Issue 246 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

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RAIL SAFETY

Just in time means death on the line

The Hatfield disaster is the third major crash in three years
The Hatfield disaster is the third major crash in three years

Four more lives have been lost as a result of the appalling safety standards and lack of investment in Britain's privatised rail network. The derailing of a high speed GNER train near Hatfield is the third serious incident involving high speed trains in little more than three years. The accident comes just a few weeks after the anniversary of the Paddington rail crash which cost the 31 lives. Following Paddington the government promised that cost would be no object to improve safety. Instead safety is once again being compromised. Some ten months ago weaknesses had been identified with the section of track where this latest crash took place, yet nothing had been done to repair it.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that, the privatised rail companies and the government have failed to invest the necessary resources to make the railways safer. As long ago as 1989 the inquiry into the Clapham rail disaster recommended that the Automatic Train Protection(ATP) system be introduced on the rail network, which would prevent 98 percent of accidents caused by trains passing signals at red. Today there are still no plans for this to be introduced. Instead the rail companies, in agreement with the government, are going ahead with the far less safe, and cheaper, TPWS system.

Now the ATP system is being superseded by an even safer system currently being fitted to trains in Europe, called ECTS. It is more expensive than ATP but campaigners suspect that if the TPWS system is introduced on Britain's railways it would almost certainly enable the rail companies to wriggle out of upgrading to the European system.

But the more fundamental problem at the heart of the deterioration of safety levels on the rail concerns the principles which govern the privatised rail network. The pressure on the rail companies to maximise profits means that, as with all other areas of the economy, bosses have to introduce methods of production which maximise returns. 'Just in time' production means that trains must be constantly in use instead of sitting idle in sidings or being maintained in depots. One GNER official admitted following the Hatfield crash that on any one day the company will have 28 of its 30 trains running. There is constant pressure to get the trains out of depots filled with passengers to maximise returns. The result, inevitably, will be to compromise safety.

One of the main areas of concern regarding safety levels is the state of the trains themselves. Last year there were 90 derailments and many were caused because of the deterioration of rolling stock. One of the last instances of wheel or axle failure was on the same line as this latest crash. Nine passengers were injured on 16 June 1998 when part of the King's Cross to Edinburgh train came off the track. Railcars Ltd (one of the subsidiary campanies responsible for maintenance) was fined just £175,000 because a wheel on the train 'disintegrated'.

Whatever the cause of this recent crash, the government still refuses to confront the fundamental priorities of Britain's privatised rail network--namely a multitude of private operators vying to make as much profit as possible. As more passengers travel by rail, government has extended franchises to companies and maintained subsidies. An overcrowded, underfunded railway is a licence to print money for the bosses. It will be passengers who pay the price.
Peter Morgan


PENSIONS

Restore the link

A pensioner delegate at this year's Labour Party conference put the demand for a decent pension directly: 'We can't wait until 2003 because we might be dead by then.' Today the basic pension is worth less in real terms than in 1948. Some 40,000 pensioners die every winter in Britain because they cannot afford to heat their homes.

The pensions debate was one of the first major defeats for Labour's leadership and one it insists it will ignore. Blair wants to see people taking responsibility for their old age by paying into private pensions, with extra 'targeted support' (means testing) for the worse off. Pensioners' organisations, disgusted by the 75p increase in the last budget, are campaigning for a restoration of the link between pensions and earnings, broken by the Tories in 1980. Currently pensions are £67.50 a week, a shortfall of £30 if pensions had continued to be tied to earnings for the last 20 years.

Britain's pensioners are some of the poorest in Europe. The National Pensioners Convention (NPC) argues that the money is there in the form of a huge surplus in the National Insurance fund, currently £5 billion. This is expected to increase to £10.5 billion by 2002. Pensioners realise they have to fight now. The NPC is behind a series of actions due to take place on 7 November, including a mass rally in Westminster Hall and a march on parliament. The expectation is that Gordon Brown will announce an increase of between £5 and £8 a week in this year's budget in an attempt to dampen the anger. But there is a determination amongst campaigners to see the link between pensions and earnings restored.
Karen O'Toole


