Issue 219 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

NOTES OF THE MONTH

Editorial

'I want the left to realise that if we win this election, we will have done so without ceding any ground that cannot be recovered. I'm going to be a lot more radical in government than many people think,' said Tony Blair just days before his landslide victory on 1 May last year. That is certainly one promise he has not kept.

Instead many Labour supporters have been shocked and disappointed at just how conservative his government has been. This has involved capitulating to the rich and powerful at every turn. It has also involved accepting a whole number of right wing ideas and accepting the (Tory) status quo in areas such as education, law and order and the union laws. It was a shock to many teachers to find that the hated Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead was staying on under Labour. They now find themselves facing involvement of big business in local education under the Education Action Zones.

Private capital is welcomed in areas as diverse as prisons, hospitals and underground trains, while the sell off of some of the poorest housing estates amounts to the privatisation of people's homes.

But there are two areas where bitterness against the government from Labour supporters threatens to be at its greatest. The first is over welfare 'reform', heralded by the cut in single mothers' benefit last year, and threatened cuts for the sick, disabled and even pensioners. The outrage this caused, and the hostility met by Blair at the welfare roadshows, which he assumed would easily sell the policy, forced the government to retreat, if only temporarily.

It is also set on collision with the unions. Government policy on the minimum wage, working hours and above all on union recognition is a retreat from what was promised in opposition. Blair appears to be fully on the side of the employers in the CBI, who are trying to frustrate any effective union recognition by insisting that only a majority of all employees eligible to vote counts (even though such a vote does not apply to voters in a general election, or shareholders in a company), that companies employing less than 50 should be excluded, even though these are the companies which are often the most in need of recognition, and that all employees (including managers and so on) should have the right to vote in a ballot.

Blair's intransigence over union recognition has even managed to stir the anger of the trade union leaders. Despite the TUC's attempts at compromise in a desperate move to avoid having to do anything public against the Blair government, there are signs that leaders such as the TGWU's Bill Morris and John Edmonds of the GMB are very bitter and angry against Blair. This in part reflects the mood of many of their members, especially shop stewards and local branch secretaries, who have had to hold union organisation together under the long years of Tory rule. They might not expect much of a helping hand from Labour, but do not expect a kick in the teeth. The union leaders understand that the very future of some of their unions may be in jeopardy if anti-union bosses get a green light from a Labour government.

The mood of euphoria in the press at Blair's first anniversary largely ignored the questions of welfare and the unions. Yet both these go to the very heart of Labour Party support. A recent poll showed that the vast majority of Labour MPs including the new intake supported the original TUC position of a simple majority of those voting to win recognition. This reflects much greater support from workers in general. Blair may find more opposition than he expects in trying to force anything more limited through.

The reason he has faced so little public opposition so far must be in large part due to the attitude of the trade union leaders. John Edmonds has threatened a working class version of the countryside march, but has so far done nothing to organise for such a protest. Any call from the TUC or any of the major unions would be met with an enthusiastic response from many of the millions of trade unionists in Britain. It should be the time for union leaders to mobilise their members to oppose the plans of Blair and the CBI. It is clear that they will require a lot of pressure from below in order to do so.


Scotland

Riotous assembly?

The resounding yes/yes vote in the September 1997 referendum for a Scottish parliament was as much a vote for change, and indeed was part of the same mood, as the landslide that swept Labour to office in May. Yet only one year on New Labour's nightmare scenario of a revitalised Scottish National Party challenging Labour for control of the Scottish parliament is a serious possibility if recent evidence is anything to go by.

Labour has lost six local by-elections since last May to the SNP. Opinion polls are charting a steady rise in support for the Scottish National Party. Although Labour is still in the lead as far as voting intentions are concerned, when it comes to the Edinburgh assembly the SNP is gaining fast. One poll for the Herald (8 April) shows the parties running neck and neck at 40 percent of the vote each. More worrying for Labour, however, was a poll in the Scotsman (30 March) which showed not only that 42 percent favoured independence 'in the longer term', but that 62 percent expected Scotland to be independent by 2013.

