Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Tony Blair may be cheered on Wall Street as he was last month but the cracks are beginning to show just 16 months into a Labour government. Partly this is because of the economic situation. Even Blair can see that this is due to get significantly worse. Speaking at the Fujitsu plant in his constituency days after it was announced that the factory was to close with the loss of 600 jobs, Blair hinted that there were to be more closures and redundancies. 'Let's not kid ourselves,' he said, 'in certain sectors there will be an impact.'
Thousands of workers are already feeling the pain with a spate of redundancies over the summer at manufacturers such as Siemens, Vickers and Rover. Proof that the recession will not be solely confined to the industrial heartlands came with the announcement by Shell that it was to close its London headquarters with up to 2,000 job losses.
Blair was at pains to tell workers in the north east that the government could not influence 'the twists and turns of the world market'. In fact, what we are seeing now is not simply a matter of twists and turns but a full scale recession in half of the world economy which threatens to engulf the whole system.
We devote a large part of this month's special issue of Socialist Review to analysing this crisis. But we also need to understand why the slavish worship of the capitalist market by our leaders has got us into this mess in the first place. It is all very well for Blair and Gordon Brown to claim there is little they can do to offset the effects of recession when they are the most enthusiastic believers in the free market as a means of solving the world's problems.
This is becoming increasingly apparent to greater numbers of people. When Blair talks about the possibility of tough times ahead he clearly doesn't mean this to apply equally to everyone. If, for example, you are Chris Woodhead and you are head of the hated schools inspectorate Ofsted, then 'tough times' means a basic pay rise of 34 percent and a performance related pay rise of 46 percentwhich all adds up to a salary of £130,000. This is from a government that refuses to award teachers their pay claim in full.
Such double standards from New Labour are beginning to anger many people. A Guardian/ICM poll last month showed that Blair's personal ratings, particularly those for honesty and empathy with the voters, have plummeted. 'Tony Blair's honeymoon with the electorate is over,' concluded the Guardian, 'and a disaffected electorate is beginning to view him as just another politician.' The poll also showed that there has been a sharp increase in the number of people who believe that Britain is becoming a less equal society. All this has taken place before the full effects of the world recession have been felt.
If there was ever any doubt over how the New Labour leadership would react faced with internal opposition then the recent elections to Labour's NEC show how nasty they can get. In a bitter campaign the Blairites have used a whole series of dirty tactics including sending out voting forms to those not eligible to vote to try to stop the left slate from winning. They fear that where members have the opportunity to vote they are rejecting the Blairites. Faced with unpopularity, the Labour leaders will take desperate measures to quell any discontent.
As the economy worsens, the problems facing the Blair leadership will be far more serious. This makes the need to build a serious opposition to Blair in the here and now all the more urgent. With the cold wind of recession yet to bite, and with a Blair government already keen to show what side it is on, now is the time to build a network of militants who will oppose government policies and make sure we do not pay for their crisis.
South Korea is at the heart of the economic storm that is sweeping the world. Output is shrinking and unemployment soaring as ex-dissident Kim Daejung's administration forces through a programme of market 'reforms'. The result has been a series of confrontations between the chaebol--the huge family firms which dominate the Korean economyand the well organised and militant working class movement.
Kim's strategy of making workers pay for the crisis has meant there has been no abatement in the highly repressive security regime he inherited from the military dictatorship that once tried to murder him. One of the chief victims of this policy has been the International Socialists of South Korea (ISSK), sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party. Shortly after workers and students clashed with riot police on May Day, 26 members and supporters of the ISSK were arrested.
The charges they face are absurd--either participating in discussion meetings or possessing left wing books and pamphlets, most of them the translations of works freely available in western countries. According to Amnesty International, the ISSK 26 are 'prisoners of conscience' who have been detained simply for the expression of their beliefs.
So far one trial of ISSK members is known to have taken place. The accused conducted themselves with great courage, firmly defending their socialist principles in the face of the court. For example, Mo Seung-hoon denounced Kim Dae-jung's hypocrisy in recently accepting a human rights award. He graphically described the suffering caused by mass sackings and low wages imposed by greedy and corrupt bosses, and took inspiration from the struggles of workers in Indonesia, Australia and France, concluding: 'I live in the hope that my socialist ideas will get stronger than the ideas of the ruling class. This hope will shine more brightly in the coming 21st century.'
For his pains, Mo was sentenced to five years imprisonment, along with four other defendants. Two more were sentenced to four years. A further trial may deliver even more vicious sentences.
