Can the Tories bribe their way to a fifth election victory? As the final date moves inexorably nearer, so the pressure is on to promise big tax cuts in the hope that these will buy Tory votes.
Such direct manipulation of voters was supposed to have died out in the last century. Bribes and free beer are no longer allowed as a means of getting voters to place their cross against the name of a particular candidate. When whole governments do it, however, everyone seems to agree that this is perfectly natural.
The most grating aspect of all this is not the total cynicism of the government, or the acceptance of it by newspapers which moralise about honesty and decent behaviour to the rest of us. It is the way in which the Labour opposition has come to accept the argument that income tax must be lowered regardless of the consequences.
This has put increasing burdens on those taxes which are most regressive, and thus hit the poor disproportionately hard ≠ council tax and VAT. Taxation of household fuel is an obvious case ≠ the poorest fifth of families pay three times as much of their incomes on fuel (a total of 12 percent) as the richest. Even worse, it is allowing the richest in society to benefit from one of the lowest tax rates in the world. It is quite incredible that there are disputes between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair about whether they can dare to even mention raising the top people's rate from its current 40 percent. Yet such a tax increase would be popular and would increase revenue substantially.
Raising the top rate of tax to 50 percent (still well below the 83 percent it was for most of the 1980s) would bring in another £6 billion a year. At present top taxpayers have a cap on their national Insurance contributions and receive tax relief on private pension contributions. Ending these subsidies to the upper and middle classes would increase the tax yield substantially.
But the most glaring anomaly in taxation is that big companies get away very lightly from paying a share of tax. So corporation tax makes up only 9 percent of all taxes, while income tax makes up 26 percent and national insurance another 17 percent. This means that something approaching half of all tax revenues comes from direct taxation ≠ the vast majority of it from ordinary working people.
Tax evasion is widespread among companies ≠ a fact acknowledged even by the government, which has been forced to close a number of loopholes. So, according to the Observer (17 November 1996), VAT receipts are predicted to be £6 billion lower this year than originally thought, while corporation tax will be £5 billion lower because `companies have become ever more adept at avoiding tax'.
The argument about taxing the rich should be the centrepiece of Labour's election campaign and opposition to the budget. The refusal to challenge this basic inequality allows the Tories to make the running. The consequences of cuts in direct taxation will be further cuts in public spending and big increases in council tax. The prospect of increased inflation and a spending boom has already led to one rise in bank interest rates, and the likelihood of them rising again is high. Again the people suffering will be those with the least money to start with.
The Tories' bribes are unlikely to succeed ≠ most people will feel no better off, they will be hit by other tax rises, or higher mortgages, or the public sector pay freeze. But Labour's acceptance of the Tory arguments makes it harder for it to call for more spending on schools and hospitals.
Labour remains so far ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls that, even on the most unfavourable reckoning to Blair, he is still likely to gain a majority in parliament at the election. But the refusal of labour to call for a real reversal of the inequalities which have become so dominant in most people's lives is a warning of what Blair's government will be like. He will still expect workers to pay for the crisis, and fundamental change will only come about when there is sufficient push from below to force him to change his mind.
On Friday 8 November, Edinburgh University management suspended Chris Brand from his position as a lecturer in the psychology department. Brand is now facing disciplinary charges on the grounds that his `conduct has brought and is bringing the university into disrepute'. The move was welcomed by all those who have campaigned against Brand's ideas in recent months.
His book, The g Factor, claims that blacks have genetically lower IQ scores than whites and that women have genetically lower IQs than men. In statements to the press he has declared that he is proud to be called a `scientific racist', referred to Africa as `the utterly dark continent' and has claimed that blacks were only being admitted to higher education through affirmative action programmes, `when they are inferior mentally and doing worse academically'. Brand's attitudes to women are equally invidious. On single mothers:
`Intelligent girls can master the technology of contraception, but it's different for these girls. They tend to be moralistic but mentally limited.'
Through expressing such extremist views, Brand has been providing an academic base, indeed a pseudo-scientific justification, for racists and sexists alike. the Anti Nazi League was the first to challenge Brand's racism and sexism. The entire third year class of psychology students demonstrated their disgust at Brand's views by walking out of his lectures and voting 91 percent in favour of having an alternative lecturer for the course. This call was unanimously supported by the students' union executive. The publishers of The g Factor were forced to withdraw the book because they did not wish to be associated with a publication `which makes assertions which we find repellent'. An internal inquiry was conducted into how Brand's opinions affected his teaching.