SNP leader Alex Salmond has claimed that increased support for his party is because Labour has 'snubbed' the Scots by refusing to institute a Scottish national anthem, rejecting the 'historic' High School building on Calton Hill as the site of the Scottish parliament and denying SNP supporter Sean Connery a knighthood. In fact, far from causing a revival in SNP support, these incidents are all examples of Labour's responding to it, by preventing the establishment of symbols which it fears could be used to mobilise nationalist support.

The real reasons for the increase in support of the Scottish nationalists lie in disillusionment with the way Labour has governed since 1 May last year. Take Welfare to Work. Donald Dewar launched the scheme in Glasgow last month, with the usual rhetoric about the opportunities it would provide for Scotland's 10,000 (his figure) unemployed youth. Leaving aside the fact that the scheme effectively institutionalises state subsidised low pay, the question immediately arises of what jobs these young people are likely to get in the longer term. In the past the local councils would have provided employment but now they are all trying to cut jobs and close or privatise services the overwhelming majority of them being Labour councils. More dramatically, however, on the same day that Welfare to Work was launched in Glasgow, Mitsubishi announced the closure of its Haddington television factory with a loss of 500 jobs, and Fullerton Computer Industries announced that 350 out of 1,300 jobs are going at their factory in Gourock. Many who looked to New Labour are disillusioned. At the Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth earlier this year one motion described the proposed benefit cuts as 'economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft'. A motion was also passed, as it has been every year since the early 1980s, opposing Trident. The response to this by the leadership was typical. In the aftermath the following statement was made by an unamed 'adviser' to Blair: 'Tony was right, a parish council is all they deserve and that's all they'll get. We drove the Tories out of Scotland and what do they do? They want to scrap Trident. They are unbelievably parochial.' In his speech to conference Dewar attacked delegates for 'irresponsiblity', and told the trade unions that they would 'learn the lessons' of their disloyalty. Presumably this refers to a further weakening of the block vote, but in any event, from now on conference will be far more tightly controlled, restricted to approving but not amending policy documens and debating carefully vetted motions.

It is this sense of betrayal that the SNP is exploiting by posing as a left wing party. The party is currently appealing to disillusioned Labour voters by stressing that it stands for 'Old Labour' postions. On the face of it, this seems plausible. Salmond opposes tuition fees, is for scrapping Trident, favours the STUC figure of 4.46 for the minimum wage and is opposed to welfare to work schemes. Salmond knows these positions are a fantasy in a parliament that will wield no power to change these things. He admitted as much on television recently when he confessed that the above promises applied only to an independent Scotland and not to an SNP dominated parliament. But there are definite limits to any left rhetoric from the SNP.

The electoral base of the SNP is not in the working class heartlands but in the conservative rural areas. The SNP undoubtedly wants to make inroads into the Labour vote, but it cannot afford to alienate its actual support among the petty bourgeoisie. It also looks for support among Scotland's capitalists. A declaration of support for independence by a handful of Scottish businessmen in March was greeted joyously by the leadership. These include Anne Gloag, owner of Stagecoach and the richest woman in Scotland. But it is not just home grown capitalists who receive SNP approval: the day after the Mitsubishi closure was announced, the convenor of the SNP in Haddington wrote to the press attacking Labour MP John Hume Robertson for daring to criticise Mitsubishi. Voices raised against this rightward drift are increasingly being silenced by the threat of expulsion.

Despite the fact that both Labour and the SNP support the capitalist system, there is a fundamental difference between them. Labour is still connected to the working class movement through the trade union bureaucracy and can be influenced from the inside by union pressure which is precisely why Blair is so hostile to continued funding by the unions, although he has no alternative to it.

But the problems of nationalism in Scotland run much deeper than the SNP. The left in Scotland, both inside the Labour Party and among the trade union bureaucracy, is incapable of posing any kind of ideological alternative or challenge to nationalism. So when Brian Souter, a SNP member, richest man in Scotland and owner of Stagecoach, was invited to address the Scottish TUC conference at the end of April, not only was he not heckled, but he received raptuous applause as he sang 'his' version of the Red Flag telling everyone that they were 'All Jock Tamson's bairns' whether they drove a bus or owned the company.

