Issue 197 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review


Editorial, taxes, South Africa, Auschwitz visit, union laws


A majority of one is all that stands between John Major's government and defeat. The Labour victory in the Tamworth by-election on 11 April, with one of the biggest swings to Labour since the war, wiped out any residual hopes the Tories might have harboured of electoral recovery. Despite a much lower turnout than in the 1992 general election, several thousand more people in the constituency voted Labour than did so in 1992.

The result - likely to be repeated in this month's local government elections - defies the predictions that tax cuts and lowering the mortgage rate would restore Tory support. It is all the more remarkable since there are no obvious big issues - such as the poll tax in 1990 or the pit closures in 1992 - which are usually associated with such an outcome. Clearly all the bitterness built up against the government over the last four years is still there.

The point is worth making because it is sometimes difficult to see the outward signs of such bitterness. The level of class struggle is as low as most people can remember, with only one significant strike - that of the Liverpool dockers - which has dragged on for months. The mood of the union leaders is to prevent action in the months before an election; among the rank and file - as expressed for example at the recent teachers' conferences - the mood is also one of expectation and waiting for a Labour government.

Meanwhile New Labour is racing further and further to the right, with Blair asserting in New York that Labour will not attempt to give workers more rights at work and that it is now a centre party. Labour has refused to commit itself to raise taxes for the rich, has opposed regulation of the media and has even proposed cutting child benefit for 16-18 year olds still in full time education. These last have gone beyond even what the Tories have so far dared.

The pronouncements from Blair and his cohorts aimed at placating big business and the media have the opposite effect on most Labour supporters. Their views are still represented much more by those such as Clare Short, who has dared to suggest that the tiny proportion of the population who earn over £35,000 should pay more tax.

The clique at the head of New Labour have no real understanding of how deeply concerned many Labour activists are, nor that they themselves represent very little outside their own circle. People voted Labour in Tamworth because they were sick of worsening public services and job insecurity while at the same time the rich get richer.

Blair may be in a strong position electorally but there is a huge gap between his intentions and popular expectations. It is this discrepancy which gives socialists an audience among those many thousands who have been radicalised over the past few years and who are now questioning what to expect from a Blair government. To simply see a rightward moving Labour Party and the Tories hanging on to power, without understanding the ideological turmoil which exists beneath the surface, is to ignore these opportunities.

The discontent is strong enough to have surfaced even within the official labour movement. At the recent Scottish TUC conference, Unison leader Rodney Bickerstaffe launched an attack on Labour for bending over backwards to keep the rich happy. Shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook echoed this, saying Labour should not go too far in appeasing the rich and powerful.

Their speeches reveal only a tiny part of the disquiet throughout the movement. Yet many of the same people see no alternative to a Labour government.

The need to fight for a revolutionary socialist alternative has to be central to the political arguments which we are confronted with. When so many people are searching around for ideas then it is important to spell out clearly why we cannot rely on a Blair government - or any Labour government - to deliver any of the changes we want. That change will only come when ordinary working people put up a fight to defend their living conditions.

The argument also rests, however, on presenting an alternative political view of the world: that the market will not deliver fairness, that workers could run society better than the bosses, that crises such as those over BSE are the product of a crazy profit driven system.

Our success in winning these arguments will determine our size and influence in building an alternative to Blair.


Peter Morgan

Outrage has greeted suggestions by Labour MP Clare Short that someone on her income should pay a little more in tax. No one wants higher tax, the argument goes, conveniently ignoring the fact that under her proposals hardly any one would pay more. If you are lucky enough to be on an MP's wage, some £34,000 a year, you will be part of a very small minority of those in the top income bracket.

The vast majority of workers earn nowhere near this amount. There are nearly 26 million taxpayers in Britain. Nearly 20 million of these - or 77 percent of the work force - earn less than £20,000 a year, and 23.6 million earn less than £30,000. There are 1.5 million people who earn between £30,000 and £50,000, and there are just 500,000 people (or less than 2 percent of the total workforce) who earn over £50,000. Of these just 100,000 people earn above £100,000 a year. This small minority has done very well out of the Tories. In 1979 when the Tories came to power the top rate of income tax was 83 percent - now it is 40 percent - one of the lowest tax rates in Europe. The top rate has only ever been paid on a proportion of total income. Today it is only paid on income above £25,000 - anything earned up to this is paid on the lower rate, and there are only 2.2 million people today who pay this higher rate.

