Issue 235 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

News Review

LONDON ELECTION

Will the best mayor win?

The people's choice--but not Downing Street's

New Labour obviously does not believe that lightning strikes twice. The humiliating self inflicted defeat which Labour suffered in the Welsh elections in May looks likely to be repeated in the race for London mayor. Labour used an electoral college to impose its candidate, former cabinet minister Alun Michael, as leader of the Welsh Assembly against the wishes of the mass of individual party members in Wales. It paid the price when Labour failed to gain an overall majority in May's assembly elections.

Government ministers such as Peter Hain were quite clear that this failure resulted from a sense of betrayal and alienation among Labour's activists, who often refused to canvass or even to vote. Yet, astonishingly, Labour's NEC has now decided that the same electoral college system should apply to the selection of Labour's candidate for mayor. After having insisted for two years that the candidate would be chosen by a ballot of individual members on the basis of one member one vote, we now find that one member has 1,000 votes--that is if you're a London member of parliament. A panel Of 75 MPs, MEPs and Greater London Assembly (GLA) candidates will have a third of the votes in the electoral college--as many as the whole of Labour's London membership, which stands at over 70,000. The final third will be decided by the votes of affiliated trade unions in London.

The aim of this complicated electoral system is simple--to stop Ken Livingstone from being Labour's candidate for mayor. This is despite the fact that he is repeatedly shown by polls to be far and away the strongest Labour candidate and the one most Londoners would vote for. The Blairites have tried repeatedly to stop him standing. Now they have persuaded former health minister Frank Dobson to stand, but that alone is not enough--on a straight fight for the nomination he could be defeated by Livingstone.

Hence the electoral college, but this too has come unstuck. Most of the larger unions are saying that they will ballot their members, some with a recommendation to vote for Livingstone. Blair is unlikely to obtain the compliance from regional officials that he could count on in Wales. The arithmetic is probably still narrowly in Dobson's favour, but the outcome, as in Wales, is likely to be close and the contest bitterly fought. Already a long line of Labour MPs and other luminaries, such as former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, have begun the process of denouncing Livingstone. Unfortunately their attacks only reinforce why Livingstone is the popular choice. In particular Livingstone is committed to more resources for public transport and this is anathema to New Labour.

So Margaret Hodge--once the leader of 'fortress Islington' Labour council but now a reborn Blairite MP--says of Livingstone, 'A brief glance at his manifesto shows the seeds of what he intends.' The dangerous left wing policies which she exposes include having conductors on London buses, freezing fares and expanding the frequency of rail services. It is a sign of New Labour's detachment from ordinary people that these are regarded as criticisms. However, Hodge soon gets to the nub of the argument by saying, 'The mayor will not have the money to deliver. So that will bring him into immediate and direct conflict with the government. And he'll seek to blame the government. Or he'll seek to impose higher taxes on businesses to pay for his grandiose schemes. A mayor of London must work with business, not against it.'

This tells us exactly the priorities of New Labour, which has already signed an agreement to give Railtrack control of some tube lines, and which is determined to sell off the tube despite mass opposition. Livingstone is opposed to privatisation, which on its own marks him off from the other candidates. He is popular in London because people believe his record is far to the left of the Blair government.

All socialists should support Livingstone in their union branches and elsewhere in this contest. His political record has not always been principled--notably over his enthusiastic support for Nato's bombing of Serbia. But a vote for anyone else would be a vote for Blair's pro-business policies. Whether or not Livingstone wins, his candidacy can provide a focus for all those who want to fight against those policies--at their centre, tube privatisation, which would make the service even more dangerous, expensive and unreliable than it already is.
Lindsey German


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • In its first year the New Labour government granted 10,385 new arms export licences. The only European country to grant more was Germany, but Britain's arms trade is more lucrative. The sales included crowd control ammunition to Bangladesh; the refurbishment of cluster bombs and small arms for Ecuador; submachine-guns to the Philippines, the Cayman Islands and Mexico; and shotguns spares to Pakistan.
  • A recent poll shows that half of Britain plans to stay at home for millennium eve. With a 25 surcharge for getting a London cab and 130 tickets for London club, Ministry of Sound, it's not surprising that most people give cost as the reason for not going out.
  • Top clothing companies including Marks & Spencer, C&A, Debenhams and Laura Ashley use factories in eastern Europe where female workers are humiliated by strip searches and beaten by bosses.
  • In Latvia 10 percent of the workforce are paid 30p an hour. Some workers are so poor they're forced to scavenge for food in the local woods.
  • In 1989, 28 percent of mothers of under five year olds returned to work. Now 70 percent do.

