Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
Government integrity is regarded by many people as a contradiction in terms. After the events of the past month there must be even more who see the Major administration as self serving, cynical and willing to stoop to any low in order to hang on to a few more months in power.
The attempt to completely distort the findings of the Scott Report--an inquiry set up by John Major in 1992 and whose findings were so lengthy that few would have had the time to read its findings--was an exercise so crude and blatant that it shocked even the right wing Times into describing government press releases as 'a biased "summary" of the report, parts of which could rival overblown claims in some estate agents' particulars'.
The report points to a picture of cover up, lying and contempt for democracy among ministers and civil servants which could scarcely be greater. Major's plan to hold on to his two most culpable ministers may succeed in the short term, but they must surely he under more and more pressure as time goes on and more facts from the report become public knowledge.
Scepticism about government intentions was clear almost immediately. A poll in the Sunday Times showed nearly four to one believing the two ministers should resign, and 83 percent believed ministers sometimes lied to parliament to cover up policy changes.
Success in the parliamentary debate over Scott will probably be dependent on the votes of the small number of Ulster Unionist MPs. What John Major will have to further concede to them in order to win their votes remains to be seen. The other big event of the month--the collapse of the Northern Ireland ceasefire--can very largely be laid at the door of successive government prevarications to appease the Unionists.
In the twilight of the Tory government, its unpopularity is added to by a sense of unease over issues of 'big politics'. The lack of confidence in government institutions demonstrates the dramatic change in most people's perception of politics in the past few years. At one time those who criticised the various bodies of the British establishment found themselves facing an uphill task. Most people believed that parliament, the judges, the civil service, were pillars of democracy. Corruption or lack of accountability was a minority problem. Government arrogance could be contained by greater parliamentary scrutiny.
Now most people adopt a much more sceptical approach. They have seen repeated miscarriages of justice, parliamentary manoeuvres, cover ups by ministers and top civil servants, and their natural reaction is to trust no one in government to defend their interests.
Although the Labour Party is seen as 'cleaner' because it has been out of government for so many years, its failure to put forward fundamental reforms or to challenge the basis of decision making in parliament means that it has few alternatives on offer. So while there is widespread disgust at how government works, Labour does little to focus opposition.
However, we should not assume that is the end of the story. Of course disillusion with parliament can mean a turn towards cynicism against all politics and further reinforce ideas that nothing can be done to change society. But it can also represent the weakening of many of the old certainties which underpinned the stability of society during the postwar boom.
The questioning of institutions like the monarchy, parliament or the judiciary makes it very hard for the ruling class to return to the old ways. People may not be confident to fight for an alternative to the system, but they sense in increasing numbers that there is something wrong with the one under which we live now.
Once old certainties do start collapsing, they cannot simply be put back together. While we may see few immediate or direct consequences from the latest government fiasco, its damage should not be underestimated. In particular, it can help to weaken allegiances to the whole apparatus of the state which stands behind these sordid government actions.
Paul Foot writes on the Scott Report see pages 8 and 9
The outcome of the Australian general election, due on 2 March, will be watched with more than the usual interest in this country. The Australian Labor Party under Paul Keating is seen by many as a model for New Labour when it comes to power. Both Tony Blair and deputy leader John Prescott have made visits to Australia recently, along with shadow social security minister Chris Smith, to see how a 'successful' Labour Party governs. in fact the record of Australian Labor in power over the last 13 years is one of cuts in wages, attacks on working conditions, an increase in racism, and growing disillusionment with what Labor does when in government. The real value of wages has been cut by 10 percent through introducing the 'Accord' between the government and the ACTU (equivalent of the TUC) which has led to attacks on public sector workers and a fall in union membership.
At the same time large sections of the economy have been privatised--including the state airline Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. The Labor government led the way in smashing the airline pilots' union and the militant builders' labourers' union in Victoria. It also introduced fees for those going into further education--a form of graduate tax which restricts working class people's access to further education and which has attracted the Labour dominated NUS leadership in Britain. Labor has also removed unemployment benefit for under 18s. It is a rotten record that has led to increased disillusionment from Labor supporters and voters, and has led to the real possibility that the Liberals (the equivalent of the Tory Party) under John Howard may be returned to power.
