Legislation for union rights is 'a defining issue for trade unionists there is simply no room for compromise,' said Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, about rumours that Tony Blair has taken the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) side over the issue. The CBI wants a rule that requires a majority of those eligible to vote before union recognition is granted. Blair's apparent support for the CBI's rejection of European proposals for works councils in companies has, as Robert Taylor wrote in the Financial Times, 'infuriated the TUC and is seen as a sign that New Labour will not abandon its business friends.'
Ken Jackson, general secretary of the right wing AEEU engineering union, has supported the TGWU's calls for a reconvened TUC if the rumours about union recognition are confirmed. Roger Lyons of the MSF has declared that, if Blair sides with the CBI, 'it could make the split on lone parents' benefit look like a vicars' tea party.' The TUC itself has been campaigning over the Critchley Labels strikers sacked after striking over union recognition.
So far the Labour government has bowed down in front of big business at every opportunity. Over union rights at work it may have gone too far. But every move the government makes is measured by how it will be seen in the boardrooms of the bosses. The opinions of union busters like Rupert Murdoch (represented on the CBI's union recognition working party), and British Airways chairman and CBI president Sir Colin Marshall, are more important to Blair than those of the union leaders.
Blair showed his cowardice when he refused to stand up to the foxhunters and big landowners who organised the countryside demonstration last month. Incredibly the hugely popular anti- fox hunting bill will fall as it has been given no government time. This anti-democratic minority was able to frighten Blair into concessions by one demonstration.
The budget, too, was met with a sigh of relief from the rich. Gordon Brown did a U-turn on legal tax dodging through savings and shares schemes, raised the level of inheritance tax and cut corporation tax to rates that Brown proudly declared were lower than in any other industrial country.
Employers were obviously being prepared and cushioned for the introduction of the minimum wage as the level at which they pay National Insurance on low earners was raised. Barclays boss Martin Taylor was thanked for his tax and benefit task force report which included the call for the Low Pay Commission to take account of the changes so they could allow the minimum wage to be set at a lower level than would otherwise be the case.
No wonder the Tories found more in it to praise than to criticise. In fact Brown announced that the government was undershooting the public spending target inherited from the Tories by £1.5 million. NHS funding, set to rise 2.3 percent in real terms next year, is still below the average 3.1 percent annual spending rises under the Tories, even with the extra £500 million allocated in the budget.
The limited funds promised to the poor were only for a year or two's time and conditional on people getting out to work, on minimum wages: 'Those with an offer of work can have no excuse for staying at home on benefits.' Those who cannot work because of disability or the millions of pensioners who live in poverty didn't receive a penny from the chancellor.
The preaching of the work ethic and the talk of families being the 'bedrock of a stable and healthy society' assured the Daily Mail readers. Yet however motivated the unemployed might be by gaining a few more pennies in every pound they earn over their level of benefit, if the jobs aren't there they will still be unemployed.
Blair's stubborn refusal to acknowledge the hopes of the people who elected him, in favour of big business, shows the government to be nasty but it is also cowardly. Stepping up the level of action is the way to force it to back down. The rumblings from the trade union leaders should be turned into a commitment to organising a fightback.
The privatisation of the railways is daily proved to have been a disaster. Trains are more expensive, more unreliable, more crowded and more dangerous than they were under public ownership. Their sale resulted in a bonanza for a handful of private capitalists, who pocketed the money but still demand billions more in taxpayers' money as a subsidy. Elected governments have little control over what is done on the railways; nor does the misnamed regulator.
Incredibly, the Labour government is now set to repeat the same disaster with its partial privatisation of London's tube system. While leaving the running of each line to London Transport, the track and infrastructure will be taken over by private companies, such as Railtrack. This is John Prescott's attempt to avoid criticism for full scale privatisation of the tube, while accepting treasury and civil service dogma that only private investment can galvanise publicly owned industries.
Yet all the evidence now mounting shows that the only beneficiaries of privatisation have been the directors (often the same people who managed the companies in the public sector) and the shareholders, who bought from the government at bargain basement prices and now own assets worth many times more than their original cost.
