Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review





Death at the border

Refugees face persecution and harassment when they arrive in Britain

It is almost certain that the 58 Chinese victims who died in the back of a truck en route to Britain would, had they survived, have all eventually been sent back to their 'own' country by the New Labour government. This is the shocking truth about Jack Straw's policy towards refugees.

The Refugee Council reports that in April China was one of the countries 'where significant numbers of decisions were made [regarding asylum applications] but resulted in an almost 100 percent refusal rate'. Other countries included the Congo, Kenya, Pakistan, Poland and Romania. Today China is second highest in the list of countries from which people are forced to flee persecution and seek asylum in Britain--only Sri Lanka is higher.

Yet Jack Straw and New Labour, following hot on the heels of Ann Widdecombe, still give the impression that Britain is 'a soft touch' for asylum seekers. The figures show a completely different story. Britain is still one of the most difficult countries for asylum seekers to enter. During April this year, of the 835 applications from nationals from the former Yugoslavia, only 2 percent were given refugee status, 20 percent were given Exceptional Leave to Remain (ELR) and 78 percent were refused. The figures for the 540 Sri Lankans were 4 percent refugee status, 4 percent ELR and 92 percent refused. Similar figures exist for Iranians (12 percent, 6 percent, and 82 percent refused), and from the former USSR (1 percent, 1 percent and 98 percent refused).

Figures from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) shows that Britain ranks ninth in Europe in terms of asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants. Belgium, Ireland and Norway all offer more generous support to their asylum seekers than Britain. Yet Jack Straw is now leading the charge in Europe to make asylum laws even tougher. Just three days before the 58 victims died in Dover he was at an EU conference in Portugal putting forward proposals that would force people to apply for asylum from the countries they were fleeing from, or from neighbouring states. If the proposals go ahead they would require a radical redrafting of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. It would also mean that all EU countries would adopt the policy that currently exists in Britain of having an agreed list of 'safe countries' from which EU states would not even consider asylum applications. Straw also argued in favour of a quota system for EU countries, saying that they should equally share the financial cost of asylum seekers. The effect will be a further tightening of EU borders, making it even more difficult for refugees to enter Britain.

These proposals were immediately attacked by the UNhcr, which pointed out that 99 percent of refugees run away from persecution and stop only once they reach safety. They were also attacked by Amnesty International, which said that poor states will be left to foot the bill for those fleeing persecution across their borders. As Kate Allen from Amnesty International stated, 'Jack Straw wants to turn the refugee convention on its head by making it into a charter for governments to bar asylum seekers.' Jack Straw and Ann Widdecombe are responsible for the lies and distortions that we have witnessed over the coming months. For example:

A Home Office report, 'The Settlement of Refugees in Britain', stated, 'The majority of asylum seekers come with substantial work and educational qualifications, the bulk of which are under-utilised, to their chagrin and the country's general loss.' In the light of the terrible tragedy that happened in Dover last month, this is a report that should find its way onto the desk of Jack Straw.
Peter Morgan


How the voucher scheme works:

  • The amount of vouchers will vary according to each individual's circumstances-- including age, whether they have children, how old they are, and whether there are meals provided in their accommodation.
  • Asylum seekers will receive vouchers to the value of 70 percent of income support. They will be in the following denominations: £10 (cash voucher), £5, £1, 50p, plus one odd value to make up the balance (eg: 4p)
  • Shops will not accept a voucher if its counterfoil has been detached, and each will only be valid for four weeks. The Refugee Council states, 'A second, later date will also be shown on the voucher. This is the date the retailer must redeem the voucher. It is important that asylum seekers do not confuse the two.'
  • Vouchers will come from the local post office. There are only 600 crown post offices so asylum seekers may have to travel some distance. They must take two letters to the post office--one from the Home Office and one from Sodexho (the firm administering the scheme.
  • Oxfam have said they will not participate in the scheme and vouchers will not be valid for mail order purchases.

