Issue 202 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Editorial, Belgium, NHS, France, Students

Editorial

In 1979 there were about 5 million people in Britain on below average incomes. Today there are around 13 million. The figure tells us a great deal about the total absence of economic 'feelgood' among most people.

The economic and spending recovery has been confined by and large to those who were already well off. This partly explains why house prices in rich areas are rising dramatically and why the most expensive London restaurants are experiencing a boom while for most working class people there is no such prosperity.

Shareholders and stockbrokers have also been raking in profits, while those on average wages have experienced at best stagnation in living standards. Many public sector workers have suffered wage cuts in the past three years.

Yet we are increasingly told that this is the best we are going to get. The Tories want tax cuts in this month's budget but a penny off tax rates will only be paid for at the expense of further squeezes on public spending.

All of this raises one question which is increasingly on the lips of supporters and opponents alike: what will Tony Blair do to solve any of these economic problems?

Blair's refusal to promise any improvements for working people reflects not simply his own pro-market politics, it is also based on an assessment of the position Labour will find itself in after the election. Blair knows he will have to disappoint Labour's traditional supporters if he is to keep business interests happy.

The level of disappointment is likely to be very high. The welfare state which underpinned postwar British society is increasingly under attack as the British ruling class comes to terms with Britain's decline as a major power. In 1931, when the then Labour government underwent a huge crisis over spending cuts and the prime minister ≠ Ramsay Macdonald ≠ split to form a national government with the Tories, British capitalism was the second most powerful in the world. Even in 1966 it was the third most important. Today it is the fifteenth ≠ and going down.

What is more, the Tories have built up a huge deficit on government spending which Labour will have to deal with if it wants to join the European single currency. The government is borrowing in the expectation that Labour will have to pick up the bill. Barry Riley wrote in the Financial Times last month, 'Recovery in the 1990s has been founded on a staggering growth of public sector borrowing which will aggregate £177 billion during the present five year parliamentary term. This amounts to a doubling of the outstanding net public sector debt', (12 October 1996).

Anyone who believes that Blair in office will be more generous than he appears in opposition should consider these figures. Money for hospitals, schools and public sector wage increases will simply not be forthcoming from a Labour chancellor faced with such a debt.

Indeed, the abandonment of very basic Labour demands ≠ such as the commitment to restore the earnings link to state pensions, thrown out at Labour Party conference ≠ is likely to get worse.

The effects of such attacks on welfare by Labour can be imagined by looking at what is happening elsewhere in Europe, where similar assaults are being launched by governments trying to push a greater proportion of the cost of welfare onto workers. There have been big strikes in Germany, France and Italy against the cuts. There has also been the far right election success in Austria ≠ a warning of what can happen when there is no left wing channel for working class anger.

Blair's talk of 'sound fiscal policy' and his espousal of lower income tax rates do not begin to come to terms with this sort of problem. Any 'solutions' from Blair will be at the expense of those who have suffered so much under nearly 18 years of Tory rule. Despite his talk about 'modernisation' Blair has only one old fashioned prescription ≠ attempting to make workers pay for capitalist crisis. The discontent he is already creating means that a growing minority of workers are refusing to take the medicine.

See interview with Tony Cliff (Feature articles: this issue)


Belgium

Gareth Jenkins

On 20 October 325,000 people marched through the centre of Brussels in protest at judicial failure and bias in dealing with a series of child abductions, sexual abuse and murder. For a country of little over 10 million people this is an extraordinarily high number.

The scandal started with the arrest of the main suspect, Marc Dutroux, in August. Two things quickly became clear. The first was police incompetence to the point of criminal neglect. On one occasion, when visiting Dutroux's house earlier, the police actually heard the voices of the abducted children whose disappearance they were investigating ≠ but failed to act. By the time of his arrest those children were dead.

