1997 should be the year when things begin to change in Britain. Unless the opinion polls are spectacularly wrong, by May there will be a Labour government in office. This in itself will be a huge change for most people. Many of those voting labour will be doing so for the first time, and many cannot remember any time when there was not a vicious Tory government out to attack the working class.
Expectations will be high over a range of issues. Revulsion with the tories takes the form of opposition to the corruption which has become such a part of government where MPs can be bought for an envelope of used banknotes and where retiring government ministers find themselves on the boards of the privatised utilities almost as a matter of course. A new government will be expected to be more open and accountable and less pressurised by big business.
More importantly, most working people will expect some improvement in their lives. As a bottom line most would like to see better schools and hospitals, and more money spent on care of the elderly, with higher taxation for the rich to pay for it. The vast majority of people will look to Tony Blair and labour to begin to redress the inequality. But there is a growing sense that expectations are unlikely to match reality.
After all, the Tory government is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. It is bitterly and openly divided over Europe, reflecting serious splits within the British ruling class over where its long term interests lie. But the Tory Party would not be so split were it not for the fact that it has been unable to solve its central problem: how to make workers pay a sufficient price in order to solve the long term crisis of British capitalism.
Yet Blair does nothing to harness the hatred and class anger which should be his strongest weapon against the Tories. Instead he seems determined to prove that he can be harder on workers, tougher on crime, a stricter defender of morality and a greater friend of big business than the Tories. He and Labour try to damp down any active opposition to government policies with the increasingly hollow call to wait for a Labour government instead. The examples of labour councils which have launched renewed waves of attacks on their workforces in recent months show exactly what workers can expect from such a strategy. No wonder sections of the ruling class are increasingly at ease with the prospect of Blair as prime minister, and that Labour looks likely to receive the backing of Rupert Murdoch's Times in the election.
So if we cannot expect real change from a Blair government, what is the strategy for achieving it? Here there are two main arguments put forward on the left. The first is that Blair will fulfil the task of recruiting sergeant for the left: disillusionment with him will lead to the growth of the left, maybe to a split in labour and to a left leader. This is probably accurate as far as it goes, but it assumes that the disappointments created by Blair will automatically lead in a left wing direction. It also assumes that a left labour government would be better equipped to stand up to the whims of capital than Blair.
Unfortunately all the experience of labour governments and of movements of the left within Labour tell us differently. As soon as any government challenges the power of capital it is pressurised and, if necessary, crushed until its radical plans are abandoned.
That is why we cannot leave opposition to Blair to the future after an election, when the Labour left will benefit. Nor can we leave it to electoral opposition, however left wing. The only way to challenge the power of capital is to take it on where working people are strong in the workplaces where we produce the wealth and where our strikes and protests can make a real difference.
The extent of such protest and the extent to which we can build a mass socialist alternative to the Labour Party will help to decide whether hopes can become reality.
Indonesian police: trained from aid money
Hidden in the small print of the November budget was a cut that revealed the full nastiness of the Tory soul. It was the 8.4 percent reduction in the overseas aid budget-to make a saving of £180 million.
This cut did not signal a sudden change from generosity to meanness towards the world's poorest people. The British government has always been mean when it comes to helping starving people abroad, and Britain has never got near the UN's target of 0.7 percent of GNP for overseas development. The new low of 0.24 percent is only slightly worse than previous years-and is a fitting Tory response to the UN's (albeit ridiculous) designation of 1996 as 'the year of the elimination of global poverty'.
The real reason for the cut was Tory pique that they are being prevented from using 'aid' money to lure arms deals. This seemingly obvious restriction has been tightened up because the Tories were caught breaking the rules.
The exposure of 'aid for arms deals' began in 1988 when George Younger, then defence secretary, signed a mega-contract with the Malaysian government linking £1.3 billion worth of arms sales with an aid package to build the Pergau hydro-electricity dam. Six years later, in November 1994, even the British High Court could not fail to see the corruption. It ruled that the decision to grant £234 million aid to the Pergau dam was illegal and ordered all further payments to be stopped.
