Six months after the general election, polls show Tony Blair's approval rating running at 93 percent. But there are already signs from two sources that all is not quite as it may seem on the surface.
The divisions inside the government over EMU were probably not what Tony Blair had in mind when he talked about hard choices at Labour's conference. The speed with which the furore hit the government brought home how it can be pushed off course by unforeseen events.
The overwhelming obsession with and reliance on the press helped to fuel this crisis. Last month the City and big business became jittery when it appeared that Gordon Brown's spin doctors were making up policy. At least part of Tony Blair's reluctance to commit the government to early entry into EMU lies in his desperation not to offend Rupert Murdoch, whose papers have been waging a campaign against entry.
The scare over a possible plunge in the stock market (which had shot up three weeks earlier following a Financial Times article which said that Britain would join in the first round) brought home to sections of Britain's ruling class that here was a government which seemed to approach decisions over the future of British capitalism in the same way that it launched attacks on the Labour left. There is a fear that Labour is acting as though it still has an election to win rather than is governing the country. This reflects a deeper worry both about the consequences of going into a single currency and about whether the British government and the British ruling class are once again going to find themselves embroiled in skirmishes over Europe.
There are clearly big divisions on these questions even among close supporters and advisers of the government. Many Labour supporting businessmen such as Chris Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods, are backing early entry. But there are others who predict that this will result in the same sort of problems that the Tories experienced with the ERM in 1992, a point emphasised by the Observer's business editor, William Keegan.
Whatever the disagreement over Europe, Britain's ruling class is largely united behind attacks on welfare. This is where the second problem for Blair comes in. Government attacks are creating increased bitterness among a growing minority of people who saw the election of a Labour government as the answer to at least some of their problems. Now they are increasingly coming to realise that Blair's priorities are different from theirs.
The decision to impose tuition fees, the attack on pensions, the still grossly underfunded NHS, the growing rumblings about exempting under 25s from the minimum wage, have all produced widespread opposition among sections of workers.
The lobby of Labour's conference, where 8,000 workers, pensioners and students demonstrated in Brighton, gave a small taste of that opposition. It did not represent mass protest but it did point to the future in showing how a hard minority against Blair can organise a much more substantial minority who have had hopes in New Labour but are becoming bitter and angry.
Although the level of strikes still remains very low, the ideological ferment created since the election gives socialists an opportunity to argue and to organise. However, we only achieve this if we break from the pessimism of much of the old left and understand that Blair is not all powerful but faces real opposition on a number of questions. That means raising the expectations of what socialists can achieve. If, as has recently been the case, 500 copies of Socialist Worker can be sold on a Saturday in Manchester, or 200 in Edinburgh or Newcastle, this illustrates that there is a substantial audience for a paper which presents an alternative to Blair.
We know that at some point there will be a clash between reality and expectations, between what Blair offers and what people hope for. The whole trend in Europe, and in the US with the UPS strike, points in this direction. We have to create a bridge towards those whose anger will lead them into activity when that happens.
Jack Straw, the home secretary, is looking increasingly isolated in his hard stand against even any debate about changing the law on cannabis. In a Mori survey for the Independent on Sunday, 80 percent wanted some change in the law, and a phone-in poll for the Mirror showed a two to one majority in favour of decriminalisation.
Forced perhaps by Jack Straw ruling out any moves towards decriminalisation in his speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, the most senior judge in Britain, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, spoke out calling for a wide national debate. Then with the British Medical Association calling for the legalisation of cannabis for sufferers from the disabling illness multiple sclerosis, Frank Dobson, the health secretary, told a television audience that he would consider making it available on prescription on medical grounds.
The government then appointed Keith Hellawell, the former chief constable of West Yorkshire, as its new drugs tsar, on a salary of £102,000, with the aim of reducing the 42 percent of teenagers using illegal drugs before they are 17. Although he has talked about relaxing laws on cautioning people caught in possession of cannabis, he has rejected its legalisation. His appointment mirrors similar schemes in the US sponsored by Bill Clinton, which have spectacularly failed to stem the rise in illegal drug use.
