Issue 253 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
A national, unofficial strike by post office workers broke out as we went to press. At heart, it was a protest at privatisation. The strike was a rank and file rebellion, opposed by the national union leaders who found themselves isolated from their own members. It came on top of a series of one-day strikes by London Underground workers, continuing action by guards on South West Trains and the first national strike by college lecturers for a decade.
Not the sort of news that you would normally expect in the run-up to a general election, when trade union leaders shift hell and high water to ensure their members are kept under control to get Labour elected. But this is no ordinary election.
Our election coverage on pages 7-12 reports on the growing anger with the Labour government among its working class supporters, which is part of the explanation for the militancy. In part also there are signs that once the election is out of the way the ruling class is gearing up to go on the offensive. In the post management is clearly gearing up for an offensive, ready to take on one of the best organised sections of the working class now that Labour has opened up the market to the 'rigours of competition'.
There is, however, one small difficulty the bosses are experiencing along the way--every time they attempt to go on the offensive they are facing resistance by workers who are not prepared to wait until after the election to defend themselves. Evidence is emerging of a polarisation in British society--on the one hand between the bosses and their friends in the media, and on the other the vast majority of workers who have fared so poorly over the past four years and who have been offered very little by the mainstream politicians.
If anything, this polarisation will accelerate once the general election is out of the way.
And what of New Labour? Far from being an innocent bystander in this whole process, Labour has given a clear message that it intends to be even more business friendly after the election than it was before. As the Sunday Times put it recently, 'In 2001 anyone who yearns for a critique of the new global business empires and their impact on the planet (and, god knows, one is needed) will find no words for their comfort in the Labour Party--nor, for that matter, in the whole of our mainstream parliamentary system. Labour used to make it its business to be sceptical of the wealthy and powerful. But these days the business of Labour is business' (20 May 2001).
When it comes to health and education, Labour has made it clear that its policies of PFI and privatisation will accelerate under the next government. Alongside this it is making noises about the need for public sector workers to 'modernise to the needs of the British economy'--shorthand for a government attack on public sector workers. Should, or rather when, Britain's bosses decide to launch a full scale offensive they will find all the resources of the state--including the police, the courts and the media--placed fully at their disposal by a Blair government.
So the battle lines are being drawn. On the one side stand a New Labour government and its friends in the City, and on the other stands working class people increasingly prepared to stand up for themselves. Which side emerges the stronger after the election depends, crucially, on the weeks ahead. For socialists that means enthusiastically supporting those strikes whenever they occur while at the same time ensuring the Socialist Alliance gets the biggest vote possible on 7 June.