Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright Socialist Review

News Review

LONDON MAYOR

A bloody nose for Blair?

The campaign has created a huge wave of political debate
Livingstone at a recent FBU rally

Tony Blair's campaign to stop Ken Livingstone from becoming Labour's candidate for the mayor of London has created the biggest crisis New Labour has faced since coming to power. That crisis looks set to deepen over the next few weeks as the election enters its final stages.

Blair has stopped at nothing to block Livingstone. The electoral college voting system is rigged in favour of Frank Dobson. Some trade unions that back Livingstone have been debarred from the election. Just before Christmas it was revealed that Labour Party membership lists were secretly supplied to Dobson, while being denied to other candidates.

Every attempt to block Livingstone has only succeeded in increasing his support. In December a consultative ballot of Labour Party members in the south London constituency of Tooting found that Livingstone got 66.4 percent of the vote, Dobson came second with just under 23 percent of the vote and Glenda Jackson got 10 percent. One trade union, the Transport and General Workers' Union, sent out a strident letter supporting Livingstone in December and refused to accept New Labour's timetable for balloting its members. The TGWU vote will be available from 6 January and Dobson's supporters are worried that a substantial vote for Livingstone could create a bandwagon in his favour.

The campaign to get Livingstone elected has created a huge wave of political debate. In the run up to Christmas there were a number of large hustings meetings called by trade unions and Labour Party branches across London. Last November around 600 trade unionists attended a hustings meeting in central London and in December over 400 crammed into a hustings meeting in Hackney, east London. Blair's London road shows, designed to whip up support for Dobson, saw meetings of over 500 in east and south London.

The result of the election for Labour's candidate will not be announced until 16 February and everyone predicts that it will go to the wire. That means the big hustings meetings will continue. Blair is going to hold at least two more London road shows and there is every sign that the stitch up allegations will continue to rumble.

Dobson's supporters claim he is going to come out 'fighting' in the new year. He has adopted a two pronged strategy. First he realises that to have any chance of winning he will have to distance himself from New Labour. Already he has stated in a number of interviews that on the question of financing London Underground he would 'rule nothing in and nothing out--including Ken's bond scheme'. His recent speeches also talk about the widening gap between rich and poor in London. No one should be fooled by Dobson's new rhetoric--this New Labour leopard has not changed his spots.

At the same time Dobson is quite prepared to use Blair's patronage to tug on the heartstrings of Labour voters. He is also allowing the leadership of the Labour Party to spread slurs about Livingstone. Dobson repeatedly claims that he is against the stitch up, yet he does nothing to stop it.

Livingstone is also playing a dangerous game. At the mayoral hustings in central London in November Livingstone said, 'If I get elected as mayor of London, Railtrack won't even be allowed to run a toilet on London Underground.' But just a few weeks later on the radio he said, 'If Railtrack wanted to build something new, we'd all be over the moon. If someone comes along and builds you a new tube line, you don't whinge about it.'

Indeed, Livingstone appears to spend a large part of his campaign appearing in television studios. He has failed to turn up to a number of hustings and he has gone to some length to distance himself from left wing supporters. Questions of inequality which affect working class people in London have not been given a high profile.

Despite this the huge hustings meetings have by and large backed Livingstone. At the Hackney hustings meeting, in a mock ballot, just over 80 percent of the audience backed him. But large sections of the audiences at the hustings meetings have also been questioning the direction Livingstone is pushing his campaign in. Many want to see him fight a campaign that really does challenge Blair.

Despite Livingstone's attempts to build bridges with Blair, his campaign is shaping up into a major fight with Blair's New Labour Party. Anyone who wants to see Blair get a bloody nose should back Ken Livingstone.
Martin Smith


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • There is still a gender divide in Britain with 20 percent of women earning less than £200 a week compared to just 8 percent of men. And just 12 percent of women earn over £500 a week compared to 27 percent of men.
  • The TUC reports an increase of 70 percent in legal cases taken up by trade unions for stress related personal injury cases against employers. Stress related cases totalled 783. Overall the TUC was successful in 96 percent of the personal injury cases it brought against employers.
  • Pay-offs, or 'golden handshakes', to Britain's bosses are increasing under New Labour according to a survey by Labour Research. Of 126 directors awarded over £100,000 last year, the survey found that the average pay-off was £342,169.
  • The Unicef report on the state of the world's children has found that 1.2 billion people live in poverty, one in five of the world's population. This includes more than 600 million children. Even in rich nations like the US, UK and Italy, a fifth to a quarter of children live in poverty.