Privatisation of various industries under the Tories has cost taxpayers in Britain more than £10 billion. This is the shocking conclusion of a series of National Audit Office reports. Rail privatisation alone has cost over £1 billion and some figures put it as high as £2.5 billion. The rolling stock companies, known as 'roscos', were sold for £700 million less than they were worth. Electricity is another case; the national grid was given to the regional electricity companies for nothing in 1990 when they were privatised. By 1995 it was floated on the stock exchange at £3.5 billion and is now worth £5 billion. The part of the Atomic Energy Authority floated in 1996, AEA Technology, has seen its share values more than double in 18 months.
Labour's attempt to repeat this with the London tube is disastrous, as even Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens admits: 'Mr Prescott calls the plan for a public-private partnership imaginative. A better description would be insane.' He continues, 'Sound complicated? It is. And expensive? You bet. And who will pay? You and I. Advisers, lawyers and consultants will be showered with taxpayers' money.'
The scheme goes against the wishes of most Labour supporters in London, who would welcome more investment in the tube but have the old fashioned view that this should be under some democratic control. Those at the sharp end of privatisation, the tube workers, have begun to make their objections felt. The rail unions have called a lobby of parliament and rally on 30 April to campaign for the tube to remain in public hands. As they put it, 'Now is the time for new Labour to show new ideas.'
Would you trust your local school to a local business? That is the plan if Labour's Education Action Zones (EAZs) go ahead.
EAZs were first trailed in a white paper, 'Excellence In Schools', last autumn. Testing and league tables, Ofsted and private schooling, grammar and other selective schools, the system of local management of school budgets bums-on-seats funding and a variety of quangos on pay and training, all remained. The ethos of market values, characterised by the replacement of co-operation between students, staff and schools with competition, went unchallenged.
It is only with the presentation of the draft Education Standards and Framework Bill to parliament in December that New Labour's sinister thinking has become clear. Not only is Labour refusing to dismantle Tory structures, it is seeking ways of stomping where the Tories never dared tread.
So what is so dreadful about EAZs? Governors of a local group of schools roughly three secondary, 15 primary and a special school can propose an EAZ, in partnership with local business and community organisations. The new overall management body would be an Education Action Forum with a three year life which can: opt out of legislation on pay and conditions; alter the national curriculum; and opt out of the local education authority (LEA).
There are no voting requirements for parents or staff, and the secretary of state, presently David Blunkett, has complete authority to approve or reject bids for EAZs. He can even instruct schools deemed by Ofsted to be failing to join an EAZ regardless of the school's governing body view. Thus, under the guise of a measure claiming to help deprived schools, we have a Trojan horse attack on workers' rights and public accountability.
EAZs are an insult to the parents and staff who voted in a Labour government to turn round years of Tory neglect. The '36/12 scandal', whereby for every £36 spent on testing seven year olds only £12 is spent on books for them, will continue. The 'bribe' attached to EAZs is negligible £250,000 per EAZ which must be matched from the private sector. A 1,200 pupil secondary school in London has an annual budget of about £2.3 million alone. The total half a million will hardly cover the administration costs of the new layer of bureaucracy. Of the £250 million promised to education in last month's budget, £10 million has been earmarked for EAZs.
Labour maintains that where schools have not been doing well the causes are poor leadership, low expectations, and high exclusion and truancy rates. Families and teachers are the problem, not years of underfunding. Instead Labour is talking of 'innovative approaches' and 'local initiative and imagination'. It wants to prolong the agony of these schools by using them as guinea pigs for fiscal experimentation, rather than funding more teachers, new buildings and equipment, and creating real jobs for the families in the communities.
The conviction that private sector management and job fixing has any practical relevance to learning is mind boggling. The experience of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) in many local services over the last ten years has bought a uniform loss of pay and conditions for employees, and poorer services to the public. The record of private school provision in the US is deplorable. Education Alternative Inc in Baltimore made its profits by slashing a quarter of the teachers and advertising on television during lessons.