Souter played the Scottish card and the left took the bait hook, line and sinker. Even on the far left the influence of nationalism has seen groups like the Scottish Socialist Alliance accommodate to such an extent that it now openly advocates an independent Scotland as a prerequisite to any fight for socialism. They may criticise the SNP, quite rightly, for its pro-big business stance but concede that Scottish workers have separate interests and therefore different tactics from those workers south of the border.

Socialists need to put two arguments about the Scottish parliament.

The first is that the struggle against New Labour can only be fought and won by joint struggle across the border there will not be different rules for union recognition in Scotland, neither will student fees be abolished in Edinburgh and retained in Newcastle. If these battles are lost now, then 'Scotland Free by 2003' will mean little to those suffering in the present. The second is that socialist opposition to the SNP is not just directed against its nationalism, but its reformism, the idea that elections to a parliament in Edinburgh whether devolved or independent will succeed in changing society where elections to one in London have failed.

Neil Davidson and Keir McKechnie


Millennium Bomb

When the chips are down

With only two years to go before the year 2000, the problem of eradicating the date recognition bug in computer systems becomes more urgent by the day.

Earlier this year Robin Guenier, director of Taskforce 2000, an independent body set up under the Tories, wrote to Tony Blair warning of armageddon if the government fails to take urgent action. He stated that:

'We are getting it wrong. If we continue to do so, the harm to the economy will be substantial and the lives of millions of people will be unnecessarily damaged.'

Government funding to Taskforce 2000 has now been cut back. A new body, directly under government control Action 2000 has been set up. Yet many experts feel that this is all too little too late.

There is no doubt that some degree of systems failure will be inevitable, Contingency planning has now become as much of an issue as resolving the problem.

The millennium bug is caused by failure of systems to recognise all four digits in a year number. If you imagine your chequebook with the year 19__ printed on it, only the last two numbers need to be filled in or changed. Memory on computers is expensive. Many systems designed in the 1970s saved on memory on the assumption that new systems or programmes would resolve the difficulty when the time came. Using two digits became established practice. Contractors did not question the specifications, and the problem became endemic.

Finding out what needs fixing is a costly business and an enormous task. Every bit of equipment with a chip in it could theoretically be affected. When you have done your company inventory and found out what needs fixing, you then have to test each system and then check that each system will be compatible.

The problem doesn't stop there. For example, if a major company like Ford fixes all its own kit, what about its suppliers? With 'just in time' manufacturing systems the norm, the effects on production are disastrous.

Banking and finance are believed to be making progress ahead of other industries. But operating on a global scale, what happens if French or German banks are not ready for the year 2000? Both have been prioritising monetary convergence at the expense of planning for the millennium. France is unlikely to meet the deadline date.

It is not just big business that faces problems. The potential cost in terms of lives was spelled out recently by Professor Mike Smith of St Bartholomew's Hospital. He has estimated that millennium failures in the health service are likely to result in between 600 and 1,500 deaths.

Even something as apparently simple as an intravenous drip may incorporate a self calibrating system which may cause it to shut down at the millennium if it appears to its computer chip that it hasn't been calibrated for 99 years.

All aspects of the infrastructure that keep society functioning need to be checked and remedied, from traffic lights to train signals to air traffic control, to nuclear power stations, to gas and electricity supplies.

The government is still saying that there is no extra money for public sector bodies to resolve their problems. Stern letters to heads of NHS trusts, telling them that they must find the resources and will be held responsible for the consequences of failure, are typical of the meaningless buck passing being undertaken by ministers.

The NHS's own estimates are that 200 million is needed to avert disaster. Computer Weekly magazine has polled a number of experts on the matter who consider that 600 million is more realistic.

In town halls up and down the country, time is running out. By October last year only a third of local authority chief executives had earmaked cash to resolve the problem. In February this year the head of information technology in Cardiff City Council attacked the government's decision not to provide additional funding. He stated, 'When the cash from central and departmental IT budgets is used up, then we'll have to tap the council budget, taking money from schools and local services.'