  • Another country for refugees

    The compulsory dispersal of asylum seekers is a disaster. They are escaping one hell and being pushed into another. They are being dumped in sub-standard housing in depressed areas, where support services are either non-existent or woefully inadequate. Their arrival often follows negative campaigns in the local press that have stoked up a hostile, racist climate.

    With an estimated 85 percent of refugees living in London, and services and communities concentrated there, it is hardly surprising that prior to April--when the scheme was voluntary--37 percent of cases offered dispersal refused to go.

    From the outset of the scheme there have been returnees who have drifted back to London. But once New Labour's enforced northern hospitality has been shunned, asylum seekers are deemed intentionally homeless and councils can wash their hands of them, often leaving these unfortunates with no option than to beg and sleep rough.

    The national dispersal scheme was a main plank of Labour's 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act. It came online this April, some months before schedule, because Jack Straw bent under pressure from local authorities. From its inception it was always an unpleasant and authoritarian measure that pandered to the right. But it was hurried into place without adequate preparations.

    Despite the failure of an earlier attempt in the 1970s with Vietnamese refugees, and the protests of refugee organisations, the scheme was rushed in. Dispersal was promoted as being in nine regional 'cluster areas' where there would be a mix of decent housing and specialist support services. However, even before the scheme was introduced, alarming examples surfaced of the likely nature of this public-private partnership.

    In December 1999 the Guardian ran a report on a Hull businessman bidding to house 1,000 refugees under the new dispersal policy. His plans were reversed after a tribunal closed a home he ran for the mentally ill. Its report stated that the residents were 'in jeopardy and that their health and welfare, possibly even their lives, were at a serious possible risk'. He also housed 200 asylum seekers in four hotels in Great Yarmouth and had two more hotels on the south coast. Their claims of overcrowding, physical assaults, racism, voucher scheme abuse and the putting of children at risk showed that all his guests received similar treatment.

    His bid was drafted after a Home Office conference where the Home Office minister Barbara Roche ran through the plans for April and, no doubt, the exciting business opportunities it offered. Yet Nick Hardwick, director of the Refugee Council, said: 'There is a real danger that the new system will create new Rachmans as dispersal gathers pace. The Home Office and local authorities must ensure there's effective monitoring to prevent both refugees and taxpayers being exploited.'

    The comments of Iraqi doctor Adnan Mohammed to the Observer in May are typical of recent complaints. 'I lived through ten years of sanctions in Iraq and I never saw people living like this.' He was dumped in the Landmark, a derelict tower block in Liverpool. This crumbling heap that houses refugees is proof that many other enterprising individuals attended the Home Office's Birmingham conference and made successful bids.
    Richard Payne


    Collision course

    In June the Audit Commission published its report into the dispersal programme, 'Another Country'. It is a damning indictment of the scheme, and says that unless there is a substantial injection of funds the policy of integration will not work. Its recommendations bear out the fears of refugee organisations. Dispersal is a cobbled-up remedy for the accommodation crisis, and services vital to refugees are in short supply or unavailable.

    Government policies collide with each other, as evidenced by the many schools turning away refugee children because of anxieties over exam results and league tables. Some GPs claim to be reluctant to register asylum seekers because capitation payments do not reflect longer consultation times, and less than half the law firms with the immigration experience to assist asylum seekers are based outside London.

    The report also analysed 161 local press articles and found only 6 percent that cited the positive contribution made by refugees. The recommendation, like many others, that the new consortia dealing with dispersal 'promote a positive media coverage and ensure that local communities have accurate and well balanced information', is one we would endorse. But it is unlikely these bodies will have more authority than Jack Staw and Barbara Roche, the part creators of this racist climate. The arguments of socialists and anti-racists will make a vital difference in the months to come.


    A Romanian refugee has offered to work in the community to repay the kindness of residents who welcomed him to their town. Traian Pasci arrived in the town at the beginning of the year and was overwhelmed by the reaction of the local people. Along with other asylum seekers in the area he received welcome letters and visits from residents in Grangetown eager to make him feel at home (from the Northern Echo, 14 April).