The blackly comic consequences would be hilarious were they not equally enraging. Will history classes be sponsored by Ford, before being cut as they are 'bunk'? Sex education sponsored by Virgin? Will sports get extra help from the suppliers of human growth hormone?
EAZs also show Labour's complete contempt for parliament. EAZs are not a legal entity until June when the new bill is finally expected to get approval. Yet the Department For Education and Employment (DFEE) has: set a bidding deadline of 20 March; advertised five new posts within the DFEE's Standards and Effectiveness Unit to oversee the setting up of EAZs; announced that the first five EAZs will start in September 1998, with another 20 in January 1999; and announced that a new 'advanced skills teacher' pay level will be available in EAZs up to £40,000 per annum. It is presumed that EAZs are here to stay.
But are they? There is a range of opposition to EAZs. The first could be labelled the sceptical position, and includes many of the very people Labour will depend on to make them work private companies and chief education officers of local authorities. Their scepticism is grounded in observations like: schools are reluctant to name and shame themselves in the first place; the prospects for profit making are negligible and fraught with danger for inexperienced speculators in the three year life of an EAZ; public antipathy to schools making profits will keep private interests minimal, especially if US scare stories are to be avoided; the timescale for bidding is ridiculously short, effectively three months from January to March 1998.
The NASUWT is strangely quiet at the moment but NUT leader Doug McAvoy has spoken out against the zones. However, the NUT is encouraging local authorities to lead bids to set up zones so that they will accept clauses refusing to worsen pay and conditions. Areas like Sheffield, Newham and Croydon are doing so.
McAvoy's opposition is not a principled objection to the role of commerce in education. He simply doesn't think the proposed system will equitably service all schools. He is encouraging LEAs to bid because he sees them as the
best hope for alleviating the worst excesses, much like how in-house bids under compulsory competitive tendering have seen leisure centres, refuse collection, parks and estate managements taken over by ex-council teams.
As he did with the successful boycott of tests four years ago, and more recently with his capitulation to pressure for a fast track sacking procedure, McAvoy has gone for the option which is easiest to control and retains a significant role for his level of the union bureaucracy. But it spells disaster for most of us.
David Blunkett is simply not going to approve an EAZ bid which does not seek to opt out of pay legislation or the national curriculum. He wants to set up competition with LEAs, and to start tackling what is seen by some as the luxurious privilege of teachers' hours and holidays.
Many parents won't complain if their kids are at school longer, especially if childminder costs are cut thereby. But will they mind the increased teacher absenteeism through stress and exhaustion? And will parents be happy with the local Chamber of Commerce becoming the arbiter of really useful knowledge in schools?
The big question is how will teachers, especially their unions, respond? Most teachers don't need telling about the effects of piling more contact hours onto their working year. Most education managers also recognise the recruitment crisis about to explode under teaching. In a few places like Newham and Croydon teachers and parents are getting opposition to the EAZs off the ground. So there is a mood for a fight. But will the union leaders tap into that mood or waste it?
The NUT is desperate to stifle any opposition. Right wingers on the executive stopped a motion calling on McAvoy to notify every member of reasons to oppose EAZs, so that nothing official will be said by the NUT until after the closing date for bids in March. There will be an emergency motion from the executive at the Easter conference but its argument will be based on damage limitation, not opposition.
When answering critics of the union's feeble acceptance of the latest pay deal McAvoy replied by asking where the parliamentary opposition supporting teachers' pay would come from if only 24 MPs voted against lone parent benefit cuts. He sees the NUT as a lobbying outfit, not as a campaigning group within the working class which can outline an alternative pole of attraction for parents, students and workers.
EAZs must be opposed unconditionally. They represent a government attempt to smash workers' rights and turn the clock back decades. If they succeed we can say goodbye to the notion of public service provided for its own sake. Education is too vital to be left in the hands of profiteers and careerists.