The Committee to Defend South Korean Socialists has launched an international campaign around the case and more generally against Kim Dae-jung's repression of socialists and trade unionists. It is collecting signatures for a statement of protest that will be published in the New York Review of Books in the autumn.
Signatories so far include Tony Benn MP, Libby Davies, member of the Canadian parliament, well known left wing writers such as Noarn Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens and Jerry Cohen, and a large number of trade unionists, including Joe Marino, general secretary of the Bakers' Union, and George Mavrikos, deputy president of the General Confederation of Workers in Greece. The Canadian Labor Congress (equivalent to the TUC) has endorsed the campaign, as have many local trade union organisations, among them the South Central Federation of Labour (AFL-CIO) and the Southwest Council of Unison.
But the campaign can win much more support. Everyone who cares about
freedom of speech should be going all out to win the support of trade unionists
and intellectuals for the statement. Don't let these prisoners of South Korea's
class war rot in jail.
Copies of the statement and of a factsheet on the case (50p each) can be obtained from the Committee to Defend South Korean Socialists, c/o 1 Bloomsbury Street London WC1E 3QE. Phone 0171538 5821, fax 0171538 0018.
'Partnership, the new social phenomenon ... a new and exciting chapter in industrial relations.' Bill Connor from Usdaw saw this as the way forward for trade unions, and he was definitely not alone at the TUC's annual conference held in Blackpool last month. Connor alluded to examples such as Clinton and Lewinsky, Murdoch and Manchester United, Eddie George (governor of the Bank of England) and Gordon Brown, as representing a model that the trade unions should follow.
It was partnership that brought us the minimum wage, at the rate of £3.60, and it was partnership that bought us the 'Fairness at Work' white paper, with its limits on trade union recognition. This progress was a result of the 'grown up relationship ... based on mutual trust and respect' that, according to John Monks, TUC general secretary, the unions now have with the government. The message coming from the top of the trade union bureaucracy was that we have not got everything that we hoped for, but that this was 'the first step and not the last word'.
Rodney Bickerstaffe from Unison defied anyone to live on the £3.60 minimum wage, but did not mention that at his union's conference a call for a national demonstration was voted through. At a Unison fringe meeting Bickerstaffe made it clear that he was not prepared to make the first steps for a demonstration, although an 'event' will take place in March.
The debate on the 'Fairness at Work' white paper was strongly critical of the restrictions on trade union recognition. Again, the tone was to congratulate the government over what had happened so far, but Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, said the 'white paper is a battle fought and not a war won'.
But the 'partnership' between the TUC and the government and the CBI and the government is clearly unequal. Morris went on to say, 'There is a back door to Number Ten. And there is a back door into the DTI The employers will. use those back doors to get the white paper watered down... there is only one thing that they like better than no legislation, and that is no trade unions at all.'
John Prescott, speaking to the conference, highlighted that the partnership between the government and the trade union movement might not be all plain sailing. He attacked the union leaders for voicing concerns over the possibility of recession: 'We should all be careful not to hype or talk ourselves into increasing job losses or say, "We are within hours of collapsing into recession"...We are doing all we can to deal with the immediate consequences' of the recent factory closures, Prescott claimed. There is nothing wrong with the Labour government's economic policies and the unions shouldn't create 'hysteria' as David Blunkett called it in his speech. Blunkett also stood firm against the TUC's campaign to lower interest rates.
There were attacks on the rich which were loudly applauded by the delegates. John Edmonds, general secretary and treasurer of the GMB, attacked company directors as 'greedy bastards', the 'bloated rodents in the boardroom' of the privatised utilities and the 'politics of the pig trough' associated with executive pay. Edmonds stated that the government should raise taxes on the rich to boost the economy and move towards creating a fairer society. He also attacked the idea that there is a natural level of unemployment needed to prevent inflation and that at present unemployment is below that rate. 'Nearly two million people out of work and it is still not enough.' But in the same speech he applauded the achievements of the first 17 months of the Labour government: 'The Labour government has made 1998 into a good year for working people across the UK. Every month has brought some new promise of improvement.'
That partnership is an idea that has not become absorbed by business was highlighted by the motion proposed by the NUJ's Mark Turnbull. The NUJ and other media unions had not been invited to a European media conference in Birmingham, where Rupert Murdoch was a key speaker. He was able to 'flirt with Cook and Smith' while the voice of the unions was ignored.
Not all the delegates agreed with the soundbites.