  • The inability of New Labour to deliver a better transport system is now becoming a political headache. A recent Guardian poll showed that some 40 percent said that public transport had deteriorated over the last two years. The issue of Labour's candidate for London mayor has become a referendum over privatisation of the tube. And now the position of deputy prime minister John Prescott is looking increasingly fragile following the decision to hand the running of Labour's transport policy over to Lord Macdonald.

    Labour's problems exist because it remains firmly committed to the privatisation of parts of the transport network.

    John Prescott's new transport bill includes measures put forward as though the Paddington rail crash had never happened. The decision to privatise air traffic control by selling off 51 percent of the Civil Aviation Authority has incurred universal hostility, not least among the pilots' union, the IPMS, whose general secretary described it as 'perverse'.

    The bill also proposes to set up a Strategic Rail Authority to give cohesion to rail policy. It will have responsibility for setting fares and negotiating new franchises with the 25 rail operating companies. Prescott promises to give the rail regulator greater powers to improve the railways. But there are limits to what can be achieved in a fragmented, competitive system. Prescott also pledges to improve bus services in a new deal between bus companies and local authorities. However, there is no commitment to provide additional funds.

    Prescott has abandoned the pre-election pledge to reduce the number of car journeys in spite of figures which reveal that road traffic could rise by 50 percent by 2020. He has also announced that Labour is to reinstate £1.7 billion of cuts in a road building programme of £4 billion. Plans to lower the speed limit have been dropped, as have plans to set a national target for road traffic reduction. Prescott did announce that Labour intended to spend £80 billion over the next ten years on improving the transport network. But, as the Financial Times argued, 'the public-private partnership will be at the heart of the funding, along with increases from fares and new forms of raising money such as congestion charging.' The urgent need is for immediate improvements in public transport, an objective which cannot be achieved without massive government investment.

    Yet the transport fat cats are still raking in the money. The day after Prescott's announcement came the news that Railtrack's share price had soared 7 percent in a day in anticipation of increased revenues. At the same time Railtrack announced that it was to drop plans to use the advanced moving block signal system on the decaying west coast main line.

    It is not possible to achieve a safe, efficient and integrated transport system while its major components (apart from the roads) remain in the private sector. Labour's proposals reflect a desire to appease the road lobby and big business. As the transport network gets worse transport will remain an issue which will present increasing problems for the Labour government.
    Sabby Sagall


    BRITISH SOCIAL ATTITUDES

    Sticking to the old ways

    Carers should get more

    Tony Blair should listen to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, the first to be conducted since the 1997 general election. It asks the question, 'Who shares New Labour values?' and the answer is--not as many as the Labour leadership likes to claim.

    Blair supposedly appeals across the traditional left/right divide. But old ways of thinking along 'left' and 'right' lines still matter to many people who regard issues 'according to fairly old fashioned divides such as class, education and age'.

    It is on the question of public spending that the Labour government is most out of step. The majority of the public (two thirds) still insist that they are willing to pay higher taxes if these are needed to maintain public services. Even among those who identified with the Conservative Party some 51 percent would pay higher taxes to spend more on 'health, education and social benefits'. And a majority of working class people believe the state should be reponsible for pension provision. Fewer than one in five believe that 'private companies can always run things more efficiently than local councils'.

    Four out of five people say the gap between the rich and poor in Britain is too large and three in four people say it is 'definitely' or 'probably' the government's responsibility to 'reduce income differences between the rich and poor'.

    Some 65 percent say the government should make sure everyone has a job, and most think unemployment benefit is too low. Other benefits are unquestionably popular: 82 percent think more should be spent on those who care for someone sick or disabled, and 72 percent are for increased benefits for the disabled.

    In seeming contradiction to these findings, it is claimed that 'the unions' pursuit of their own members' interests may create discord in the workplace'. This is based on a survey which found that, in workplaces where there is a recognised union, industrial relations are more often perceived by workers as bad than by workers in workplaces without unions. But the researchers do accept that union members in a unionised workplace may have higher expectations of decent treatment than other workers and therefore may be more critical. Also unionised workers could simply be more conscious of the difference of interest between them and their boss.

