Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Is there an anti-capitalist mood in the core sections of the working class in Britain today? I am not convinced that there is, but the trashing of housing privatisation by Wycombe District Council tenants in last month's ballot has at least made me wonder.
Council tenants have had a long softening-up process in advance of the current wave of transfer ballots and transfer can seem the only viable way to get investment into our homes.
At least that has been the argument of Tory councillors and council officers in Wycombe over the past year. Behind them was a £400,000 budget, teams of lawyers, endless promotional materials, handpicked 'independent' tenants' advisers and, of course, full backing from the New Labour government. Hands Off Our Homes, in contrast, was set up as a scratch campaign by local people including the local trades council, the SWP, a few people from the Labour Party, in fact all comers.
The vote yes campaign (privatisation roadshow) offered tens of millions of pounds worth of investment, with guarantees and reassurances galore. We could only reply that the policy of transfer was wrong, and that we needed a serious campaign for more government funding. It wasn't easy. 'They've already decided though haven't they?' was a frustratingly regular comment on the campaign trail. It didn't much feel like the 'spirit of Seattle'!
Sadly I missed the count where leading councillors were white and choking with rage after the 51.6 percent no vote from tenants. A good campaign is one thing, but to actually win changes everything. Quite simply, we convinced more people than they did. Tenants have direct experience of housing associations, which have a rotten record here, the proposed 'not for profit company' was a standing joke, and so happily the council's massive transfer budget could not deliver.
The ruling class needs to have the 'fig leaf' of voting on the privatisation of something as sensitive as social housing--and it can go wrong for them. It's a fantastic feeling that this was the biggest ballot amongst working people in our locality for decades, with the result a decisive vote against the market.
The bigger picture is always the starting point for socialists. The totality always feeds back into every local issue, and our intervention has to be based around the whole story--in this case with excellent results. I'm still not quite sure about the 'spirit of Seattle', but there's definitely something moving out there...
The two main claims made by the council were that in three of the schools there were too few children, and that in the case of special needs it was moving towards an integrated education system. The response from local campaigners was that if the schools have fewer children then that should mean smaller class sizes. The idea of an integrated education system is one we support, but money has to be spent on extra facilities which is not happening.
The Save Our Schools (SOS) campaign involves parents, individual teachers and council workers, school governors and socialists (both inside and outside the Labour Party). SOS has held two demonstrations and various lobbies, leafleted train stations and petitioned door to door, on street stalls and at local festivals. We've collected over 8,000 signatures, money to pay for leaflets, etc. The local Unison, NUT and trades council branches have supported the demonstrations. The fact that the Labour council has tried to ignore all of this, and is still pushing ahead while giving huge payouts to themselves and the retiring chief executive has angered people. Quite a few of the campaigners were involved in leafleting for the London Socialist Alliance candidate and the local anti-cuts candidate in the May elections.
This month the council intends to start its legal 'consultation', which means the campaigning needs to be stepped up--and teachers are going to be key to stopping the plans. Whatever happens it is clear that Labour voters who are involved in, and support, the campaign are looking for an alternative as they are so angry their hopes and trust have been betrayed. This is why it is so important that socialists try to link the fight to all struggles so this anger goes in a positive direction.
We welcome letters and contributions on all issues raised in Socialist Review. Please keep your contributions as short as possible, typed, double spaced if you can, and on one side of paper only.
Mark Brown (July/August SR) is right to say that a general trend towards more progressive social attitudes presents Labour with a dilemma.
'Progressive' Mr Blair made repeal of Section 28 an election manifesto pledge. He had a huge mandate to scrap it. At last, we thought, this outrageously homophobic piece of legislation, which was brought in by a rabid Tory government hell-bent on cutting public spending and promoting only Victorian values, would hit the bottom of the bin.
However, we've become used to a string of broken promises from Blair. In the last week of the parliamentary session in July the House of Lords rejected the repeal of Section 28 from the Local Government Bill, and Labour's response was to let it lie. They could have scheduled the bill earlier or used parliamentary procedures to scrap Section 28. But they chose not to.
Section 28 says that lesbians and gays cannot be treated equally. It says that lesbian and gay parents represent nothing more than a 'pretend family relationship'. So a loving family where the parents are of the same sex is subordinate, in the eyes of the law, to even the most abusive heterosexual relationship.
Section 28 intimidates teachers from discussing homosexuality in an open way. Yet schools can provide the environment that developing children need, so as to talk safely and openly about sex and sexuality for the purpose of turning out as well rounded kids who will themselves encourage more tolerance and equality in the world around them.
Astonishingly this is the very dilemma for Labour. When challenged in Scotland by the millionaire bigot Brian Souter, Labour backed down over Section 28, opting instead for marriage-promoting guidelines.
Blair's internal memo leaked to the press in July identified 'gay issues' as one of the areas where the government was considered 'weak'. This is not a label Blair will cherish. We cannot wait for Labour to deliver over Section 28. When the schools go back in September it should be the NUT that leads the charge against Blair over Section 28.
In July/August SR, Mike Gonzalez claims the film Erin Brockovich 'has now joined the pantheon of myths of the American Way', where 'American democracy can always be persuaded, eventually, to speak for the "ordinary person".' Unfortunately Gonzalez has missed the main thrust of the film and makes a needlessly pessimistic response to it. It is rather a brilliant film about a single mother of three fighting back with every ounce of energy she can find and winning!