It is not hard to understand why pressure is building up for a change in the law. Large numbers of young people are being turned into criminals by the existing laws. Last year 113,000 people, mainly working class, were arrested for drug related offences, up from 87,000 in 1994. Arrests for cannabis possession outnumber those for heroin by eight to one. Yet cannabis is a remarkably safe drug. Since 1984 only five deaths have been linked to cannabis, compared to 1,144 from heroin. Even these deaths pale into insignificance compared to the 28,000 who die from the effects of alcohol each year and the 115,000 who die from tobacco in Britain. Increasingly young people cannot understand why they should be criminalised for using a drug much safer than those already legal.
Previous attempts to ban the much more dangerous drug alcohol in the US during prohibition in the 1920s ended in total failure with its main effect being the lucrative black market which allowed the Mafia to grow.
Today the entire drugs industry, legal and illegal, is run by big business. And they make big money. For example, every year the tobacco industry can afford to spend £113 million just on advertising and promoting their lethal products. If Straw was really serious about tackling the use of dangerous drugs, he would start by being tough on the most dangerous drug of all, tobacco. Instead his approach is to be 'tough' on illegal drugs, and clamp down on users.
The argument he raises that soft drugs lead to hard ones is now completely discredited. Less than 2 percent of teenagers surveyed in British schools had ever tried heroin compared to 42 percent who had tried cannabis. And this is despite both drugs potentially being sold together in an illegal setting. There is simply no evidence that people move from one drug to another in this way. What evidence there is points the other way. When cannabis was decriminalised in Holland in the 1980s the number of people using hard drugs actually fell. With cannabis consumption rising inexorably, Straw's policies seem certain to put him on a collision course with an increasingly large number of working class youth.
When Labour was elected it received its greatest support from younger voters. The government's opening gambit on the minimum wage was a kick in the teeth for every one of them: school leavers, students, those in work and those on the dole.
On 23 September Margaret Beckett, president of the Board of Trade, issued instructions to the Low Pay Commission which completely changed Labour's previous commitment to a minumum wage for all adult workers. Now the commission is being told to 'make recommendations on lower rates or exemptions for those aged 16 to 25'. A few days later Peter Mandelson confirmed the new line when he told a fringe meeting at the Labour conference that there would be a differential for those under 25.
The move has two main aims. The obvious target is the Welfare to Work scheme where pilot projects are due to start in January with the whole country covered from next April. The government will be giving employers at least £60 a week for every young unemployed trainee they take on. But so far it has ducked the issue of what these workers should be paid. With the Low Pay Commission due to make its report by the end of next May, the aim is to block any idea that trainees over the age of 18 should be paid the minimum wage.
Mandelson claimed after his speech that his statement referred 'only to trainees'. That would be bad enough. However, there is a second, longer term consequence: it will make it even more attractive for employers to employ a Welfare to Work trainee for six months rather than a permanent worker. The effect would almost inevitably be to extend a minimum wage exemption beyond the 200,000 or so trainees to all those aged under the age of 25, a much larger group.
There is a precedent for this: years ago public sector employmentabove all the civil servicehad age related scales which extended to 25. It now seems the government would like to turn the clock back, arguing that with the expansion of higher education those under the age of 25 are still learning. This would mean that students would not just be hit by the end of grants and the imposition of tuition fees but would also face the prospect of reduced rates of pay as they work their way through college.
Hundreds of thousands of students are now part of the regular labour force: at supermarkets such as Sainsburys and Asda up to a quarter of the workforce are now studying, many of them working right round the year. They will bear the full brunt of Labour's new caring philosophy.
It is less than two years since Labour published its radical new policy statement 'Building Prosperity' in which the party spelled out the 'three principles underpinning Labour's approach'. The first of these was: 'Every person at work should be entitled to basic minimum standards of fairness, properly enforced.'
Meanwhile, we can already predict the next move. It will be to subvert and attack the TUC's policy of a minimum wage fixed at half male median earnings. On current figures this is set to rise from the previous level of £4.42 an hour (reached in April 1996) to around £4.80 next year. This is way beyond what the government and the employers are prepared to concede and they will fight hard to keep the minimum wage below £4. It is, of course, Tony Blair and his ministers who have the final say following full consultations with the Federation of Small Business and the Institute of Directors.
