Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The report of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry is shaming of all the major institutions in British society. At the end of a report which is highly critical of the police force, there is still no justice: there have been no convictions and no sackings among the police. The head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, is being allowed to continue in office, although he presided over a prosecution riddled with racism and incompetence. Allegations of corruption were rejected by the inquiry, but these too have reared their head in the form of connections between various policemen and the gangster Clifford Norris, father of one of the alleged murderers. Condon has survived only because he has been backed by a Labour government which mouths fine words about eradicating racism but which is not prepared to match them with deeds.
The major charge has quite rightly been one of racism--a conclusion reached by many people already. This conclusion has always been rejected by the police, and even last year Condon was denying that there was institutionalised racism in the Met. Now suddenly we are told there is, but it is only the same as the racism elsewhere in society. Yet there are signs that racism inside society as a whole--while still a major problem--is less in many ways than 20 years ago. There is much greater integration. Half of all British born Afro-Caribbean men who cohabit have a white partner; so do a third of British born Afro-Caribbean women. There are no signs of such integration within the police. Black people are five times as likely to be stopped and searched by the police as whites. The number of race related complaints against the police is growing. The experience of the Lawrence family is far from unique, as the families of Ricky Reel or Michael Menson could testify.
Racism is endemic to the police, which deliberately criminalises certain groups in society and then uses constant harassment of these groups as justification of their 'criminality'. Black police officers repeatedly tell of a culture which is so racist that it drives many of them from the job. The Macpherson Report is recommending that the Race Relations Acts now apply to areas such as the police, the army and the immigration service. But their application has always been rejected by the police themselves. It is not a surprise that these institutions are some of the most racist in society, since they also make up some of its most repressive forces.
Change is therefore going to be at most piecemeal and resisted all the way. It was only campaigning which brought the Lawrence inquiry to where it is today. Even so, the police have avoided, as has the government, anything which would really challenge their power and priorities. Two major omissions stand out: there will be no change to the police policy of stop and search, which most black people oppose; and there will be no genuinely independent complaints procedure. The police will still investigate themselves and the outcome of most inquiries will vindicate them. This indeed was the result of an internal inquiry in 1993, approved by Condon, which upheld no complaints about the Lawrence investigation.
There is no sign that everyday practice will change. Those who oppose the police and their racism will continue to be attacked. When 60,000 protesters marched to Welling to close down the BNP headquarters which was fomenting racism in the area, Paul Cordon's police attacked the demonstration and the anti-racists were denounced by police, government and media. Yet those people and the many thousands of others who have demonstrated, protested and organised against racist attacks and police racism have been vindicated. It is the police, media and government that, despite the clamour for reforms, are prepared to leave the individuals and the institutions more or less intact.
There have been repeated attempts before to reform the police. This, after all, was Condon's brief when he took over as head of the Met. Little has changed and racism and corruption are as deep as ever. Protests will need to continue if any real change is to come about--and for that black and white working people can only rely on themselves.
The spotlight on science minister Lord Sainsbury has revealed the threat to our health posed by genetically modified (GM) foods. Sainsbury, who bankrolled the SDP breakaway from Labour in the early 1980s, coughed up £3 million to New Labour. Tony, Blair made him a lord and a minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. Sainsbury pumped millions into companies in the GM field through Innotech, which has some £20 million of investments. Sainsbury also funds the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. Just under £2 million of its money has gone to Sainsbury Laboratory, which is developing GM crops in Norwich.
On top of this he owns Diatech, which has patented a key gene, called the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter, which acts as the 'on/off switch' to boost the growth of GM products. This gene can be found in most GM foods, such as soya, which is used in 60 percent of all processed foodstuffs. This, crucially, is the gene which sparked off concern about the safety of GM foods, when the suppressed research of Dr Pusztai indicated damage to rats' vital organs and their immune system.
