Issue 231 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Those of us who predicted up to two months ago that the Nato bombing of Serbia would create disaster are increasingly being proved right. Almost daily the list of bombing atrocities committed by Nato against innocent civilians gets longer, with an estimated 1,200 dead in Serbia. A war which was supposed to 'take out' Serbia's defence capability in a matter of days shows no sign of being successful. In the meantime, dozens of hospitals and clinics, nurseries, schools, colleges and college dormitories, as well as theatres, housing estates and libraries, have been bombed.
The fate of the Kosovan Albanian refugees is as bad as ever. Their future looks bleak. The London Evening Standard recently reported from Albania that 'many Albanians feel they have fallen prey to what is being called the Big Lie, the idea that Nato would swiftly accomplish its mission in Kosovo and get the refugees home. Now, as the dazed atmosphere of the mass expulsions and atrocities clears, they see ahead of them a future more grim than anything even they have known.'
Having embroiled the region in a deadly and wasteful war, Nato has no clear strategy. Since the bombing of the Chinese embassy and the civilian disasters which have followed it, it has found itself under increasing pressure. There appear to be three options for Nato, all of which look difficult for the west's rulers. The first is to stop the bombing and go for a political settlement with Milosevic. This is the option which many national governments--including Italy and Greece, and possibly Germany--now favour. But it is an outcome which would clearly be seen as a defeat for Nato and therefore it is one which the US and Britain seem unwilling to countenance. The second option is to continue with the same strategy of stepping up the bombing and hoping that Milosevic will eventually give in. However, there is near universal discontent with this course of action, both from pro and anti-war camps.
The third option is of course the sending in of ground troops to Kosovo to fight the Serbs. But this option is fraught with political and logistical difficulties. The only government which appears enthusiastic for it is Tony Blair's, and this hides widespread discontent in Britain. Elsewhere even Nato governments are reluctant to support such a move, fearing that troops would get bogged down in a long war, sustaining heavy casualties. In addition, there is no obvious agreement about how such troops would be sent into Kosovo. The infrastructure of Albania is not up to it and sending them in through Greece would lead to a huge government crisis there. Similar problems exist in those states to the north of Serbia, and there is a real danger of regional instability.
So given these three unpalatable options, Nato keeps stumbling towards disaster. In the process its tactics are enforcing much worse suffering on the area than would otherwise have been the case. Kosovo will be a wasteland after this bombing, with little for the refugees to return to. Serbia and Montenegro have been severely bombed, with all the terrible consequences. On top of the high death toll can be added ecological disaster through widespread pollution (for example, of the Danube's drinking water), the use of depleted uranium bombs, which carry a terrible legacy to future generations, and the destruction of buildings and infrastructure. Yet the western rulers' response to criticism of this disaster has been to increase the bombing--the more it is deemed ineffective and the more people oppose it, the more Nato drops bombs, increasingly on civilian targets. The pattern has eerie echoes of Vietnam.
Tony Blair has been the leading hawk in all this. He has ordered more bombing in two years than Margaret Thatcher did in her entire rule. He sees his mission as persuading a reluctant Bill Clinton to send in ground troops and to act as a Churchillian leader for the other European powers. Yet Blair has little grasp of political realities. Either Nato will be forced into a political settlement fairly soon, in which case Blair's warmongering will look ridiculous, or if the war is escalated through ground troops, he will be closely identified with its problems. Blair's spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, is reported to spend half his week in Brussels, yet it is obvious that the propaganda war is failing because the real war is such a patent disaster.
Opposition to the war is growing. Daily there are meetings, protests and debates around the country. The national demonstration last month was over 15,000 drawn from around the country to protest at a war from which there will be no winners. Despite the overwhelmingly pro-war propaganda in the national media and the television, a significant minority is resolutely opposed to the bombing and to Nato. It is also confident--unlike the pro-war liberals who seem to have lost the stomach for debate outside the pages of the Guardian--that, once most people hear the arguments and are able to discuss them freely, they too will question the war.
There is therefore a real duty for socialists to build the movement and to deepen and widen it, so that it involves more and more forces which will eventually make this government and the other members of Nato sit up and listen. They have to be aware that the more they embark on their offensive against Serbia, and the more they commit their terrible war crimes, the more that opposition will grow.
While Blair talks up Nato's war and looks for photo opportunities in refugee camps, he continues the war at home. Recent developments in government policy include tightening the welfare to work conditions, thereby forcing more unemployed to lose benefits, attacking disability benefits, abolishing jury trial for certain offences and pushing through the racist Asylum Bill. The government is introducing more and more authoritarian measures under the cover of war, and few of these are being debated or adequately discussed.