Unfortunately Labor has given the green light to the Liberals, where they control the state governments, to launch a vicious attack on workers which Howard will continue if elected. In Western Australia the Liberal controlled state government has introduced anti-union laws. Jeff Kennett's Liberal Victorian government has introduced a $100 poll tax and other huge tax increases, and the Tasmanian Liberal government has been condemned by Amnesty International for increasing the prison sentence for gay men having consensual sex in their own homes from 21 to 25 years.
The Liberal Party, if it wins the election, will be in coalition with the National Party, which has a candidate, Bob Burgess, who recently described the Australia Day citizenship function as a 'de-wogging ceremony'. A recent opposition research paper recommends migrants be denied both employment and unemployment services unless they are fluent in English.
There are something like 40 percent of voters undecided about who to vote for. In a desperate attempt to win, Keating is talking about a referendum on the monarchy, saying recently, 'We believe that Australia's head of state should be one of us.' Fortunately over the last few years Australia's workers have begun to realise that 'one of us' more often refers to the Rupert Murdochs and Kerry Packers of this world who have done very well under a Labor government, rather than most ordinary people. Last year there was a national waterfront strike against privatisation, bank workers have taken strike action recently following the announcement of record profits, and tens of thousands demonstrated against nuclear testing in the Pacific. The record of Labor in power in Australia is not, as Blair would have us believe, one of economic prosperity and increased living standards for all, but one of increasing disillusionment and dashed hopes.
The Labour Party's recent abandonment of all women shortlists symbolised more than the ditching of yet another policy commitment. It is a measure of how little has been gained for women through the Labour Party.
Tony Blair signalled his intention to ditch the policy even before the courts ruled the shortlists in breach of equal opportunities law.
Now Labour is talking of abandoning its plans to introduce a Ministry for Women when it gets into office.
Not surprisingly many women in the party were upset when the shortlists were dropped. Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey, wrote in the left Labour newspaper Tribune: 'The rule change ensured that after 80 years of lip service about women's equality, it would actually be achieved in the Parliamentary Labour Party.' Her high hopes of the policy may have been misplaced, but it indicates just how hard women have had to fight for even the most minimal gains.
The shortlists were a modest proposal to end the scandal that only 10 percent of MPs are women. They would have meant an estimated 80 or 90 women MPs in parliament after a Labour victory at the next election. Now Labour is abandoning even these hopes of reform.
Many women joined Labour in the 1980s in the hope it would bring at least some improvement to women's lives and redress inequality. Local Labour councils in particular were seen as a way of changing women's lives at a grassroots local level.
But the women's committees and equal opportunities policies have been dumped in many cases--as Labour councils make vicious cuts which devastate the lives of working class women.
As we celebrate International Women's Day the gap between rich and poor women is as wide as ever. Women like Cherie Blair and Harriet Harman benefited most from the equal opportunities policies of the 1980s. While most working women cannot afford the luxury of a nanny.
Rather they are stuck in the lowest paid, and often part time, jobs. Some 70 percent of those who would benefit from a minimum wage set between £3 and £4.25 an hour are women. And yet despite such poverty pay women's wages are increasingly the sole or a large proportion of family income.
The Equal Opportunities Commission warned in February that growing numbers of women return to work after having a baby to find their pay has been cut, job descriptions changed and in some cases their jobs axed.
The strategy of seeking change through reforms has tragically failed working class women. The Labour councils which were supposed to bring improvements, if not liberation, for women are now meting out brutal cuts and closures.
Some of the first services to face the axe are the nurseries, after school clubs and provisions that working class women rely on. And women workers, already some of the lowest paid, are at the sharp end of contracting out and privatisation in local councils and the NHS.
The women cleaners fighting private firm Pall Mall at west London's Hillingdon Hospital were sacked for refusing to accept 20 percent wage cuts which would have meant some of the women earning under £3 an hour.
The future for these working class women is through relying on their own strength as a central part of the working class. Women civil servants, bank workers and health workers have all shown their muscle in disputes over the last year.
They have been let down not by their fellow male trade unionists, but their union leaders who have sold short their struggle--determined not to rock the boat in the run up to the election.
The government announced a 30 percent cut in the basic student maintenance grant in 1993. The cut was implemented at 10 percent a year from the 1994/95 academic year onwards in a grant which had already been frozen in the late 1980s. A loan system was introduced in 1991/92, ten years after the government originally tried to introduce it. In the mid-1980s the right of students to claim housing benefit during term time and income support during the summer break was removed. The result of these cuts is that students have been thrown into desperate poverty and are forced into paid work to finance their way through the education system.