The ANL organised a rally where over 250 students gathered to hear Professor Steven Rose, author of Not in Our Genes, expose the ideological foundations of `race-science' and `sex-realism' in a lecture on race, class and the myth of intelligence. There was, however, some opposition to the campaign from those who claimed that they disagreed with Brand's views but would defend his right to say them ≠ in the name of `academic freedom'.
In an insult to all those who had campaigned so vehemently to have him removed, Brand was appointed head of the psychology department's ethics committee at the beginning of September. Mass picketing of his lectures led to his removal, but he remained in the department, and on the committee.
Brand set up an internet web site, and began sending out an internet newsletter by e-mail. In one of his newsletters he claimed that sexual abuse of children above age 12 and of `above average IQ' posed no threat to their well being ≠ `particularly when a cash payment is involved'. This received major national press attention which was the final straw for the university which finally suspended him while further disciplinary action remains under way.
Without the campaign no action would have been taken against Brand. All his views stem from his belief that the fundamental division in society is between those of low and high IQ. But IQ is a culturally and socially biased psychological variable, and has been widely discredited for decades.
This campaign has created a climate in the univerisity where academic freedom is no longer an acceptable defence for racist ideas. Suspension is a step forward. The next step is to finish the job off and get Brand sacked.
The implementation of the Tories' 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act by some London councils is opening the door to rising levels of racism.
A key element of the new law, the restriction of rights to housing and social security, was held up by the House of Lords until July 1996. Now it has gone through, Labour has in effect joined the Tory offensive against refugees.
The Labour boroughs of Hammersmith and Lambeth teamed up with the Tory polecats at Westminster council to go to court over the changes. Their aim was to absolve local authorities of any responsibility for looking after and housing destitute asylum seekers caught out by the regulations.
Thankfully the Court of Appeal overturned the initial decision in the council's favour, ruling that assistance would have to be given by local authorities in line with the 1948 National Assistance Act. This places responsibility on local authorities to help `people who are aged, infirm, or through other circumstances require care and attention'.
The leader of Hammersmith council appeared on a local news broadcast shortly after the appeal hearing to express dismay at the decision. When asked how the costs would be met, he suggested an increase in the council tax, an invitation to any right winger to blame refugees for higher taxes!
Since the Asylum Act came into force on 24 July, refugee advice centres, law centres and other agencies have been flooded with urgent requests for help. The Refugee Council advice team alone dealt with 594 cases between 24 July and 6 September where asylum seekers had lost entitlement to benefit. Of these cases 103 involved extremely vulnerable people, 24 torture victims, disabled, physically or mentally ill people, while 169 cases involved homeless people, 129 of them sleeping rough.
Where workers are organised they can seek to influence interpretations of the legislation, but given that so far the biggest town hall union, Unison, has shied away from backing a policy of non-cooperation with the law, it is down to local shop stewards to try and ensure that the regulations are interpreted as generously as possible. To do this, however, requires a readiness to engage in a open debate in the workplace on the question of asylum and immigration controls. Many of the Labour authorities once took some pride in promoting anti-racist policies. Now that they are merely managing the cutbacks, all these principles are going to the wall. One Labour council has even offered to fund a Home Office post to `fast track' appeals for people living in their borough. In effect, in many cases, this will mean fast tracking them out of the country .
Meanwhile, Labour's leaders are certainly not promising to rush to the rescue once elected. They failed to mount any coherent opposition to the Tory legislation, and have their own shabby history of backing immigration control while in government.
Across Europe governments have been demonstrating just how little immigration control has to do with human rights and how much it has to do with bosses seeking scapegoats for cuts and unemployment. Since 1990 worldwide recession and the continuing Third World debt crisis has meant that nationalism, war and famine have flourished.
The number of displaced persons, refugees within the boundaries of their own regions, has risen to over 24 million. Those seeking asylum, a better life elsewhere, are a minority. Millions are caught in camps between the crossfire of armies supplied by wealthy arms dealers free to live where they choose.
