Issue 194 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
The new Asylum and Immigration Bill, now making its way through parliament, will--if it becomes law--represent a historic shift in immigration control. Firstly, it will include a 'white list' of designated countries from which it will be assumed that any applications for asylum are unfounded. In addition, as Claude Moraes from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says, 'It has moved Britain to a European concept of internal immigration control rather like the French Pasqua laws.' This the government intends to do by imposing criminal sanctions on employers who employ 'illegal' immigrants.
These proposals will have an impact on every workplace, hospital, school, university or local authority as black people, both immigrants and those born in this country, will be viewed with suspicion, and will be subject to scrutiny from their employer. Even the right wing Institute of Directors admits this will have 'racial implications'. And cabinet minister Gillian Shephard, in a memo leaked to The Guardian last year, said that many employers may simply refuse to employ those they consider 'a risk'.
Britain already has some of the most stringent immigration laws in Europe. Now Social Security minister Peter Lilley is withdrawing benefit entitlement for asylum seekers which will result in some 13,000 asylum seekers without any means of support. So worried is the Refugee Council that it has requested rolls of plastic sheeting from Oxfam to use as shelter for those who will be thrown on the streets as a result of these attacks.
As a result of these changes it is estimated that 4,500 children would have to go into local authority care. Although the threat of legal action by the councils, and the public outcry, forced Lilley to retreat over those asylum seekers who were to be immediately affected, it will still affect some 20,000 by the end of the year.
The impact all this has on the lives of ordinary people is seen in the case of Ade Onibiyo who is currently fighting his deportation to Nigeria, despite the fact that he has spent most of his life in this country. Ade's father, Abdul, was deported last year and the family has not heard of him since.
The proposed deportation of Saudi Arabian dissident Mohammed Masari has made very clear the priorities of the British government over asylum. His 'crime' was to criticise the human rights record of one of the most brutal regimes in the world and call for more democracy. This was too much for the British government which will do nothing to upset the arms dealing Saudi regime.
The response of the Labour Party to this hugely unpopular piece of legislation has been pathetic. The front bench has refused to take a position of outright opposition to the bill, and has abstained in the committee stage arguing that this is to use parliamentary procedure to attack it at a later date. Labour fears that the Tories are 'laying an electoral trap' by showing Labour to be 'soft on immigration'. Instead Labour should be openly leading the campaign to defend some of the most vulnerable groups in Britain.
Rather than being a vote loser a campaign by Labour against this bill could mobilise all those angry about the Tories and inflict another defeat on a deeply unpopular government.
This makes the role of socialists and activists in building the forthcoming TUC national demonstration against the Asylum Bill all the more important. Up and down the country there are hundreds of people either under threat of deportation themselves, or who have members of their family or friends facing deportation. This is an issue that can mobilise tens of thousands of people.
And all the major trade unions have good anti-racist policies which can be used to gain support for the demonstration and stop the Tories using racism as a way to gain votes. Once again it shows that opposition to Major and the Tories is not to be found in the corridors of parliament, but comes when working class people mobilise their forces from below.
Demonstrate against the Asylum and Immigration Bill, 24 February, Embankment, London WC2 at 11am.
John Major is said to be genuinely puzzled at the continuing lack of a 'feel good factor', despite what he sees as a healthy economic recovery that will lead to a predicted 3 percent growth in 1996. Yet beneath the much flaunted figures of low inflation and income increases lie some unpalatable truths borne out by two recent reports.
One shows that wages for most people have been stagnant for years. It looks at what is termed 'real personal disposable income at constant prices'. This measure includes wages, salaries and income from dividends, rents and small businesses and its rate of growth between 1952 and 1994 was just over 2.5 percent per year. But in the five years up to 1994 the average rise of personal income was only 1.3 percent. This in itself might indicate to all but the most obtuse prime minister why people don't feel good.
But the study, by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, has also looked at the growth rate of disposable income, excluding from the calculation income from dividends and rents. When it measures only the level of wages and salaries, which is after all what the majority of the population rely on for their sole income, there is a very different outcome.
It shows that wage levels have stagnated, thus leaving most people with less disposable income and a persistent feel bad factor. No wonder people live on credit and refuse to join in another consumer boom when they have--after inflation--experienced real cuts in wages. On the government's own figures on prices and taxes Labour's Gordon Brown has calculated that living standards have fallen for the first time since 1982.