Computer programmers are at a premium. One local authority in the north east has been offering IT staff loyalty bonuses of 6,000 a year to stop the haemorrhage to private companies. Reports of computer programmers earning 2,000 a day from millennium projects for banking and finance are not unusual.

Leaving the resolution of the crisis to market forces can only deepen the problems ahead.

Margot Hill


Australian dockers

Trial of strength

The biggest dispute for years in Australia, between the dockers and the union busting company Patrick Stevedores, was still in the balance as we went to press. Tom Behan sent us an eyewitness report

They came out of the darkness, at about midnight. Some were wearing balaclavas and dark glasses. Some had snarling alsatians and rottweilers. They came into the major ports of Australia and evicted dockers working the night shift. People were dragged out of their cranes and weren't even allowed to collect their personal possessions from their lockers.

Patrick Stevedores, which runs half of the docking capacity in Australia, had sacked all of its 1,400 workforce without warning. Some kind of move had been expected. A few months ago the Australian government had been part of a secret operation training scabs in Dubai, which had to be abandoned due to the threats of dockers' organisations internationally.

The following morning Tory prime minister John Howard described the previous night as a defining moment in the history of industrial relations and he was right. If Patrick Stevedores gets away with the sackings it will be a green light to bosses all over Australia to follow suit.

Patrick set up some independent companies several months ago which it calls hiring companies, and, without telling dockers, transferred their employment contracts to these firms. These companies have now become insolvent and Patrick has terminated the hiring arrangement with them, so dockers were sacked by companies they didn't even know they were working for!

There was outrage when people woke up to the news. In Sydney hundreds of building workers downed tools and walked off their sites and, joining up with nurses and teachers, marched down to the harbour chanting, 'The workers united will never be defeated.' Under the new anti-union laws this action was illegal, but nobody has dared use them.

However, by the end of the first day there were warning signs of an early defeat. The oil workers offered to shut down their terminals if the dockers' union the MUA or the ACTU (the Australian TUC) requested them to do so. As this would be illegal secondary action, neither did. After an emergency ACTU council meeting the leader said they would not be provoked into calling illegal solidarity action. The MUA also went to court and got an injunction which stated that they had been sacked illegally, so on the second day they instructed their members to turn up for work. Patrick Stevedores ignored the injunction and kept the gates shut, so the dockers started to picket. They had learned an important first lesson don't rely on the legal system.

The dockers began serious picketing. This was the defining moment of the dispute. After the initial shock people started to visit regularly, for longer and longer periods. Financial levies were quickly set up in many workplaces, and the pickets became a focus for workers to express their dislike of Patrick and the government. At Port Botany in Sydney pickets grew from 30 to 40 to several hundred during the space of a week, as the arguments sharpened and the container lorries tried to get through.

Women were involved in the first week, consciously and publicly following the Women of the Waterfront of Liverpool dockers' dispute, as they explained, 'At our first meeting greetings were received from the Liverpool women who played such a magnificent role in support of their dockers. The union quickly organised a creche at the Port Botany picket line so that whole families could take part. One of the most inspiring moments in Melbourne came when a mass picket with women in the front line successfully stopped a train from getting into the docks.'

It quickly became clear that Patrick was deadly serious but also worried it initially brought scabs in by sea or even by helicopter to avoid confronting the pickets. There was a setback over the Easter weekend when dockers decided to let scab buses in, but the driving force of the dispute remains the fact that virtually no goods are getting in and out of the gates.

The bosses have started squealing. A key sign of action biting was the decision of the government to reroute one of its own ships carrying Toyota parts from a Patrick wharf to a P&O wharf, thus avoiding 2,500 layoffs at a car plant. Big farming companies in Western Australia have threatened to bust through the 1,000 pickets at Perth with their lorries. The leader of the MUA, John Coombs, responded, 'If those bunch of rednecks try to break the picket we won't be responsible for what happens.'