The immediate prospect of conflict between the US and Iraq may have receded, but the regional instability which underlay that conflict, far from diminishing, is taking new forms and spreading. Iran and Iraq are breaking out of isolation and Israel's destructive behaviour towards the peace process is creating a backlash throughout the Arab world that threatens its rulers. Turkey is beginning to play a major role in Middle Eastern affairs. But as a country which straddles two other areas of instability, the Balkans and the Caucasus, its intervention may connect conflicts which hitherto have been relatively separate. The old strategy, which left the US the master of the region, is unravelling fast.
Not least of the problems is that of economic uncertainty, which the crisis in the Far East has amplified. The oil rich Arab states of the Gulf between them own nearly 45 percent of the world's proven oil resources and 15 percent of its gas reserves. Vital as their wealth remains to the west, these countries are suffering the consequence of falling oil prices. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two key players, have only just recovered from the recession of 1994 when oil prices slumped and they faced spiralling budget deficits.
None of this means that the ruling families are down to their last petro-dollar, but it does mean they are reluctant to pick up the tab for the cost of the west's military protection. The previous crisis, in October 1994, cost more than $1billion and at the height of the current crisis, with US troops pouring into Kuwait, the cost of operations was reckoned at over $600m (£368m) and rising. Saudi Arabia pays around $300m of the annual $900m cost of policing the 'no-fly zone' in southern Iraq.
Less revenue, as a consequence of falling oil prices, is reducing the political clout of the Gulf states. Their resentment at US power combines with fear that US intervention is producing a political backlash which will shake the ruling families' grip on power. This is forcing them to seek new regional, political and commercial realignments in order to avoid being outmanoeuvred by both the US and Middle East rivals.
One such rival is Iran, the perceived centre of Islamic revolution. The Sunni Muslim hierarchy which dominates Saudi Arabia has long resented the Iranian Shia Muslim leadership's criticism of its control over Islam's shrines in Mecca and Medina. Another group of Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates, are also in conflict with Iran over Iran's occupation of the strategic islands at the mouth of the Gulf.
But Iran, with 8 percent of global oil reserves and 15 percent of the world's natural gas, has engaged in a charm offensive with its Arab neighbours and is too big a player to be ignored. Old enmities are not disappearing; nevertheless, a cautious rapprochement is under way. Significantly, the former president of Iran, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, was received by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia at the end of February. As the Financial Times tartly pointed out, 'Such an audience was not given to Madeleine Albright, US secretary of state, nor to William Cohen, US defence secretary, when they recently visited Riyadh seeking support against Iraq from their main Gulf ally.'
This makes a mockery of the US's attempt to isolate Iran, which is beginning to create a regional realignment of its own as some of the old conflicts between Iraq and Iran, and Syria and Iraq, die down. Iraqi officials have been regularly made welcome in Tehran, and Syria, which sided with Iran in the first Gulf War and the US in the second, is now on friendly terms with Iraq.
This general realignment amongst old enemies, brokered by Syria, has been fuelled by resentment over US double standards towards Israel, which has never been called to account over its failure to abide by UN resolution 425 of March 1978 to withdraw from Lebanese territory.
Israel's arrogant right wing prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has up until recently made matters worse by ripping up the US brokered Oslo accords, making a mockery of Palestinian autonomy and antagonising Egypt and Jordan, two states which have put their neck on the line by recognising Israel.
Israel has now offered to pull out of Lebanon and some have interpreted this as a move to put pressure on Syria to reach an agreement over the Israeli occupied Golan Heights in return for getting rid of Syrian protection of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia Muslim movement, originally inspired by Iran. There is also Israel's growing military and economic alliance with Turkey, which as an ally of the US, acts as a backdoor threat to the Arab world, particularly those states, like Syria and Iraq, with which Turkey shares a common border.
Turkey is vital for the US not just because of its position in relationship to the Middle East, however. It is also a point of access to the newly independent republics of Central Asia. The western oil companies are desperate to exploit the huge reserves of oil and gas around the Caspian Sea in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the past these central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were backwaters, with the Soviet Union preferring to exploit its more politically secure oil and gas fields in Siberia. In the vacuum which has now opened up the republics are eager to use their resources to advance their own interests. This has turned the region around the Caspian Sea into the cockpit for a new big power struggle. In what is the last great scramble for black gold (some of the boom towns resemble the American Wild West), Russia, as the past imperial master, and the US, as the protector of the western oil companies, are jockeying for control. China too has declared an interest.