    This survey provides us with more evidence that Blair has not won key ideological arguments.
    Judith Orr
    British Social Attitudes, 1999/2000 edition (Ashgate Publishing, £27.50)


    THE WALRUS

    Call on the line

    Recent press coverage on the call centres rarely seems able to go much beyond a fixation with what they are like inside. A lot seems to depend on the last person the journalist has been speaking to. If it happens to have been an employer or a spokesperson for New Labour, the call centre will be all shiny and bright, guaranteed to bring salvation for one and all. But ask most union leaders and many academics, and the exact same places suddenly turn into out-and-out hellholes.

    Possibly, the schizophrenia may be due to the fact that the set-up in call centres has become uncomfortably familiar in all kinds of jobs, especially if you think of yourself as middle class. Just look at the giant newsrooms at the BBC or ITN. You have a phone, a PC and, all being well, your own desk. And, er, that's about it. Offices like this are much the same nowadays for everybody from local authority clerical workers through to bank staff.

    Once it has dawned that most white collar jobs have been reduced to the modern day equivalent of piecework on a lathe, the argument goes not much further, even though the typing pool or telephone switchboard is hardly anything new. Sure, call centres mark a new high point in the proletarianisation of office work. The huge concentration of resources invested by employers in call centres is already wiping out some jobs as fast as the powered loom got rid of the weavers in the early years of the last century. But the new production line office also opens up tremendous opportunities for workers' organisation.

    Until just a few years ago the only companies really taking an interest in call centre development were banks and insurance firms. Now they've all got them. The reason is that call centres allow firms to massively reduce their labour costs and other overheads. Some functions (like the nauseating greetings played by recorded messages) can be completely automated and some work can be subcontracted to other agencies. One immediate consequence is that dozens of smaller branch operations are threatened with closure.

    All this has been made possible by two remarkable strokes of fortune. One is that a number of different sets of technology have come of age at the same time.

    The other unexpected bonanza has come in the form of handsome financial incentives for being so good as to set up your call centre in areas devastated during the 1980s. Companies have homed in on places like Scotland, Northern Ireland, South Wales and the north east, not because the locals all talk so nice, as we are often being told, but because this is where they can grab colossal sweeteners from regional development boards together with reduced rentals and the promises from local authorities and old grants.

    What all this means is that many of the biggest companies have most of their commercial operations concentrated in just a handful of key call centres. In many cases a combination of high turnover rates, heavy handed management and constant disputes over issues like working conditions or teabreaks make call centres highly vulnerable to unionisation. In fact, according to one recent study from Incomes Data Services, most call centre workers are full time staff and 54 percent are already covered by collective bargaining, partly because so many have emerged from heavily unionised sectors like banking and the utilities. It is no accident that the first national strike action in 13 years to hit Tony Blair's favourite company, BT, has involved 4,000 call centre staff employed at different centres around the country.

    A small indication of the potential for unionisation in the near future can be seen in the recent ballot involving Unison members at the Vertex (formerly NorWeb) call centre in Bolton. At the beginning of November it emerged that--out of a workforce of 800--about 80 percent had voted resoundingly in favour of a return to collective bargaining rights, first withdrawn in the immediate aftermath of privatisation. This ballot was the first carried out according to the guidelines set for the new 'Fairness at Work' legislation on union recognition and the same process is likely to be repeated in many more call centres, not least because most unions now regard the entire sector as a potential goldmine for increased membership.

    Other prime targets would include Sky TV, whose entire The Walrusoperations depend on a workforce of around 7,000 in just two call centres in Scotland, a bigger workforce than Ford has at Dagenham.


    UNION RECOGNITION

    The price is right

    The victory of Pricecheck workers will give hope to all low paid workers.

    Their campaign for union recognition began over a year ago when management told workers that they had to work at xmas without extra pay. The mainly Asian workforce refused unless pay rates were increased. Management backed down, but then refused to recognise the union. It took a year of campaigning, with protest rallies and solidarity from other black and white trade unionists, to finally force the Pricecheck boss to recognise the TGWU. The union will now represent the 160 supermarket workers. It will negotiate pay and conditions, and reps will have paid time off to represent their members. The downside of the settlement is that three workers who were sacked will not be reinstated.

    However, with Labour's new legislation coming into force this month, the opportunity is there to launch union recognition drives at workplaces where there is not yet a union. The lesson of the Pricecheck dispute is that so called 'old fashioned' methods of organising--protesting, picketing and campaigning--produce results.