More recently the National Audit Office exposed the link between government 'aid' to train police in Indonesia and future arms sales to the dictatorship in Jakarta. It is difficult to think of any way in which training police for repression, especially in East Timor, can meet the mandate of the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) to 'promote the development of economies outside the U K' or the 'welfare' of their people. That budget too has now ended.
As with Malaysia, Indonesia is nowhere near the poorest of nations (55th, in fact). Yet, according to the ODA, it has received £300 million of aid since 1982, making it the fifth largest recipient of British aid.
Some other facts reveal the same pattern. British aid to Oman has risen by 75 percent since 1980. Oman now receives on average nearly double the aid per person as other recipient nations. The average income in Oman is slightly higher than in Portugal. Oman also happens to be the third largest buyer of British arms in the world.
British aid to Ecuador rose by 176 percent between 1980-82 and 1991-93. Ecuador has a similar income per head as El Salvado, yet receives eight times as much British aid per person. Ecuador just happens to be the fifth largest buyer of British arms in the world.
Aid from rich to poor countries has never been about charity. It has always been linked to business contracts with firms based in the donor state. For British capital the most lucrative contracts have been selling arms, subsidised by British taxpayers' 'aid' money, to dictators who then use the arms to ruthlessly keep their people in poverty.
Now the 'aid for arms deals' racket has been exposed the British government cuts its aid programme to shreds.
'The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) helps to square the circle of sound public finances and growing demand for better and more modern public services by tapping the expertise and the resources of the private sector.'
This was Kenneth Clarke's justification for cutting public investment.
So the government borrows money directly off private financiers to fund public services. What this means is that private enterprises build schools and hospitals and the government leases them off the private companies. The encouragement to private industry and investors to take part in the Private Finance Initiative is a tax break and a guaranteed return on their investment.
The scale of the damage done to public sector infrastructure by the Tories is colossal. Schools and hospitals up and down the country are failing apart. The PFI will only look at those areas where profits can be made.
The International Monetary Fund in a recent report said that the PFI would contribute no extra money, but would only replace investment that would otherwise be financed by normal methods. Once again we lose services but the bosses make profits.
Lack of funding for education has provoked an outcry even from the Tories' safest constituencies. Clarke made great play about providing an extra £633 million for schools. But £770 million was forced out of Gillian Shephard last year by parent and teacher action, so this year's supposed bonus does not even match last year's emergency award.
The estimated renovation bin for schools is £3.2 billion. The £50 million ' extra for repairs and build- ing works barely scratches the surface of the problem. The PFI will solve none of this.
There are other attacks coming from the Tories. Some £250 million is being cut from funds given to housing associations next year for building and ren ovations, and £200 million is being cut from grants to local authorities for improving run down housing stock. The consequences of this will be disastrous. Lack of affordable rented accommodation is already forcing homeless figures through the roof.
Changes in benefit rules in October meant that single people under 25 can only claim housing benefit on private rented accommodation up to the cost of renting a room in multiple occupied flats or houses. The November budget extends this to all single people under pension age.
The government sets targets for local councils to recover housing benefit fraud. The council gets paid a bonus for exceeding the targets set. They get a penalty if they don't meet the target. Whole departments have been set up to 'manufacture' benefit fraud savings and earn councils some extra money.
The tragedy is that Labour councils go along with this because they are too scared to tackle the Tories over cuts in spending.
An incoming Labour government faces the same pressures as an outgoing Tory one to keep public spending down.' Rather than look to a redistribution of wealth to redress the effects of 17 years of the enrichment of the Tories' friends, Labour supports the idea of the PFI. So once again, no real challenge to the Tories by Tony Blair.
Budget cuts to London Regional Transport will amount to over 50 percent of current government funding over the next three years. The reaction of LRT's chairman, Peter Ford, was hardly destined to inspire confidence in its passengers: 'We won't run an unsafe system but we will manage with great difficulty.'
He was even forced to admit that much needed refurbishment of some escalators and stations would have to stop. This Includes replacing some of the old wooden escalators regarded as dan- gerous, which should he a priority in any public transport system. Stations like Bank, in the heart of London's financial district which is supposedly a model for the world, are so run down that leading business directors in the area complain of the impression of inefficiency and the underfunding that reflects badly on the city.