Although government expenditure has increased on education overall, it has only increased by 50 percent in the period from 1971/72 to 1992/93. At the same time the number of students in the further education and higher education sector has more than doubled, going from 621,000 to 1,444,000. Spending on education as a percentage of GDP in 1971/72 was 5.2 percent and remains the same today.
The increase in numbers and stagnation in funding have led to a crisis expressed by the recent row between the government and the committee of vice-chancellors and principals, but there are other expressions of this crisis. A recent survey revealed that student suicides have soared in the ten years from 1983/84 to 1993/94 by 400 percent with the main cause of increased stress levels being cited as financial hardship. Dropout rates have also increased with financial reasons again being a dominant factor.
University bosses are not being subjected to the same financial hardship. Salaries for vice-chancellors range from a meagre £66,000 to £129,000, on top of which they have pension funds, accommodation and other perks. The way to top salaries for vice-chancellors is via a knighthood. Those with this honour on average earn £11,000 more than those without.
The solutions put forward to solve the funding crisis are: top up or tuition fees, which would mean students pay money at some point, probably during enrolment, which comes from their own income; or a graduate tax or loans system, similar to the loans system in place now, providing funding which you pay back when you get a job.
The graduate tax is seen as being the fairest way, as it wouldn't stop students getting funding for their education while they are actually going through the process. But the idea of taking on a huge loan which you spend your lifetime paying back will be daunting for many students and will inevitably put off those from the poorer sections of society. Inbuilt into these two solutions is the idea that the government can no longer afford to pay for education. But time and time again we see there is no shortage of money for the Tories' friends. They have handed out £65 billion in tax cuts over the last few years: money which could be used to fund education.
London firefighters protest at the planned closure of four fire stations in the capital. They join workmates up and down the country having to fight back against life-threatening cuts. Firefighters in Merseyside have been taking action for months against the Labour council.
Recent events in London councils give a grim preview of New Labour in action. In Camden the Labour council has sent redundancy notices to around 4,000 staff to try to bully them into signing new contracts. New conditions include cuts in dependency leave, an end to the right to jobsharing, and tough limits on flexitime--all changes that will hit women workers hardest. Unbelievably, the council plans to introduce the new contracts on 7 March--International Women's Day!
None of this will save much money, and in fact there is no immediate cash crisis in Camden. The council has just voted to spend £250,000 to turn the housing management's offices into a posh 'Directorate's suite', and last year chief officers were awarded a £10,000 pay rise. The council simply wants to discipline the workforce and undermine the strong union organisation in the borough. Council officer Bob Hall admitted as much when he claimed in a local paper, 'Certain parts of the union always thought that they could get more and more, but at the end of the day it had to come to a close.'
In fact Camden council workers have every reason to fight for more. Some clerical staff earn as little as £12,000 a year. Labour can't even justify its proposed cuts as 'market efficiencies' as council workers have won unopposed all the contracts that have been tendered out this year.
Hackney Labour council has brought in Tony Elliston, the Tories' hatchet man from Brent, to try and drive through £30 million of cuts over the next three years. This year it aims to close three nurseries, scrap the school bus service, hand over some social services to the NSPCC and transfer a quarter of the council's housing stock into a private partnership scheme involving companies like Bovis and Wimpey. This package is a direct result of years of failure to oppose central government cuts. Attempts to get around cuts by so-called creative accounting have left the council with huge debts--the housing department currently spends more on interest payments than repairs.
Now councillors have abandoned Kinnock's 'dented shield' policy of trying to limit cuts but cling onto power, and gone onto the attack in their own right. Officers have publicly denounced the council's workers and their unions. Tony Elliston claimed in the Evening Standard that council workers were 'getting paid for not working'. Calls for 'management empowerment' have been accompanied by an attempt to cut union representation in the council by two thirds. So much for the 'stakeholder society'.
All this should be a warning to anyone who still thinks a Blair government is going to have an eye out for workers' interests. Bearing in mind similar moves by Coventry Labour council, which sacked 16,000 workers before Xmas, and the Labour NEC's recent intervention to force through a cuts budget in Bedfordshire, there can be little doubt the attacks in London have been given the green light from Labour's leadership.
