Issue 247 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
|French students defend public education|
Thousands of trade unionists from around Europe will besiege the European government leaders meeting in Nice on 6 and 7 December. You could scan the British press in vain to know why the main trade union federations in France, Italy and Spain are mobilising in such massive numbers.
Our rulers' aim at Nice is to resolve issues that relate to the expansion of the European Union. Our side does not want this at the expense of the social gains which trade unions have forced on the state over the years. With the vacuum left behind by the collapse of Stalinism, the EU would like to incorporate the most important newly marketised economies such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Not to do so is to risk instability in its backyard.
On the other hand, expansion carries risks. Increasing the size of the EU (which ultimately could double its membership) creates problems with its cumbersome decision-making process. Leaving states with their existing right of veto over vital areas of national sovereignty threatens complete paralysis in the future.
The Nice conference is intended to streamline decision-making by extending qualified majority voting. This allows the bigger beasts in the EU the authority to shape the union, but it also exposes the tensions and rivalries between them. For the Tories in Britain, the extension of qualified majority voting is a sign of an emerging superstate and a threat to 'our' sovereignty--particularly if Westminster is forced to adopt the proposed charter of fundamental human rights.
However, what is involved in the discussion at Nice is not sovereignty, as the Tories understand it, or even 'rights'. The charter is vague, for example, on how we might guarantee one right which is vital to workers, the right to work. What it involves is how the future direction of Europe affects workers' expectations. Reducing the power of the national veto is about increasing the power of capital over aspects of social welfare which have so far been the sole preserve of government.
The European Commission wants greater liberalisation, particularly of public services. This agenda is very much driven by big business. As the World Development Movement points out, the commission is in regular contact with the European Services Forum. This business lobby group is determined to 'support and encourage the movement to liberalise service sector markets throughout the world, and to remove trade and investment barriers for the European services sector, in particular in the fields of market access and national treatment'.
This is part of a broader agenda of ensuring that the EU can compete glo-bally. The 1994 World Trade Organisation agreement on the General Agreement on Trade in Services wants to remove restrictions and internal government regulations that are 'barriers to trade' when it comes to delivering services such as water, postal services, transport, road repairs, libraries, rubbish collection, education and healthcare. Most are still heavily subject to government regulation. The European Commission wants to make sure that the European service sector can compete globally, especially against the American giants.
By liberalisation, of course, it means more privatisation, with state provision becoming minimal. In countries like France this would mean eroding what the trade unions have successfully fought to protect since the great public sector strikes of 1995-96.
In Britain, where the active resistance has been much less, the Private Finance Initiatives and Public-Private Partnerships in the health service are a clear indicator of what liberalisation means. So too is the insistence on individuals providing their own pension scheme from the private sector.
If EU leaders get their way at Nice they will make retreats like those of the French government in 1995-96 impossible. Governments will then claim that allowing the multinational insurance companies a free run is the only way to reverse the decline in public provision.
None of this is inevitable. Tensions between the different European governments are too great, which means the commission may not get its way. And with tens of thousands of protesters converging on Nice at what is the latest protest against global capitalism, there is every possibility that our rulers may be forced to retreat.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Some 128,000 pensioners are underpaid an average of £340 a year because the system cannot cope with the amount of people who reach retirement age.
Only 38 new hospitals have been approved since 1997, most under PFI.
Public sector net capital expenditure has fallen from 6.5 percent of GDP in 1970 to less than 1 percent today.