If this is true of those in work, the reality for those on state benefits is even more stark. The findings of a second report, commissioned by the government to look into the health and diet of those on low incomes, are so damning the Tories have tried to keep it secret.
When the Low Income Project team investigated the diet of families across the country they were stunned to find a level of malnutrition in Britain not seen since the 1930s. The closing of local shops and the mushrooming of giant out of town supermarkets has meant that families relying on often inadequate public transport simply do not have access to their choice of fresh food, and are forced to pay premium prices.
So while an average family spends around 17 percent of its income on food, many of the poorest families have to spend up to half of theirs. Many parents admitted to living on tea and toast snacks in order to make sure their children had enough to eat. For most adults fresh fruit was a luxury reserved for the children only.
This so far unpublished report concludes that the government will have to take urgent national action, on a scale not seen since the Second World War, to tackle the situation. Yet the government placed an astonishing precondition on the inquiry. Discussion or recommendations about a key factor leading to malnutrition and poor diet--the level of state benefits--has been forbidden from the report's conclusions.
For the millions of people surviving on low wages or state benefits no amount of surveys, statistics or optimistic predictions can create a feel good factor out of poverty.
Just as a new television series harks back to the great local corruption story of the 1960s and 1970s--the Poulson scandal--a new orgy of local government corruption emerges which reduces Poulson to his proper status as minor hypocrite and crook. Poulson was a Tory who was evenhanded in his bribes with Tory and Labour councillors. The new scandal is pure Tory. At its head is Lady Porter, who modelled herself on her heroine Thatcher, and for many years led the Tory council at Westminster, the jewel in the Tory local government crown.
The results of the council elections in 1986 terrified the Tories. Labour came within a few votes of taking control of Westminster. At once Porter and her henchmen, who included the current Tory MP for Milton Keynes, Barry Legg, called a series of secret meetings to hatch a plot which would ensure that Labour would never get so close again. The plan was simple: to use the powers of the council in planning, housing and even in street amenities, to move Labour voters out of marginal wards and Tory ones in.
Many years later this plan was brought to the attention of the District Auditor, a mild, middle of the road accountant from Touche Ross called John Magill. The historical role of the District Auditor in local government was simple: to control the extravagance of Labour council spending on the poor. Before workers voted, when Tories and Liberals controlled councils, there was of course no problem with extravagance. Tory and Liberal councils were keen to safeguard the rich ratepayers they represented, so if they were extravagant with council money, the extravagance was always showered on the rich.
After Labour started winning control of councils and using the rates to help the poor--and especially after 1921 when Labour councillors in Poplar defied the law and went to prison to establish their right to raise money from the rich to spend on Labour voters--the tightest possible control was imposed by central government on such spending. The National (Tory) Government in 1933 passed a local government law which gave the District Auditor, an elected official, power to supervise and check council spending. Any councillor found by the District Auditor to be overspending was subject to a surcharge, bankruptcy and disqualification.
For half a century the District Auditors waged war on 'wayward' (socialist) Labour councils. In 1972, when all 11 Labour councillors at Clay Cross in Derbyshire refused to obey a Tory law to put up council rents, the District Auditor surcharged and disqualified them all. In the 1980s a specially vile campaign was launched against the Labour controlled Derbyshire council which refused to put up charges for school meals and other council services as much as the Tory government (and the Derbyshire Tory MPs, led by Edwina Currie) insisted. Once again the District Auditor lined up with the Tories. The climax to this campaign came when the county council, after the media unions were smashed at Wapping, transferred its teachers' advertising from The Times and Sunday Times. The District Auditor, and eventually the Court of Appeal, declared this democratic and eminently just and proper decision to be 'illegal' and the District Auditor promised to surcharge the council leader, David Bookbinder.
By one of those curious twists which has characterised the politics of the 1990s, the District Auditor in Westminster, driven by the anti-extravagance logic which defined his job, has turned his full powers on Lady Porter and Westminster Council and has found their gerrymandering to be more grossly corrupt and expensive than all the so called municipal socialism of the century put together.
Screaming like a wounded beast, Porter rushed to Tory ministers to tell them to sack the men in charge of the national audit office and get these impertinent officials off their backs. Ministers, full of rhetoric about the 'waste' of Labour authorities, could do nothing. Porter hired a host of Labour and even Communist lawyers to put her case to the District Auditor--to no avail. The final attack on her is even more devastating than its predecessors. Porter has fled to Israel. Bookbinder has been suddenly and unexpectedly absolved from any surcharge; and the Tory rhetoric about wasteful Labour councils in this year's municipal elections will have a hollow ring.