The numbers seeking asylum in Europe are proportionately tiny. The flood that the new legislation is supposed to halt was never more than a tiny trickle. Figures for 1990, when the barriers between Eastern and Western Europe crumbled, illustrate this.
The hypocrisy of the European Union on the issue is of historic proportions. Founded on the principle of the free movement of capital and labour, free movement of capital is to be achieved by slashing the social wage to achieve monetary union, while labour is to be restricted by immigration barriers that prevent anyone from outside the chosen lands getting in.
The warring brothers of Europe meet intermittently at intergovernmental forums, the Schengen Group and the Ad Hoc Group on Immigration, to discuss harmonising their policies. The Schengen Group prefers the notion of absolute barriers on all those from outside Europe, combined with no passport controls once inside, but backed up by internal security forces.
Agreement is hard to reach. Europe's bosses are fuelling the fires of discontent with austerity programmes to meet monetary union convergence criteria. When the workers of Europe boil over, it is to the bosses' advantage that they choose the wrong target for their rage.
The frightening gains made by the Nazi leader Georg Haider in recent elections in Austria should act as a warning to all that the question of immigration, the right to move freely, cannot be fudged. Socialists have to argue, `Refugees are welcome here. No to immigration laws.'
On 19 November virtually every university in Britain shut in a strike of 120,000 porters, clerks, technicians and professors. The strike involved eight unions. The main ones are the AUT and Natfhe which organise the academic staff, Unison which organises the libraries, admin staff and porters, and MSF which represents the lab technicians.
Although the strike is about pay, it's also about the state of university education in Britain ≠ the overcrowded lectures, the continuous assessment of work, the contracting out of a whole number of services and the reality that universities cannot deliver quality education. Government policies over the last few years have increasingly turned universities into businesses, putting the emphasis on research and expansion of student numbers without extra resources. So at Leeds University student numbers have gone up from 8,500 in 1973 to 21,000 today, with very little increase in the number of staff. The turnover of the university is £200 million a year.
The question of pay is particularly galling for lecturers who would have compared their pay to doctors or MPs 20 years ago but who are now lucky to be paid similar amounts to school teachers. So a fifth of academics earn less than £17,000 a year. For the support staff it's even worse. A large number of them are paid less than £4.26 an hour.
Above all what has added fuel to the fire is summed up by an editorial in the Times Higher Education Supplement, `Fat Cat Factor Fuels Unrest in the Ranks'.
The effect of the expansion of higher education and the introduction of the market into universities has been to create a very small layer of extremely well paid professors, increasingly badly paid lecturers and a lot of low paid support staff. For example, in February 1995 a THES survey found that 180 people were paid over £100,000. At Leeds University alone 14 people were paid over £80,000. On top of this a lot of senior management have huge perks: chauffeur driven cars, free housing, a four day week and even help with kennel fees!
All this has created huge pools of discontent, so the THES editorial reported: `Staff and students are profoundly disenchanted. Year after year the squeeze has continued. Students have seen their debt mounting as a deliberate result of government policy. Academics have seen their pay barely keep rise with inflation. It's galling enough to find your pay standing still while your workload is increasing, it is worse when colleagues are swanning around on industrial expenses.'
The Unison publicity material made the explicit demand for a minimum pay of £4.26 an hour comparing the low pay of most to that of the vice-chancellors.
The union leadership has pulled out the stops to win the ballot and call the strike for its own reasons: partly to head off the discontent but also because looming over the horizon is an end to national pay bargaining to be replaced by individual institutions negotiating pay and conditions. This was introduced in FE colleges over three years ago with a number of consequences. The role of national negotiations has been replaced by talks at a local level. This has led to a war without end between college lecturers who want to defend their conditions and the local college managements which want to squeeze as much out of them as possible. The impact on Natfhe has been to massively reduce the role the national officials can play and has led to a shift to the left in the union ≠ something union leaderships want to avoid at all costs.
This explains why the Association of University Teachers, which organises lecturers, has been particularly dynamic. It got a 68 percent majority for the ballot. Its publicity had made comparisons with the massive pay rise MPs gave themselves. The AUT in particular has given the activists their head, calling pickets and demonstrations on the day and e-mailing its members every couple of days about what is going on.