The impact of the Serbian Revolution in October continues to reverberate across the Balkans. In Serbia itself, strikes to remove company directors loyal to the old regime of Slobodan Milosevic have continued, but protests and strikes directed at the new regime of Vojislav Kostunica have also now broken out. Last month riots swept Serbia's prisons as inmates demanded the removal of hated wardens and an immediate improvement in living conditions. Prison workers then struck for higher pay. Most recently, impoverished teachers have announced they will strike within days unless their wages are doubled. With an estimated 60 percent of the population living in poverty, the promises the new regime has received from the west for reconstruction aid have raised expectations that will be increasingly difficult to satisfy. Moreover, the west's track record in the Balkans demonstrates it will not fulfil those expectations either. In Croatia, for example, a centre left coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals was elected in January this year to address social problems only to see unemployment rise and poverty increase amidst IMF and World Bank calls for cuts in public sector spending and state subsidies. The lesson for Serbia is that aid will be neither sufficient nor free of draconian neoliberal conditions. Having suffered for so long under sanctions, Serbs are impatient for improvements in living standards. But if these improvements are scuppered by a government that gives in to the IMF and World Bank, the same Serbian workers who brought Milosevic to his knees could turn against the new regime. The other notable impact of the Serbian Revolution has been to reduce ethnic tensions in the region, at least in the short term. As one senior western diplomat put it, 'For ten years we let everyone behave badly because they could say, "Well, Milosevic behaves worse." But the election of Kostunica is a blow to extremists of all kinds in the region.' This was seen most dramatically during Serbia's prison riots when Serbian and Albanian prisoners made common cause with unprecedented solidarity. Serbian inmates appeared on prison rooftops brandishing banners that read: 'I respect my Albanian colleagues'. One prisoner delegation that negotiated with ministers contained two Albanians and one Croat. Kosovo has not been immune to this trend either. Local elections held in late October some three weeks after the revolution resulted in a crushing defeat for the former KLA leader, Hashim Thaci, whose party received only 26 percent of the vote. His more moderate opponent, Ibrahim Rugova, whose political career was considered over after he appeared on television with Milosevic during Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia last year, won 58 percent. Disillusionment with the KLA's corrupt and violent methods was an important reason for the defeat, but it is also clear that Milosevic's overthrow removed a threat that had, despite their misgivings, bound many Kosovan Albanians to the KLA. Elections were held in Bosnia too last month but the results were muted. The centre left Bosnian Social Democrats became the largest party in Bosnian Muslim areas largely at the expense of the SDA, the main Bosnian Muslim nationalist party. But they made little headway in Croat areas where the nationalist HDZ again dominated, and in Serb areas the SDS, the party set up by Radovan Karadzic, made a stunning and victorious comeback. The bitter ethnic logjam in Bosnia has not fractured as elsewhere because of the stranglehold Serb and Croat nationalists have over their populations. They are able to exploit tensions over hotly disputed towns like Brcko, while the arrogant colonial-style governorship of the province by the UN High Representative has given nationalist politicians a receptive audience they might otherwise not have had. The Serbian Revolution has not solved the many problems of the Balkans. But it has reduced nationalist tensions, brought social issues to the fore and demonstrated that crucial to the future of the region will be the capacity of the Balkan working class to struggle in pursuit of its own interests. For the first time in many years it is a context in which real socialist arguments can make some headway.
The impact of the Serbian Revolution in October continues to reverberate across the Balkans. In Serbia itself, strikes to remove company directors loyal to the old regime of Slobodan Milosevic have continued, but protests and strikes directed at the new regime of Vojislav Kostunica have also now broken out. Last month riots swept Serbia's prisons as inmates demanded the removal of hated wardens and an immediate improvement in living conditions. Prison workers then struck for higher pay. Most recently, impoverished teachers have announced they will strike within days unless their wages are doubled.
With an estimated 60 percent of the population living in poverty, the promises the new regime has received from the west for reconstruction aid have raised expectations that will be increasingly difficult to satisfy. Moreover, the west's track record in the Balkans demonstrates it will not fulfil those expectations either. In Croatia, for example, a centre left coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals was elected in January this year to address social problems only to see unemployment rise and poverty increase amidst IMF and World Bank calls for cuts in public sector spending and state subsidies.
The lesson for Serbia is that aid will be neither sufficient nor free of draconian neoliberal conditions. Having suffered for so long under sanctions, Serbs are impatient for improvements in living standards. But if these improvements are scuppered by a government that gives in to the IMF and World Bank, the same Serbian workers who brought Milosevic to his knees could turn against the new regime.