The second was that Dutroux was no isolated individual unknown to the authorities. Untouched and protected, he stood at the centre of a web of sexual corruption involving police officers and a highly placed, wealthy clientele willing to pay upwards of £2,000 for his video cassettes. So far, of the 13 people arrested, one is a well known Brussels businessman and political fixer and another a senior police officer.

The police blamed delays and errors in their investigation on a lack of resources. This excuse was preposterous. Not only has the Belgian police force grown rapidly in numbers over the past 25 years, but 'lack of resources' has never stopped it responding violently to demonstrations. The Dutroux affair has uncovered the class bias of justice. In 1992 an abducted child was recovered within hours. But then he was the son of a multi-millionaire textile boss. The children abducted in 1995, on the other hand, were girls from working class families, including immigrant children.

Such indeed was the bitterness of one family at their treatment by the justice system that they refused to let a royal representative attend the funeral of the little girls. The king had not replied to their letter complaining about mistakes in the inquiry, so why should the royal family be allowed to upstage the mourners?

The scandal worsened, however, when the investigating magistrate, Jean-Marc Connerotte, was removed from the inquiry by the courts in early October. His 'crime' was not failure to investigate properly ≠ indeed, if anything he was being too zealous. He supposedly failed to show the proper neutrality by accepting a free plate of spaghetti at a function organised by campaigners against child abuse.

The spaghetti affair led to an eruption of protest. Hundreds of thousands of workers came out in spontaneous, unorganised strikes and led demonstrations across the country in the week that followed the magistrate's dismissal. Volkswagen was just one factory where workers stormed out in disgust.

Firefighters gathered to hose down court buildings in a symbolic attempt to cleanse Belgian justice of its filth. Plates of spaghetti were thrown. People wore dry strands of spaghetti in their hair.

Beyond Dutroux and his well placed contacts lies a wider political scandal, at the heart of which is the still unsolved murder of the Walloon (French speaking) Socialist leader Andr« Cools in 1991. Connected is the Agusta affair, involving bribes to the Italian helicopter firm supplying the Belgian army and resulting in the resignation of Willy Claes, Nato general secretary.

It is clear that most of the political establishment are up to their necks in sleaze. Not only that, they have fashioned a judicial machine designed to protect people like the assassin of Cools from scrutiny. Judges are party political appointees, chosen, as one observer has remarked, 'because they belong to the right party'. They have no incentive to push on with sensitive cases. The police force is riddled with graft and contains networks which have extensive connections with the extreme right and are prepared to resort to terrorism against the population.

Though there have been calls in some quarters for castration, for the death penalty or for sentences without parole for child sex offenders, one of the most remarkable aspects of the whole affair is the understanding ≠ not least by some of the parents themselves ≠ that the state is as guilty as Dutroux himself. Gino Russo, the father of one of the girls found dead in Dutroux's cellar and a trade union activist at the Ferblatil steel works, told Le Soir, 'It's not a question of one murderous pervert. It's a matter of a thirst for gain. The same rotten system results in Thailand and the Philippines in the exploitation of children from poverty stricken families.'

Never has the popular perception of the state's corruption been deeper. But there is also widespread anger on the economic front. The coalition government, led by Jean-Luc Dehaene, has used rule by decree, which bypasses parliament, to ram through deep cuts in government spending to meet the Maastricht convergence criteria for monetary union. These will slash health and child allowances and affect women's pension rights in particular ≠ with the threat of even greater attacks on welfare to come. On top of this, the country's ailing heavy industry, mostly in the French speaking south, is faced with further redundancies.

The unions have organised strikes and demonstrations to defend pensions. Strike action is planned for the giant Cockeril-Sambre steel works to fight the loss of 2,000 jobs and to demand a cut in the working week to 35 hours in 1997 and 32 hours by the year 2000, the better to share the work available.

These two strands of protest ≠ the political and the economic ≠ act in parallel but are not linked, though many understand that at the root of both is the same system of exploitation and oppression. The strength of the movement around the Dutroux affair is its perception of the rottenness of the justice system. But the paradox is the unpolitical way in which this potentially highly political movement has organised itself.