There is massive enthusiasm for the strike among the rank and file. There were joint union meetings in a number of colleges for the first time to discuss activity on the day. Demonstrations were held in most major cities outside London by local union activists, and students were encouraged to join the pickets. There are a large number of what John Monks calls `trade union wannabes' who are joining and getting involved in union activity for the first time. One person in central London recruited eight support staff to Unison in one day.
However, there are a number of weaknesses. A small number of colleges have effectively accepted local deals and are not taking part in the action. In Scotland the EIS, which organises lecturers in the old polytechnics, is not taking part. In London the leadership of Natfhe and Unison blocked a call for a London wide demonstration on the day of the strike.
The biggest single weakness is that there is no plan for where the dispute goes next. The employers meet in early December and the union leaders think the strike may have been enough in itself to get concessions. The union leaderships are talking about using selective action such as exam boycotts if they do not get their way. There is a real danger that the union leaderships will fritter away the momentum built up.
Above all the strike is extremely political. It is about what sort of higher education people want. The Tories and Labour want to move to an American style university system with an Ivy League of 20 or so universities which attract the cream, while the rest, especially students from working class backgrounds, get an inferior education. This also means students paying for their own higher education, both living expenses and tuition fees, with the money being `loaned' to them by the government. The universities will be run by a few extremely rich high flying professors who make money out of research or writing books, with the rest of the staff on short term contracts and low pay.
The strike is a challenge to Blair as much as Major. It was the Labour Party which first introduced the idea of a graduate tax to fund students though universities rather than the money coming from taxation. In this respect the arguments of socialists are important. Natfhe is against the graduate tax while so far the AUT has gone along with the graduate tax. The reason is that the presence of socialists on the ground is higher in Natfhe than in the AUT.
The money is there to fund a decent education for students, and the strikes on 19 November show the potential of workers in universities to fight for it. But to do so they will have to fight Labour as well as the Tories.
Broadcasting is set for massive change. Digital transmission and cable delivery are opening up the possibility of multi-channel television and a complete restructuring of the industry. With a minimum of public discussion, the authorities are using this as an opportunity to bury `old fashioned' notions of `public service broadcasting' and fully commercialise the broadcast media.
No socialist will get sentimental about the stuffy middle class values of the state controlled BBC. In fact, in the 1960s and 1970s ITV companies often produced more challenging programmes. But because public service television was introduced in the boom years and came into its own at the end of the 1960s, it did develop some traditions of committed drama and investigative journalism.
Digital and cable television, very likely controlled by Rupert Murdoch, will be dominated by commercial values. Subscription or pay-as-you-watch schemes will become more and more common, and the scramble for profits from a huge number of channels will mean skeleton staff, de-unionisation and a general decline in standards.
The BBC governors have imported managers committed to turning the corporation's huge capital base to commercial advantage. Their efforts to compete with Murdoch have caused chaos. Commercial ventures have lost money and, in the effort to find enough capital to set up a digital broadcast system, huge cuts have been demanded.
The internal market has been taken so far that the basics are being threatened: transmitters are being sold off and now management is considering turning the central resources department into a `wholly owned subsidiary'. Already massive staff cuts have caused a lowering of standards with overstretched journalists having no time to develop or analyse stories. Controversial stories are dropped.
John Birt seems to have intervened personally to scupper a recent Panorama expos« of British Airways management. Discipline is being tightened. During the recent round of US attacks on Iraq, some journalists privately admitted they were too frightened to even question Clinton's policy on air.
There is massive discontent inside the BBC. Cuts in World Service radio led to several demonstrations of hundreds of staff, and an indicative ballot of all trade unionists showed 84 percent in favour of industrial action. The Labour party seems to have no coherent broadcasting policy except to echo the Tories' market rhetoric. Blair has spent the last year trying to establish good relations with Murdoch. Although far from enthusiastic about Blair, the leaders of the broadcasting unions seem paralysed in the run up to the elections. twice recently they have managed to call off industrial action for fear it might infringe anti-union laws.
However, the potential is there for a militant campaign to fight to defend jobs and conditions against the new market onslaught. It is up to trade unionists and socialists on the ground to organise it.