Sainsbury is a small player in the global GM industry dominated by biotech giants like Monsanto, Novartis, AgroEvo, DuPont, Zeneca and Dow. They are desperate to break into new markets. In 1998 more than 27 million hectares of commercial farmland across the world were planted with GM seeds. But less than 1 percent of that is in Europe, and continental Europe is resistant to buying GM food. Britain, then, would be a useful bridgehead--which is no doubt why Blair is so keen to endorse Britain's position at the cutting edge of 21st century biotechnology.
Public opinion led to a very partial retreat by environment minister Michael Meacher. But any European Union ban on GM crops and food would meet with bitter opposition from the US, the world's largest producer and exporter of GM food, which has threatened a trade war over the issue if Europe closes its market to GM trade.
The GM industry's last line of ideological defence is that there exists no serious scientific evidence about the dangers of GM foods. Dr Pusztai's research was initially disclaimed as invalid, but eminent international scientists have now backed its claims. His is not the only research which has raised serious concerns about the products developed by biotech companies. Monsanto's bovine growth hormone, BST, boosts milk output but has nasty side effects, according to some experts. This includes extra pus in milk, higher infection in cow udders and possible increases of breast and prostate cancer in humans who drink the milk.
There is a more general trend for big pharmaceutical and other companies to fund scientific research. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 96 percent of scientists writing articles in support of drugs received financial benefits from the companies which produced them. Only two out of 70 articles disclosed a financial interest.
What of the wider argument about the merits of GM technology? We can of course dispense with Prince Charles's accusation that 'mixing genetic material from species that cannot breed naturally takes us into areas that should be left to god.' Human beings have been using knowledge to 'interfere' with nature since they first appeared on earth. At the same time, in class society every such interference has involved not only progress but its use by the minority to exploit the majority. A classless society would end that.
However, does GM technology quite fall into the category of a scientific advance whose drawbacks can be eliminated once we have a society in which need replaces profit? After all, is there a 'need' for GM technology at all? The biotech industry claims that by boosting food production GM technology will overcome the problems of a starving world. Yet we already produce enough food to feed the world several times over.
No doubt newspaper headlines about Frankenstein food are scaremongering. But there's no room for complacency about the dangers we run. Will crossing the species barrier result in a tragedy a thousand times greater than BSE? In the absence of any conclusive evidence as to GM technology's safety, we ought to call a halt to this giant experiment on humanity now.
The latest gimmick from New labour is the plan for a 'poverty audit' to judge, in the words of social security minister Alistair Darling, the government 'on its progress in tackling the causes of poverty'. But if it sticks to present policies, the chance of any eradication of poverty remains slim. While a number of those on benefits may be hounded into work, there is little sign of Labour doing anything to redress the gap between rich and poor which continues to widen.
The most simple way to reverse this trend would be on the one hand to tax the rich and raise benefits, and on the other to begin to eradicate the problem of low pay. Today, of the estimated 14 million who live in poverty in Britain, around 4.5 million of them work--3.5 million for wages, the rest are self employed. When dependants are included this means that a very high proportion of the poor are working poor. The single biggest help to them would be a decent living wage to take them out of poverty and make it worthwhile for them to work. This is not on offer from New Labour.
Instead, government legislation on the minimum wage which takes effect next month has ensured that only those on the very lowest wages will benefit. From April it will be set at £3.60 an hour for over 21 years olds. This is much lower than the unions wanted and still remains a miserably low rate--a 40 hour working week would mean a gross wage of £144 a week (something around £100 net). Already trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers has made it clear that he will do little to enforce the legislation; employers will not have to keep detailed records and the government will not now send out an information leaflet about the right to a minimum wage in workers' pay packets.
