Issue 210 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Editorial, US socialism, Canadian and Irish elections, Jonathan Aitken

Editorial

All the indications are that the government is going to hold fast to its tough stance on public spending. Gordon Brown has insisted 'there will be no spending round this year'. Labour's first budget, which takes place after Socialist Review goes to press, was preceded by an orchestrated campaign of preparing people for the worst.

Brown has based his pessimistic forecasts on a report specially commissioned by the National Audit Office but he 'has painted a picture much bleaker than the reality...as Goldman Sachs and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have pointed out, the projected squeeze is far harsher than any during 18 years of Conservative rule.' (Financial Times 23 June).

Both health and education need an extra £1 billion just to stand still, yet the education budget looks set to fall as a proportion of national income, while the NHS faces the prospect of two years of no increase in spending against an annual growth rate of more than 3 percent. But even the prospect of money running out in schools and hospitals seems to have left Gordon Brown unshaken. The pre-election promise to stick rigidly to Tory spending limits for the first two years of government appears to be one the government is determined not to break.

Yet Labour's leaders are fond of telling us that they are willing to 'think the unthinkable' when it comes to making the figures add up. It seems, however, that there are still some unthinkables...tax rises for the rich and cancelling the Eurofighter are just two examples. Pensioners being charged for prescriptions or patients paying for hospital stays are on the other hand, in the words of health secretary Frank Dobson, not ruled out. For many voters the realisation that the Labour government is going to make no attempt to tinker with, let alone challenge, the spending priorities of the Tories will come as a brutal shock.

The whole issue of funding for education and the health service is a time bomb ticking away as the government basks in its popularity after its first two months in office. Blair is high in the polls, but sooner or later the mood of excitement created by the Labour landslide will come up against the reality of a cash crisis with thousands of angry teachers likely to lose their jobs, or hospital crises this winter.

If the government does decide to find extra funding where will it come from? The only option that has been mooted is shifting resources from another cash strapped department, thus ensuring that it is the poor, the unemployed, the sick, in other words the most vulnerable who will pay. Of course there is a simple solution. Blair could announce that, in order to pay for the crisis in public funding, he will have to raise income tax levels on the rich after all. He could say this in the certain knowledge that, in the words of even Philip Stephens of the Financial Times, 'The country would applaud. It never signed up to Tory spending targets.'

But Blair and New Labour's agenda is clear. They are in the business of managing capitalism and reassuring big business and so the needs of ordinary people are only considered if profits are high enough and the economy is healthy. Ironically enough the only anxiety being expressed by financial commentators over the economy is that there is a danger of overheating and increasing inflation.

The government has few levers to deal with such a scenario if it refuses to raise taxes, except to raise interest rate levels which are now under the control of unelected bankers. How Blair will fare in a year or 18 months when the economy turns downs again, when people are paying out more for mortgages and bills, but receiving less in terms of public service, remains to be seen. But an increasing number of people are thinking 'we didn't vote for this' when they hear talk of the millennium dome or privatisation of London's tube. They did vote for an improvement in the public services. All they are likely to get are further attacks.

However, the experience of Europe indicates that workers have not taken such attacks lying down. Socialists must actively intervene at every stage to ensure that disappointment with Labour leads to a fight rather than to despair.


US socialism

New kid on the block

'More than 90 years ago Charles Kerr, Gene Debs, Mother Jones and Jack London launched the first International Socialist Review. Congratulations on the birth of its granddaughter: a fighting socialist magazine for the rebel youth of the 21st century.' So says Mike Davis, author of Prisoners of the American Dream, as the first issue of the new International Socialist Review is launched by the American ISO, the sister organisation of the SWP. His is just one of many endorsements reflecting the importance that many socialists and activists in the US place on the need for genuine Marxist ideas.

In the US today the language of class is back in fashion. Since the mid-1970s the US ruling class has launched a vicious attack against American workers. As Lee Sustar explains in the article 'A New Labour Movement', since 1973 real wages have declined by 19 percent, while bosses have raked in massive profits. Both Republicans and Democrats have slashed spending on welfare. But since the mid-1990s a new mood of militancy is beginning to revive sections of the US working class. Some of the biggest firms­Boeing, Caterpillar and GM motors­have seen workers fighting back.

For these glimmers of resistance to turn into a general offensive against the ruling class, socialist politics is key. Working class history in the US has a rich Marxist tradition, with socialists playing a crucial part in many of the upsurges of anger. For instance, Trotskyists played a key role in introducing the tactic of 'cruising pickets' which guaranteed victory in the 1934 strike by 600 coal drivers for union recognition in Minneapolis, known as the Teamster Rebellion. Combined with this they also trained a new political layer of militants who linked union issues with the general struggle for socialism.