The other notable impact of the Serbian Revolution has been to reduce ethnic tensions in the region, at least in the short term. As one senior western diplomat put it, 'For ten years we let everyone behave badly because they could say, "Well, Milosevic behaves worse." But the election of Kostunica is a blow to extremists of all kinds in the region.' This was seen most dramatically during Serbia's prison riots when Serbian and Albanian prisoners made common cause with unprecedented solidarity. Serbian inmates appeared on prison rooftops brandishing banners that read: 'I respect my Albanian colleagues'. One prisoner delegation that negotiated with ministers contained two Albanians and one Croat.
Kosovo has not been immune to this trend either. Local elections held in late October some three weeks after the revolution resulted in a crushing defeat for the former KLA leader, Hashim Thaci, whose party received only 26 percent of the vote. His more moderate opponent, Ibrahim Rugova, whose political career was considered over after he appeared on television with Milosevic during Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia last year, won 58 percent. Disillusionment with the KLA's corrupt and violent methods was an important reason for the defeat, but it is also clear that Milosevic's overthrow removed a threat that had, despite their misgivings, bound many Kosovan Albanians to the KLA.
Elections were held in Bosnia too last month but the results were muted. The centre left Bosnian Social Democrats became the largest party in Bosnian Muslim areas largely at the expense of the SDA, the main Bosnian Muslim nationalist party. But they made little headway in Croat areas where the nationalist HDZ again dominated, and in Serb areas the SDS, the party set up by Radovan Karadzic, made a stunning and victorious comeback. The bitter ethnic logjam in Bosnia has not fractured as elsewhere because of the stranglehold Serb and Croat nationalists have over their populations. They are able to exploit tensions over hotly disputed towns like Brcko, while the arrogant colonial-style governorship of the province by the UN High Representative has given nationalist politicians a receptive audience they might otherwise not have had.
The Serbian Revolution has not solved the many problems of the Balkans. But it has reduced nationalist tensions, brought social issues to the fore and demonstrated that crucial to the future of the region will be the capacity of the Balkan working class to struggle in pursuit of its own interests. For the first time in many years it is a context in which real socialist arguments can make some headway.
|Ford workers: When everyone met together the mood was electric|
Workers at Ford Dagenham in east London are currently balloting to take strike action to save their jobs. The result will be announced shortly after Socialist Review goes to press. If Ford Dagenham closes, over 5,000 workers could lose their jobs, and the London Chamber of Commerce estimates that 20,000 jobs are at risk locally because of the knock-on effects.
Things do not look good for the rest of the car industry. Ever since BMW announced it was going to pull out of Longbridge last March, the list of job losses in the industry has grown. Last month Vauxhall announced that it was going to have to make thousands redundant across its UK plants, and it now looks certain that Honda is going to pull out of the UK.
But Ford workers have the power to win. A strike at the Engine Plant at Dagenham would halt production across Europe in three days. One popular slogan on the shopfloor is, 'Lose one week's pay for ten years work.' Union officials called mass meetings the day before the ballot began.
One Ford worker told Socialist Review, 'Before we arrived at the mass meeting the mood was very down. I didn't believe anyone was up for a fight. But when everyone met together the mood was electric. I think everyone came away thinking it was possible to win.'
But the growing confidence is being squandered by union leaders. Six days after the ballot papers were issued not a single official leaflet had been produced urging workers to vote yes for action. Despite promises, not one union general secretary addressed the mass meetings. In fact, Bill Morris, the general secretary of the TGWU, said he couldn't come because he had an important engagement at the TUC!
Union bosses are petrified of upsetting Blair. One AEEU official asked a leading Dagenham union steward, 'Do you want our union to be responsible for bringing this government down? A strike at Dagenham is a surefire way of going about it.' Union leaders want to use a yes vote as a bargaining chip. Tony Woodley, a national officer of the TGWU, has said, 'Once the ballot over Dagenham is completed we will be looking to hold a meeting with the company, ourselves and the government to discuss the details of the assurances given by Ford.'