British firms and financiers can hardly claim that British capitalism is on a par with Tokyo, New York and Paris when something as fundamental as the transport infrastructure is in such a dilapidated state. An efficient public transport network is not a luxury, nor is it provided purely for our benefit. Instead it has been developed to enable the increasingly mobile workforce to get to workplaces which might be an hour or more from home. No modern capitalist state can function without the ability for these workers to get to work reliably, every day, on time. The fact that this basic underpinning of an efficient capitalist system cannot even be provided reflects the long term crisis of British capitalism and the inability of the Tories to address any solutions to it.
So instead of a much needed Injection of investment and commitment to the need for an efficient and modern transport system in the capital city, the government grant is to go down from £950 million last year to £650 million this year and to £150 million by 1999. Out of this LRT will still have to pay the ever increasing bill for the biggest development in London's transport for over 20 years - the new jubilee Line extension. The cost of this attempt to breathe some life back into the Docklands development has now gone up by £450 million, partly because of the problems with the 'low cost' tunnelling method being used, although previous Increases had been met by the government.
The owners of Canary Wharf who are set to see vast increases in property values and towards the construction costs. But they have been allowed to pay their contribution of £398 million over 25 years from 1998, so the amount will be massively discounted by inflation.
Such lack of funding can only lead to more events like the recent complete shutdown of underground trains after problems with the 30 year old generators at LRT's Chelsea power station. Many passengers were stuck in darkened ,trains for an hour while the stations were in chaos as workers and tourists alike tried to find alternative ways of getting about. All the talk of London being the new hip place to visit with its clubs, pubs and Soho cafe culture wears
a bit thin when it is clear that the crumbling underground system is at best inefficient and at worse downright dangerous.
No wonder LRT has insisted on changes to a forthcoming drama series based on the tube system, using its right to veto anything filmed on Its property. It has prevented anything negativeviolence, pickpocketting and so onfrom being included in the production because confidence in the system is already so low. Unfortunately for LRT the millions who have to use the tube every day experience the reality which no amount of window dressing can cover up.
Anger at the growing gap between rich and poor, support for increased spending on health and education, and a more liberal attitude towards sex and drugs-these are some of the findings from the latest issue of the British Social Attitudes survey released last month. This latest snapshot of British opinion shows that on many issues many people are well to the left of politicians, both Tory and labour.
Most people usually adhere to a bundle of quite contradictory ideas. They accept much of what the media tell them, and what politicians like to say is common sense'. But this often conflicts with their day to day experiences and what social group they belong to. So no opinion poll, however thorough, can grasp the full complexity of people's ideas, but it can give an insight to what the balance is, and how much they have changed in recent years. This is what British Social Attitudes does.
The most remarkable figure of this new survey is that 87 percent of people think the gap between rich and poor is too large. This is the largest figure in the survey's history, up 15 points from 72 percent in 1983. Perhaps this is not surprising considering the enormous pay rises to the rich over the last few years. But these views are also supported by people's own experiences at work-the number of people who believe the gap between the highest and lowest paid at their workplace is too large has risen from 40 percent in 1983 to 50 percent today. And when people were asked: 'Is there one law for the rich and one for the poor?'-72 percent agreed, while 66 percent of people agreed that ordinary people do not get a fair share of the nation's wealth.
These figures refute the argument from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that tax rises on the rich would he a vote loser. Most workers- some 77 percent of the workforce less than £20,000 a year. These are the people who have been at the sharp end of the Tory attacks over the last 17 years and have suffered from redistribution of wealth from poor to rich.
The survey also reveals there has been a sharp increase in support for spending on health (up from 63 percent in 1983 to 77 percent in 1995) and education (up from 50 percent in 1983 to 66 percent in 1995). Even when this is linked to taxation the majority of respondents are willing to pay more tax in order to get increased spending on health, education and other social benefits (up from 32 percent in 1983 to 61 percent in 1995).