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • Need to get some bargains in the run-up to Xmas? A Time Out survey has found that the best discount store in London is the Millennium Dome souvenir shop. With such appalling level of attendance this year, they are selling most things of at 50 percent off. How about a Dome fridge magnet--originally £2.50, now only 99p?
  • The British army has devised a cunning way to camouflage its tanks engaged in battle. A sheet of plastic is covered in tiny television screens which can project an image at the enemy, so a tank in a field is covered with this sheet and an image of the field is shown. Hey presto--the tank disappears. There's only one problem --it requires a 70 foot trailer to power and control.
    There's nothing here
  • Top executives' pay has shot ahead over the last year, with the highest paid directors receiving average pay rises of 21.2 percent compared to 10.7 percent last year. Top of the list was Brian Ashford-Russell of the investment trust Henderson Technology, who received a 719 percent increase largely as a result of a £6,326,000 'performance' related bonus. Elton John 'earned' £25 million as a director of his own company, Happenstance.

  • Gordon Brown's November budget announcements are bound to be overshadowed by one issue--oil. Fuel price protests and the Middle East crisis mean that Labour has less freedom of manoeuvre than once seemed likely. The constraints are political, not economic. The government already has the resources to increase public spending by 3.3 percent over the next three years without increasing taxes.Modest proposals put forward by the Liberal Democrats would raise an extra £2,600 million a year by introducing a new 50 percent tax rate for the estimated 204,000 people with an annual income of more than £100,000. But even the Tories had a top tax rate of 60 percent up until 1988--and previously a rate of 75 percent. The very highest rate of tax under the last Labour government was 83 percent.

    Taxes on business have fallen dramatically. Corporation tax was 50 percent in 1983, when the Tories began cutting it. It fell to 33 percent by 1996, since when Labour has cut it further, to 30 percent this year.

    The Tory tax changes at the end of the 1980s put an estimated £17 billion into the pockets of the well off. Allowing for inflation, this is probably worth around £25 billion a year today--say about 60 percent of the entire education budget. To put this in perspective, the total revenue from income tax now stands at just over £89 billion.


    In the early years of North Sea oil production UK companies were, in addition to the standard corporation tax, subject to specific taxes, namely royalties and Petroleum Revenue Tax (PRT). These were taxes which were payable after investment costs had been recouped. Corporation tax has now been lowered to just 30 percent and PRT has been abolished.

    Gordon Brown considered imposing a windfall tax on the oil companies but then backed down following pressure from oil bosses.

    Now, following the recent fuel protests, the government is likely to give in to the large haulage companies. The scheme currently being used by farmers whereby they receive cheaper subsidised 'red' fuel looks set to be extended to the hauliers. The outcome will mean more congestion on the roads and worse pollution.


    LABOUR'S CRISIS

    Ghost of a chance

    William Hague

    Suddenly, totally unexpectedly, a strange and ghastly creature from the past flutters across the political stage--a Tory government. A what? Not a past Tory government, nor even a Labour government pretending to be a Tory government. But for a fleeting moment, and in at least three proper opinion polls, a majority of British people answered the question, 'How would you vote at the next election?' with the preposterous reply, 'Conservative.' Convert these polls into a general election and the phantasma, the spectre, is converted into reality-- a Tory government with William Hague as prime minister.

    Anne Widdecombe

    Not for eight years, not since Heseltine closed the pits and Lamont ran up the interest rates to 15 percent, have the Tories led in the opinion polls. What was the cause of this sudden shift? Was there a spectacular disaster for the government? On the contrary. Many pundits, myself included, were predicting that the Labour lead in the polls was so huge and the prospect--not the reality, but the prospect--of Brown's budget so alluring that Blair might call an October election and have done with the Tories for another five years at least.

    Was it perhaps the emergence of William Hague as a charismatic leader, or of his Tory team as thrusting dynamos with even a glimmer of an answer to people's problems? To ask the question is to answer it. The Tories are a hopeless bunch, even more anonymous and lacklustre than they were under John Major, split all ends up over Europe and careering to the right in a maniacal frenzy. The real answer is much more serious. It is that the fuel crisis, and the government's dithering over it, left people uneasy and uncertain. The violent fluctuations of the opinion polls showed that old party loyalties are unreliable.