Pickets have used imaginative tactics in Adelaide 20 dockers stood on a railway line to stop a train; in Newcastle some dockers jumped into the harbour and successfully stopped a ship from berthing. The biggest pickets so far have been at the Melbourne docks, where 530 were sacked. Local radio stations carried hourly reports from the docks, with one broadcasting appeals for people to get down there when things looked threatening.

Up to 20 unions have established their own phone trees, as have student unions. Through all these means 1,000 pickets can turn up within an hour. The turning point came last weekend when, after an all night picket of 3,000 had built barricades and held their nerve against police threats to launch an all out attack, 2,000 building workers marched off city centre building sites to join them the police quickly and nervously withdrawing.

Whatever the final outcome of the dispute, what nobody can do is pretend that workers have got this far by waiting for a Labour government to change things.

This is the first time that the Liberal (Tory) anti-union laws, passed 18 months ago, have been tested. Union leaders have decided to follow the letter of the law while often ignoring it in practice. They have not called for illegal solidarity strikes, but there have been several spontaneous walkouts, and a 24 hour strike of the warehouse workers at a supermarket chain in Victoria.

These laws still need to be smashed, and now is the best time to do so. In a meeting of 3,000 shop stewards in Melbourne to discuss a state wide strike in Victoria on 6 May, the secretary of the Victorian Trades Council, Leigh Hubbard, got a standing ovation when he called on workers to organise an illegal general strike.

When John Howard's Liberal (Tory) Party won the election in March 1996 he stated that no Australian worker would be worse off under his government. Since then overtime rates have disappeared or been cut in many industries and job insecurity has increased. Unemployment is currently at 8.5 percent despite the Australian recession in 1992.

Howard has also attacked many other sectors he tried to make pensioners pay for nursing homes by selling their houses but had to back down. The debts students accumulate now have to be repaid at 2,000 a year once their wages reach 10,000. He has spearheaded an attack against Aboriginal land rights which has led to the rise of the openly racist One Nation Party.

All this has raised the level of bitterness amongst Australian workers. Yet the Labour Party and the ACTU have not led a fightback. Howard's cocky support for Patrick's scab operation was a sign of extreme confidence. It now smacks of over-confidence, and has echoes of Thatcher's demise over the poll tax debacle. A dispute which started over 1,400 sackings has for many people widened into a working class revolt against the government. The accumulated bitterness of years has been focused on this dispute. When John Howard visited the small town of Maitland recently he was greeted by 400 protesters supporting the MUA, condemning cuts in nursing homes, demanding aboriginal rights, attacking environmental damage and many other issues.

Time to call in the debts

The dockers' union, the MUA, has been one of the most militant of the postwar period. For many years it was a stronghold of the Communist Party. In 1946 it supported the Indonesian independence movement against Dutch colonial rule. In 1967 it successfully blacked ships laden with guns and supplies bound for the Australian troops fighting in Vietnam. In the early 1970s it was instrumental in backing the campaign for aboriginal land rights, and in 1995 it blacked French ships in protest at nuclear testing on Muraroa Atoll.

It gave magnificent support to the Liverpool dockers and you virtually always see a Liverpool 'doCKers' t-shirt on the picket line. This history of internationalism worries the bosses. As their newspaper The Financial Review argued, 'The MUA has many international debts to collect, thanks to generations of wharfies [dockers] striking over causes in Russia, Chile, Vietnam or wherever.'

Once the mass picketing grew, Labour politicians began to show some sympathy. After the first really violent action of the police in Perth, who pushed a few hundred pickets back 200 yards overnight, leader Kim Beazley visited the picket line. He told them, 'You are entirely in your right to take the stand you have taken.' Buoyed up by this, and the fact that the picket had swollen to 1,000, the crowd promptly pushed police lines back.

But nobody should have any illusions in Labour. It has attacked the government but taken no practical steps to encourage the pickets or to spread the action, and crucially, it has not said it will repeal the anti-union laws.