'Half male median earnings' is not a slogan that leaps to mind for a placard (£5 is much better). But it is worth remembering why this formula has been chosen. The minimum is related to earnings because as wages in general rise so should the basic minimum. This was Labour Party policy as recently as 1993. It is male earnings because women should receive equal pay (that's the law). Anything else means cutting pay for men. The 'median' is the midpoint: it is actually lower than the average but it represents a figure which is fairer and easier to understand.
One argument used by opponents of the TUC position is that the figure is calculated on earnings including overtime, divided by average hours excluding overtime. But this is a good principle: it is based on the argument that a living wage should not be based on working long hours. It is an argument that we will need to ram down the government's throat in the months to come.
A year after the mass anti-government protests in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, the streets are once again filled with demonstrators. Last year they were protesting at Slobodan Milosevic's attempts to deny opposition parties seats won in the municipal elections, which saw him lose 15 of Serbia's biggest towns, including Belgrade. Now they are protesting about the removal from office of Zoran Djindjic, Belgrade's mayor, who was one of the most popular of last year's opposition leaders. In a show of power Milosevic then sent in police to smash up the demonstrations and took back an independent television channel which since last year had been a challenge to the state run media.
Last year's marches were hailed as the 'velvet revolution' which saw rare unity between opposition leaders and hopes raised of an alternative to Milosevic's nationalism. But the leadership was more interested in doing deals and powerbroking. Rather than develop into a serious movement of organised workers, the movement remained as popular street protest and the price is being paid today.
The recent election saw Milosevic lose control of the Serbian parliament, and Zoran Lilic, Milosevic's candidate for president, lost to the far right nationalist Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party. Although this election has to be rerun because the turnout was below the required 50 percent, the result has sent shock waves throughout the area. Milosevic was forced to give up the post himself in the summer as he had served for the two term limit. But he planned to maintain control by taking up Lilic's old job, the largely ceremonial president of federal Yugoslavia, and turn it into a role with real power, while he used Lilic to promote his interests. The lack of any effective alternative challenging Milosevic from the left has left the door open for those further to the right to appear as if they offer a solution to the ordinary people of Serbia.
The elections in neighbouring Bosnia have been equally messy. On the one side both the Serbian Radicals and Milosevic are backing the faction led by Radovan Karadzicstill wanted for war crimesand Momcilo Krajisnik. On the other is Biljana Plavsic, the Bosnian Serb Republic's president, who accepts the Dayton peace accord and is, as a result, the preferred candidate of the west. Such is the western governments' support for Plavsic that during the election the Nato peacekeeping forces actually captured a television and radio transmitter that was broadcasting anti-Plavsic propaganda and handed it over to her.
How the election results will be upheld remains to be seen. Displaced refugees had the right to vote in elections in towns in which they were a majority before the ethnic cleansing of the war. As a result it appears that the displaced populations may have won victories in towns currently run by other ethnic groups. For instance the Serbs who now control Srebrenica have lost the election there
to Muslims but there is no obvious mechanism to put this election result into practice. However, not all election results reflected nationalistic division. Candidates advocating multiethnic tolerance won in Tuzla.
But the problems thrown up by the elections are the obvious result of the peace agreement that was imposed by the west. The Dayton accord left the nationalism that broke up the former Yugoslavia enshrined in a patchwork map in which there is still no agreement even on such apparently superficial issues such as the design of a Bosnian flag. The election of candidates who fundamentally reject the whole agreement and the carefully drawn borders show up the faultlines and the contradictions and are a further illustration that western intervention only exacerbates the problems in the region. As a result a lasting solution in the Balkans, where people are offered a real alternative to the dangerous squabbling of their leaders, is still a long way off.
For one week last month Italy was on the verge of a full scale political crisis around the resignation of its prime minister, Romano Prodi. This created real panic among the Italian ruling class as it threatened to undermine Italy's attempt to meet the Maastricht criteria for European Monetary Union. But Prodi survived, and the fact that he emerged in a far stronger position was largely due to the disarray of the former communists, Rifondazione Comunista (RC).