The minimum wage level recommended by the government is set at a rate which puts it below what most workers already receive. So, for example, a 1998 survey in Manchester into rates of pay in Jobcentres showed average hourly pay rates for all jobs at £4.06, the full time rate being £4.36 and the part time rate £3.72. Hotel and catering jobs are highly represented in Jobcentre vacancies (around one fifth) and Jobcentre vacancies in general are characterised by low paid, part time and flexible employment. Even here, many would not benefit from the minimum wage. Such jobs are also often concentrated in small and non-unionised workplaces. It will therefore be up to workers themselves, hopefully with the help of unions locally, to push for these rights.
Despite legislation, for example over equal pay, the gap between earnings of those on top wages and those at the bottom have widened and look set to continue to do so. As one recent study put it, 'Ever since 1886 (when records were first kept) right through to 1979, the differential between higher and lower earnings changed remarkably little... Since 1979, however, the gap has widened markedly until, by 1997, the top decile has become more than three times as high as the bottom. If this trend continued, by 2010 the top decile of earnings would be more than four times as high as the bottom decile--a gap nearly twice as great as in 1886.' Not surprisingly, 'There has also been a substantial increase in the number of people with earnings below the poverty line.' (Britain's Future by Jim Northcott, p46)
The government has done absolutely nothing to alter this trend. Tax policies and miserly benefits have meant that there has also been a huge redistribution of income in favour of the rich over the past 20 years. So whereas the richest tenth saw their incomes rise 68 percent between 1979 and 1995, the poorest tenth saw theirs fall by 8 percent in the same period.
Accompanying the minimum wage legislation has been an increasing clamour from government ministers about Welfare to Work. The whole pressure to eradicate poverty is premised on getting people into work rather than living on benefits. But this depends on people being able to work--which obviously many carers and old, disabled or sick people are not in a position to do--and on the jobs being available. Even assuming these two factors exist, the pressure to force people into low wage, unskilled jobs will meet resistance, since single parents, for example, are being expected to work for often negligible net gain.
The government's ideological pronouncements suggest that it is going to attack such people as hard as it can and in every case possible force them off benefits and into work, regardless of social or health costs. Those who are unable to work will be forced to live on the lowest possible benefit levels, with little redress from the Labour government.
Those who voted Labour in 1997 hoping that the poorest would benefit are finding that Blair is carrying out the same Tory policies which he once criticised. This is why Unison's demonstration for a decent minimum wage in Newcastle on 10 April is gathering such wide support. Every trade unionist should ensure that he or she wins backing for the demonstration and organises a delegation to Newcastle. It is being backed by the TUC and should be used in every union to make it absolutely clear that those who voted for Blair are fed up with the rich getting richer while the rest of us suffer.
Seven South Korean socialists have succeeded in openly defying the courts by winning an appeal against conviction. They had been threatened with imprisonment unless they renounced their politics. This victory was a result of an open solidarity campaign and protests both in South Korea and internationally, and is the first round in a long struggle against repressive security laws. Under pressure, the government has announced a political amensty for 1 March, when hopefully more political prisoners will be released.
Vicious new anti-immigration legislation is due to be presented in parliament by the Labour government. The nature of the bill was made clear by Jack Straw when he said, 'Let us be in no doubt this is the most comprehensive immigration bill we have ever seen in this country. We are affecting many more removals than previously and under this system we shall certainly get up the number of removals to a much higher level than before.' What the bill sets out to do is fundamentally limit any access to asylum in this country. Straw intends to remove all remaining welfare rights for asylum seekers, to restrict their legal rights and to increase the use of detention on entry to Britain. The figures show that Labour is far from soft on asylum seekers. Under the Tories there were 107 deportations per week. Under New Labour that figure has risen to 127 per week, sometimes going as high as 147 in one week. The new bill aims to accelerate this process whilst blaming desperate people for their plight.