Bitterness on the shopfloor is growing. At a public meeting to save Ford Dagenham every Ford worker who spoke attacked their union leaders and New Labour. The union leaders are caught--on the one hand Ford is refusing to negotiate, and on the other an important section of workers want to fight. A big yes vote will put massive pressure on the union leaders to call action.
Ford is determined to silence anyone who opposes its plans to close Dagenham. For over 30 years socialists and trade unionists have been leafleting outside the plant without any problems. The response they have received from the workforce has been tremendous. However, outside the Engine Plant (one of the three main sites at the Dagenham plant) security guards have, for several weeks physically attacked people handing out leaflets.
This is not a new tactic. Ford has a long history, stretching right back to the 1930s, of using security guards to intimidate union activists and socialists . However, on the 15 November Ford got its comeuppance. Mark Thomas from Channel 4 filmed the security guards attacking those people handing out leaflets urging the workers to vote for action. A programme on Ford and bullying will be shown on 10 January 2001.
The campaign to keep council housing in Southwark has won. One key factor was the sheer tenacity of the campaign. Tenants, with trade union backing, fought every twist of the New Labour councillor.
Southwark councillors were forced to back off from their mass privatisation of Southwark's 50,000 council homes, for which they had neither support nor mandate. This followed a campaign of petitions, lobbies and demonstrations over the last six months.
On 25 November, in a packed room of determined campaigners in the town hall, the council's all-party Ratification Committee voted 'that no further action be undertaken to progress whole stock transfer unless tenants express a strong interest in doing so in the future'.
The councillors in Southwark--and in many other places--tried any trick in the book to get tenants to agree to 'express an interest in being on the government's application list for stock transfer'. It was as if it was just a sensible precaution, like carrying an umbrella in case it rains. But in fact it's not. It's more like turkeys being asked to keep options open on either being boiled or fried before Xmas. These are not good choices for turkeys, and keeping the stock transfer option open is not a good 'choice' for tenants. This is a scheme to trap tenants.
Many tenants knew the question was a con. In Cambridge, when tenants voted no to ending council housing, they still got double glazing and loads of improvements despite dire warnings that they would suffer hugely. The result in Southwark may be used to stop privatisation moves elsewhere. If councillors care a jot about their votes they will drop all attempts to get rid of council housing.
Although the councillors have backed off, they are still interested in some sort of partial stock transfer, privatising bits of housing. This would mean a return to the discredited and hated Southwark Estates Initiative. This is just a charter for gentrification.
Our united campaign policy is clear--there should be no reduction in council housing in any redevelopment schemes, and councillors should back tenants in the campaign to make the government keep its promise of a fair deal for council housing.
It has helped tremendously to know we are part of a bigger campaign. This is not the end. We have to campaign for a fair deal from the government, and we must guard against creeping privatisation through sneaky partial stock transfer schemes. We are holding a tenants action committee at the beginning of December to build a housing improvement movement and to organise for the national lobby of parliament in January.
|Young Palestinians carry another victim of Israeli repression|
If courage and determination alone could defeat Zionism, then the Al Aqsa Intifada--the name the Palestinians are calling their new uprising--would surely be successful. For this really is the long predicted Intifada II, a mass resistance movement of the Palestinian people of the West Bank and Gaza, but this time with guns as well as stones.
Alas, as we see on our television screens with the daily round of funerals for dead Palestinian teenagers, the Israeli government and its armed forces are intent on imposing the intellectually and morally bankrupt formula that armed might is right. In military terms the Palestinians alone cannot win. There has been talk of a ceasefire to stop the horrendous loss of Palestinian life. But it would be on Israel's terms and has been forcefully ruled out by the mothers of many young Palestinian victims.