The background to the crisis centres around Italy's attempt to reduce its budget deficit to qualify for monetary union. This involved the Prodi government slashing spending on pensions, healthcare and welfare by something like 25 trillion lire (or just over 1 percent of GDP). This would have reduced the budget deficit from around 3.2 percent to just under the 3 percent limit required to enter monetary union in 1998.
Prodi is an ex Christian Democrat economist who used to run IRIthe main industrial conglomerateand was elected as part of the Olive Tree Alliance in 1996. This was an alliance of former right wingers and a host of small centre parties, along with members of the reformed Communist Party, the PDS, which provided it with left wing colouring. At present it governs with the support of RC, which holds the balance of power. When Prodi presented his austerity budget, the RC leadership under Fausto Bertinotti threatened to withdraw support. 'Only god', declared Bertinotti, 'could save this government.' This created a real crisis for the governmentbut for RC a real dilemma.
Many workers were opposed to the austerity measures but were not prepared to bring down the government. Italy's trade union leaderswho had supported the Prodi budgetsaid their offices had been flooded with calls, faxes and messages from concerned workers about the fall of the government. 'The majority of Italians don't want the crisis,' said Sergio D'Antoni, head of Italy's second largest trade union. No doubt for many workers the memory of the right wing Berlusconi government, followed by Lamberto Dini's coalition which pushed through privatisation and attacks on welfare, was something they were determined not to go through again.
Bertinotti was forced to back down, RC pledged to back Prodi's budget later this year and the government survived. The cuts in pensions, health and welfare will still go ahead, although blue collar workers will retain their pension scheme which allows them to retire at 52. Although there is a vague promise to reduce the working week from 40 to 35 hours by the year 2001, the agreement comes with a range of conditions which also state implementation 'must take into account economic and social conditions'. In return the government has a one year 'stability pact' with RC which allows it regular consultations with government ministers and an 'invitation to undertake actions that will lead to the achievement of entry into a single European currency'.
This is a recipe for further austerity. Already the bosses' federation, the Confindustria, has threatened that its members will not agree to any reduction in working hours, and has argued that the government pact with RC will lead to a further crisis in at most a year's time.
The about turn by RC is bad news for Italian workers. RC is the largest and most effective organisation on the far left. It is a left split from the former Communist Party and has attracted some of the best militants and some remnants of the far left such as Proletarian Democracy. It has also managed to attract significant numbers from the left of the trade union bureaucracy. Bertinotti himself defected from the PDS in 1993 and was the CGIL union federation's left opposition leader.
In 1996 RC received 8 percent of the vote in the general election, and held the balance of power. But this involved electoral alliances with the PDS to avoid splitting the left vote. In return RC shifted further to the right, accepting the need for privatisation and now cuts in welfare.
The government was in a weak position and could have been forced to back down. But that would have involved RC mobilising its many thousands of working class supporters in opposition to austerity. There is no doubt that this was a possibility. When Fiat workers were asked during the current political crisis if they supported the government or not, one of them just shrugged his shoulders and said, 'I don't support welfare cuts but what can you do?'
RC recognises that many of its supporters are opposed to cuts and austerity, yet over the last few years it has pursued a strategy that places the need to get parliamentary representation and influence as its first priority. Therefore at the first sign of any serious crisis it backs down and supports the status quo. Some activists believe that the threat by Bertinotti to vote against the government was simply a means to placate the left wing inside RC.
In the past RC has managed to mobilise thousands of workers. In the five years prior to the 1996 elections it was able to build rank and file initiatives over wages and conditions as well as mobilising against the far right, culminating in a 200,000 strong demonstration in Rome.
At the beginning of the budget crisis RC called a national demonstration in Rome against the cuts. This is still due to take place as we go to press. Potentially it could provide a launchpad for opposition to the government. In Florence two weeks ago local shop stewards attached to RC organised a lively and angry demonstration of over 2,000 people against the budget. But it is likely to be a means to allow the rank and file to let off steam while the government remains intact.
The crisis has resulted in growing tension within RC itself. There is talk that one of the smaller far left groups within RCthe Communist Projectis threatening to pull out. This organisation includes former Trotskyist Fourth International members but has around it many students and younger members. But its hesitation at leaving RC is influenced by the fear, as one of its members said, that they have nowhere else to go.