The parents' committee has repulsed all attempts by the Vlaams Blok fascists to hijack the anger against the political apparatus of the unitary state and reinforce authoritarianism and communal separatism. The parents have been able to do this because the murdered children have been native Walloon and Flemish, as well as immigrant Moroccan. The 20 October demonstration was deliberately 'anti-political' ≠ no banners, no papers, no leaflets ≠ and stressed that it was a memorial for the children rather than anything else.

Yet paradoxically, for all the attempt to keep politics out, the movement remains highly political in the sense that it stresses unity and refuses the poison of communal and ethnic division. The demand to reform the justice system, which fuels the movement, is also fundamentally a political one. The danger is that the movement will be caught in the paradox and go nowhere.

The Belgian ruling class has been making desperate efforts to regain the initiative. Dehaene, having ignored the parents, has now met and promised them that no effort will be spared in pursuit of justice. But such promises show no signs of satisfying people or resolving the crisis of the Belgian state. More strikes and demonstrations are being organised.

Whether the government falls and an even deeper political crisis opens up is in the balance. But so long as the organised strength of the working class and its capacity to hit the system economically is not used against the state which has revealed itself as so rotten, so long will the ruling class stand a chance of escaping the fate it richly deserves.


NHS

Ian Taylor

What sort of health service is it that can ban people over the age of 75 from being admitted to hospital in an emergency? Two decades of NHS cuts and closures ≠ begun in 1976 under a Labour government ≠ have prepared us for horror stories. But the announcement that Hillingdon Hospital in west London was closing its casualty department to the elderly was almost unbelievable.

The hospital's managers explained that beds were being 'blocked' by old people awaiting community provision from cash strapped social services. But the real cause was revealed by two less publicised facts. First, the 'blocked' beds numbered only 30. Secondly, the casualty department at the neighbouring Mount Vernon Hospital was closed in April. The problem was a lack of beds ≠ 2,500 closed in London since 1990 ≠ and the existence of a single casualty department where previously there had been two.

It used to be that the crisis in the NHS only made the headlines in January. Now it is frighteningly early in October ≠ six months before the end of the financial year, before any of the cold weather or even an outbreak of flu.

Consultants warn that the hospitals are 'close to collapse'. Increasing numbers of trusts have followed the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham and halted all non-emergency surgery. A south London health authority (Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth) has banned all non-emergency surgery until April 1998!

The doctors' BMA and the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts agree £200m is required immediately to stop hospitals going bust. They say an annual rise in spending of 3 percent above inflation is needed just to stop a deterioration in care. This year's rise was under 1 percent, though it included an 8 percent salary rise for chief executives. The BMA also calculates £6 billion is required to put right the neglect of the past 20 years. This is less than one sixth of the unpaid corporation tax lying around in company bank accounts.

John Major has sought to embarrass Labour by promising to increase NHS spending. Labour's promise to the NHS is miserly ≠ £100m on care to come from cuts in 'bureaucracy', and nothing else.

The decision by Hillingdon Hospital demonstrates the effects of introducing the market into the NHS.

Hillingdon shows nakedly the kind of health care the Tories and their class propose for the rest of us. It involves nine to five clinics and laser surgery to patch up the young, the fit, the potentially productive in lightning time, and two fingers to the old and the chronically sick.

A development which should bring joy to our lives ≠ the fact we expect to live longer ≠ is made a problem. It does not have to be like this. The BMA warns that the current crisis in the hospitals is the worst since 1987-88.

The comparison with 1988 is important. At the start of that year a series of disturbing stories about patients going untreated tied in with nurses' anger at a new grading structure which cut their pay. It produced a wave of industrial action, stemming from a one day strike by a handful of night nurses in Manchester. In total the action was small. But thousands of nurses attended impromptu meetings, staged protests outside hospitals and joined NHS unions, fomenting an atmosphere of rank and file revolt which made the NHS into the Achilles' heel it has remained ever since for the Tories.