Israel has been shaken by the conflict but embarked on a highly risky escalation of the conflict on 11 November by using helicopter gunships firing anti-tank missiles to assassinate Hussein Abayat as well as killing two Palestinian women passers-by. As the occasionally liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz explained, Hussein Abayat was probably unknown to the Israeli security forces until the start of the uprising. But he had quickly become 'a local Palestinian hero, an outstanding commander in the field. The second intifada has spawned dozens like him in recent weeks... Fatah's armed activists [the Tasmin], who are leading the riots, are also responsible for most of the shooting against the settlers and soldiers.'
What particularly incensed Israel, according to Ha'aretz, was the way Abayat's group was succeeding in turning the Jewish settlement of Gilo 'into a Jerusalem version of Kiryat Shmona'. Kiryat Shmona is a northern Jewish settlement town on the Israeli-Lebanon border repeatedly shelled by Hizbollah, the Lebanese Islamic militia. Now such a threat appears to have come to the outskirts of Jerusalem itself. That the settlers are panicking is also well illustrated in Hebron, where just 500 of them can only be protected by putting 40,000 Palestinian Hebron citizens under curfew.
Meanwhile Palestinian leader Arafat is calling for a halt to the armed campaign. This put the Fatah militia leader, Marwan Barghouti, in a terrible public dilemma when he had to tell the international news media that Arafat had not given an order to open fire, and he had not given an order to cease fire. As his recent visit to Washington demonstrated, Arafat is desperate for the US to force concessions out of Israel. This is a doomed strategy. Both presidential candidates, Bush and Gore, competed with each other in the election campaign to demonstrate their support for Israel. And the idea that Clinton may yet go down in history as the American president who brought a lasting and just peace to the Middle East should be treated with the contempt it deserves.
Noam Chomsky, the outstanding American anti-Zionist Jewish intellectual, has charted, with his renowned forensic skills, every single Clinton move on Israel. He concludes that Clinton is the most fawning pro-Israeli president ever. In one manoeuvre, Clinton destroyed an absolutely crucial condition for a lasting peace--the right of the Palestinian refugees, expelled by the Zionists in 1948, to return home. This was when Clinton reversed US support for the 1948 United Nations Resolution 194 which enshrined this position.
Resolution 194 was a direct application of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously by the United Nations, also in 1948, itself a powerful reaffirmation of elementary standards of civilised behaviour in the modern world--a response to the Holocaust and the Nazi era. Israel has always succeeded in claiming that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights somehow does not apply to its relations to the Palestinians. Clinton is the first US president to openly endorse that position.
|Police protect the dictator|
Peru's President Alberto Fujimori's ten year grip on power has finally come to an end after months of protests against his rule. Fujimori leaves Peru in a deep economic and political crisis.
From June onwards tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, shouting, 'Out with the dictator!' after ballot rigging was exposed in the May general election. The pressure has finally forced him to resign.
Few will cry for this dictator, whose best friends include the brutal chief of security services, Vladimiro Montesinos, a man who used helicopter gunfire to quell anti-government protests earlier this year. When Montesinos was caught handing over £10,000 cash to an opposition politician, Fujimori tried in vain to distance himself from the scandal.
For over a decade Fujimori maintained a fragile stability based on crony neoliberal policies. This included the privatisation of state controlled assets which he sold to his supporters. The west was happy to do business with him so long as he followed free market policies and continued to pay off Peru's debts to US banks.
Fujimori's long survival depended on his ability to unite around him sections of the Peruvian ruling class, including the military, business leaders and the judiciary. He did this by unleashing a wave of repression in the early 1990s, against the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a guerrilla organisation based among the oppressed Indian population.
The fall of the dictator can only be explained by the continued instability across Latin America following the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and the spiralling debt. Wall Street vultures in the form of hedge fund managers have also played a major role in Peru's descent into bankruptcy. US speculators have long been involved in the fate of poor nations. In October this year Peru lost a court case against Elliott Associates, pushing Peru to the brink of defaulting on $3.7 billion of bad debt, and forcing it to repay almost $60 million.