A flash in the pan was the general verdict from the British media on last December's French events. The already inadequate reporting of the strikes has dried to only a trickle of information since the new year. Most journalists took the view that, since the strikes had finished and the prime minister, Juppé, was still in office and pressing on with his plan, very little had been achieved.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The workers who struck at the end of last year by and large won significant concessions. The striking SNCF rail workers got everything they had wanted plus the withdrawal for now of a plan to cut the number of French railways.
Transport workers in the southern port of Marseilles--known as traminots--who stayed out on strike into January won complete victory. Attempts to turn the local population against them completely failed. Workers in Grenoble and Perpignan similarly won their disputes.
The strike wave influenced many workers who had not previously taken action to fight and win. Even workers at the anti-union Euro Disney demonstrated against low wages and poor working conditions.
While the strikes themselves have subsided in the wake of winning several concessions and the desperation of the union leaders to call off the action, the mood which they have created among workers is one of confidence and a sense of determination. There are many issues--particularly sectional ones affecting different groups of workers--which may well flare up into new disputes in the coming months.
This month there is a national teachers' demo. The teachers' union has called on other public sector unions to support it. February also marks the beginning of a new round of public sector wage negotiations.
Although Juppé, is still claiming that he will press ahead with his plan, his longer term position looks shaky. His attempt to go on the offensive against working class welfare and living standards blew up in his face before Christmas and he has no easy way of recovering the initiative.
The union leaders too have found their strategy under question. Nicole Notat, leader of the CFDT union confederation who accepted the Juppé plan from its outset, is under attack from militants inside her union, especially those in the rail workers' section. And Marc Blondel of Force Ouvrière, who was more pulled along by his members' militancy but who was quick to try to negotiate with the government, is also facing a challenge--although this time from the right.
Many workers are clearly not in a mood to put up with further attacks on their living standards and conditions which will probably make for very volatile struggles in the months ahead.
Two newspaper photographs of the Palestinian elections captured their full significance--heavily veiled Islamic women queuing in Gaza to vote for the first time in their lives, in one picture, and Palestinian policemen controlling demonstrators opposed to the election in Ramallah on the West Bank, in the other.
Some 75 percent of Palestinians went to the polls last month, ignoring the boycott calls from the Islamic group Hamas, and other secular militant Palestinian groups. Most Palestinians concluded that the elections meant something, however small. However, the placards of the Ramallah demonstrators are a more likely pointer to the future once the election fever fades. Their message reads, 'Palestinian leaders, don't fail your opponents.'
There has been, after all, plenty of evidence concerning 'President' Arafat's dictatorial ambitions and his heavy handed internal security apparatus. Indeed, the Western press seemed to relish detailed reporting of Arafat's harassing of the fledgling independent Palestinian media and his attempts at 'fixing' some electoral opponents.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect has been Arafat's ability to recruit expelled activists, former prison leaders, youth cadres and fighters from the Palestine Liberation Organisation's former military wing as secret agents who know the West Bank and Gaza like the backs of their hands. This is particularly pleasing to the Israeli security services with whom they are in regular contact. Arafat thuggery was the entirely predictable outcome of the peace process which the assassinated Israeli premier, Yitzak Rabin, fully, and indeed cynically, anticipated. As he said after the Oslo agreement in 1993:
Nevertheless Arafat and the Israelis did not have it all their own way. Far more independents were elected than was expected, many of whom oppose the peace process. The best example was in Gaza City where the popular and respected Haida Adbel Shafl, who calls himself a communist, won most votes. Many other independents, loosely linked to Hamas, also won seats in Gaza. Still the peace process remains the real winner.
In the short term the election results strengthen the hand of the Peres government in Israel and the Clinton White House in Washington. After all, who wants to oppose 'peace' and 'democracy'?
Actually Palestine's most famous intellectual, Edward Said, does, for one. He described the peace process as an 'instrument of surrender' from the moment it was announced. For years he was a 'dove', a moderate, well to the right of the PLO. Yet he has recently written: 'No other liberation movement in the 20th century got so little as the PLO--roughly 5 percent of its territory. And no other leader of a liberation movement accepted what is in effect permanent subordination of their people.'
