backward and right wing sections of society and so help rebuild Tory support. It is obvious that there is nothing to which the Tories will not stoop in order to win votes. So far, however, there has been no sign of a change in their popularity, with the Tories still trailing up to 30 points behind Labour in opinion polls.
However, despite Labour's massive lead in the polls it faces problems. In particular, the politics of Blair makes it harder to fight the Tories, not easier. This was demonstrated during the row with the home secretary, Michael Howard, over the sacking of the head of prisons, Derek Lewis. It was not just that Jack Straw showed he was better at attacking beggars than at going for the Tories. It was also that Labour had no real answer to a number of difficult questions put to them by the Tories.
Labour's policy of tailing the Tories on law and order means that they cannot ask the basic questions, such as: why appoint the head of Granada Television to run the prisons--except that he is committed to privatisation? Why have a policy which means the prisons are the most overcrowded in Europe? As a result Howard was easily able to ride the storm.
The unease that many feel about Tony Blair was further illustrated in the elections to Labour's shadow cabinet, where the 'modernisers' did worse than expected. This unease comes from the sense that Labour's policies do not articulate the anger which so many ordinary people feel.
Yet the scale of discomfort felt by people, and the scale of attacks from government and bosses, leads to periodic outbursts from workers which point to a quite different strategy from Blair's.
In the past month there have been a number of significant strikes--most of them ignored by the media and not actively supported by the Labour or trade union leaders.
The strikers at Hillingdon Hospital--Asian women cleaners fighting the effects of privatisation--should be a beacon for everyone wanting to defend the NHS and fight the sell offs going on in the public sector. Instead they have been largely ignored by the official labour movement.
The Liverpool dockers, sacked by vicious anti-union employers, have still found that their union, the TGWU, refuses to make the strike official, let alone organise the backing which could win the dispute, because of the Tory anti-union laws.
The support for these workers gives the lie to the notion that no one is interested in fighting or in supporting those who do. At the Vauxhall car factory in Ellesmere Port on Merseyside, £2,300 was collected for the dockers in one week in October. Hundreds of pounds have been collected around London for the Hillingdon cleaners.
But that support has to be turned into solidarity--something which Blair and the trade union leaders are loath to do. The argument that we must not rock the boat in the run up to an election is most sharply posed in the workplaces, where workers are on the receiving end of attacks.
When workers do fight, they often find they can win--as with the testing section at Rolls Royce in Bristol, or with the reinstatement of Dave Carr at University College Hospital or with the Sheffield library workers. But those victories depend on rejecting the Blairite arguments and using workers' strength and solidarity to build the kind of organisation which we will need to defend our rights whichever government is in office.
As Kenneth Clarke's budget approaches, the Tories are facing increasing problems over the state of the economy. With an election due some time in the next 18 months, they are desperate to give a handout in the form of tax cuts to try and improve their chances.
However, the recent vacillation by Clarke illustrates the difficulty he faces. His speech at the Tory conference promised tax cuts. Then under pressure from the City he was forced to backtrack.
The export led recovery has all but fizzled out, not only because of the weakness of the British economy but also because some key export markets such as France, Germany and the US are expanding much less quickly than expected.
One of the most worrying things for the Tories is that retail sales in September fell to their lowest level for more than three years. Much was made of the claim that this was due to the prolonged summer. Yet some observers noted that this was the lowest increase since 1992 when the economy was barely emerging from recession, and goes some way to explain why the so called 'feel-good' factor is not in evidence.
The decline in retail figures also confirms a recent survey by the Reward Group which showed that the overall cost of living is rising much faster than average earnings, suggesting that many families have become worse off over the last year.
The survey was based on what families on different incomes actually spend their money on, as opposed to the retail price index which measures a single basket of goods. Consequently, although the RPI stated that the price of goods and services rose by only 3.6 percent in the year to August, the survey claims that the level of money needed to maintain average living standards rose by 5.3 percent. As a result most people have seen their standards of living eroded over the last year.
What concerns not only the Tories but also other sections of the ruling class is that there are inflationary pressures building up in the economy, which limits the Tories' scope for manoeuvre. The rate for September rose to 3.9 percent from 3.6 percent in August. The inflation rate for September is used to determine the level of state welfare payments such as income support, child benefit and pensions from next April. Thus it makes it harder to introduce tax cuts this year without adding to next year's public spending total.
There are fears in the City that the government Public Sector Borrowing Rate is too high, and that tax cuts will only exacerbate it. However, Major is running scared of introducing wholesale cuts in the education and health budgets which the money markets call for, for fear of the public outcry this will cause.
Between 1992 and the second quarter of 1995 the share of profits as a percentage of GDP rose from 12 percent to more than 16 percent while the share of wages fell from 66 percent to 62 percent. It is workers, and not shareholders, who are having to pay for the mess the Tories have created.
Yet they may not be prepared to take much more. As The Economist has said, 'Though wages do not look as if they are about to explode, it would be unwise to be complacent about pay... Because inflation is likely to be rising during this period the pay dog may finally start to bark.'
What is increasingly clear is that after a series of attacks on pay and living standards workers are not prepared to accept further austerity--all of which helps to deepen the tensions and divisions inside a deeply unpopular government.
Workers in Paris demonstrated last month as part of a 5 million strong strike by public sector workers. They are finding their wages and conditions under attack from a government which says workers in the public service are privileged. Yet the strength of the response shows millions are prepared to defend themselves, adding further to the crisis of the French Tory government under Jacques Chirac and his prime minister Alain Juppé.