However, when the survey looks at people's security at work there is a more contradictory picture. There has been an increase in the numbers of people employed for five years or more with the same employer-from 48 percent in 1991 to 59 percent in 1995. But this is accompanied by the fact that nearly one in three (29 percent) of semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers reported experience of unemployment some time in the last five years-double those of professional and managerial workers. And nearly one in three work 40 hours or more a week, up from one in four ten years ago.
The fact that people stay longer with one employer is not necessarily a sign of more security at work. Indeed it may suggest that there are no prospects of moving to equivalent or better jobs- hardly a sign of contentment.
There is also a much more liberal attitude towards sex and drugs, unlike some of the pronouncements we hear from jack Straw and the rest of the Labour front bench. A large majority of the population (over 70 percent) are happy with the idea of seeing on television a 'frank sex scene showing a man and a woman character having sex'. There is growing acceptance of sex between homosexuals on television: in 1987 at the height of the Aids scare 75 percent disapproved, now it is 54 percent. And although there is still a majority of the population opposed to the legalisation of cannabis- 58 percent oppose it against 31 percent who favour It-the margin of 27 percent compares with 42 percent only two years ago, and 66 percent in 1983.
Thus there is much in this latest report to confirm that most people reject the 'authoritarian populism' that comes from Labour's front bench, and on most of the important political issues of the day the majority of people are well to the left of politicians of all political persuasions.
The survey paints a very different snapshot of the feelings of ordinary people than most we learn from the media and the politicians. This has also been true in the past. Even at the height of Thatcherism, attitudes as demonstrated by the survey tended to be much more liberal than those propounded by the government.
Perhaps the biggest question which arises from the survey is why none of the major parties gives any real expression to the feelings and beliefs outlined.
British Social Attitudes 13th Report edited by Roger Jowell, John Curtice, Alison Park, Lindsay Brook and Katarina Thomson, Dartmouth Press £25
John Major, who used to believe that his single handed achievement of peace in Ireland would bring him political immortality, has discovered a far more important objective: staying in office. The arithmetic of the British parliament leaves him at the mercy of the Ulster Unionists. Indeed, on one of the last close votes, when the official Unionists voted against the Tories, the government survived only with the support of the absurdly named Democratic Unionists, the Rev lan Paisley's Bigot Party.
So Major agreed in the autumn that he must do nothing to upset Ulster Unionists. Though the vast majority of people in Britain and in Ireland want to see the end of the union, this tiny band of bigots governs the political agenda on the subject
Major's 'new realism' in Ireland coincided with a fresh attempt by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party to include Sinn Fein in the constitutional talks. After the lamentable failure of its renewed bombing campaign, the pendulum in the IRA swung back in favour of another ceasefire. The only condition Sinn Fein imposed was its immediate participation in the talks. The Irish government rapturously accepted the condition. But Major, nervous of his majority, refused. He imposed a series of ludicrous conditions for Sinn Fein's entry into the talks-conditions which he knew could not be accepted. There follows an uneasy stalemate in which the pendulum is swinging back to sectarian violence. The hideous attacks on Catholics by Orange gangs in Ballymena remind everyone how awful that violence can be.
The main cause of the stalemate of course is the Major government's approach, a grotesque combination of rhetoric for peace and practical intransigence. The initial ceasefire was squandered, and a new one is spurned. Yet the grim record also exposes the dilemma of the Sinn Fein and nationalist leaders. Their determination to make almost any concession to appease the United States government has left them high and dry when they are rebuffed by the British. They must either return to hopeless violence, which almost everybody in Northern Ireland dreads, or cling to Clinton's coat tails.
Irish workers, North and South, do not want sectarian violence- but nor do they want the capitalism represented by Clinton, Major and Bruton. The fruits of that capitalism are increasingly intolerable on both sides of the border. A recent House of Commons question exposed the fact that living standards in 31.4 percent of households in the North of Ireland fall below half the British national average, a staggering statistic of degradation which is matched by similar figures in the South. A socialist strategy of uniting these poverty stricken working masses across the sectarian border could break the deadlock imposed on Ireland from Clinton in Washington and the Major/Trimble alliance in London.