    A hostel for asylum seekers, mainly Iraqi Kurds, was firebombed by racists. Dozens of families were asleep at the time, but fortunately the firebombing failed (from the Evening Chronicle, 11 April).


    The end of Israel's Vietnam

    For 22 years Lebanon's border was occupied by Israeli forces

    'Chaos, Humiliation, Bloodshed: After 22 Years, Israel withdraws From Lebanon'. The Independent's headline on 24 May captured the moment. The following day the paper's veteran Middle East reporter, Robert Fisk, himself a target of Israeli bullets on more than one occasion, underlined its real significance: 'They stood along the border fence and stared at the impossible. The Hizbollah men--hundreds of them, in their fatigues and with their rifles in their hands--just stood in silence and looked out, awestruck, at the fields and orchards of Galilee. The gunman beside me breathed in deeply. "Azeem," he said. "Incredible."

    'And it was. Here they were, the bearded men who had routed one of the world's most powerful armies, standing at last on the very frontier of Israel.'

    Some commentators of both the western press and in Israel have tended to describe Israel's involvement in Lebanon as an 'adventure' and as a 'mistake'. They put all the blame on Israel's right wing Likud government of 1982, which launched the invasion. But this view begs several questions.

    First, the aim of the invasion was to smash the military organisation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation based in Beirut, Lebanon's capital. This cost tens of thousands of lives of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and led to the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian camps which shocked the world. The ultimate goal of evicting the PLO from Lebanon, which was successful, justified the bloody means.

    Second, the Israeli Labour opposition supported the invasion.

    Third, the United States supported the invasion. Pentagon statistics revealed a huge upsurge in weapons supplied to Israel in those months. Indeed the Pentagon had been keeping a close eye on some of its new weapons--deliberately using the war as a test bed for untried military hardware. In the end the US was even involved in the physical evacuation of a disarmed PLO from Beirut.

    The truth is that Israel's war on Lebanon fitted both Israel's and the US strategic interests in the region. The PLO had to be neutered. In 1974 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had famously arrived at the United Nations, gun in one hand, olive branch in the other. Now he had only the olive branch.

    Yet Israel's 'victory' exacted a terrible price, from its point of view. Its indiscriminate bloodletting in the south of the country transformed thousands of Lebanese Shia Muslims into ferocious and uncompromising opponents. It is fashionable to claim that Iran and Syria founded Hizbollah, Yet Israel itself created the conditions for Hizbollah to flourish.

    Hizbollah's victory has sent shock waves throughout the Middle East. It has exposed just how flawed the 'peace process' is. Palestinians everywhere rejoiced, yet Arafat was profoundly depressed. He told Israeli leaders, 'Hizbollah are seen as heroes. Our people believe we should be taking this route as well.'

    In every way the peace process is perceived as failing. The Economist magazine (27 May), a journal little noted for sympathy for Palestinian objectives, summed up the reasons. Living standards have collapsed and unemployment has rocketed on the West Bank and in Gaza since 1993. Movement between the West Bank and Gaza is still heavily restricted. West Bank and Gaza account for only 22 percent of the land that all Palestinians count as Palestine. Arafat is not even ready to insist that at least the full 22 percent should constitute independent Palestine. The Economist calls the current arrangements on the West Bank 'madness--a crazy hotchpotch of Palestinian controlled towns and villages, each patch divided from the next by Israeli held territory'

    And it calls Israel's control of the distribution of water to the Palestinians 'grossly unjust. The Palestinians' use per person, in towns and for farming, is only 30 percent of the Israelis'. The (West Bank) Israeli settlers consume five or six times as much...' More than a third of West Bank Palestinians are without piped drinking water. Israel will not yield on Palestinian claims for Jerusalem to become the capital of independent Palestine. Similarly, Israel will not yield on more than 3 million Palestinian refugees claiming a right of return to their homeland.