For the majority at the bottom, meanwhile, the total tax burden has increased. Since the last election taxes have risen 22 times, most of these being taxes that take a higher proportion of the incomes of the poor and lower paid, such as VAT on domestic fuel.

Recent figures show that tax avoidance by companies has now reached record proportions, so much so that it is threatening to throw the Tories' plans for tax cuts later in the year into doubt. It is estimated that tax avoidance by companies costs something like £500 million a year. Only 0.15 percent of companies in Britain provide 75 percent of the revenue and they now have a strategy of avoiding paying VAT as a way of making larger profits.

News International, headed by Rupert Murdoch, is a good example. Between 1990 and 1994 it made over £1,000 million profit yet only paid £28 million in tax - less than one third of one percent. Most major companies now go to one of the big six firms which dominate the corporate tax market and who employ former tax officials from Customs and Excise, as a way to avoid paying full tax.

Clare Short's comments only highlight what millions of people in this country feel - that a small minority of the working population (and big business) have done well with enormous tax cuts and other benefits from the Tories while the majority have been forced to suffer greater austerity and insecurity. It is the rich that should return some of this wealth.

This argument gets no echo from Tony Blair. Instead he accepts the view that there is a huge middle class to be wooed by saying nothing about reversing some of the Tory excesses of the last 16 years. He is much more concerned about appeasing the rich in society - the Rupert Murdochs of this world - and assuring them that Labour, when in power, will do nothing to threaten the enormous wealth they have accumulated under the Tories.

South Africa

Alex Callinicos

Nelson Mandela and the ANC were swept to power two years ago by the black masses' aspiration for a social and economic transformation that would significantly improve their wretched material conditions. The ANC's main election plank, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), promised major reforms designed to achieve the social upliftment' of the majority. Today the RDP increasingly looks like a dead letter. One of its main promises was that the Government of National Unity (GNU) would build a million houses during its five year term. Only 45 percent of Africans live in houses. Yet by the end of 1995 only 12,000 RDP houses have been built, 6 percent of the number the ANC promised to build annually. The apartheid regime managed to build four times as many during its last year of power.

This abject failure is a consequence of the ANC's commitment to orthodox free market economic policies. The cabinet reshuffle Mandela announced at the end of March represented a significant deepening of this commitment. Jay Naidoo, the former trade union leader responsible for the RDP, was demoted, and Pallo Jordan, an independent left wing gadfly was sacked after reported rows with Mandela.

The RDP Office is to be closed down, and its $2.5 billion fund transferred to the ministry of finance, like all such institutions a bastion of economic orthodoxy. The Economist reported, Not a few top ANC people fret that the snuffing out of the RDP office will be seen a desertion of the poor.' In the short term, however, it was the financial markets that were most worried by the reshuffle. They pushed the rand down by 10 cents against the US dollar the day after it was announced that Chris Liebenburg, the white banker who had been the GNU's Finance Minister, was retiring. His replacement is Trevor Manuel, a grassroots activist in the Western Cape during the 1980s who became the ANC's top economist, and now the first black to control South Africa's finances. The Financial Times was quick to welcome Manuel's appointment. There is no reason to believe that he is any less committed than his predecessors to the fiscal discipline that has marked this country's economic management,' it declared reassuringly. Indeed, as trade and industry minister Manuel forced through a trade-liberalisation programme that threatens many jobs in the car, clothing, and textile industries. The Financial Times cynically suggested that Mr Manuel's record as a black anti-apartheid activist can be turned to advantage' if he were to use it to persuade the labour movement to accept pro-market economic reform'.

The reshuffle further consolidated the position of Thabo Mbeki, the ambitious First Deputy President. Manuel is one of his protégés and Mbeki will apparently take charge of what is left of the RDP. No doubt it was no coincidence that shortly after the reshuffle ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa announced his intention to resign from parliament once his role as chair of the Constitutional Assembly comes to an end in a few weeks time. Ramaphosa, former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and the ANC's chief negotiator during the transition to democratic rule, was Mbeki's only serious rival to succeed Mandela.

His hopes of getting the top political job dashed, Ramaphosa has decided to make money instead. He will become executive deputy chairman of New Africa Investments Limited (NAIL). NAIL, headed by the veteran ANC figure Dr Nthato Motlana, is one of the main vehicles of what has come to be called black economic empowerment' - the attempt to build up a black business class. Ramaphosa will lead NAIL's bid for Johnnies Industrial Corporation (Johnnic), a subsidiary of the giant Anglo-American Corporation with important stakes in brewing, consumer goods, newspapers, and cars.

