Issue 191 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

Hillingdon hospital workers: a stand against privatisation

Editorial

Shadow boxing

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.


Economy

Money troubles

Problems ahead for Clarke

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.
Pete Morgan


Briefing

United Nations

Clinton and Yeltsin: view from the security council

  • The UN was established in 1945. The General Assembly was supposed to embody its egalitarian nature. All UN members (originally 50, now 185) have a seat and equal voting rights. All can take part in debates and frame resolutions. But the General Assembly has no power: it is basically a talking shop which cannot initiate action.
  • Real power lies with the Security Council, the sole body that can take executive decisions. Five permanent members are joined by ten representatives of other countries, who are elected for two year terms. The five are China, France, Britain, the US and Russia (the USSR's seat was transferred to Russia without a vote in the General Assembly--in blatant breach of the UN Charter). At the moment the ten are Argentina, Botswana, The Czech Republic, Germany, Honduras, Indonesia, Italy, Nigeria, Oman and Rwanda.
  • Not all Security Council members have equal rights. Each permanent member has the power to veto any decision. Thus the UN has only ever intervened to 'maintain international peace and security', as its charter proclaims, when it suits all the major powers. Likewise, it has never once intervened to protect the victims of any of those powers. In reality, the structure of the UN ensures that the interests of the big powers are protected against the UN Charter and its noble sentiments.
  • One of the major principles of the charter is that every member state should be protected from invasion by another. This was broken every time the interests of the permanent members were threatened. In 1968 the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia. In 1975 Indonesia annexed East Timor. The same year Turkey invaded Cyprus and grabbed the north of the island. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. In each case the General Assembly passed angry resolutions of protest and refused to recognise the annexations. In each case, the 'big five' made sure that the invaders escaped punishment.
  • The UN Charter proudly speaks of the equal rights of all people. Yet the UN did nothing about apartheid in South Africa and did not even revoke South Africa's mandate over Namibia until 1969. It then did nothing to curb South Africa's activities in Namibia until the late 1980s when the Namibian independence struggle was on the verge of winning. UN forces arrived to monitor a ceasefire, resulting in the disarming of the Namibian SWAPO forces while South African forces remained untouched. UN forces watched as hundreds of SWAPO fighters were murdered.
  • The Palestinians have been another casualty of UN duplicity and inaction. One of the UN's first major interventions was to vote in 1947 for the creation of a Jewish state on Arab land in Palestine. UN forces stood by while three quarters of a million Palestinians were driven out from the new Israeli state in 1948. UN forces were withdrawn shortly before the 1967 war, when Israel occupied more Arab land. When the General Assembly objected to some of Israel's excesses, the US ensured its resolutions were ignored. Resolution 242, which demanded Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories, has been ignored for nearly 30 years. Many other similar resolutions, covering illegal settlements, human rights and the status of Jerusalem, have been passed but not backed by even threats of action.
  • The only time the Security Council took action against the interests of one of its permanent members--the USSR--was in Korea in the 1950s. At the time the USSR was boycotting the UN because of the UN's refusal to admit China.
  • In 1950 the General Assembly resolved that there should be mediation between North and South Korea. The US ignored it and sent in its troops. The Security Council then allowed the UN to be used as a flag of convenience for US military intervention.
  • In 1992 the US used the cover of the UN to drive Iraq out of Kuwait and restore the Kuwait dictators. Suddenly, when cheap oil supplies were at risk, the invasion of one country by another was intolerable and had to be stopped. At the time the US owed the UN $757 million (now it owes $1.2 billion). UN sanctions remain on Iraq, with devastating consequences for the Iraqi people.
  • In Somalia the UN did virtually nothing for most Of 1992 when the civil war was destroying the country and up to 2,000 people were dying every day from starvation. At the end of the year, the US forced the UN to authorise US air strikes against the Somali people. The result of 'Operation Hope' was that most aid stopped, hundreds of Somalis were killed and there was a mass revolt by Somalis against the UN and US presence.
  • In former Yugoslavia the UN peace initiatives have divided the country along ethnic lines, thereby contributing to the logic of ethnic cleansing. When it did send troops, they stood by as massacres took place.
  • Another crucial part of the UN was the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They were established at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 when most of the developing world was under colonial rule. By the time these countries gained political independence they were economically in thrall to the IMF and other international financial institutions. The World Bank became the West's policeman for economic policy in developing countries, particularly Africa.
  • The financial institutions are used to force poorer countries to vote with the US at the UN. In the Gulf War developing countries were warned not to vote against US intervention against Iraq under the UN's flag. Yemen was one of the few which refused to buckle. Within days the US had stopped its $70 million aid programme to Yemen, and the World Bank and the IMF blocked Yemeni loans which cost the impoverished country around $1 billion.


    Striking public sector workers in Paris

    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.


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