Issue 255 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review



The new political hot potato buried in the ground

There was little to disagree with in Dave Waller's article 'Up In Smoke' (July/August SR), in so far as it went. But it didn't go nearly far enough in looking at the politics of the 'seemingly mundane' issue of waste, and seemed opportunist more than anything.

A number of points can be made to clarify Dave's article:

  1. The government has produced at least four policy documents on waste since 1997, and each region and waste disposal authority is preparing strategies.
    Trying to meet EU directives and new legislation is provoking massive political arguments around the country, and these are not restricted to incinerators.
  2. The issue is not just about household waste. Commercial waste is also a huge problem and has a more hazardous or contaminating impact.
  3. This means that waste reduction should be more important to the government than waste disposal. Dave recognised that the waste industry needs more waste to make a profit, but other industries are equally to blame. Competition to stimulate demand for new or 'improved' goods and services is constantly leading to increased packaging, new types of packaging and more waste, despite legislation. Waste is projected to increase for many years, and householders have little control over the type or volume of their waste or how it is disposed.
    The government is trying to persuade companies to see waste as a resource and re-use or recycle it--but that only works where there is a market value. There are few obligations on companies and profit is coming first.
  4. Landfill disposal will still occur under the government's strategy, and new landfill sites will be created. This is little better than incineration, as landfill damages the environment, is a waste of land and deters re-use or recycling. The foot and mouth crisis will result in even more landfill as well.
  5. New incinerators are likely to damage human health and the environment, even if old-style ones were worse. They are not needed as an alternative to landfill--waste reduction, re-use, recycling and composting could be viable if resources were put into technological research and public services, and if companies were forced to change their behaviour. Socialists should be very clear on this, as some apologists for incinerators promote them as green sources of energy--combined heat and power plants not contributing to climatic change. But wind, wave and solar power can supply energy needs in a more sustainable way.

Dave is right to say that waste is a political hot potato right now, and the arguments are nastier than he realises.

Socialists should join campaigns against incinerators and should support proposals for reducing and recycling waste. But we should also point out the huge global nature of the problem and show that the crisis in waste management results from fundamental flaws in this society.

Many politicians would like to go for sustainable options--incinerators spell electoral suicide--but they are utterly unable to tackle the profit economy and threadbare public services which create and constantly recreate the problem in the first place.
Jean Russell

  • Babies born within two kilometres of landfill sites are more likely to have birth defects than babies born elsewhere, and 80 percent of the population live within two kilometres of a landfill site.

    This is according to government-funded research carried out by the Small Area Health Statistics Unit at Imperial College. There are more than 300 landfill sites in England and Wales licensed to accept toxic waste, and thousands that accept other wastes.

    Friends of the Earth has called for: a higher statutory target for reducing industrial waste going to landfill; the annual increase in the landfill tax to at least double; and the introduction of a higher rate landfill tax for the disposal of hazardous waste.

    We need to take urgent action if we are to prevent the horrors these sites will create for future generations.
    Vanessa Brown

  • 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.
    Send to: Socialist Review, PO Box 82, London E3 3LH
    Fax: 020 7538 0018 Phone: 020 7538 3308


    The Walrus (June SR) highlights BT's decline from Thatcherite success story to Great Privatisation Disaster.

    Criticism of BT isn't now just coming from the left--many IT industry bosses are unhappy with the company's failure to increase access to the internet. The charge from groups like the Communications Management Association is that BT has delayed introducing new systems so that it can go on making a profit from old technologies where it dominates the market.

    So, despite Blair's aim that Britain should lead Europe in internet use, Britain ranks 21st in the OECD's richest 30 countries--behind the Czech Republic--when it comes to fast 'broadband' access to the system. You might expect BT to maximise its profits. But government watchdog Oftel was supposed to regulate them. A survey by business magazine Computer Weekly last year found that over two thirds of IT managers wanted Oftel scrapped in favour of tougher regulation. When Oftel director David Edmonds appeared in front of the trade and industry select committee last November, committee chair Martin O'Neill MP laid into him. O'Neill commented, 'Your complacency is quite appalling. One can't blame BT if you won't police them... If you've got the powers [to regulate BT], why don't you damn well use them?'

    In the Queen's Speech the government reaffirmed its plans to replace Oftel with Ofcom, which will regulate the whole of communications, including TV and radio, and which looks set to be even more spineless than Oftel. Computer Weekly commented this week that 'the forces of the market and light touch regulation may not be enough to create the broadband infrastructure the UK economy needs', and argued that trade minister Patricia Hewitt 'would do well to forget the light regulatory touch and put on her Doc Martens'.

    There's little chance of that--New Labour is committed to not 'interfering' with the market by regulating companies like BT. The irony is that most other bosses want BT regulated, because it's the only way Britain will get a proper IT infrastructure. All this undermines the myth that capitalism implements new technologies effectively, and that attempts to plan their introduction rationally will always fail. And it's yet another sign of how far to the right New Labour has moved--its commitment to unregulated capitalism even exceeds that of the capitalists themselves!
    Colin Wilson


    The second intifada has once more moved the question of Israel to the fore. First of all, I want to congratulate Socialist Review (and Socialist Worker) for their remarkably longstanding, consistent and readable emancipatory stance on the Palestinian question.