Currently local authorities are able to decide what form of welfare asylum seekers receive. The new bill removes welfare rights for asylum seekers, introducing a universal voucher system, which will be run from central government. The result will be to reduce asylum seekers to absolute destitution, as has been shown in areas where local authorities already use a voucher system. Asylum seekers have already faced a reduction in benefits--some families are forced to live on £37 a week. The intention is to make vouchers redeemable in certain supermarkets. Asylum seekers will also be sent to 'special areas' on a 'no choice' basis and their housing costs will be paid by vouchers. The aim is to make life so unbearable for asylum seekers that it discourages others.
At present some 766 people are currently detained in centres such as Campsfield, at various airports and in police cells. A UN report showed that Britain had the highest level of detaining people who have committed no crime in Europe. Under the new bill detention will be increased. Labour also plans to pay private companies such as Group 4 to run the detention centres. They say it is necessary to increase detention because of an increase in the numbers of people seeking asylum. But the 'backlog' in asylum cases is totally manufactured by racist laws. In 1985 some 40 percent of asylum seekers were given immediate asylum. The Tories reduced this figure to 9 percent, which increases the perception that there is a problem with asylum seekers. If New Labour were to restore many of the rights that existed before, many of the 'problems' would disappear. Furthermore, the savings from the bill only amount to around £150 million. The total amount spent on refugees is £500 million--less than 0.33 percent of income tax.
The government also wants to remove legal aid for asylum seekers. It is targeting groups that support asylum seekers. They will be forced to pay a large fee to register. The joint council for the Welfare of Immigrants stated recently, 'The government's proposal for a self-financing scheme of compulsory registration appears to serve its own agenda of making it more difficult for people to get help with immigration and asylum problems rather than protect those in need.'
Asylum seekers are constantly blamed for unemployment, the crisis in the health service and the housing shortage. Yet these are problems that are caused by the crisis of capitalism. There are 840,000 empty houses in Britain and only 250,000 homeless people, including refugees. The UN estimates that there are 26 million refugees worldwide. In 1985 there were 15 million. The 1991 Gulf War created 5 million refugees--some 4 million Kurds alone. Far from there being a flood of immigrants, only a tiny trickle make it to our shores. Britain takes a smaller ratio of asylum seekers than Germany, France or the Netherlands. The government raised £34 million last year in liability charges on those caught transporting refugees.
Before it was elected, the Labour Party promised to repeal certain aspects of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act. Jack Straw and Mike O'Brien condemned Michael Howard's bill as being racist and reactionary. Yet less than three years later New Labour plans to pass a more draconian bill. In an interview with the Caribbean Times in 1995 Jack Straw described Michael Howard as despicable for trying to make political capital out of the poorest people in Britain. He described himself as a descendant of Jewish refugees. Yet the new bill continues to build on the previous racist legislation.
One of the worst proposals is the reinforcement of the laws over employers' liability for hiring illegal immigrants. This is a plainly racist charter. Tough laws on immigration do not placate the racists, but give them succour. This is the experience of all immigration controls under Labour governments. They opposed the Tories 1962 Act which restricted immigration and condemned it as racist. Yet by 1964 Labour was calling for more immigration controls. In 1968, after racism was whipped up by the media against Kenyan Asians, the Labour government passed a law within 24 hours to restrict their access to Britain. This allowed Enoch Powell to claim that 'rivers of blood' would flow in the streets of Britain if immigration was not halted, a claim that fanned the flames of racism. This was no blip. More anti-immigration laws were passed under a Labour government which led to virginity tests being carried out on Asian women by immigration officers in 1978, and X-rays done on children to try and determine their age. The beneficiaries of these racist laws were not only the Tories, but also the Nazi National Front.
Immigration controls are being used to divide workers. They enable governments to create panics about resources which direct people's anger towards refugees instead of government policies or the capitalist system. New Labour's proposals must be fought so that asylum seekers are not blamed for the problems of the system.
The Kurdish question exploded onto the streets of Europe last month following the arrest and abduction to Turkey of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. From London to Kazakhstan, Kurds demonstrated in their tens of thousands and 21 Greek embassies and consulates were occupied in protest at the Greek government's role in the kidnapping. He now faces execution.