Turlough MacDaid, a Bectu delegate, said from the
platform that at this conference 'the word partnership
had been bandied about like a hyper-active
shuttlecock'. When Socialist Review spoke to him later
he said that the trade union leaders were 'indulging in
platitudes' and 'continually using buzzwords'. He felt
that 'the government line was being reinforced by the
[trade union) leadership. There is still an element of
"don't rock the boat"... And you look at the faces of
the ministers and it's clear they'd love to be a million
miles away.' MacDaid, a long standing Labour Party
member, felt that the conference reflected a change in
the nature of the labour movement and the Labour
Party. 'When you go to the labour Party you don't ask
which trade union people belong to, you ask what
public school they went to... How long will it be
before they replace the singing of the "Red Flag" with
"Any Dream Will Do"?'
Football is run entirely in the interest of capital. There is a huge gulf between the aspirations of club owners and those of ordinary fans. Anybody who doubted either proposition will have been silenced not just by the announcement that Rupert Murdoch was offering over £600 million for Manchester United, but by the outrage of supporters. Some 96 percent of Manchester United supporters, in a poll for the Manchester Evening News, are opposed to the sale.
The press have been in a ferment ever since, complaining that football is selling out to business and that clubs will be run purely for profit by people who care nothing for the fans. one wonders where they have been since the Premiership was created. The last six years have seen the top players and directors enrich themselves at our expense-ticket prices have risen by hyperinflationary proportions.
The Premiership's financial success was largely made possible by its relentless, hyped up coverage on satellite television, creating a new audience for football which is concentrated on a handful of clubs, making football far more unequal than it was previously. Clubs like Manchester United, and their equivalents abroad like Juventus and Real Madrid, have become extremely powerful, and will become more so if they are allowed to negotiate their own television deals-a right in England currently held by the Premiership cartel.
This is what Murdoch wants. His empire, once foundering, was rescued by his purchase of exclusive rights to show Premiership matches live, which forced fans to buy subscriptions to his satellite channels. He needs to control Manchester United so that he doesn't need to buy their television rights-and so nobody else can buy them. In common with the other media companies involved (like Carlton trying to buy Arsenal, or leisure group ENIC, which owns five different clubs throughout Europe) he also wants to create new Europe wide competition in which only the major clubs will feature. Murdoch bought major US sports clubs, like the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the same object of putting himself on both sides of the negotiating table. This is very far from the traditional role of football as a cheap, accessible sport for working class people.
The transformation of football has deeply alienated many supporters. We are frequently told that so many of the world's (allegedly) top players play in Britain, but as we can neither afford to watch them live, nor see them on terrestrial television, how does that benefit us? Fans show no sign of being interested in a European super-league, still less one in which top clubs will take part without fear of relegation, thereby removing the major romantic element, the humbling of Goliaths, which fans find so appealing in football tradition.
Murdoch does have supporters, like Alex Brummer of the Guardian, who advised fans to 'let the marketplace work its magic', claiming that BSkyB's millions had brought star players and improved facilities to football grounds. This will have surprised supporters, who were under the impression that we were paying for them.
At the time of writing it was unclear whether Murdoch's bid would succeed as, apart from its referral to the Office of Fair Trading, other groups were considering rival offers for Manchester United's 260 million shares. Among those hoping for a higher bid is a government deeply embarrassed by the deal. New Labour and Tony Blair's closeness to Murdoch is no secret. Peter Mandelson, who can veto or approve the takeover, is a friend of Elisabeth Murdoch. Gavyn Davies is a partner in Goldman Sachs, which organised Murdoch's bid. Davies lives with Sue Nye, who runs Gordon Brown's office.
Blair has more than once lamented the role of money in football and sympathised with supporters. He now stands accused not just of sentimental humbug but of hypocrisy, given that his philosophy in government is that we are all better off if the rich are encouraged to do precisely what they please. Blair created a 'Football Task Force', which included former Tory MP David Mellor, to find out what was wrong with the state of football. However, when a Labour MP introduced a Private Members' Bill to redistribute the money from television deals to the smaller clubs, the government was silent.
Football is an arena in which political debate is permanently
raging. Blair's links with Murdoch may he less important in football than in, say, the areas of union rights, but they may be more
obvious to the public, and that gives socialists an opportunity.
Nor should socialists have any hesitation in intervening when
business clashes with working people, no matter what the bone
of contention may be. It would be foolish if our voices were not
heard in football. Football is a mirror held up to society, and one
in which working people increasingly dislike what they see. It is
up to socialists to show them how to change the picture.