    It is the Zionist political structure and Zionist ideology that prevent peace between Arabs and Jews. Interestingly, a tiny number of former prominent Zionists are beginning to realise this. In a recent book, Sacred Landscape--the Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, apologises to the Palestinians for the way the Zionists buried both their history and their geography. He even concedes that the term 'ethnic cleansing' justifiably describes much Zionist activity against the Palestinians. Elsewhere in the book his rather tortured prose captures the essence of the problem:

    'Israelis for their part view every expression of Palestinian attachment to the old Palestinian landscape as tantamount to murder and as a sure sign that the Arabs do not want peace but rather are using the peace process as a means of liberating the land in stages, taking what the Israelis offer in the interim agreements, to gain a base from which they will ultimately launch "The Return" to all of their former homeland. Time has not alleviated these deep seated fears...because these emotions are not simply irrational...they are based on the reality created in 1948.'

    Benvenisti stops short of the ultimate next step. He does not call for the dismantling of Zionism and the creation of a single independent state for both Arabs and Jews. But he clearly understands that the struggle to dismantle the Zionist state has to continue.

    Hizbollah's victory over the Zionists has given that struggle a timely boost.
    John Rose


    Post Office workers reject Labour's delivery

    Delegates at this year's CWU conference express disillusionment with Labour

    'Heckled, jeered, booed--Blair bombs at the Women's Institute'. That was the headline in the Guardian newspaper on 8 June. The press took great delight at the treatment Blair received at the hands of the 'blue rinse brigade' in London last month. But they almost universally ignored the far more historic and important decisions taken at the Communication Workers Union (CWU) annual conference held in Bournemouth four days earlier.

    Delegates voted to withdraw 'all financial and moral support for the Labour Party' if the government privatises any part of the postal industry. The vote threatening to break from Labour was carried by 148,000 to 107,000 votes (a 58 to 42 percent margin). When it was announced, there was stunned silence in the hall. Delegates realised they had taken a major step in breaking with New Labour.

    The relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour Party dominated the rest of the conference. CWU delegates also voted not to increase the amount of subscription payments made to the Labour Party. The CWU is Britain's sixth biggest trade union. In the past it has been a loyal supporter of the Labour Party. Under its previous leader, Alan Johnson, the CWU was at the centre of Blair's modernisation project.

    Time and time again delegates supported those who put a left wing political opposition to New Labour. The union's treasurer, David Norman, was censured for his decision to freeze all the accounts of the North/North West London branch which had democratically decided to give £200 to Ken Livingstone and the London Socialist Alliance during the recent London elections. And over 350 delegates, including Derek Hodgson, the union's general secretary, signed a statement in defence of asylum seekers.

    The disillusionment with New Labour is part of a growing mood against long hours, low pay, privatisation and the feeling that big corporations are trampling over workers' rights. Post office workers have as much right as anyone to be angry. Wages remain very low in the industry. Basic pay for a delivery worker is just £12,600 a year. Postal workers can earn up to £20,000 a year--but only if they are willing to put in a 70 hour week!

    The Independent reported, 'Every day, somewhere in Britain, a postal sorting office is on strike. There has been no publicity, but the Royal Mail has been engulfed by two months of unofficial sit-ins and walkouts as postal workers revolt against the "modernisation" of their working hours.'

    Industrial relations are so bad that post office disputes accounted for 84 of the 195 disputes logged by the Office for National Statistics--miles ahead of any other group of workers. These figures do not include the smaller stoppages lasting less than a day or involving less than ten people.

    But it would be wrong to see the politicisation of the CWU as a result of an increasing number of strikes. A growing feeling that New Labour has betrayed all those who voted for it lies at the heart of the discontent. The CWU is not alone. Rail workers (RMT) have voted to break the link with the Labour Party and there is a similar debate taking place inside the firefighters union (FBU). Neither is the mood against New Labour just confined to manual unions. A third of the delegates at the Bectu broadcasting union conference voted to disaffiliate from the Labour Party--Bectu is hardly known as a radical union!