  • The coup by the Pakistani army is a direct result of its spectacular failure in the war in Kashmir earlier this year. This began when the army occupied abandoned Indian mountain-top positions along the ceasefire line--the line of Control (LoC). The army hoped to bounce prime minister Nawaz Sharif into a confrontation with India. They calculated that Sharif would be unable to disown their action and that international pressure would prevent Indian retaliation.

    Their calculations went horribly wrong. Instead of Pakistan's allies--the US and China--demanding a ceasefire, they supported India. In a devastating diplomatic manoeuvre, the Indian government offered a permanent solution to the Kashmir problem: a partition based on the LoC. Presented with this apparent concession, Clinton and China both approved the Indian army evicting the 'intruders', if they did not cross the LoC.

    This left the Pakistani forces totally exposed. They had claimed that the positions had been captured by Kashmiri militants, and so they could not use all their forces in the region. With the Indian army mobilising all its best forces, Pakistani withdrawal was inevitable.

    Since then Sharif and the army have been trying to fix the blame on each other. Sharif attempted to fire the army commander and bring the army under his direct control. The army, which has managed to lose every war it has fought, could only prevent this by getting rid of him. Hence the coup.

    Corruption abounds because the perpetual weakness of the Pakistani ruling class gave the army an easy smokescreen. At the top is a bourgeoisie so narrow that the two main parties, Sharif's PML and Benazir Bhutto's PPP, each represent no more than a couple of dozen families. Unsurprisingly, these people see the public sector as a piggy bank to be raided at will. The army is a player in this game, and the new military regime will soon have its fingers in the till. They will certainly not repeal Sharif's anti-union laws, and any government of civilian experts will soon attack the working class.
    Barry Pavier


    NUCLEAR ACCIDENT

    Setting off a chain reaction

    Cuts in staff make the possibility of a major nuclear accident even more likely

    The nuclear accident at Tokaimura, 95 miles from Tokyo, last month should have a profound political impact in Britain. The accident revealed the dangers of an underregulated nuclear industry run for profit. Untrained staff without proper protective equipment, trying to meet a production target, accidentally created a critical mass in a nuclear fuel plant and sent radiation levels soaring to 15,000 times normal levels.

    They set off an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction, receiving lethal doses of radiation, exposing 55 more to high radiation doses, and confining 300,000 to their homes.

    The accident was far more serious than initially admitted. The authorities eventually conceded that the accident was as serious as that at Three Mile Island in the US 20 years ago, and second only to the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine.

    The accident has caused immense public anger in Japan, following a string of other accidents. In July a commercial plant operated by Japan Atomic Power was closed down when a pipe burst and leaked 51 tonnes of cooling water. In March 1997 another reprocessing facility in Tokaimura was the site of Japan's previous worst accident, when a fire and explosion exposed 37 workers to radiation.

    There is equal cause for concern in Britain.

    Tony Blair wants to raise 1.5 billion by selling a 49 percent stake in the British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield, which reprocesses spent fuel from Japanese reactors. Sellafield is also Britain's biggest earner of yen. Without the contract from Japan, the sell off and the plant itself would be doomed.

    British Nuclear Fuels has plenty of other troubles. As the Tokaimura accident was happening, the company sacked three staff for falsifying records on nuclear fuel it was sending to Japan.

    Sellafield bosses have also been warned that the volume of untreated wastes on site presents a criticality risk--the type of accident that occurred in Japan. Meanwhile British Energy, the privatised nuclear electric company, has sacked so many safety staff that staff levels are at or below the minimum safety levels. British Energy no longer has a single staff member who is expert in a serious nuclear accident.

    Tokaimura was a warning, but one that our government, run by former members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is determined not to heed.
    Mike Simons

    STOP PRESS: Concerns over Britain's nuclear industry were heightened when it was revealed that the Rolls Royce plant in Derby has a secret nuclear processing facility currently in use.


    NEW COLUMN:'THE WALRUS'

    Reasons to be cheerful: part one

    Sign of the times

    For a good while now, official statistics on strike activity in the UK haven't made for comfortable reading. The most recent figures show that in 1998 a puny total of only 282,000 working days were lost.