    New Labour's ministers are unpopular not so much for what they say and do, but for what they don't say and don't do. The hallmark of the government is paralysis. It doesn't say yes and it doesn't say no. It doesn't say stop and it doesn't say go. Too nervous to climb, too frightened to fall, it bides its time and clings to the wall. In a society cut into classes, paralysis is not even neutrality. It leaves things as they are--in the exclusive hands of the rich who grow more and more confident that they will be able to hang on to their wealth and power.

    The reason for the sudden rise in the polls for the Tories has nothing to do with them and even less to do with the 'apathy of the masses'. The blame lies squarely on New Labour. Three and a half years after the biggest election victory of all time, three and a half years of uninterrupted economic stability, three and a half years of the most hopeless opposition anyone could imagine, leave us with opinion polls showing Labour neck and neck with the Tories.

    It is small comfort that the Tories immediately threw away their advantage by wheeling on the awful Widdecombe to make a hash (if she will pardon the expression without reaching for her manacles) of even a Tory conference speech on law and order. It is not much comfort if the polls just for a moment swing away from the Tories again. The point is that New Labour with its Tory privatisations, Tory tax breaks, Tory dinner parties for the rich and Tory chief inspector of schools has so confused its supporters that they can't any longer tell the difference between this government and its predecessor.
    Paul Foot


    US ELECTIONS

    If you mess with one of us you mess with all of us

    George Bush: Under his governorship Texas is top in the league of executions
    George Bush: Under his governorship Texas is top in the league of executions

    The US presidency is a contest between virtually identical candidates. Al Gore's policies for the future are indistinguishable from George Bush's. He opposes raising the minimum wage to match the cost of living. He favours repeal of the federal guarantee of assistance to poor children, and supports the Federal Reserve policy of keeping wages low to prop up stock prices.

    Both candidates made their fortunes in businesses subsidised by the taxpayer--Bush in oil and gas, Gore in agribusiness--and Corporate America is funding them handsomely to the tune of $100 million apiece. Indeed, 66 major corporations, including AT&T (telecoms), Philip Morris (tobacco), Microsoft (computers), Exxon Mobil, Boeing and Coca-Cola, have already donated more than $50,000 to both Bush and Gore.

    Corporate funding eliminates all but the richest candidates from getting adequate coverage. Nowhere is that more true than with Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for president, who has been barred from participating in the televised presidential debates. These debates have a potential audience of 90 million. According to Nader, who has challenged the legality of the CPD's decision, only 30 percent of Americans know that he is running for president.

    Lack of television exposure and limited funds partially explain why Nader registers no more than between 3 and 5 percent nationally in public opinion polls, though in particular states his support is much higher: 17 percent in Alaska and 6 percent in Massachusetts, for example. Yet Nader's campaign of meetings across the country has drawn vast numbers of enthusiastic supporters: 10,000 came to see him in Portland, Oregon, 12,000 in Minneapolis and 10,000 in Seattle, while 12,000 people attended a rally in Boston.

    It is hardly surprising that his message appeals to thousands of ordinary American workers.

    Not only does this 66 year old champion of consumer rights attack the corporate corruption of the election system--he also wants to get rid of the 'democracy gap' that prevents people exercising their trade union organising rights. Nader supports a minimum wage of more than $10 an hour. He campaigns for universal free health care, funded by a 3.5 percent payroll levy on employers, and introducing a new tax on stock transactions which would bring in $120 billion a year.

    Over the summer Nader's impact forced Gore into some left rhetoric about fighting for 'the people, not the powerful'. He was desperate to stem defections from the Democrats to Nadar, particularly in California. The Teamsters and United Auto Workers unions said that they were considering endorsing Nader before in the end backing Gore.

    Also backing Gore are Friends of the Earth and the National Organisation of Women, who have viciously attacked Nader on the grounds that he has failed to come out as pro-choice (as if Gore were an enthusiastic defender of abortion rights). Endorsement by such organisations and by the trade unions reinforces the common fear that a vote for Nader is a wasted vote that would let in Bush.

    The deep discontent that Nader is tapping into has expressed itself in a revival of militancy among US workers. Major industries, such as American Airlines, the United Parcel Service and General Motors, have seen successful strike action. At the same time there has been a dramatic increase in trade union membership--1999 saw 265,000 workers recruited nationally, the fastest annual rise at any time over the last two decades. But there is more to this than numbers. Take the example of southern California.