    STUDENTS

    Market rates

    Students:Stuff your market

    The dropout rate among university students has hit record heights. An average of 18 percent of students give up study by the end of their first year. But this average hides wide fluctuations. Cambridge University has a dropout rate of 1 percent, whereas it stands at 36 percent at the University of East London.

    Universities which recruit large numbers of students from poor backgrounds tend not to retain them. New Labour massively increased student poverty by abolishing what was left of the maintenance grant and introducing fees.

    The heart of the problem is underfunding. The crisis is particularly acute in the 'new' universities, where expansion without matching resources has been the greatest.

    The forecast is that one in three universities will go into debt next year. Increasingly we are likely to see those who can command the market able to get what they want out of higher education.


    CHECHNYA

    Russia does it Nato style

    Putin celebrated New Year's Day by watching Russia's military pound civilians
    Russian soldiers: entrenched in a long campaign?

    Against the background of raging war in Chechnya, Boris Yeltsin resigned after eight years as Russia's first post-Soviet president. Prime minister Vladimir Putin now faces little opposition in the forthcoming presidential elections. Putin is a KGB bureaucrat who was sponsored by the west's favourite free market liberals to head its successor, the FSB. A few months ago he rated a mere 2 percent in the polls. A war and the backing of Russia's bankers and business moguls have changed that.

    Western politicians and commentators bit their tongues as they heaped praise on Yeltsin and Putin for their commitment to democracy and the free market. But Yeltsin's real legacy is war, corruption and economic collapse. The first war in Chechnya, from 1994-96, claimed 80,000 lives: 40 percent of the overwhelmingly civilian casualties were children. At home Yeltsin's reign began with hyperinflation of over 2,000 percent. It ended with catastrophic economic collapse. Millions of workers go unpaid and despair runs deep: over 30,000 Russians died of alcohol poisoning in 1996 alone.

    Putin's first act as caretaker president was to issue a decree granting immunity from prosecution to the Yeltsin family. Billions of dollars have been raked in from tax avoidance scams, asset stripping and sales of oil and precious metals abroad. The amount amassed by the Yeltsin entourage in offshore accounts and investments can only be guessed at.

    Meanwhile Putin and the Russian press brand the Chechens as 'bandits'. Putin celebrated New Year's Day by flying to watch the Russian military pound thousands of Chechen civilians cowering amidst the ruins of Grozny. The Chechen capital was once the world's second largest oil-refining centre. Across the northern plains villages and towns smoke in looted ruin. Russian irregulars and conscripts seize what few possessions are worth taking. Protesters are shot. In the southern mountains, a base for the Chechen fighters, fuel-air explosives create firestorms that incinerate their victims.

    Russia has several war aims: first, to secure a region through which the vital oil pipelines from the Caspian run; second, to crush Chechnya's struggle for independence and so send a message to neighbouring states and western powers that Russia is a force to be reckoned with; third, to reverse the humiliation of previous defeats in Chechnya and Afghanistan. At home Russia's rulers hope to cement popular support with a successful war.

    Russia has emulated Nato's aerial bombardment of civilian centres in Serbia and Kosovo. Hostility in Russia to Nato's Balkan War severely undermined the opposition to Russian militarism that was so important in ending the last Chechen war. Moves by Washington to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Nato's expansion into eastern Europe and attempts to extend its influence into the Caucasus have further reinforced Russia's own warmongers.

    Even the vocabulary of western condemnation has been of a peculiarly meagre quality. Donald Anderson, New Labour chair of the foreign affairs committee, insisted, 'The starting point is that the international community recognises that Chechnya is an integral part of Russia... Our aim must be not to punish or destabilise Russia.'

    What now happens within Russia is critical. Putin's own popularity has risen to 43 percent, and support for the war is running at 66 percent in the polls. But there is an underlying fragility to that support. It rests partly upon the impact of the bombs planted in working class apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere, killing almost 300, and partly upon the information blackout by the press. The war is being financed by a rise in world oil prices and IMF loans. The losses amongst conscripts have been concealed from ordinary Russians.

    Nonetheless, only 34 percent of Russians are confident that the government can win a long campaign. One recent poll registers that 45 percent are now in favour of peace negotiations. Two thirds are either worried about or ashamed of the military campaign.

    The army will take Grozny, destroying it block by block and incurring thousands of civilian casualties. Yet a long military occupation will not be easy. If Russia finds itself entrenched in a long campaign in Chechnya, then growing disenchantment with the war and deep bitterness at home will once more spell trouble for the warmongers.
    Rob Ferguson


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