Much of this turns around fierce competition as to where the new oil and gas pipelines will run. A route via Baku, the principal oil port of the Caucasus, through Georgia and south across Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan is currently the front runner. This has two advantages for the US. The first is that it avoids dependence on the already existing Russian pipeline via Chechnya (which is why Russia is so keen to pacify that area). The second is that it bypasses Iran, which is agitating for a much shorter pipeline from its northern neighbour, Turkmenistan, to Tehran.
But the Turkish route is by no means a certainty. The southern Caucasus is itself far from stable. Georgia, recently the scene of civil war, has seen two assassination attempts on its president. And Armenia and Azerbaijan have long been locked in conflict. Azerbaijan, the capital of which is Baku, is playing its own long game of playing off Russia against Turkey in order to benefit financially, and Turkey has its own problems with its large and restless Kurdish minority. Iran, in defiance of American wishes, may yet prove a winner.
The Middle East, then, is subject to new regional conflicts that build on old antagonisms and draw in new rivalries to its north. The US remains the dominant imperial power but a power whose ability to hold the ring has been eroded. The decline in political clout means greater reliance on the military option to maintain its interests. But that in turn risks further destabilisation.
At the same time, as the zone of conflict grows, so too does the position of workers in the area to intervene. The Turkish working class has shown its capacity to fight, as has that of Iran. The crisis of the region need not be unending. It can be resolved by struggle from below.
A week long offensive early in March by Serbian police against armed guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army in the Drenica area near the Kosovar capital, Pristina, resulted in the massacre of at least 80 ethnic Albanians (who are largely Muslim and make up 90 percent of the population). The official justification for the Serbian action was the heightened level of terrorist activity by the KLA against Serbs in the previously autonomous province of Serbia. But many Albanians claim that the onslaught was also directed against the civilian population as a method of intimidation, and of choking off support for the KLA.
The causes of the conflict lie deeper. It was in 1989 that Serbian president Milosevic (today president of rump Yugoslavia) launched his campaign of virulent nationalism with the claim that the Kosovar Serbs (10 percent of the population) were under threat from Albanian nationalists.
Milosevic revoked the autonomy which had entitled Kosovars to run their own affairs in areas such as education, health, social policy. His chauvinism drew an echo from the leaderships of the other national republics, sparking the vicious civil war which led to the breakup of Yugoslavia.
In 1989 the Serbian authorities carried out a purge of Albanians from public and professional life. They closed down the Albanian language university and secondary schools. They sacked almost every Albanian doctor and nurse, replacing them with Serbs. But for over eight years Albanians have resisted this form of apartheid by building a network of parallel institutions. Factories, garages, restaurants and even private homes became schools, clinics and administrative offices. Under pressure Albanian students are only now being allowed back into state schools, but this has provoked in turn mass protests from Serb nationalists.
At the end of 1995 a small group of Kosovar militants lost patience with the pacifist strategy the Democratic League of Kosovo, led by Ibrahim Rugova. Targets have included Serbian traffic police and Albanians professing loyalty to the Serbian state. The KLA began seriously arming itself last year. Close ties of family and clan solidarity link Albanians in Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia. The Serbian police onslaught can only intensify support for the KLA.
Meanwhile, western governments are once again worried that the struggle in Kosovo could spill over into a Balkan wide conflict, engulfing Macedonia and possibly Greece and Turkey. Members of the Contact Group (US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy) have threatened intensified sanctions against Serbia unless the government withdraws its special police units. However, they are not prepared to back the demand for secession, calling on Serbia merely to restore the pre-1989 autonomy status. Clearly, the western ruling classes bear a major share of the blame for the chaos of Yugoslavia. They are an integral part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution. An International Herald Tribune report from Serbia indicates that, in contrast to the early 1990s when Milosevic whipped Serbs into a frenzy of war, he is now so unpopular that it is more difficult for him to play the nationalist card. Only working people in the various independent republics have the potential to overcome their national divisions and create an alternative to the chauvinist nightmare of politicians such as Milosevic.