Both the Turkish and US governments describe Ocalan and his organisation as 'terrorist', but this is far from the truth. The plight of the world's 25 million Kurds at the hands of the west is one of persecution, repression and betrayal. The Kurds are the biggest ethnic group without a state. Since the west dropped the promise of a Kurdish homeland after the First World War, the Kurds have been divided mainly between four inhospitable countries--Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. In Syria it is illegal to teach or publish in Kurdish, and Kurds are denied basic democratic rights; both Iran and Iraq have killed tens of thousands of Kurds, most brutally when Saddam Hussein bombed Kurdish villages with poison gas and executed over 180,000 in the late 1980s.
The west's ally, Turkey, has razed more than 3,000 Kurdish villages to the ground since 1992 in attacking the PKK, and its military expenditure exceeds more than $8 billion a year. Over 30,000 Kurds have been killed, Kurdish parties have been banned and both broadcasting and education in Kurdish remains illegal. Following Ocalan's arrest Kurdish areas of Istanbul are subject to a daily curfew and repression has intensified.
Ocalan had been on the run for months after he was forced to flee Syria last October following Turkish and US threats to the Syrian government. While in Italy the Turkish government demanded his extradition but the Italian government refused due to domestic political pressure. The German authorities, who had two warrants for his arrest, refused to let him go there because they feared protests by the large Kurdish population in Germany. He then travelled throughout Europe in a private jet in a futile attempt to find asylum.
One US official admitted they had been chasing Ocalan for months. 'We, as a government, tried to figure out where he was, where he was going and how we might bring him to justice.' Finally, under US pressure, Ocalan was forced from a temporary stay in Greece to the Greek ambassador's residence in Nairobi (the Kenyan capital) which happens to be the headquarters of the CIA in Africa. His fate, and his deportation to Turkey, was sealed.
The kidnapping has created a huge political crisis in Greece and has destabilised the social democratic Pasok government. The foreign minister Theodoros Panagalos has been forced to resign amid accusations that he colluded in Ocalan's capture. The interior minister, who heads the secret service, and the public order minister, who heads the police, have also resigned. There is now increasing pressure on the Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis to step down and this will increase in the run up to the Pasok conference during March. The anger is reflected on the streets of Athens--over 20,000 demonstrated recently in the biggest political demonstration for many years. Coming on top of the recent school students occupations and a series of strikes last year, the government's popularity is at an all time low.
Simitis is determined to gain Greece's entry into the EMU and has followed a tough economic policy. At the same time Greece has continued its military build up against Turkey. The Greece-Turkey border is the most heavily armed region of Europe and Ocalan's capture will only heighten tension in the region.
Germany is home to the largest Kurdish population in Europe. Over 20,000 demonstrated throughout Germany at the end of February with a 6,000 strong protest on the streets of Hamburg. In Berlin, where three Kurds were killed by Israeli guards as they protested against alleged involvement by the Israeli security services Mosad, the response of the left wing run city authority was to ban all demonstrations. The German social democratic leader Gerhard Schröder has given the police the green light to attack Kurdish demonstrators (some 20 have been injured) and the government has threatened to deport Kurds who 'cause trouble'.
Ocalan's arrest has exposed the hypocrisy of the west. The US's main concern has been to appease Turkey which is strategically placed as a point of access for the newly independent republics of central Asia--western oil companies are desperate to exploit the huge reserves of the Caspian Sea. Access to Turkey's airspace has been crucial to the US in bombing Iraq. Despite all the talk about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the US is more concerned about a Kurdish uprising and the instability this would cause throughout the region--in particular in Syria, Iran and Iraq where most Kurds live.
Instability in the region as a whole will increase. The arrest shows there can be no justice for the Kurds while they are deprived of a homeland and face continued repression and persecution. For that the blame lies solely with the US and its allies.