    I know of the confusion about this issue on the German left, with sometimes disastrous consquences for movements like the one against the US-led war on Iraq.

    In a recent issue of the US satirical magazine the Onion was a nice joke about Israel--news that the UN had declared a part of the Middle East a new safe homeland for troubled groups such as the Irish Protestants, Hutus and Serbs.

    This leads me to a question to your readers. In his assessment of anti-Semitism in the US, Noam Chomsky, as one of its victims, writes about the Six Day War as the turning point after which Israel became Washington's darling and Jews an accepted part of American society. (Herein probably lies part of the explanation of why so many Jewish political groupings around the world at least partly defend Zionism.) I think in the second half of the 1940s the allegiance of a possible Zionist state to the West was not at all certain. I know for instance of arms deliveries to Israel by Czechoslovakia.

    So what combination of factors led the leading powers to push through the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine?
    Thomas Franke


    The furore over the hard-hitting Brass Eye programme which satirised media coverage of child sexual abuse was predictable. The programme not only showed how stupid some politicians (including our local Portsmouth Labour MP Syd Rapson) and media figures are but, more importantly, how the moral panic about the issue has now become so deafening that the most bizarre and frankly mad notions can be promoted as truth. The hypocrisy of the tabloids and television, which organise this moral panic but also use the issue as a form of voyeurism and titillation while constantly using sexual imagery to boost ratings and sell products, was also exposed. Even after the event the Mail preceded its attack on the programme with an article which showed close-ups of princesses Beatrice (13) and Eugenie (11) in their bikinis.

    In the ensuing debate in the pages of the 'quality' dailies, Ros Coward in the Guardian accused socialists of being unconcerned about the issue of child abuse. In fact, the oppression and exploitation of children under capitalism has long been a vital concern of the left. In 1925, examining the effects of the Russian Revolution on family life, Leon Trotsky argued that 'each new measure, each law, each practical step in economic and social construction must also be checked against the question of how it will affect the family--whether it worsens or lightens the fate of the mother, whether it improves the position of the child.'

    The fact is that, now as then, despite the obvious difficulties in obtaining precise figures, most child abuse, sexual or otherwise, takes place within the structures of the family, being perpetrated by family members, relatives or friends. Yet successive governments continue to exalt the institution of the family as sacred, simply because it is for them the cheapest way of guaranteeing the production of the next generation of healthy workers. Physical and sexual abuse of children within the family (and at work) has long been endemic, but was regarded by the ruling class as an acceptable price to pay, in the same way as wife-beating was tolerated. It is significant that until recently rape of a wife within the family was not an offence.

    Although our rulers see the institution of the family as sacred, they do not extend this courtesy to individual families, which over the past decades have seen state benefits squeezed, public spending cut and longer hours worked year on year, putting working class families under ever more intense economic and physical pressure. In this situation the family becomes a horribly contradictory place--a sanctuary from the pressures of the outside world, but also a place where those pressures can explode. In a genuinely socialist society the structure and composition of the family would reflect creatively the needs of all those people who comprise it, rather than (as now) expressing the needs of the capitalist class. Oppression, abuse and exploitation in the wider society would not come to be replicated within the narrower confines of the family.

    Yet rather than confront the (for them) unpalatable truths about the actual location of child abuse and the material conditions which create it, it suits the authorities and the media to whip up moral panics, which is the main reason why, when Brass Eye challenged some of this in satirical form, the government and media reaction was so livid.
    Tim Evans


    Chinese waiters won a dispute using good old fashioned picketing against the New Diamond restaurant in London's Chinatown in August.

    They joined the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) after their bosses told them to sign on whilst refurbishment took place. Three weeks later the employers sacked the four for standing up for their rights.

    The TGWU called a picket of the restaurant when it reopened, which was tremendously successful, and the news spread through Chinatown.

    The next day the employers called the union for negotiations, but the bosses reneged on their word and slapped an injunction on the four workers on the day picketing was due to resume.

    They had to represent themselves twice to seek adjournments while the union sorted out the money for hiring a barrister. They were elated when the High Court lifted the injunction and awarded costs against the restaurant owners.

    Meanwhile we organised for them to speak to other trade unionists and at Socialist Alliance meetings, and formed the Justice for Restaurant Workers campaign. Socialists and other trade unionists protested in solidarity.

    We flyposted Chinatown, and the Chinatown Restaurant Owners Association called the union for talks, but the picketing was maintained during negotiations. The bosses were desperate and they settled for a substantial sum, to the workers' complete satisfaction.

    The bosses had failed to keep Chinese workers separate from British workers. We held a victory march through Chinatown, and the leaflets and stickers that were handed out on our victory march were eagerly received.
    Lawrence Wong

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