Marxist ideas were also central in forcing the newly formed US Communist Party during the 1920s and 1930s to take up the issue of race. As Paul D'Amato explains in his article 'The Communist Party and Black Liberation in the 1930s': 'The CP was the first US socialist organisation to recognise that the specially-oppressed conditions of blacks required that socialists champion their fight against their legal, political, economic and social oppression.'

Today attacks by the ruling class have created genuine anger among large sections of workers. This has been fuelled by the fact that much of the old left and the trade union leaders put great faith in electoral politics and the Democratic Party. But as the Democrats reneged on their promises and attacked workers, many of those who argued that the election of Bill Clinton was the way forward are completely discredited, making the need for an independent revolutionary socialist organisation urgent.

The ISO has taken some important steps forward to rise to the challenge that the new situation presents. Their new Review has much in it that will help spread Marxist ideas. The lead article by Ahmed Shawki looks at the history of the Chinese Communist Party and how it has little in common with the revolutionary tradition of Marxism. And on the 50th anniversary of Tony Cliff's State Capitalism in Russia, an interview with Cliff recalls how the principles of revolution from below and workers' power were the guiding light as he sought to explain the class nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy at a time when the rest of the left was looking to Russia as some form of socialist society.

'The Review aims to arm a new generation of Marxists with the lessons of past struggles as well as the theoretical means to tackle new ones,' says the editorial. If the Review maintains the quality of Marxist theory that is evident in this first issue then the American working class will be much stronger and clearer for the important battles that lie ahead.

Peter Morgan

International Socialist Review will be available at Marxism 97, or you can send a cheque for a year's subscription for US $25 to ISR, PO Box 258082, Chicago, Illinois 60625, USA.


Canadian elections

Beyond the fragments?

Canada's federal election results kept people glued to their televisions until the early hours of the morning. The last election in 1993 saw the meltdown of the ruling Tories to two seats, the rise of the right wing, western based Reform Party to 50 seats, the accession of the pro-independence Bloc Québécois to official opposition, the social democratic NDP reduced to nine seats, and a massive Liberal majority won on the promise of more jobs. Yet only three and a half years into its five year mandate the Liberal government called an election.

On 2 June they were punished by voters, losing several cabinet ministers and barely maintaining their majority after winning 155 seats. The Reform Party, led by Preston Manning, became official opposition. The Bloc Québécois held on to 44 seats. The Tories returned from the dead, winning 20 seats. And the NDP, which lost official party status in 1993, pulled in 21 seats. They had hoped for double that number, and were completely shut out in Ontario.

Why did the Liberals risk everything so early in their mandate? Over the last year Liberal support has dropped to its lowest level since 1993. At that time, at the tail end of a bitter recession, there were 1.6 million out of work. Today unemployment is stuck at 1.4 million after an economic 'recovery'. The Liberals have inflicted the largest cuts to education, healthcare and welfare in Canadian history. The misery provoked by the cuts has left many people seething with anger. In the hard hit Atlantic provinces this resulted in a spectacular breakthrough for the NDP. The Liberals lost all 11 seats in Nova Scotia, six of them to the NDP, and five to the Tories. Never before had the NDP won a federal seat outside the mining area of Cape Breton.

The despised Liberal health minister David Dingwall was defeated by the NDP over cuts to healthcare. In Glace Bay, Cape Breton, an assembly of 1,000 vowed to turf Dingwall, after revelations of five deaths in local hospitals due directly to cutbacks. Dingwall had to admit that 'voters were damn angry at the federal Liberals. We reduced transfers. We closed bases. We have difficulties with the fisheries. And there was the job creation that didn't take place.'

While it gained eight seats in Atlantic Canada where resistance to federal cuts was greatest, the NDP's hoped for gains in Ontario never materialised. After six one day city wide general strikes the momentum was abruptly halted by union leaders in favour of building support for the NDP. But there was still resentment over the previous NDP government's attacks on public sector workers, health and social services.

The NDP's refusal to come out strongly in defence of Quebec's right to self-determination kept them mired at 2 percent in that province. While jobs were the main issue for voters, the most debated question in the election was national unity. Preston Manning whipped up anti-Quebec sentiment, particularly in the west, and was able to draw much of the anger to his right wing banner. Reform succeeded in consolidating its western base, sweeping Alberta and British Columbia, and making gains in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

It was not surprising that anti-Quebec sentiment came home to roost in this election. In the wake of the referendum on Quebec sovereignty, which the Liberals won by a 50.6 percent majority maintaining the status quo, they put forward their infamous 'Plan B'. This amounted to laying out tough conditions for secession, including the possibility of partitioning Quebec, keeping federalist enclaves and Native territories within Canada.