Anglo has been looking for a black buyer for Johnnic for the past two years. In the 1950s and 1960s it saw off the political challenge of Afrikaner nationalism by helping Afrikaner capitalists buy into the mining industry and thus become part of the big business elite. Now Anglo seems set on repeating this exercise with the ANC and the black entrepreneurs allied to it. So Ramaphosa, who in 1987 led a bitter national miners' strike, may soon be joining the inner circle of bosses who broke that strike.

Increasingly Mandela and the ANC present black empowerment' as a substitute for the reforms promised in the RDP. But the rise of a small and privileged minority will not solve the problems of the majority. The south Africa Foundation, with the support of the top 50 companies, is demanding that the GNU slash the budget deficit, push ahead with privatisations, scrap exchange controls, cut company taxation and government spending, and relax conditions of employment. This is the agenda of a major offensive against the black working class.

The Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) and two smaller labour federations have counter-attacked with their own proposals, which centre on higher taxes for the rich to fund a massive housing and public works programme. the COSATU leadership is politically loyal to the ANC, and has therefore sought to restrain strikes. But it is under severe pressure from the rank and file to extract real reforms from the GNU.

The dominance of the ANC and its ally the South African Communist Party within the unions means that workers' aspirations for change have yet to find coherent political expression. But the clash between the demands of big business for pro-market reforms' and the aspirations of a well organised and militant working class guarantee that Mandela and Mbeki will not find it easy to desert the people who brought them to office.

Auschwitz visit

Leon Greenman is a Holocaust survivor. A year ago an Anti Nazi League delegation stood on the rail tracks in Auschwitz with Leon at the point he had disembarked in 1943. Leon was selected for slave labour, his wife Else and Barnie, his two year old son, were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Less than a year after the ANL visit we have seen the hideous pictures of Polish Nazis marching through Auschwitz.

These fascists used the excuse of local anger that a supermarket was not going to be built to justify their march. They claimed to be marching to remember the Polish dead yet wore swastikas and carried baseball bats. What they were in fact doing was saying that the millions of Jews who were gassed in Auschwitz did not matter.

This coincided with a lot of publicity around David Irving the revisionist historian who has published a book on Goebbels. Irving uses the book to quibble over numbers who died in the Holocaust and how they died. Nazis such as C18 and the BNP who also deny that the Holocaust happened, regularly feature photographs of their members at the concentration camps giving 'sieg heil' salutes. This is a reminder of what today's Nazis want to return to.

Last May the Anti Nazi League took 80 people to Auschwitz - students, trade unionists and anti-racists. Leon led the group because he believes that he survived to speak out about what happened.

On display in Auschwitz were piles of hair, shoes and toothbrushes that the Nazis meticulously saved for recycling. These were worth more to them than a Jewish life. Perhaps more harrowing was the sight of fresh swastikas carved into the walls of the barracks.

Auschwitz is a chilling reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. The political advance of Le Pen in France and Fini in Italy are a warning of the dangers of complacency. We must never forget that this lies behind the suits who try to appear as 'respectable' politicians.

It is important that people visit Auschwitz. Leon told the group to leave their tears behind last May. The Anti Nazi League will be returning with Leon on 13 September. What he wants from the visit in September is another 80 people who return more determined than ever to fight against the Nazis.

Anti Nazi League Visit to Auschwitz with Leon Greenman

Departs Friday 13 September - Returns Tuesday 17 September. Please call 0171 924 0333 for further information.

Trade unions and the law

Lee Humber

UK limitations on industrial action are among the most restrictive of the industrialised economies and have attracted severe criticism from the International Labour Office for infringing basic Conventions to which Britain is a signatory.'

This is one of the points made by a recent report compiled by the Labour Research Department into the development of anti trade union laws over the past 16 years and their effect on the levels of strike action.

There have been six separate pieces of legislation against unions and industrial action since the Tories came to power in 1979. The first tentative anti-union steps were taken in 1980 with the Employment Act. This created for the first time a distinction between primary' and secondary' action, very much aimed at quelling the sort of secondary picketing and flying pickets that had been so successful in spreading strike action throughout the 1970s. The Employment Act of 1982 narrowed down the definition of trade disputes and introduced the first threats to union funds, making unions liable for compensation to employers and others directly affected if unlawful industrial action was taken.