John Major decided many months ago to cling to office right up to the deadline (1 May 1997). Nothing seems more likely to interfere with this carefully constructed timetable than the government's corruption. When the Guardian revealed two years ago that the mendacious Harrods store boss, Mohamed Al Fayed, had been spraying money round politicians in exchange for questions and influence in parliament, the government responded in the usual way: by passing the buck to a committee.
Lord Nolan, a former tax barrister, was the man chosen for the chair of this committee and he promptly proposed the appointment of the former auditor general, Sir Gordon Downey, as a new Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards.
Sir Gordon's embarrassing job was to supervise the behaviour of MPs to see if they lived up to the rules set down in their register of interests.
These rules derive from the old fashioned view that an MP's main job is to represent constituents. Instead of banning all MPs' pay except their parliamentary salaries, the rules allow `outside interests' provided (a) they are declared and (b) they don't lead to conflict with the MP's representative role. All this is entirely fanciful. Pretty well every Tory MP has some `outside interest' which pays better than the parliamentary salary, and this leads to constant corruption.
Neil Hamilton, perhaps the nastiest of all the extreme right wingers who went to parliament in the 1980s, enjoyed a standard of life far beyond anything which could be bought with his parliamentary salary. He was apparantly quite prepared to distribute `favours' to people who would pay him (or set up an account at John Lewis for his wife) even when he was a minister.
When Hamilton was fingered, the government reacted exactly as it had done during the Scott inquiry. It concentrated not on rooting out the rotten apple but on protecting it. The importance of the leaked memo from Thatcherite whip David Willetts is that it shows how the Tory whips' office works: ignoring the corruption and seeking to limit its exposure. The main reason for this approach is that there is not one rotten apple but a whole barrel of them.
So arrogant is the government in its death agonies, and so recklessly does it proceed, that it is constantly being found out. In the process, it irritates many of its own supporters. The glorious spectacle of the awful `Two Brains' Willetts being gored by a Tory backbencher on the standards select committee was a sign of the nervousness and vulnerability of the government. Nor can ministers shake off the Hamilton sleaze. It will loom large over them in constant committees and inquiries until the election.
The other point about the Willetts scandal, however, is less exhilarating. It is that the key questioner was Tory, not Labour. The parliamentary Labour Party is far less corrupt than the Tories. Very few Labour MPs have highly paid `outside interests'. The whole sleaze story presents a marvellous opportunity to hound and bully the government to the polls, and so disrupt its timetable. The fact that Labour can attack without fear of counter-attack makes their performance even more pathetic than usual.
The silence of New Labour's frontbencher on the committee, Ann Taylor, and Labour's determination not to resign wholesale from a committee which is so obviously rigged, is proof that they prefer the medieval conventions of the House of Commons to driving the Tories out.
This month the trustees of the British Museum will consider introducing admission charges for the first time in the museum's 247 year history. They will also look at cutting back staffing levels.
The museum receives £32.4 million from the government, almost 80 percent of its revenue. This will decline over the next three years, leaving it with an accumulated deficit of £20 million by the year 2000. The impending move of the British Library to its new premises also means the removal of the £5 million it pays in rental income.
The Tories have followed a calculated policy of reducing funding from those institutions which have resisted admission charges ≠ hence increasing pressure on them to do so. And when charges are eventually introduced they are used as an excuse to cut funding even more.
Each time admission charges are introduced, millions of people can no longer afford a visit. The Science Museum saw visits fall by 60 percent in the year that it introduced charges ≠ in 1981, 3.8 million people visited the museum, yet by 1993 this had fallen to 1.3 million. Likewise the Natural History Museum has seen its attendance fall from 3.7 million in 1981 to 1.7 million in 1993. The British Museum is the second most popular visitor attraction, and the most popular museum, in Britain. Last year 6.1 million people visited. It is estimated that a £5 charge will reduce visitors by 27.5 percent.
At the same time the Tories are forcing the British Museum to seek funding from private sponsors such as Sainsbury's, Chase Manhattan Bank and the HSBC bank. As at the Tate Gallery, they may reach a compromise where the general admission is free, but all the big and popular exhibitions will be charged for.
In the early 1970s the Tory government under Edward Heath tried to introduce museum charges, but was defeated by popular opposition. Much has already been conceded, but workers in the museum are in a strong position to stop the policy ≠ if they go on the offensive.