When in government from 1983 to 1996 the Labour Party, together with the ACTU, signed an Accord which drove down wages and increased unemployment. Australia's last major strike, by the airline pilots in 1989, was defeated through the open opposition of the Labour government and ACTU leaders, as they were seen to be acting outside of the Accord. Furthermore, while productivity has steadily increased on the wharves over many years, the number of dockers employed fell by 57 percent in the years 1987-97.


Russia

Baying for the blood of the poor

Boris Yeltsin's sudden dismissal of the entire Russian government on 22 March was unexpected but not irrational. It was a government split by internal feuds and soaked in sleaze. There was no obvious establishment candidate for the presidential election in the year 2000. At the same time Russia is confronted by a renewed economic crisis of such frightening proportions that respectable voices are practically baying for the blood of the poor.

Yeltsin's nominee as prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, was finally accepted by the lower house of the parliament, the Duma, after twice being rejected. Russia's politicians feared the election which would have followed a third rejection. Sergei Kiriyenko has an impeccable elite pedigree as a former young Communist, banker, oil company director and oil minister. He is also young only 35 and untarnished by corruption and scandal. He is little known, so he is neither popular nor unpopular. This gives him, as Moscow News put it, 'several months' in which to do 'the dirty and thankless job' of hurting 'a proportion of the population without large scale protests'. If he succeeds he would be the ideal successor to Yeltsin. If he fails he could easily be used as a scapegoat.

Only a few months ago Russia was finally supposed to be stabilising and was described in the Financial Times as 'the world's best performing emerging market'. But the Russian economy had shrunk by about half over the previous decade. According to recent figures GDP fell by 28 percent between 1993 and 1996, more than in any major Russian crisis this century. Yet the proportion of tax collected has also fallen over the last five years, from 14 percent of GDP to around 10 percent. World prices of oil, gas and metals, which provide most of Russia's export earnings, are falling dramatically. The foreign debt now stands at 78 billion.

Russia's gamble on the market has simultaneously piled up mountains of debt and crippled its ability to pay. Kiriyenko has not come up with any serious ideas for tackling arrears of pay and pensions which have risen to nearly 15.5 billion. By contrast, oil companies among the worst payers of wages and taxes have now been allowed to use Russia's pipeline system for free as part of a programme of government support.

Major parties like the Communists are none too popular. Despite a lot of nationalist and populist rhetoric, they have a record of capitulating at the last moment as they did over this year's budget which gives the government the power to introduce further spending cuts without consulting parliament. They may bargain to the brink over positions in the new government but they are unlikely to risk their considerable privileges by going over it into the unknown.

Such politicians like to blame Russia's troubles on foreign institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, which wants up to 300,000 job cuts in education and health this year. But these policies suit the core sections of the Russian ruling class in energy and finance. As Sergei Glazyev, a top official in the Federation Council (the upper house of parliament), recently admitted, 'It means the government is forcing the population to pay for the chaos in government...the main taxpayers are so powerful, they don't pay tax. It's easier for the government to cut social welfare, and allow the oligarchy to be relieved of tax.'

Moscow News welcomed the new prime minister with the declaration that 'the country has long lived beyond its means.' Yet cuts and economic decline have already had a shattering effect. Life expectancy has plunged; mortality rates have soared. Water and power supplies have failed in the depths of winter. Prisons are breeding grounds of disease. Women have died in childbirth in hospitals without electricity. The homeless freeze to death in the main railway stations. Miners give their lunchboxes away to hungry children. Wages are unpaid for up to three years. Trawlermen's wives in the far east recently accused the bosses of paying their partners with vodka (recorded as 'liquid ice cream') rather than with money.

Despite all this, workers mount a relentless if scattered resistance bitter, desperate, heroic. Here they go on strike or hold management hostage. There they block a main railway line, go on hunger strike, barricade themselves in and threaten to start a fire. Some strikes are successful, if only temporarily. Some inspire more strikes. There is solidarity, there is class consciousness it is a huge step forward from the old Soviet straitjacket. But there is no unifying organisation, no systematic vision connecting these struggles with the possibility of an alternative society. The building of a revolutionary organisation could help to begin turning desperation into hope.

Pete Glatter


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