Anyone who doubted the depths of the polarisation and of the potential radicalisation inside French society should learn from the regional and local election results last month. The left made gains, and there was a very high vote for the revolutionary left, but this was overshadowed by the news on 20 March.
A number of the 'respectable' right wing candidates for presidents of the regional assemblies made deals with Jean-Marie Le Pen's fascist National Front (FN), and were elected on FN votes. In this way they kept out the left, who would otherwise have been victorious. Leaders of both main right wing parties, the UDF and the RPR, opposed such deals and the politicians involved were immediately expelled from the UDF. However, these events herald a turning point for the old right wing parties. They also led to a huge political crisis in France. The actions of these politicians are felt by many to represent a break with the postwar Gaullist right.
The FN had its own six point programme which it imposed on the right wing, including no increase in taxes, priority for urban transport and tackling crime in schools, more apprenticeships and job training, protection of French and regional 'cultural identities'.
The haste with which the right went into alliance with the FN gives the lie to the idea that fascism is completely divorced from the mainstream right wing: the constitutional right pave the way for the fascists when the crisis is sufficiently severe and when they are desperate to stop the growth of the workers' movement. France is still a long way from this situation, as the denunciation of deals with the FN by France's conservative president, Jacques Chirac shows. But the deals raise fears of what could happen in the future.
The FN itself wants to build alliances with the parliamentary right. Bruno Mégret, seen by many as the successor to Le Pen, crowed, 'We are recognised as a democratic, legitimate and representative republican movement.'
It is clear that the FN cannot be fought in purely parliamentary terms. It won 15 percent of the vote, significant but not overwhelming, and no different from recent election results. But its real success in recent years has been as the tail wagging the dog of the parliamentary right. Right wing politicians, and even some from the Socialist Party, have made repeated concessions over tightening immigration controls and the repression of immigrants. Thus there has been a long process of pulling bourgeois politics further towards the right.
There is an alternative to this. The growth of Le Pen and his supporters has caused alarm especially inside the working class movement in France. The results of the second round of the local elections immediately after the deals between UDF and FN politicians showed a rejection of the right and a sizeable swing to the left. There have been a number of protests against the pact including a large school students' demo in Paris, whose slogans included 'F for fascists, N for nazis' and 'No pasaran! Fascism shall not pass'. Further demonstrations were planned in all the major cities.
The support for revolutionary left candidates in the regional elections approaching 1 million votes, mainly for the organisation Lutte Ouvrière but also for the far left LCR and its various allies demonstrates that there is a sizeable base for challenging the right. The Communist Party also increased its vote. But all too often the left has failed to recognise the importance of confronting the FN and of destroying any potential base of the fascists. That has to change. There are signs that it may be, despite the shortcomings of the left. The danger of the FN is now apparent to many. The experience of the FN in local government in southern towns such as Vitrolles, Orange and Marignane has resulted in policies such as the banning of left wing books from libraries, the abolition of kosher and halal school dinners, censorship of the theatre, and jobs and subsidies for French nationals but not for immigrants. Opposition to such policies must be built on.
But we should also understand that the fascists grow out of discontent with the existing system. The French Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, is still popular but his lack of ability to tackle social problems such as unemployment leads to disappointment which can aid the growth of the right. The problem is that the parliamentary socialists have no answers to the crisis facing workers and no fundamental means of challenging the system.
However, there have been very big struggles in France over the past two years, which themselves helped the radicalisation that led to Jospin's electoral victory nearly a year ago. In recent months there has been a huge movement against unemployment, as well as student protests and strikes. There was a big march in Strasbourg against the FN conference a year ago. This radicalisation was expressed by some of the votes for Lutte Ouvrière and LCR. The task for the left in France now is to build on these successes to ensure that a mass movement against Le Pen is created out of this political crisis.