Council workers in both boroughs have responded with anger. At the biggest mass meeting for years in Camden a thousand workers voted for an escalating programme of short strikes and a ballot for all out action. Similar meetings in Hackney have voted for a one day strike and a ballot for an all out strike if necessary.
The problem with the councils' attacks is that they often disarm workers from fighting. Council union leaders tend to accept this in the run up to the election. Actions like those of the firefighters are going to be necessary across the councils to defend jobs.
The new Tory policy on the public sector combines a continuing assault on jobs and conditions with a softer policy on pay. This is partly a calculated gamble that voters will blame Labour or the Liberals for the resulting crisis in local councils. However, it also reflects their fear of an explosion of anger among public sector workers, especially in the health service.
The pay of around 1.5 million public sector workers is set by review bodies, a system meant to avoid generalisation over pay and conditions.The review bodies' recommendations are therefore double edged. Pay increases must be enough to avoid disputes, but not enough to set precedents elsewhere in the public sector.
This year recommended increases for most groups are around 3.9 percent. This is significantly higher than last year's increases of 2.7 to 3 percent. Worried about the size of the recommendations, the Tories decided to delay paying 1 percent of the awards until the end of the year.
The official policy for the public sector is that all pay bills are frozen and that all increases must be paid from savings. But if that is the case, how come so many deals last year came in at 2.7 to 3 percent, and how come 90 percent of NHS trusts gave increases of 3 percent last year? Did they all make exactly the same efficiency savings?
One of the contradictions in the government's policy is that while it wants to go local, to avoid the power of national union bargaining, it also wants to keep a tight control on things at the centre through the treasury. So a policy of divide and rule is sometimes subverted by the tension between central control and the appearance of local bargaining.
This shows itself this year with a doubling of the national element for nurses' pay to 2 percent and signals from the review body that the 'local' element is also 2 percent. This recommendation was made after the trust bosses had urged no national award at all this year.
The danger is fragmentation, where isolated victories cannot overcome the general mood. So every move to generalise and broaden the anger which exists among public sector workers needs to be supported and strengthened. The Tories have not actually been able to extend individualised performance pay outside the civil service.There is much less decentralisation than they hoped for and--so far--not many pay freezes. But cuts keep on coming, and Labour councils continue to implement Tory policies--thus making the chances of a fightback far harder to achieve.
The Scottish Socialist Alliance launched itself in Glasgow last month, under the slogan of 'Scottish self government'. A loose coalition of greens, nationalists and various left groups (including the Scottish Communist Party and Scottish Militant Labour) met to discuss the need to build an alternative to Blair's New Labour.
The opening paragraph of the motion put to the conference 'welcomes the contribution made by Arthur Scargill that the left should create a socialist alternative to Labour'. The next section makes it clear why the SSA parted company with Scargill and the Scottish Labour Party: 'The SSA should be based on Scottish autonomy--Scottish based socialists deciding on the appropriate structures and policies for Scotland.' The founding members argue that the political situation in Scotland demands a different and separate organisation. They believe a 'broad alliance' is the only way forward north of the border. Pat Kane, a prominent member, even denounced Scargill in an article in the New Statesman as a Unionist for failing to understand Scotland's distinct political structure.
What unites this coalition is the belief that a Scottish parliament with proportional representation can be the vehicle for radical change. Its main focus is therefore standing candidates in elections and the proposed structure of the SSA reflects this: 'The SSA will organise at an area level based on Euro-constituencies.' The SSA does not understand how tame a beast a Scottish parliament will be. Its main funding will come from Westminster. It won't have the power to renationalise water or gas, or scrap Trident.
We support the breakup of the British state and the right of Scottish workers to separate if they want to. But it is another matter to uncritically embrace Scottish nationalism whose influence has led to a catalogue of defeats for workers. From Caterpillar to Ravenscraig the idea that only a broad alliance between Scottish workers and bosses could save jobs prevented strike action and led to defeat. A significant part of what is now the SSA were responsible for carrying out this strategy.
There is also a myth that the Scottish left seem content to perpetuate--that Scottish and English workers have separate interests. Yet the biggest victories have been won when we have fought together. After all it was the poll tax riot in central London which put the nail in Thatcher's coffin.
The SSA's concentration on electoral alliances is a dead end. Looking for salvation in electoralism and nationalism can only confuse and hinder what needs to be done.