That it did not develop further was due to the inaction of trade union leaders who sought merely to recruit members out of the anger rather than build a national strike wave. But limited as it was, the action was unprecedented. It forced an extra £100m out of Thatcher almost overnight, and marked the beginning of the end for her.

Now action is stirring again. In October we have seen one day strikes in Newcastle and London's UCLH. And elsewhere workers are balloting with a possibility that the action could spread.

If activists inside and outside the hospitals learn the lessons of 1988 and follow the example of Newcastle and UCLH, it could be the beginning of the end for local pay, as well as for John Major. And if the fight is carried to a Labour government, it could force the end of the annual cash crises and the market madness in the NHS too.


France

The stakes are high

Gareth Jenkins

Is France heading for a second winter of discontent? September and October have already seen national strikes and mass demonstrations called by trade unions in the public sector, with the prospect of further action in November. The question in most people's minds is whether this will lead to a situation rivalling last year's explosion of anger, when millions of strikers took to the streets against government attacks on welfare and pensions and forced the prime minister, Alain Jupp«, into making concessions.

All the ingredients are there. After the retreat last Christmas the right wing government is back on the attack, with a public sector wage freeze and social security cuts. The bosses have also been on a jobs offensive. Unemployment has risen sharply to a record 12.6 percent, with nearly 3.2 million now out of work. Yet the economy remains stagnant, leading to acrimonious divisions between right wing politicians and to Jupp«'s desperate attempts to stimulate spending by tax cuts favouring the better off.

The pressure on the French ruling class which produced last year's social explosion has not gone away. The convergence criteria laid down by Maastricht for European monetary union mean they must continue to attempt to reduce public spending and increase exploitation. Hence there is mounting bitterness in which, according to opinion polls, 75 percent expect paralysing strikes like those last November and December.

The trade union leaders themselves have felt obliged to give expression to these feelings. Louis Viannet, leader of the communist Party-linked CGT, which acted as the detonator for last year's protest, attacked the 'forced march to monetary union' at the expense of workers and the dogma which 'continues unrelentingly to denounce the cost of labour as responsible for unemployment and to look for solutions which put pressure on workers, pensioners and the unemployed.'

Even Nicole Notat, leader of the Socialist linked CFDT, who is in favour of the government's reforms and sabotaged solidarity last year (much to the disgust of many sections of the CFDT), has talked of a sense of 'powerlessness or anger gaining ground'. Such is the disenchantment that she has talked of the need for mass action. The leader of the white collar FO union, Marc Blondel, has preached unity, pointing to the fact that 'all the ingredients were ready for a general explosion' over job cuts, welfare cuts and pay freezes. 'We would fail in our duty if we don't get together.'

Teachers have been one of the government's major targets, with the budget for next year aiming at deep cuts in posts and in recruitment. Not surprisingly teachers have been in the forefront of the strikes and demonstrations so far. They came out on strike massively on 30 September.

The second day of action on 17 October saw a third of France's 1.68 million civil servants out on strike against pay and job cuts. But they were not the only ones to follow the union call. Nearly half of France's railway workers struck, with two thirds of mainline and Paris suburban trains halted. Telecom, gas and electricity workers also came out on strike in substantial numbers. In most big cities there were demonstrations, with 100,000 on the streets of Paris, according to the CGT, where teachers formed the most dynamic contingent. There were also substantial contingents of private sector workers.

Yet while the proportion of demonstrators was roughly the same as last year, the proportion of those on strike was down ≠ 35 percent as opposed to 57 percent. This reflects a contradiction in workers' feelings. The anger, if anything, has grown since last year and people's confidence in their capacity to mobilise has increased.