    The media may fail to pick up on the fact that the break with Labour taking place inside the union movement is more important than the heckling that took place at the Women's Institute. But socialists should recognise the significance of what is happening. The decisions taken by the CWU conference mark a watershed between New Labour and the unions, and one which will only deepen as Blair continues to push pro-market policies.
    Martin Smith


    Waterfall of profit begins to dry up

    A decade after Yorkshire Water was privatised, with huge dividends to its shareholders, it seems that things are not going so well. Yorkshire Water's parent company, Kelda, is now going to turn it into a non-profit mutual society owned and run by the local community. In effect it is the partial renationalisation of one of the former utilities that was sold off during the height of the Tory government.

    The root of the problem is that Kelda is not making sufficient profits. This is in spite of the fact it has been one of the most consistent 'high performers' on the FTSE 100 index over the last decade. However, more recently it has been subjected to greater regulation from the water regulatory body, Ofwat, although this is still remarkably light. But, more importantly, Kelda bosses have not been willing to make the investment necessary to bring Yorkshire Water's facilities up to scratch.

    Problems arose a few years ago when consumers in one of Britain's wettest regions faced regular 'drought' conditions and water restrictions. This was because of the appalling state of the pipes (leaks were the highest of any water company in Britain), plus Kelda selling off large tracts of land to developers. To overcome these problems heavy investment was needed in Yorkshire Water's pipes, treatment works, reservoirs and other infrastructure to the tune of £15 billion over the next five years. This scared off investors and shares have declined 40 percent over the last year.

    With profits down the bosses have pulled out and have set up a number of Registered Community Asset Mutuals to raise finance for improvements and decide how local water facilities should be run. It is not a complete renationalisation--in fact Kelda's chairman has described it as a 'stakeholder' philosophy. The bosses want public sector investment for big projects, while retaining profit making deliveries of water. It shows you cannot leave the running of life's basic necessities under the control of the free market--a point made repeatedly during the run-up to privatisation. It will also make current arguments against handing assets such as air traffic control over to the free market easier to win.


  • Ministry of Defence plans to privatise its research labs have been hit by opposition from unlikely sources. Two senior managers supposed to have been heading the privatisation, which includes Porton Down, have suddenly resigned. The US Pentagon has been opposing it, worried that UK private companies may steal military secrets.
  • World military spending totalled $780 billion in 1999. Russia and the US had the biggest increases in spending. Russia's budget jumped by 24 percent.
  • One in five homes in South Yorkshire and Humberside is classified as unfit for human habitation. There is a £1 billion repairs backlog for council housing, yet the private sector has the highest proportion of unfit homes.
  • The entire schools system in Leeds has been ordered to transfer from local authority control to a joint venture between the council and private operators such as Group 4 and Serco. The 'market' is estimated to be worth £1.6 billion. All services and staff would transfer to the private companies.

  • Criminal Weapons

    'Nuclear power--no thanks' was a battle cry across Germany in the 1970s. The anti-nuclear movement gave birth to the Green Party, now junior partner in the country's ruling coalition.

    That is why last month's agreement between the government and the German nuclear industry to phase out nuclear power had so much symbolism. It provides for phasing out nuclear power, with the power industry shutting down Germany's 19 reactors after an average 32 years of operation. With the newest plants coming onstream in the late 1980s, it means the last reactor should shut in the early 2020s.

    Gerhard Schröder, the Social Democrat chancellor (prime minister) said the deal was an 'extraordinarily reasonable compromise'. The power companies called it 'acceptable', while Germany's environment minister, Juergen Trittin of the Green Party, said the agreement was 'difficult, but bearable'.

    The Green MPs in the Bundestag (parliament) immediately ratified the deal. However, for many Green Party members, environmentalists and socialists it was a betrayal. When the country's SPD/Green government took office in 1998 one of the main planks of the coalition agreement was to exit nuclear power 'within 100 days of taking office'.