Peru's ruling class distanced itself from Fujimori. The main opposition is centred around Alejandro Toledo, who pulled out of the second round of elections in order to put space between himself and the corruption scandals. An ex World Bank economist, Toledo is no friend of the poor. When a giant protest at the end of July went ahead, Toledo implored demonstrators to be peaceful, despite the fact there were 32,000 police on the streets.
Internationally the feeling was that Fujimori was too tainted with corruption. The Organisation of American States, a front for US policy in the region, threatened to send in a mission to monitor the elections, and the US congress had already witheld $42 million earmarked for Peru. By October financiers considered Peru one of the riskiest regions to invest in the world. Neither Toledo nor any of the other opposition have anything to offer Peru's poor except more privatisation and debt restructuring.
Latin America is a cauldron of discontent, as witnessed in recent strikes and protests in Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. Peru's workers and urban poor should take inspiration from their own role in Fujimori's downfall, and from the struggles of organised workers across the region to demand real democracy and an end to the grip of the world's financial institiutions.
Dramatic changes are occurring in the composition and diversity of American families, concludes a new report from the US. It showed that Americans are marrying later, divorcing more frequently and remaining single at a greater rate.
The study, reported in the US Journal of Marriage and the Family, examined the shifting demography in the US over the past three decades and it shows Americans spending more of their adult lives outside the institutions of marriage and parenthood. The tendency to never marry is particularly prevalent among African-American women.
'There is no monolithic American family,' says report author Jay Teachman. 'People still need to make a living and want to have a family. But there is more diversity in the way people form unions outside of marriage and construct their family life.'
Between 1970 and 1998 households consisting of a married couple with at least one child living in the home decreased from 40 percent to less than 26 percent. During the same period the percent of households made up of persons living alone substantially increased. Today nearly 50 percent of white children and two thirds of African-American children are likely to be born into or spend at least part of their childhood in a single parent family.
One of the reasons for this shift has been the increase of women into the workforce, particularly at an early age. The result, according to the survey, is that Americans have almost retreated from universal early marriage.
But there is also much greater pressure on women who are in families to work because of the declining rate of real wages. The result of long hours and poor pay inevitably puts a strain on relationships. Over the last 20 years there has been a large increase in the proportion of women divorced by age 40-44, from 20 percent to 30 percent. The growing trend to divorce has also been matched by a pronounced decline in the percent of women remarrying.
This survey shows that women are now an integral part of the American working class today. It dispels the myth of the 'natural' family that the right wing always claim, and points to the fact that women will play a much more important role in the struggles that are likely to occur over the coming years.
New Labour's political antennae are so intent on tracking an agenda set by Margaret Thatcher more than 20 years ago, they clearly have no idea of the total incredulity which greets virtually every pronouncement.
Latest to set the jaws of a nation agape has been John Prescott in his handling of yet another Railtrack fiasco.
As the entire network ground to a virtual standstill after Hatfield, Prescott responded in the manner of the father who has made a not entirely competent attempt to fix his offspring's bike and then cannot believe it when the pesky little sod still insists it's knackered.
There can hardly be an adult in the land who would, by now, not prefer to see the whole kit and caboodle returned to public ownership pronto and all the rail fat cats locked up in a dungeon. And yet Prescott continues to talk like a blithering fool about making the current system work--the main reason being, of course, that if the government was forced into such a gigantic climbdown it might as well say bye-bye to other pet projects like privatisation of London Underground, the Civil Aviation Authority, local schools and half the NHS, to name but a few.
Until the last fortnight the one major argument the government was able to put up for not renationalising forthwith was that it would cost a fortune. That was before things had got so bad that they had no choice but to cough up a fortune to allay public fears over the state of the network. Without any doubt, great barrowloads of this public finance will be tipped straight into the bottomless coffers of Railtrack shareholders or in endless payouts to privately owned and unaccountable rail maintenance contractors like Balfour Beatty. Now that the argument about lack of money looks less convincing, New Labour has been working overtime to convince journalists that even if they did want to renationalise they would find themselves in breach of EU legislation.