One sign of this is the way in which lessons learnt at the tail end of last year's struggles are already in operation, primarily the need to create local assemblies which bring together the rank and file from different unions. These coordinations have already appeared in some parts of Paris. One in the 20th arrondissement prepared for the strike on 17 October by going out leafletting and organising a feeder march to join the main march on the day.

On the other hand, there is scepticism about success. Partly this is because some groups gained very little as a result of last year's strikes. One reason why few workers on the Paris bus and metro transport system came out on 17 October is that they were still feeling the effects of having their pay docked for last year's days of action.

Another reason is that the remorseless attack on jobs has mostly been successful, despite workers going on strike or even occupying to prevent redundancies. There have been many defensive struggles over the last year, including large demonstrations by workers in the armaments industry in Lorient, Cherbourg and Brest. These struggles, as well as struggles at Moulinex and at L'Ep«e in Clermont-Ferrand, a maker of luxury clocks, where the factory has been occupied, have been long running and extremely bitter.

Again and again workers fight back against the bosses and the result is an extremely high level of combativity which expresses itself in a number of local struggles. But the unions do nothing to generalise these struggles. Their talk of unity between public and private sector workers requires concrete working out at the local level ≠ something they are not willing to provide. The government has promised negotiations with the trade unions over civil service pay in the future ≠ a sign less of their uncertainty than of their recognition that they were unwise to let the momentum build up last year and get out of hand. The union leaders themselves have indicated their willingness to negotiate rather than fight.

The potential for an even bigger struggle than last year exists. It remains to be seen whether, given the trade union leaders' hold on the movement, confidence wins out over scepticism.


Students

Dave Renton

The Tory government has an obvious contempt for working class education, it has overseen a dramatic rise in the number of students attending colleges and universities. Between 1980-81 and 1993-94 the number of full time students increased from 865,000 to 1,802,000. The figures indicate how important higher education has become for the mass of the population. Whereas in 1926 only 0.1 percent of 18 year olds went on to any form of higher education, now over 50 percent of 18 year olds are in further or higher education.

The reasons for this change are complex: the huge jump in unemployment has left millions feeling that a degree is their only chance for a job; the GCSE exam for 16 year olds has increased the number of school leavers finishing with some real qualifications. The government recognises that it needs an educated and skilled workforce. However, it wants to raise education levels on the cheap. Funding per student has fallen dramatically. Courses and student housing are overcrowded, grants have been cut for three years in a row, lecturers are increasingly overworked.

This year the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has threatened to introduce 'top up fees', asking students to borrow up to £20,000 to pay for their education.

The only effect has been to encourage the government in its attacks. The Tories have appointed a committee, run by Sir Gordon Borrie, to investigate the future of higher education funding. It is almost certain that the Borrie report will end up calling for a graduate tax, probably accompanied by top up fees.

You might expect that the Labour party would oppose these attacks. At its conference Tony Blair declared that his three main priorities in government would be 'education, education, education'. In fact, Labour supports Borrie's investigation. And the Labour leadership of the National Union of Students argues that the government can't afford to pay for education, and that students must be realistic and pay for any extension of higher education themselves.

The result has been a real ferment in the colleges, with many students now looking to left alternatives to the Labour leadership. In Southampton University 100 students signed the statement against Tony Blair's shift to the right; in Oxford 300 did so. Meanwhile 200 students in Bradford have voted to start a rent strike, and students in Huddersfield have resisted attempts to bring in top up fees.

When even the Labour party is arguing for loans and fees, students need to argue that there are the resources to pay for education, for example the billions of pounds that are spent each year on Trident or the European fighter plane. Ultimately, the only alternative to the running down of higher education is to challenge the priorities of the whole system and talk about alternatives to the market.

One place to discuss such ideas is at the Students Fighting for Socialism event organised by the Socialist Workers Party, which will be held from 29 November to 1 December in London. Students and activists will be there, planning the resistance to Blair, and building a movement to fight for real change.


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