Said has thrown a very different light on last month's elections, and questions how much they represent change.
Palestinians have elected municipal representatives. They are no more than town councillors despite all the hype. They are not governmental representatives. All candidates had to be approved by the Israelis. Israel continues military control of the West Bank and Gaza, establishing 62 new military bases on the West Bank. Israel controls all the exits and entrances to the Palestinian towns. It controls all the roads and as well as security outside the towns it controls water, air space and airwaves.
All commercial traffic between Gaza and the West Bank is in Israeli hands. A truck carrying tomatoes from Gaza to the West Bank must stop at the border, unload onto an Israeli truck, then reload onto a Palestinian truck in the West Bank. The operation is guaranteed to rot the goods and raise their costs.
Israel is sealing off Arab East Jerusalem with a massive building programme on the city's east perimeter for Jewish dwellers only. (Israel openly tried to sabotage Arab voting in the city, even managing to stir a protest from former US president and international observer Jimmy Carter.) An overwhelmingly 'Jewish' capital city remains Israel's goal.
Half the dispossessed Palestinians, about 3.5 million people, were not allowed to vote because they do not live in the West Bank or Gaza. Most are stateless refugees. Many live in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Just occasionally, too, an Israeli voice can be heard describing the 'peace' as a grotesque game of pretence. Last year the Israeli novelist, David Grossman, chastised the Jewish left for 'its almost complete paralysis' in the face of the Oslo agreement. He wrote,
Arafat may well need that bloated security apparatus--to protect him from his own people when the game is up.
Most workers' buyouts of industry have a record of failure, and the coal industry is no exception.
But Tower colliery in South Wales seems to be different. A £3.6 million pre-tax profit was recently announced for the 10 months to October. The pit reopened last January after 244 miners put up £8,000 each to buy it for £1.93 million. The result has been hailed by a previously hostile press as the business success story of last year.
Along with all the other closed pits, Tower was always profitable. Yet the liquidation carried out by British Coal was relentless. By 1993 it was the last pit in South Wales. Not a month went by without a new productivity ultimatum. Wages fell, and six day working was demanded. When closure came in 1994 the familiar blackmail over redundancy terms was used. Despite a campaign with massive support throughout South Wales and further afield a demoralised workforce voted to accept the closure.
In the previous two years alone British Coal had made a £23 million profit out of Tower. There was no shortage of bidders like Ryan, Wimpey and the ghost of the original coal owners in the shape of Powell Duffryn. In response Tower Employee Buyout, led by former lodge secretary Tyrone O'Sullivan, was again able to draw on solid local support. Thousands of pounds were raised in the Cynon and Rhondda valleys towards campaigning costs.
From the start, however, the Tower buyout also looked in another direction for support. Philip Weekes, former South Wales Director of British Coal, was invited to become chairman and Price Waterhouse and Barclays Bank prepared the bid. The butcher of the coal industry, Michael Heseltine, announced the success of the bid from the platform at the 1994 Tory Party conference.
The level of farce was reached with the publication of the new year's honours list. Tyrone O'Sullivan, a fighter all his life and lodge secretary at Tower for years, was given an OBE 'for service to industry in South Wales'.
The suggestion that Tower is now an exciting experiment in workers' control has been pushed in the press and echoed in comments made at various times by Philip Weekes and even by Heseltine. To take issue with it is not simply to respond to the insult to every former miner whose job these people destroyed and to valley communities living with appalling levels of long term unemployment. It is essential if there is ever to be a revival of the British coal industry.
The conditions under which Tower operates remain those which destroyed the rest of the industry. Around 80 percent of Tower coal is sold inland, much of it to Aberthaw power station. Planning of energy production was completely cast aside as privatisation and deregulation of the utilities in the 1980s created the so called dash for gas. New private gas fired power stations are producing enormous overcapacity which hangs over the future of coal fired stations like Aberthaw.
There is 600 years' supply of coal under Britain. Any rational energy policy would include proper use of deep mined coal, and only complete renationalisation of energy production offers any prospect of a rational policy. Better the Tower buyout than scavengers and asset strippers like Ryan or Wimpey, but the survival of Tower in competition with them in an industry laid waste by the market means continuing the fighting tradition.