    After the agreement Antje Radcke, one of the Greens' co-leaders, said, 'This is unacceptable. It looks as though the Greens have settled for longterm peace with nuclear power.' Gunda Rostel, her colleague, however, said she favoured 'compromise', and the party was set for an acrimonious conference as Socialist Review went to press.

    Whatever its outcome, the German stock market understood the agreement. Shares in the nuclear power companies rose 5 percent on news of the deal-- the industry's nuclear power stations are only designed to have a 30 year lifespan anyway.

    As the German government and nuclear industry were hatching their 'extraordinarily reasonable compromise', the Ukrainian government announced it was to finally close down the Chernobyl power station on 15 December. In 1986 one of Chernobyl's four reactors exploded with the force of 300 Hiroshima bombs, spreading a deadly cloud of radioactive debris across the Ukraine and around the globe. The grim results can be seen in soaring cancer rates and infant mortality rates, which are around 20 times those of neighbouring east European countries.

    In 1995 Ukraine and the G8 group of leading industrialised nations signed an agreement that Chernobyl would be closed in return for western assistance. It is going to cost at least $900 million to make the Chernobyl site safe, but less than $500 million has been committed, let alone handed over so far. Other eastern European countries, like Lithuania, are being told that the price of even beginning negotiations about European Union entry is the abandonment of nuclear power.

    Yet here in Britain the government continues to protect the nuclear industry. Ministers throw their hands up in horror at revelation after revelation about lax safety standards at the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, but the one thing they will not countenance is acting on the slogan of the German environmentalists 25 years ago.
    Mike Simons


    Public money pays for private greed

    Plans to extend the use of private hospitals to ease the backlog of NHS operations hides the fact that there is already considerable use of private facilities by the public sector. An incredible 70 percent of private nursing home and residential places are publicly funded.

    Public spending on private health and social care comes to £4.5 billion a year, and £300 million of that comes from the NHS budget.

    There was a huge expansion of private nursing homes in the 1980s under Thatcher, and Labour has done nothing to reverse the trend. Taxpayers' money is spent not on getting the best care for the old and sick, but on securing the profits of the private homes.

    In Cambridge, Addenbrooke's Hospital shares an MRI scanner with the local private Bupa hospital. The scanner was paid for by the NHS but is housed by Bupa. It is shared by NHS and private patients, and both pay for two specialist nurses to run it. So public money is used for capital investment which benefits the private sector.

    Around 50,000 NHS operations are performed in the private sector each year. This takes £61 million from the NHS budget--money which could be used to build new hospitals and take on extra staff, which in turn would alleviate the crisis in the health service.


    Vacant loft space

    Recently the papers reported the sad tale of a man found wandering the streets of his village in the Ukraine, clearly bewildered and half starving. It turned out he had been living up in his loft for more than 60 years, convinced the Germans were still after him.

    More recently a very similar event has come to light in the UK. Only this time it is researchers at the University of Warwick and the Department of Trade and Industry who have emerged, blinking into the light with beards round their ankles, to unveil their much hallowed ponderings on the state of industrial relations in Britain.

    The central discovery of the Workplace Industrial Relations Surveys, entitled All Change at Work?, is that collective bargaining in the UK has entered into a state of terminal decline and this is likely to continue. Fortunately, neither measures up to any level-headed assessment of what has been going on in the real world.

    Like the poor Ukrainian, who might not have realised that the man in uniform coming up the path every morning was probably the postie rather than a member of the Waffen SS, the first big gaffe committed by the WIRS team is to confuse different forms of bargaining with their content. The latest survey repeatedly makes the mistake of measuring up existing bargaining arrangements against a particular model which, even in its 1970s heyday, was not in fact the norm. According to this formula, everything was bargained at industry level in the 1970s, then it went to company level in the 1980s, by the 1990s it had gone to plant level and by 2000 it was down to individual level. Those collective bargaining arrangements which fail to pass this entirely superficial examination can then be effortlessly disregarded.