    Early October saw yet another walkout by Los Angeles County workers. This followed six months of strike action by janitors, commercial actors and public transport workers, reflecting the success of the Los Angeles based unions' recruitment drive--which has organised more than 90,000 workers over the last year.

    Many of those recruited are undocumented ('illegal' immigrant) workers. Such workers make up an increasing number of workers in Los Angeles County, particularly among janitors. This marks an important turn round on the part of the AFL-CIO (the American equivalent of the TUC), which reversed its policy of opposing the hiring of illegal workers this year. Andy Levin, director of organising for the AFL-CIO, told the Chicago Tribune, 'Los Angeles really does represent a very interesting proving ground for the labour movement. It's a place that is politically active and a place strong in immigrants' rights, and we will see these things come together.'

    The Los Angeles unions have unionised groups of workers often thought of as virtually impossible to organise, such as home health care workers and airport security guards. Solidarity between strikers in different cities, and even more importantly, between different groups of workers was key to many campaigns. So actors have fought alongside janitors, public transport workers alongside teachers. 'We're standing together. The message is if you mess with one of us you mess with all of us,' said Steve Blazack, of the 40,000-strong United Teachers Los Angeles.

    A common theme of all the strikes is a demand, after years of wage concessions, for a share in the rise in national prosperity. At the same time the recognition is growing that in an era of global capitalism divisions between native and immigrant workers can no longer be tolerated. Of course, the recognition is far from complete. In the protests against free trade in Washington earlier this year the voice of protectionism could still be heard. But becoming ever louder was the voice of global solidarity.

    Nader may only be getting a hearing among what one commentator dismissed as the poor and 'non-citizens'. But these 'non-citizens' are beginning to provide a class response to corporate America's buying of democracy.
    Gareth Jenkins


    ANTI CAPITALISM

    Growth of a movement for resistance

    Global resistance

    Direct action has returned to the agenda of radical politics. Its scale is massive and its incidence persistent. Whilst most of the big protests have directly targeted capitalist institutions and their policies such as the Structural Adjustment Programmes, we are seeing a sea change in mood and confidence which has extended to encompass 250,000 people massing in Vienna in January to oppose the entry to the Austrian government of Haider's Nazis, and demos of 20,000 each at the Republican and Democratic Conventions this summer in Philadelphia and Los Angeles respectively. There is a reported rise in industrial struggle in North America and elsewhere. In May, Kaiser Aluminium actually invited Seattle protesters to join their picket line at Tacoma.

    The year 2000 is marking a turning point in global resistance to neo-liberal policies and their effects. Since Seattle the mainstream media has reported frequent mass demonstrations, but has tended to concentrate on actions in North America, Europe and Australia. An excellent new report* from the World Development Movement documents in detail more than 20 mass actions in Latin America and Africa. The scale of resistance is astonishing, including political, general and mass strikes and enormous demonstrations in Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia and Malawi.

    The new movement does not spring from nowhere. The turmoil in eastern Europe following the fall of the Wall in 1989, serial wars in the Gulf and the Balkans, the election of labour parties and social democrats on neo-liberal agendas, the continued wanton assault on the global environment, the imposition of swingeing cuts in social expenditure and the universal trumpeting of sordid capitalist values are among the issues which have fed a growing disillusionment with conventional politics and more widely with the system at large.

    It now seems clear that Seattle was the catalyst for the spread and growth of a movement of resistance--a genuine anti-capitalist movement. Back in December 1999 many observers predicted that there would be an ongoing 'Seattle effect'. So triumphant was the feeling of those participating and those across the globe who watched that such predictions could simply have been born of excitement and hope.

    Indeed some cautious spirits at the time minimised the achievements and counselled care. One internet correspondent, drawing attention to the alleged reactionary position of labour union leaders said, 'We've been here before. I've seen too many false dawns.' Well, by autumn 2000 it seems the optimists were right.

    Critics have pointed to a lack of coherence, to the appearance on demonstrations of a multitude of causes. Yet one of the most startling features is the comprehensive antagonism to capitalism. The young woman who went home saying, 'I went to Seattle to save the turtles and left hating capitalism,' voiced the sentiment which in less than one year has acquired many thousands of adherents.