True to form, the excuse is absolute rubbish. Ideally, EU commissioners would like to introduce standardisation into the European rail network on a whole range of issues from the types of rolling stock and signalling systems adopted, to the gauge of rails and most effective safety systems. But they are nowhere near getting all the nation-states to agree on a common strategy, let alone abide by it.
Indeed, it takes the Financial Times to point out that private firms have made such a hash of running commuter routes in London and the south east that new franchises might well end up going to Dutch, Swedish and Swiss national railways--all of which are nationalised and all of which appear to go like clockwork.
Since the break-up of British Rail began in 1994, an estimated 6,000 maintenance workers have been sacked. Since Railtrack took over responsibility for track repair and renewal, the overall number employed on the lines has slumped from 21,500 to 15,500. As a result, the frequency with which tests are carried out on the reliability of track and equipment has been correspondingly reduced by about a quarter. So as soon as some emergency track-laying was called for, we started to hear about desperate managers scouring boozers at the dead of night, looking to press-gang any hard-pressed locals.
Railtrack was forced to do things in a hurry after Hatfield because up till then its entire maintenance programme had been based on doing the bare minimum and refusing to face up to the scale of investment required to put the railway right. The West Coast mainline, for example, received no substantial investment at all for a good 20 years beginning in 1975, even though this is probably the single most important section of track.
The other guarantee of further calamities over safety is that the regulatory framework set up to deal with the utter tangle of separate companies and contradictory interests is now in disarray. According to former rail regulator John Swift, the promise of regulation was introduced 'in order to sell privatisation of the railways to a generally sceptical, even downright hostile, public'.
First there was going to be only one regulator, but he might get in the way of privatisation. Now a total of 17 different organisations have responsibility for different aspects of rail safety. The time has surely come for the leaders of the RMT and Aslef to put a bit more muscle behind their rhetoric and open up a serious fight for the return of the entire rail network into public ownership, backed up by strike action. Even Trevor Toolan, the former head of personnel at British Rail, was forced to admit this week that he could never remember a time when incidents had been generated 'on quite the scale of the last four years, nor create the mayhem for passengers that is currently being experienced'.
Over the last couple of months Socialist Alliances have been established across England--from Plymouth to Preston and Newcastle--and in parts of Wales.
Lancashire Socialist Alliance candidate Terry Cartwright is contesting the Preston by-election. Terry is a local independent councillor who broke from Labour three years ago and subsequently won by a huge majority over his New Labour rival in the ward he represents. The campaign has been assisted by Socialist Alliance supporters from Merseyside, Manchester and across east Lancashire. The response to the Lancashire Socialist Alliance campaign has been good, and this can be seen as a dry run for a challenge against Jack Straw in Blackburn in the general election.
The public meetings and election contests have clearly demonstrated that there is a large audience disillusioned with Blair's Tory policies who are now ready to take seriously a socialist alternative. Socialist Alliances are now concentrating on building up membership, raising money and selecting candidates to contest the general election. There is now the realistic possibility of more than 50 Socialist Alliance candidates standing in England and Wales which, alongside the Scottish Socialist Party's ambition to stand in all 72 Scottish constituencies, will constitute the most serious socialist challenge to a Labour government for 50 years.
A new report by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research and the LSE puts the blame for low productivity squarely on the shoulders of the bosses.
The study awarded Britain a score of 100 index points per worker. By contrast the US scored 135, France and Germany 127 and 126 respectively. When the study factored in the number of hours worked by each employee, Britain still languished bottom.
'The UK productivity gap is as wide as ever, and it's not because we're lazy,' says Francis Green, professor of economics at Kent University. 'During the Thatcher years manufacturing work intensified and this seemed to be linked with high productivity increases, despite the fact that there was little investment. But there's only so much productivity that can be squeezed from placing higher demands on the workforce. There is a point at which productivity growth needs to rely on modernising industry through investment rather than further work intensification.'
Mary O'Mahony, the author of the report, concludes, 'Compared with Germany and France it is an investment story--we have consistently invested less in capital equipment.'