The Reform Party was able to play the anti-Quebec card. A campaign ad which drew a circle with a slash through it over the faces of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Tory leader Jean Charest, Bloc leader Gilles Deceppe and Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard implied that Quebec was running the country. Signs appeared stating 'No more Prime Ministers from Quebec'. In Quebec, this shored up support for the Bloc Québécois.

Significantly, Reform's strategy was unsuccessful in Ontario, where Manning had boasted it would carry many seats. Its attacks were so virulent that even the Tories denounced Manning as a bigot. Quebec bashing drove away Reform's soft support, leaving it with less of the popular vote than in the last election. And even though the legacy of the NDP didn't allow for any gains, the Reform Party lost its only seat in the province.

Both BC and Saskatchewan, where Reform made gains, are currently governed by NDP governments which have closed hospitals, cut welfare and laid off thousands of public sector workers. Because these attacks were done by a social democratic government there was no organised fightback. The low level of struggle allowed scapegoating to gain a hearing. Just a year ago in BC, many people who today voted Reform cast their ballot provincially for the NDP­which speaks to the volatility of the times.

The Liberals now have a slim majority of four seats. Unemployment remains high, a new recession is predicted by many analysts, and a referendum on Quebec independence could take place as early as next year. Neither the Liberals nor any of the other parties have answers. And the anger and bitterness at the base of society continues.

The day after the election, fishermen in Newfoundland clashed with provincial police over fishing quotas. Talk of a general strike is back on the agenda in Ontario. BC Government Employees Union is demanding that the NDP government drops its 'war on workers' or risk losing its support. Undoubtedly the volatility will continue and the potential for future struggles to point towards a different solution to the crisis is very real.

Carolyn Egan and Michelle Robidoux


Irish elections

The recent general election in Ireland was a contest between two right wing dominated coalitions. The outgoing 'Rainbow Coalition' of Fine Gael, Labour and the Democratic Left lost ground when the Labour vote slumped from 19 percent in 1992 to just over 10 percent. This left the Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrats' coalition out in front­but only narrowly. The new government will have to rely on the votes of independent deputies to maintain a majority. But it would be a mistake to see this as a victory for the right.

Fianna Fail, Ireland's major Tory party, did not significantly increase its vote. Its support is stuck at its 1992 level ­the lowest since 1932. The Progressive Democrats, lost ground too despite hoping to cash in with Thatcherite rhetoric, attacks on single mothers and refugees, and pledges to cut 25,000 public sector jobs. The Labour vote collapsed because they sold out their own supporters. They covered for Fine Gael leader John Bruton when he gave two contradictory versions of how business funds found their way into his party's coffers. Bruton was giving evidence in an inquiry after a scandal involving businessman Ben Dunne making huge donations to politicians and political parties­including Labour.

Despite the booming economy­described as 'the Celtic Tiger'­poverty has increased, the housing shortage has created mega-profits for the building speculators but misery for thousands of people without proper living conditions. Many of the new jobs being created are paying rates of less than £3 per hour­there is no minimum wage. And the attack on public sector workers has continued. All the evidence shows that alienation from the political system is widespread.

Sinn Fein's vote was a shock for the media commentators. The party got one TD elected in the border constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. It also came close to taking seats in North Kerry and Dublin South West. During the Drumcree crisis last year the sectarianism of the Northern Ireland state was on full view when the RUC stood aside for small numbers of Orangemen but fired over 6,000 plastic bullets at nationalist protesters in Derry. This has been reflected in increased support for Sinn Fein.

But the sell outs of the Labour Party in government and the decline of Labour's working class roots have also benefited Sinn Fein. Their activists have been to the fore in 'Pushers Out' campaigning in many of the heroin blackspots.

But there is every sign Sinn Fein will disappoint those who voted for it. Their canvassers in Cavan-Monaghan called for second preferences for Fianna Fail because they are supposedly 'better on the North'. Sinn Fein leaders made it clear they would back Fianna Fail's Bertie Ahern for Taoiseach (prime minister). Just as Labour helped to prop up Fine Gael, it looks like Sinn Fein will give their support to a party that promotes the interests of the Irish rich.

Some of the anger at Labour's betrayals found its way to left wing candidates.

In Dublin West, Joe Higgins from the Socialist Party­formerly Militant Labour­took a seat from a Labour minister. Other Socialist Party candidates in Dublin North and Dublin South West polled well.