    Of course the movements face many problems. It is of critical importance that a full scale debate takes place about the way forward. Socialists argue for placing the working class at the centre of strategy because it is the only force capable of bringing capitalism to its knees. This will entail encouraging and supporting labour struggles wherever they occur. They also argue for the building of workers' parties to organise such activities on a national and international scale, but also to promote the idea of socialism as the rational alternative to neo-liberalism and its anti-human values and policies.
    John Charlton

    *States of Unrest: Resistance to IMF Policies in Poor Countries. Jessica Woodruffe and Mark Ellis-Jones, World Development Movement, UK. Available
    www.wdm.org.uk

    PRAGUE

    A shutdown of the system

    One fine day when the protestors came to Prague
    One fine day when the protestors came to Prague

    The atmosphere on our 18 hour coach journey to Prague was one of anticipation and excitement. We had heard many reports of the amazing events that were unfolding in the Czech capital, and it was the talk of these and the major S26 demonstration that we were to join that made the journey seem shorter.

    Once we were through the Czech border, after chatting to bus loads of Spanish and French protesters about what was going on in Prague, we knew that we were going to be a part of something very big.

    We assembled at the bus station with the rest of the International Socialist Tendency to march to one of the main squares in Prague where we would meet up with the rest of the demonstration. Marching had apparently been banned by the Czech authorities but as we set off for the main square no one was in any doubt as to where we where going. We marched through the early morning streets of Prague shouting, 'People not profit. Lide misto zisku,' and, 'Close down the IMF. Open up the borders.'

    As we neared the square we saw the rest of the demonstration assembling. Ya Basta! the Italian anarchist group, and a gay and lesbian contingent from across Europe to name but a few, were ready for the march on the conference centre where the IMF and the World Bank were holding their talks. It was evident that what had been a hugely successful morning was going to turn into one massively amazing afternoon march.

    We were situated right near the front of the march just in front of the Greek comrades street-wide banner and a mixture of trade union banners.

    The conference centre was on the other side of the river and as we neared the bridge which would lead us towards it, it became evident via the multilingual translations that there was a heavy police and army presence blocking our way. We prepared several times for incoming tear gas but it never came. Ya Basta! had smashed through the first police line but now were confronted with a row of armoured cars and the Czech army. It soon became a standoff and we later learnt that we had scared the delegates into abandoning their final day of talks.

    A rumour quickly spread that the delegates would be attending the opera that evening and people began to make their way to the opera house. On the way we passed several road blocks set up by protesters, ensuring that the delegates couldn't make their way there by car, and as we neared the opera house thousands of people had begun massing around it. The metro had also been shut down to prevent access to the opera house. The delegates were not going anywhere and they knew it. The city was ours.
    Laurence Cliffe


    THE WALRUS

    No truck with oil barons

    One of the most revealing aspects of New Labour's response to the fuel crisis was the total incredulity displayed by cabinet ministers that such a turn of events could ever come about.

    Eventually they realised that widespread disgruntlement with most of their own policies was a big part of the problem. But they never really seem to have grasped what the dynamics are which allow an entire economy to be ground to a standstill in no time at all.

    A few days after the main drama had subsided (for the time being), an article tucked away in the Financial Times did a very good job of explaining just how dependent British industry had become on 'just-in-time' systems for distribution of goods. The key lesson that managers had drawn from the blockade was not that consumers do not like paying taxes. Instead it was that 'the complex organisation of modern economies makes them [ie, the bosses] extremely vulnerable to determined protesters'. And, 'in spite of all the excitement over the rise of electronic business methods, the fuel crisis showed that the economy simply cannot function normally if the physical distribution of goods is seriously interrupted'. Something similar must have been going through Tony Blair's mind as he fled the city of Hull on the day the crisis first broke. He had just been speaking (excitedly) to a business audience about the findings of the cabinet's Performance and Innovation Unit (on the rise of electronic business methods).