There is also a group referred to as the '20 Percenters' which is threatening to leave. The name refers to a motion which was put to last year's RC conference that argued against job cuts, austerity and European integration, and which received 20 percent of the vote, despite opposition from the leadership. Many of the younger members and the best militants today simply call themselves the 20 Percenters, and this has become a symbol of opposition to the RC leadership.
However, there is also the possibility that demoralisation may set in if the RC leadership continues with its support of the government. For all its talk about extra-parliamentary action, the politics of the RC mean it remains committed to electoralism. The logic of this is that it turns away from rank and file mobilisation and supports a government that is committed to managing Italian capitalism. In the run up to European union, and with pressure coming from the bosses for further cuts in social spending, this contradiction will become even more acute.
RC's actions highlight the bankruptcy of the reformist strategy. But they also show that an alternative is desparately needed for Italian workers.
Figures just released show that applications to Britain's two prestige universities at Oxford and Cambridge have fallen by 11 percent compared with last year. The fear of most involved with education is that this decline is connected with the government announcement that it intends to impose tuition fees on undergraduates from next academic year.
If this is happening to the elite universitiesover half of whose intake is from private schools and therefore from those sections of the population most able to pay feesit can only be imagined what deterrent effect there will be at the lower end of the higher education scale. Working class studentsparticularly mature students who may already have families, mortgages or other large debtsare likely to be even more deterred from embarking on a course which will almost certainly not guarantee them huge salaries to offset their debts at the end of it.
Yet Labour's conference was treated to the spectacle of education secretary David Blunkett claiming that tuition fees would reduce the state subsidy to the rich and privileged in education while helping the poor and underprivileged. To hear Blunkett, it almost seemed that the imposition of fees amounted to a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor.
This is manifestly not the case. Anyone whose gross family income (that is, the income of two earners before tax) is £23,000 or more will have to pay at least some fees. Most working class families where both parents work will find themselves worse off. Those who come from families living on benefits will, it is true, be exempted from fees. But they will face the prospect of no grant whatever and so will have to rely totally on repayable loans to finance their maintenance while in education.
Those families who already pay to send their children to fee paying schools on the other hand will have no trouble at all paying £1,000 a year for further education.
The effect of these changes will be regressivethey will work against the poor and give the rich further advantage. The growing inequality experienced during the past two decades has made its mark on higher education. According to the Guardian (20 October 1997) whereas Cambridge took around 65 to 70 percent of its intake from state schools around 20 years ago, it now takes only 50 percent. The market has already increased inequality in school age educationnow it will worsen an already bad situation in the universities.
We can look forward to a completely two tier system of elite 'ivy league' universities probably charging top up fees and virtually guaranteeing high flying well paid jobs at the end, while most students will struggle to attend former polytechnics or higher education colleges to enter the lower paid graduate jobs such as teaching or nursing. With it recently estimated that a young graduate couple educated in London under the fees and loans system face life together with a combined debt of nearly £26,000, it is easy to see how many will consider avoiding higher education altogether.
How, then, can Labour's leadership claim that this is of benefit to most students and workers? Even worse, how has it managed to convince many of those in the Labour clubs in colleges that its strategy is correct? Partly, it has only been able to do so because it has dressed up its attacks in radical language. When David Blunkett asks why should cleaners pay for higher education (patronisingly assuming that the children of cleaners do not go into higher education) he could equally well ask why they are taxed at such disproportionately higher levels than those who employ them?
The main reason for Labour's enthusiasm is that it is determined to push through its attacks on welfare and public spending while repeating the mantra that higher taxation destroys incentives.
This attack on students is, however, meeting bitter resistance in the schools and colleges, with thousands already signing up to the Stop the Fees Campaign. The regional demonstrations on 1 November are the first major opportunity for students to register their protest. Signs of the depth of their anger are that numbers of local student presidents and officers are prepared to take some action despite the slow and vacillating approach of their national union.
But there is nothing automatic about a mass student protest movement being built. That depends on how well students are organised and how hard the Labour government's arguments are combated on the ground. And that in turn depends on building strong groups of socialists in all the colleges who can argue against the market in education and fight for an alternative.