Gonzalez suggests that Erin Brockovich is about the success of the American legal system--yet this misses the point that Brockovich must fight to force the system to take up a difficult case for real justice. Albert Finney's character has to be bullied into taking on a case he regards as too risky and unlikely to be profitable. The high-powered Armani-suited lawyers who take over the case are portrayed as incompetent and elitist nincompoops. It is the active campaigning of Brockovich that forces the hand of the court. It is the endless hours of face to face contact with the victims and calling a town meeting that wins over the victims of industrial toxins to think they can get justice. It is this climate of resistance that gives the whistleblower the confidence to come forward and tip the balance against the corporation. This film is not a vindication of the legal system, but rather shows the difficulties in making it work in such a transparent case of corporate injustice.
Erin Brockovich should not be compared to Forrest Gump, a film with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Rather it should be appreciated in the context of Seattle and Washington, the anti-capitalist fightback, the environmental movement, and--importantly--the fight for women's liberation. Rarely have I seen a film that deals with real issues in working women's lives--finding a job when you've been out of the workforce raising kids, affording childcare, finding a partner who is not a sexist jerk, coping with the decision to use what precious little time capitalism leaves you to fight for a better world for all children at the expense of spending time with your own. Even when Brockovich finds a 'nice guy' boyfriend who is willing to do the laundry and take care of the kids she isn't willing to sacrifice her fight for justice to his demands for her time in their relationship. Gonzalez mentions four other films and two other heroes in his article. Are any of these other heroes women? Single mothers of three? Since when is 'the little woman fighting against the corporation' a 'favourite Hollywood theme'?
As a mother and a revolutionary myself, I found Erin Brockovich an incredible inspiration to spend my life fighting injustice. I think many others feel the same.
I was pleased to read in your June issue the positive comments of Alan Gibson on my book Running on Empty, which was a comparison and critique of the 'modernisation' of the British and Australian Labour parties.
It was disappointing, however, that Alan ended up falling back on a somewhat sectarian and rather tired old formula for rejection of left wing Labour positions like my own.
Alan dismisses my call for both the British and Australian Labour parties to engage in more rigorous thinking about alternative economic approaches as 'meaningless' because 'both parties are committed to running capitalism rather than destroying it. This means that, no matter how much rigorous thinking each party engages in, they will...always end up attacking the very people who elect them.'
Alan thereby misses a crucial part of my argument. The left inside and outside the British and Australian Labour parties is now closer to mainstream public opinion on key economic issues than the right, and should therefore be thinking and working together, to harness this public opinion, to bring about changes to the increasingly harsh and polarised capitalism we are experiencing. The evidence is abundantly clear that most British people and most Australians do not support privatisation, free trade, or the job losses and community disintegration caused by radical economic restructuring. It is the left which has most consistently opposed these policies. Therein lies the potential for the left now to become a mainstream force rather than remain marginal.
In my book I quote from a past debate in the left in Australia--a critic of those who 'believe that to change something they must change everything, hence they do nothing'. I hope that Alan and your readers might agree that there is much common ground between left wingers inside and outside the Labour Party right now, and that there is much urgency in us working together to challenge and resist the dominance of neoliberal orthodoxy even if our achievements in so doing fall short of perfection in the short term.
Most Balkan bombs missed their targets. The military occupation of Kosovo, like the bombing and sanctions on Iraq, perpetuates the waste of life, destruction of the environment and real costs involved. Yet Treasury ministers assert that the war 'poses no threat to our finances' (Alan Milburn, May 1999).
Why then are 'poor' hospitals, schools and social services who miss their 'targets' such a threat that they must be named and shamed, their staff demoralised, their local population stigmatised and their funding cut?
Was it (Eric) Blair's fictional 1984 where Big Brother governments maintained the threat of foreign war in order to repress the legitimate aspirations of the people at home?
'Capitalism', 'progress', and 'choice'--three words that sit uncomfortably together. This is clear in two recent cases. One is where the availability of beta-interferon for people with multiple sclerosis has been limited. The second case concerns an increasing number of pensioners who have seen written on their case notes 'Not for resuscitation'. Beta-interferon is a drug that many people had high hopes for in the control and abatement of symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Beta-interferon only improves the condition of certain people--about one third of cases. The Nice (National Institution for Clinical Excellence) committee recommended to the NHS, under pressure from the government, that the availability of beta-interferon be limited to those already taking the drug. This is simply about cost, as the drug costs £10,000 a year, yet it has changed some lives fundamentally.
Pensioners are increasingly aware of how health is related to financial pressures beyond most people's control.
Disabled and elderly groups are usually at the bottom of the pile when it comes to services. These are the two groups least likely to be in a position to fight back. For those with any health problem cures are costly, and the search for a causal factor limited by financial considerations.
We live in a world dominated by the madness of the market. This has also been shown in the case of Aids, where much research is a national secret and is not shared. In the Balkans 1.8 million became refugees as a direct result of the war in 1999 and its consequences. Similarly in Turkey after the 1999 earthquake 200,000 became disabled. These are examples of profit first, people second.
Under capitalism, health is forever linked to profit, and so the notion of 'choice' is a very convenient illusion. In this country there has been an ethos of free healthcare for all for over 50 years. It is up to socialists to argue that for anyone who is needy we must fight together for such basic rights as the availability of healthcare. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg and serve to show how people are all too often hoodwinked by the false notions of a system that barely values human life.