    Apparently, unbeknownst to Blair, electronic business methods are already integral to the successful operation of just-in-time delivery techniques. Companies no longer keep warehouses full of products or parts. Instead, they offload that job onto designated suppliers. These subcontractors then ensure that deliveries arrive just-in-time and go straight onto the production line. So the main burden of holding stocks gets pushed down the supply chain.

    As the oil crisis dramatically illustrated, this kind of system teeters on a knife edge. In the UK the best example of the speed with which all this can happen, prior to now, was the Ford strike of 1988 when production throughout Europe was halted within three days. Another good one was what happened at a single factory supplying parts to Toyota in 1997. It caught fire on a Saturday morning and by the Monday a third of Toyota's production in Japan had ground to a halt.

    The way all this works in the oil supply industry is slightly different in that oil producers do maintain stocks at the refineries. But the actual deliveries are nowadays mainly carried out by major subcontractors, such as P&O Trans European and Exel Logistics.

    Typically, the man chosen by New Labour to help work out how to prevent a repeat of the fuel crisis is the chairman of P&O, Lord Sterling. P&O Trans European has the contract to deliver Shell petrol to depots and filling stations from its main refinery at Stanlow, where the protest started. Sterling is, of course, a Tory peer and former adviser to Tory trade and industry secretaries between 1983 and 1990--just the very man to deal with mainly Tory protesters, if government apologists are to believed. His previous experience for such an onerous responsibility includes the smashing of the National Union of Seamen in the 1980s, when Sterling hired an entire army of scabs to replace the workforce on his Channel ferry operations.

    Sterling now sits on a committee, chaired by Jack Straw, which also includes other ministers, oil executives and the police. Their job is to ensure that oil supplies are kept going next time, come hell or high water. One group of people who will not be asked to join this illustrious assembly are the oil tanker drivers.

    Before the big oil companies offloaded their delivery operations to subcontractors in the late 1980s, oil tanker drivers were one of the best organised groups of trade unionists in the road haulage industry. Despite all that has happened in the interim, the tradition of not crossing a picket line seems to have been magnificently preserved with them at least.

    The Walrus

    Luckily for New Labour, it also seems that the very Old Labour practice of finding a way of convincing workers to go back to work has not been entirely lost either. It's not actually true, as the pundits would have us believe, that the protest simply frittered out in the end. Tony Blair had to go on bended knee to the leadership of the TGWU, who dutifully sent the union president on a tour of the refineries to talk to the drivers. Apparently, there are still about 10,000 of them in the oil industry alone, and are long overdue the resumption of full union bargaining rights.


    EDUCATION

    Cost of learning

    'Profits from pupils' should be the motto of the two multinationals that are bidding to run 38 schools in Tower Hamlets in east London. The Private Finance Initiative scheme, which is to be repeated elsewhere in Britain, will net the successful firm a £60 million golden hello and guarantee it a profitable income for the next 25 years.

    From then on schools will pay a rent and service charge for cooking, cleaning, building and maintenance. Meanwhile the government has assured the bidders that the amount they receive from the schools will never be less than what is required for them to make a healthy profit.

    In return these contractors are offering schools a vision of brand new, spotlessly clean classrooms with all outstanding repairs completed within the next four years. One of the bidders is a company called Johnson Controls, a US-based firm worth over $1.6 billion. It mails headteachers direct, quoting satisfied customers saying, 'I'm teaching ten periods a week now, something I was never able to do before.'

    In contrast the education authority paints a gloomy picture of what lies ahead if schools refuse the PFI offer. A lack of cash from central government will see dilapidated buildings crumble still further and requests for repairs join an endless queue for scarce resources.

    PFI is one of the most expensive ways to finance repairs and new buildings. The contractors are private firms and as such have to borrow the money they need on the open market. The rates of interest they incur are higher than if the government had borrowed the money directly. Therefore our taxes are paying for two sets of profiteers: the contractors and their bankers.

    Education

    One school in Tower Hamlets has already been privatised. The firm which won the contract to run the school building is putting all the new staff on contracts which have excluded the unions. Some existing staff have had their terms altered. Clearly smaller wage bills mean bigger profits. Schools which sign up to PFI are likely to face the prospect of cutting back on staffing and other essentials in order to pay the rent.

    Battlelines are being drawn. Big business and New Labour are on one side. Children, parents and workers on the other.
    Yuri Prasad


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