In the 1984 Trade Union Act balloting was introduced. Now all official action had to be backed up by a ballot or unions could be taken to court for inducing their members to break their contracts of employment. Further than this, the act declared that the ballot could be held no more than four weeks before strike action took place, specified those who could be ballotted - 'all those whom it is reasonable to believe will be called upon to act - and no others' - and even the wording on the ballot papers requiring unions to tell members that if they took strike action they were breaching their contracts and so committing unlawful acts. The Employment Act of 1988 introduced new rights for the so called dissident union member', or scab as he or she is fondly known.

By the 1990 Employment Act the Tories, now under Major, had turned their attention to unofficial strikes. The 1990 act set about making it impossible for action to be deemed unofficial. It stated that all action was authorised or endorsed if any union official, including any lay official, was involved unless the union repudiated the action. Once a union repudiates particular industrial action the door is left open for employers to target individual workers for victimisation. Union leaders are now faced with a stark choice. If unofficial action breaks out and they fail to distance themselves from it thoroughly enough for the law's liking they will be held responsible and fined. If they do wash their hands of a dispute they face the near certainty that their actions will lead to their members being sacked without union protection.

The most recent piece of anti-union legislation is the 1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Act. Now all ballots for industrial action must be by post. Not only that but after a dispute between the lecturers' union NATFHE and Blackpool and the Fylde College the courts ruled that unions must also give the name of all union members being ballotted.

What effect has this mass of legislation had on the balance of class forces? On the unions' side the new laws have had the effect of concentrating more power in the hands of the officials relative to the rank and file. The threats to union funds and threats of court action strengthen officials' roles as expert' negotiators and allows them to focus industrial action on the importance of staying within the limits of the law and away from notions of solidarity and collective strength.

In 1993 a Labour Research Department survey estimated that the impact of all the anti-union legislation had been to increase the time it took unions to legally organise strike action to seven or eight weeks. In contrast the average time it takes an employer to organise an injunction against unions taking action is just 24 hours. Some hearings granting injunctions have taken as little as 15 minutes. In 1985 News Group Newspapers got an injunction against the print unions NGA/Sogat on a Sunday morning in the judge's home. More recently London Underground got an injunction against the train drivers' union ASLEF in a three hour meeting in the front room of Mr Justice Rix's house.

The outright class bias of the judges' decisions in the cases against unions is staggering. It has been established through various test cases that now even limited forms of industrial action can involve a breach of contract and therefore the threat of fines and sackings. In the late 1980s ASLEF went to court to argue that their members then involved in a work to rule were in fact merely working to contract. Lord Denning simply rejected this argument and ruled that the work to rule was wilfully obstructing' their employers' business. Union leaders now put their faith in a new Labour government changing this anti-union environment for them. As the election approaches, union leaders are even more intent on stopping the bitterness workers feel expressing itself in industrial action. They fear that strikes might spoil Labour's chances of being elected. This ignores the fact that Labour's lead in the opinion polls has always risen after mass activity - for example, after the poll tax riot of 1990 and after the quarter of a million strong demonstrations against pit closures in 1992.

Meanwhile, Labour refuse to pledge themselves to getting rid of the anti trade union legislation and instead talk up the benefits' of the Tory measures while looking for ways to weaken the links between the unions and the party. But ultimately the law only has power if workers themselves feel bound by it. Where workers have felt sufficiently determined and organised to oppose the law, bosses can be beaten back. Coupled with this, the 1992 Workplace Relations survey also found that the vast majority of trade unionists did not understand how the various anti trade union laws were supposed to operate. And more importantly the survey found that the laws did not inhibit their willingness to fight while a good minority favoured outright defiance of the law. The levels of anger and frustration built up over the last 16 years combine to mitigate the fear of falling foul of the law.

The open corruption of state institutions, including the police and the courts, also helps to reduce their effectiveness in social control. Much more decisive in holding workers back from taking action are the doubts and fears they have in their union leaders' determination to lead successful action and the lack of confidence they have in taking that action themselves. But as disenchantment with the official union leadership grows while the attacks from bosses continue, workers will be forced to look for alternative ways of defending themselves. In that situation revolutionary socialist ideas and ways of organising will be key.

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