    So maybe Tony Blair is right--the class war is over and now it's all partnership and feng shui in the workplace. That might be the case if these figures were all we had to go by. Luckily for us, they often disguise as much as they reveal. For instance, those for the past ten years manage to entirely miss the three fantastic outbreaks of class antagonism which set the tone for the entire decade: the poll tax, the second round of pit closures, and the general election in May 1997. Then the Tories managed to put on an even poorer showing than the strike statistics, with their worst results since the Reform Bill of 1832. A bit like a seismograph that registers all the small tremors but ignores the earthquakes, none of these decisive episodes makes any appearance on the strike figures.

    Another failing is that, if you look at the number of working days lost for the year 1989, you find it was one of the highest in 15 years. But it was also one of the darkest periods, when Thatcher had smashed just about everything in sight. The general climate today is entirely different. In the big confrontation at British Airways shortly after Labour came to power, management came a cropper. The entire workforce vanished on a 'mass sickie', an innovative and highly successful industrial action. This form of action wouldn't appear in the strike figures either, by the way.

    Recently there has been no shortage of glimpses that things might have picked up a little. For the first time in 19 years TUC membership is on the up. Another highly symbolic example has been the re-emergence of a genuine trade union presence at News International plants in Knowsley, Kinning Park and Wapping. A decade after we were told that the print unions were finished, a major row has developed over millennium working payments. AEEU shop stewards have not only won elections to the company's bogus in-house staff association, they are pressing for proper recognition.

    Even the latest DTI-sponsored research on the state of industrial relations today, the Workplace and Employee Relations Survey (WERS), admits that 'an engagement with a union presence is still part of the work experience for two out of three employees, even if only half that number are actually union members'. The reason for this is that, although unions only have a foothold in just over half of all workplaces, in five out of six of these there is recognition.

    Around 62 percent of the workforce as a whole are employed in workplaces with union recognition. The report concludes that 'this leaves plenty of scope for new recruitment if unions are able to persuade these employees to become members'. No kidding. An estimated 10.1 million workers are employed in organisations where trade unions are recognised.

    Of the 44 largest private employers only three do not recognise unions--Marks & Spencer, McDonald's and John Lewis. This hardly fits in with the idea of, the private service sector, supposedly the least union prone because of the high incidence of women and part-time workers. A more obvious conclusion might be why have the three which stick out like a sore thumb been allowed to get away with it for so long?

    The big unions have failed miserably to capitalise on a massive potential for growth, either because they have been bogged down by petty feuding or because they are fixated with the notion that if you want union recognition you start by bowing and scraping to the boss. By far the worst offender in this has been Ken Jackson of the AEEU, recently knighted by Tony Blair. Jackson has a long way to go, though. His own members in the toolroom at Ford and on millennium projects around the country made him look a prize pillock, magnificently timing their walkouts to coincide with his keynote speech to the TUC on partnership. A trifle optimistic maybe, but you can't argue with the sentiments expressed on the strikers' placards: 'Welcome to the 1970s. We're back!'


    CHECHNYA

    Yet another war for oil

    Russia is again at war with Chechnya, a small mountainous republic in the oil rich Caucasus. Already hundreds of civilians are reported killed by air strikes, and the Russian defence ministry has admitted 179 soldiers killed in fighting in Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan by late October.

    The last time that Russia attacked, in 1994-96, up to 100,000 people, mostly Chechen civilians, died (out of a Chechen population of under 1 million). Nevertheless, the last war was a humiliation for Russia, which eventually withdrew granting Chechnya de facto independence.

    The pretext for the invasion this time was a series of explosions which ripped apart apartment blocks in Russia, killing 300. No real evidence for Chechen involvement has been produced. The police and media have whipped up a lynch mob atmosphere against people from the Caucasus.

    The parallels with the war over Kosovo are striking but western leaders are reluctant to comment, let alone get involved. Boris Yeltsin's government is the key western ally in this mineral rich region and, just as over East Timor, humanitarian motives are off the agenda--no matter that the Chechens have voted overwhelmingly for independence.

    'Give us the men whose hands and arms are stained with blood, and we will be prepared for full scale talks,' declared Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. Yet the Russian military has far more blood on its hands than any Chechen 'terrorist'.