For the first time the Socialist Workers Party stood four candidates. In Waterford, Jimmy Kelly, chief shop steward in Waterford Glass, polled around 700 votes, as did Ritchie Browne in Dublin North Central. Ritchie Browne, a TEAM Aer Lingus shop steward, got just under a third of the votes of the surviving Labour candidate. Nearly 40 people joined the SWP, including a number of key union activists.

For the incoming government there can be no easy ride. Employers and government are continually demanding that workers put up with more flexibility, more job losses, and less security in the face of world competition. The same forces that shaped the huge upheavals and political volatility in France, Germany and Italy are at work in Ireland too.

Kevin Wingfield


Paul Foot on Jonathan Aitken

Weaving a tangled web

As the celebrations die down for the wonderful victory scored by the Guardian and World in Action over Jonathan Aitken, the question still lingers: why? Why did such a high flying politician, a man named even as a future prime minister, gamble his entire future on a ridiculous lie? So what if he did go to the Ritz in Paris to meet rich Arabs? So what if one of the Arabs did pay his bill for one night? So what if he forgot to tell the cabinet secretary about his visit as he was, by ministerial rules, obliged to do? Wasn't the incident itself really rather trivial? Could not Aitken, with even half the charm and poise for which he is accustomed, have owned up, apologised, explained that he was always going off to rich hotels with rich friends, some of them Arabs, and that on this occasion, damn it, he just forgot to obey the rules?

If he had adopted that approach, how long would the storm have lasted? A day, perhaps two. Anyone who objected would soon find themselves being attacked as a muckraker by the Daily Mail. Aitken would have recovered quickly. So why on earth would he go to such fantastic lengths to weave such an intricate story, and then persuade not just his wife but also his 17 year old daughter to come to court and perjure themselves too?

The answer is that the men Aitken met in that Paris hotel were no ordinary Arab friends together for a jovial weekend. They were some of the most powerful men on earth, whose power derives directly from the wealth they have swiped from the cheap oil of Saudi Arabia. The dictators in Riyadh are constantly building up their already enormous armed forces in such a way that they themselves personally benefit. They pay themselves 'commissions' over and on top of the cost of the military equipment they purchase.

Thus the cost of producing and supplying an average Tornado jet fighter is £20 million and the average price paid to Britain by the Saudi government for a Tornado is £35 million. The difference goes directly into the voluminous bank accounts of the Saudi royals not only in Switzerland but in tax havens all over the world.

The chief sellers of arms to the Saudis, the British and French governments, know perfectly well that the whole trade in arms between the two countries is founded on corruption. They are most anxious to keep the details quiet. This explains the curious case of Mr Robert Sheldon, a right wing Labour politician who has represented Ashton-Under-Lyne in parliament for as long as anyone can remember and has for years been chairman of the top 'watchdog' House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Sheldon has a reputation for publishing the awkward reports of his committee, and his persistent if mild reformism has won him many admirers. But in the early spring of 1992 he came across something he couldn't publish. The National Audit Office had produced for the committee a report on arms sales to the Saudi government, and had even dared, mildly enough of course, to open the taboo question of the size of commissions. At once Sheldon agreed that these matters were too sensitive for public consumption and the report was consigned to the rubbish heap of government secrecy. The Saudi government had made it clear that they did not want precise figures and transactions exposed to the British public. So the NAO report was suddenly and inexplicably censored, confiscated and removed where no one could possibly see it.

At almost exactly the same time, Jonathan Aitken, for years a paid 'adviser' to the arms industry, became Minister for Defence Procurement. At long last, he told his Saudi friends, you have a friend in the place you want him most. At once earnest negotiations started to supply the Saudi government with a heavy consignment of 48 Tornados.

The most earnest part of the negotiations was about commissions. This was the debate which took Jonathan Aitken to the Ritz in Paris in 1988 to meet no less than the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. If there is anything which must be kept quiet more than any other it is the paying of commissions on the Al Yamamah arms deal between the British and Saudi governments. For a moment the entire deal was in peril. Aitken felt it was time for him to intervene. He went to Paris to meet his friends to talk about another round of unforgivable commissions.

The secrecy of those talks was crucial. Literally nothing mattered more. If word got out about the extent of the commissions or even that a minister was discussing the extent of the commissions in open conversation the result would have been catastrophic. The arms trade cannot be expected to flourish except in circumstances of the utmost secrecy. Aitken had been found out, but it was his bounden duty not to talk to anyone about his hidden fortune. Lie followed lie, hypocrisy followed hypocrisy; and so they always will do as long as the world is competing to buy the best value in the instruments of mass destruction.

Paul Foot


Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page