Defence of jobs, conditions and wage levels at Tower, which are almost twice as high as at other privatised pits, will need a strong NUM lodge and a fight to raise wage levels throughout the industry. Buckingham Palace and the South Wales public relations industry have nothing to offer here.
The German economy, the powerhouse of Europe, is running out of steam. The economic slowdown is precipitating a deep political crisis for Helmut Kohl's Tory dominated government. It is also throwing up into the air the plans for a European single currency in 1999.
The German economy may well have contracted in the last three months of 1995. This follows zero growth in the preceding three month period. Unemployment has risen to 9.8 percent and looks set to top 10 percent, 4 million, by February.
The stagnation of the economy has meant that £7.39 billion less in taxes has been collected than the government expected. The rise in unemployment has meant more money being spent on unemployment benefits.
Although the government cut public spending, the result has been an increase in the budget deficit--the gap between what the government spends and what it earns--to 3.6 percent of total government spending. This breaks the limit of a 3 percent deficit set by the Maastricht Treaty on European monetary integration.
Like other European leaders Kohl is caught in a vicious circle. He has slowed the economy down to meet the Maastricht criterion over inflation. But the result has been to bust the limits on government borrowing. The renewed recession has widened the cracks in Kohl's ruling coalition which rules with only a ten seat majority. The coalition is made up of three parties. Kohl's Christian Democrats (CDU) is the largest party followed by its Bavarian sister party the CSU and then the Free Democrats (FDP).
The government is particularly shaky because of the collapse in support for the FDP which provides 47 of the MPs who back Kohl. The FDP is only represented in parliament at all because some Tory voters gave it enough votes to get over the 5 percent election hurdle in the general election in 1994. Since then it has failed to break through the 5 percent barrier in every local and regional election. It is expected to fail again in three important regional elections in March.
This poses the question of why a party that can only muster a couple of percent at the polls should have cabinet members in the government? The collapse of the FDP is producing a crisis within the party. Large sections of the party want it to shift sharply to the right. They propose abandoning the FDP's liberal positions on individual rights and adopting a Thatcherite programme of tax cuts for the rich and huge attacks on the welfare state.
They threatened to vote against the budget if it did not cut income tax. Former economics minister Juergen Moellemann went so far as to say he would split from the FDP and set up a rival party.
Some forces on the right of the FDP want to go even further. They look to the success of Jörg Haider's far right Freedom Party in Austria and want to make the party more nationalistic.
The Bavarian CSU is also riven by conflict--split over Europe in much the same way as the British Tory Party. Federal finance minister Theo Waigel wants to push ahead with European integration. The premier of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, is opposed to a single currency. A similar argument is taking place within the CDU.
One thing that unites all the ruling parties is their determination to slash welfare spending and hold wages down. This determination is shared by Germany's bosses. Last year engineering employers were forced to back down from a series of attacks by a strike of workers in the giant IG Metall union which won a pay increase of about 6 percent and preserved benefits.
Now the employers want to try again. They want to increase flexibility, deregulate the labour market, hold wages down and break up national collective bargaining. While some of the larger employers could make do with modest attacks, medium sized firms--which make up two thirds of German industry--are desperate to attack workers' pay and conditions.
The unions' response has been to come up with an 'alliance for jobs'. They are offering a trade off of pay restraint for 330,000 new jobs being created. But such a trade off has been tried before and has not reduced unemployment or brought growth. In 1994 IG Metall at Volkswagen agreed a four day week (with loss of pay) and increased flexibility in return for job security. But the employers came back last year and laid off 8,000 workers. It is likely that any deal the unions and employers do arrive at will be far worse than the Volkswagen deal.
While there has been no great upsurge in workers' confidence over the last year, there are signs that many workers will want to resist the austerity any new social pact would mean. Ironically sections of workers may be more likely to fight at local level if the bosses shift away from national bargaining. There is a wide feeling that it is not high wages and welfare provision that are responsible for the economic mess.
This mood was partly reflected in the Social Democratic Party which chose a left wing leader, Oskar Lafontaine, last November rather than the widely tipped Blairite moderniser Gerhardt Schroeder. It is deeply ironic that those in Britain who trumpet stakeholder capitalism should look to Germany as a model today. The supposedly farsighted German bosses are looking to slash wages and welfare to compete on a world scale. The economic miracle is over and polite consensus between bosses and union leaders is giving way to sharper conflict.