But Blair is not getting it all his own way. The revolt over Labour's plans to limit disability benefit shows how deep the opposition goes to Labour's proposals. In what was the biggest backbench rebellion since Labour was elected, 67 Labour MPs voted against the government. Another group abstained bringing the total rebelling against the government to around 100--effectively cutting Labour's majority from 178 down to just 40. The rebellion was also far greater than the revolt in 1997 over lone parent benefits which attracted 47 MPs voting against the government.
Blair is clearly worried about the size of the opposition. Labour whips had closed the debate over 'welfare reform' a few days earlier because, as the Financial Times reported (21 May, 1999), they 'feared a rebellion of up to 100'. In order to win the vote two days later they were forced to summon MPs who also sit in the new Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly in order to boost the government numbers. And in scenes reminiscent of the last days of the Major government, there were reports of Labour MPs being bullied by the whips if they refused to support the government.
The rebellion has clearly put the government on the defensive. The proposals will now go to the House of Lords where they are almost certain to be rejected, and this will give further confidence to those Labour MPs to try and defeat them again when they come back to the House of Commons in the summer. It has also boosted the confidence of those MPs and campaigners opposed to Labour's vicious Asylum and Immigration Bill which is currently going through the House of Commons. Labour's leader could face a revolt over this bill which could be even greater than that over disability benefit.
Despite the Blairite consensus that exists in the media and among the establishment, the pro-war stance of the government and its vicious domestic policies have led to incredible levels of bitterness and anger. Partly this was expressed in the Labour rebellion last month, but it is also clear that there is a substantial minority of ordinary people which is now looking for an alternative to Blair.
The local elections on 6 May revealed how deep this discontent is and how there is a discrepancy between Blair's poll ratings and Labour's success or otherwise at the ballot box. The elections for the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly showed this in a dramatic way. While the Scottish National Party did not make the breakthrough in terms of seats that it had hoped for, it managed around 29 percent of the vote on a platform which in its essentials was to the left of Labour and which was also anti-war. Veteran Labour MP Dennis Canavan, barred from standing for the Scottish parliament by New Labour, won a massive 23,000 votes in his constituency of Falkirk West, again on a left anti-war platform. Tommy Sheridan from the Scottish Socialist Party won a fifth of the first past the post votes in Glasgow Pollock and gained a seat on the second ballot. Other socialist candidates, including those of the SWP, did well in the elections, showing a hard minority prepared to vote to the left of Labour.
In Wales disgust at the imposition of the Blairite Alun Michael as leader of the assembly deprived Labour of its expected overall majority with Plaid Cymru taking seats in once rock solid Labour Islwyn, Rhondda and Llanelli, on a platform to the left of Labour. Again socialist candidates and lists attracted creditable votes. Those campaigning in the elections reported a disillusion with Labour--one woman in the industrial valleys described how she felt they were 'the forgotten people' for Blair--as the government holds out no prospects for jobs or improvement in living standards.
Although the local council elections mostly had no electoral focus to the left of Labour, they were marked by two characteristics: a very high level of abstention in traditional Labour areas, and a willingness to vote for protest and left wing candidates in certain circumstances. The abstention led to Labour losing control of Sheffield council to the Liberal Democrats, in Coventry two socialists were elected to the council and campaigners against the partial closure of Kidderminster Hospital won several council seats.
The response of Blair and his acolytes to these protests has been to ignore them. Labour is in coalition with the Liberals in Scotland, and is refusing to abolish tuition fees--in a clear denial of the wish of most Scottish people. But these votes are more than straws in the wind. They point to a breaking with Labourism among the militant minority. We have not seen this phenomenon for many years, and it is possible that this can lead to a realignment on the left. Union conferences which have so far taken place show a similar mood of defiance. At the Fire Brigades Union a resolution was passed opposing the Nato bombing; in addition, around a third of conference delegates attended a rank and file meeting at the conference to discuss the fightback against the employers.
The issue of the war colours everything and has the effect of heightening the political atmosphere, but the other questions of jobs, cutbacks, the minimum wage and disability benefits are galvanising opposition. There is real bitterness that money can be found for cruise missiles but nothing for welfare. Blair has shown how dangerous he is in his calls to escalate the bombing of innocent people. We have to link opposition to his war in the Balkans with opposition to his war on working people.