    This approach is taken to utterly ludicrous extremes in the WIRS analysis of bargaining changes inside the public sector, where--we are loftily informed--'the long-standing norm of nationally negotiated pay settlements covering a majority of employees in each workplace no longer holds true'. Never mind that both teachers and nurses have their pay determined by national pay review bodies, or that management and unions regularly meet at both local and national level. The same goes for the civil service, where--true enough--national bargaining no longer covers all departments and all grades. But most of the departments still have national bargaining, and unionisation is universal. One of the government's biggest headaches is the fact that the entire public sector is highly unionised, and its representatives exert considerable political clout.

    The WIRS team also argue that union recognition seems to have virtually collapsed in sectors where it was once most strongly entrenched. For example, they say that 'the engineering industry has turned from being the model of collective bargaining in the 1960s and the 1970s, to having nearly the lowest rate of recognition in any industry in 1998'. But the picture being painted here is also a complete misrepresentation. The decline of union presence in the engineering industry was not accentuated 'by the collapse of the industry-wide bargaining machinery in 1990'. The industry machinery was only dismantled after the employers had just been forced to concede a shorter working week, and this was after a highly successful national strike in 1989. For the majority of engineering workers in the biggest and best organised factories, national bargaining has always played an entirely subsidiary role to domestic negotiations, either at company or plant by plant level. This is still the case in all of the entire car and components industry (which is very highly unionised) and in very large sectors like aerospace and electronics. The AEEU still has about three quarters of a million members and the MSF has another half a million.

    Had the researchers at WIRS in Warwick only taken a peek out of their attic window recently, they might have caught a glimpse of the 80,000 workers who marched against the closure of Longbridge and asked themselves if their own woolgathering matched up with the evidence of their own eyes. Or they might have thought, why is it that you get as many as 50 Ford convenors meeting up nationally, determined to fight any attempt by Ford management to stop car assembly at Dagenham?

    The Walrus

    It really does take a very special type of myopia to bring out a report heralding the extinction of trade unions as a relevant force, a good two years after a reversal of the steady decline in union membership figures--and just at the very moment when new employment legislation offers opportunities to make further serious inroads. These people need to get out more often.


    Flames of resistance

    Much of Nigeria was paralysed in June by a general strike. Only a year after the end of military rule, oil industry workers, public sector and transport employees in this country of over 110 million people blocked the port at Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, and severely disrupted flights at the airport.

    The industrial action came in response to the government's decision to raise the cost of petrol and of cooking kerosene (a vital commodity for the poor) by 50 percent. The increase was an attempt to cut the heavy fuel subsidies the state pays to the fuel sector (more than $1 billion annually) in preparation for its eventual deregulation. This is an important condition for the IMF's backing for debt relief and loans.

    The strike forced the government to backtrack. Within days they halved the original 50 percent petrol price increase and rescinded the kerosene price rise. But the trade union leaders only ended the strike when the government agreed to a petrol price rise of no more than 10 percent. The government setback reflects the fact that oil production contributes more than 90 percent of Nigeria's export earnings, thus making the Nigerian ruling class extremely vulnerable to pressure.


    Election backfires

    Did you hear about the Montenegrin elections? Probably not, since little news that is bad for the Nato powers is getting much coverage at the moment.

    Montenegro is the small state that with Serbia makes up Yugoslavia. Its boss, Milo Djukanovic, used to be a close ally of Slobodan Milosevic, but recently switched sides hoping to benefit from an alliance with the EU and Nato. In return, the west has turned a blind eye to the widespread corruption he has presided over. Just before last month's local elections, described as 'a litmus test for the nation's shifting political mood', Montenegro received generous financial backing from the west. Public sector wages went up, benefits were paid and streets suddenly cleaned.

    The backfiring of the plan has been followed by almost total silence. Djukanovic's party just held on in the capital, and lost the town of Herceg Novi to the pro-Milosevic 'Yugoslavia' coalition. The pro-independence liberals suffered the worst results. This suggests that even those hostile to the Belgrade government are cynical about the west's motives. The talk of economic aid and a Stability Pact are a sick joke in the impoverished Balkans.

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