    CHILE

    Missing evidence

    After Pinochet's Chilean coup in 1973, a US journalist, Charles Horman, was executed by the military. Costa-Gavras's film Missing takes Horman's execution as its subject. Recently declassified US State Department documents show that the CIA was heavily involved in his murder. Correspondence between Washington and the US embassy in Santiago, written in August 1976, records that 'there was circumstantial evidence to suggest that US intelligence played an unfortunate part in Horman's death... At worst, US intelligence was aware that the government of Chile saw Horman in a rather serious light and US officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of the paranoia.' Horman inspired 'paranoia' because he had found out too much about US military and intelligence personnel's involvement in the military overthrow of Salvador Allende.


    INDONESIA

    A new democracy or the old autocracy?

    Democracy Indonesian style as riot police attack a demonstrator

    Protests erupted in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, following the shock election of Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) as president of the country on 20 October.

    Wahid won the votes of 373 Out of 700 MPs, narrowly beating his rival, and former ally, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She had been the most popular candidate for president and her party, the PDI-P, came first in June's general election, although with 34 percent of the vote it failed to win an outright majority in parliament.

    Megawati's supporters took to the streets immediately after Wahid's election. Thousands of them (mainly students, but also white collar workers and the urban poor) had already protested for days before the parliamentary vote, carrying banners reading 'Megawati or revolution'. Demonstrations were continuing as Socialist Review went to press.

    Wahid's election has intensified Indonesia's political crisis. The Indonesian ruling class has been unable to stabilise its rule since the overthrow of General Suharto in May last year. The closeness of the vote in the parliament shows the political fragmentation at the top of society. The fact that only 438 out of 700 MPs are elected shows both the lack of progress towards parliamentary democracy and the lack of legitimacy Wahid will enjoy among Indonesia's 210 million people.


    BALKANS

    The figures don't add up

    Support for the Balkan War was based on lies--and those lies are being increasingly found out. Lie number one was that the war was fought to stop genocide. After Nato's victory and the entry into Kosovo, the media was full of stories of mass graves. Geoff Hoon, now promoted to defence minister, said in June that 'according to the reports that we have gathered, mostly from the refugees, it appears that around 10,000 people have been killed in more than 100 massacres.' Bernard Kouchner, UN chief administrator in Kosovo, added another 1,000 to this figure, claiming the total came from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (ICTY).

    But a report from the ICTY on 11 October reported that the Trepca mines, where the bodies of 700 ethnic Albanians were reported to be hidden, in fact contained no bodies whatsoever. The ICTY also said it had not provided Kouchner with his information.

    The global intelligence centre Stratfor has produced a briefing which shows that the figures are dubious in the extreme and that there has been no evidence so far produced to back them up. On the contrary, there is more evidence to suggest that the numbers have been greatly exaggerated for political purposes. According to Stratfor, 'Most of the dead have turned up in small numbers in the most rural parts of Kosovo, often in wells. News reports say that the largest grave sites have contained a few dozen victims; some officials say the largest site contained far more, approximately 100 bodies. But the bodies are generally being found in very small numbers--far smaller than encountered after the Bosnian war.' The FBI has held two separate investigations of graves: 'In its two trips to Kosovo since the war's end, the FBI has found a total Of 30 sites containing almost 200 bodies.' A Spanish team was told to prepare for 2,000 autopsies--it found no mass graves and 187 bodies. A mass grave supposedly containing 350 bodies found in July near Pec in fact contained seven. Nato released satellite pictures of supposed mass graves at Pusto Selo, where it was reported 106 men were killed by Serbs at the end of March. No bodies were found. Similar claims were made--150 ethnic Albanians killed in Izbica in March and 96 men from Klina and 82 in Kraijan. None of these bodies has been found.

    As Stratfor says, 'It really does matter how many were killed in Kosovo. The foreign policy and political implications are substantial... Politically, the alliance depended heavily on the united States for information about the war. If the US and Nato were mistaken, then alliance governments that withstood heavy criticism... may be in trouble.'

    Further lies which have been challenged in recent weeks include the claim that the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was an accident--it was hit to stop the Chinese sending signals to the Yugoslav army--and the claim by Nato that it did not use depleted uranium in its weapons. Even the UN is now challenging this. Meanwhile, murder and harassment of Serbs and Gypsies continues.


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