Issue 258 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review





Bottom of the league

Going nowhere fast
Going nowhere fast

Britain has the most congested roads and the worst public transport system of any country in Europe, says a government report by the Commission for Integrated Transport released in November. It shows that years of underinvestment have led to a rail system that is at the verge of breaking point, and a road network that is in need of constant repair.

Between 1975 and 1995 Britain spent £30 billion less than the EU average on transport infrastructure. And if we compare spending in Britain with similar European countries, such as France and Germany, then spending in Britain has been some £60 billion down. The only years that Britain spent more than the European average was during the construction of the Channel Tunnel.

Given these figures it is little wonder that the travelling public have to endure such appalling conditions. Rail in Britain has the lowest share of total journeys anywhere in Europe and the lowest fare subsidies. Over the past 20 years bus and coach use has grown by 80 percent in the rest of Europe, whereas in Britain it has declined. Car use in Britain has increased by 52 percent during the 1980s and 1990s, far higher than in the rest of Europe.

The report also compares the travel experience in several European cities. In Munich, for example, transport is regionally coordinated and the city has had high levels of investment. As a result public transport is used for 25 percent of journeys. Yet in Glasgow and Greater Manchester where control of public transport is fragmentary--often with competing bus and rail companies--the figures are just 12 and 14 percent respectively.

The commission was set up two years ago by deputy prime minister John Prescott. At the time New Labour claimed it had ambitions to rival the best transport networks in Europe. Yet the state of Britain's railways shows just how far it has to go. While France is able to unveil such extraordinary feats of railway engineering as the high speed link between Calais and Marseille--that takes just over three hours--Britain's rail network is an embarrassment.

The collapse of Railtrack last month brought this crisis to a head. The administrators responsible for the running of the company have now said that the government needs to pump in an extra £3.5 billion. Transport secretary Stephen Byers has admitted it will take about a year before what Labour calls a not for profit company is able to take over the running of the rail network.

Pressure is also increasing on the government, not simply from the travelling public but also from the bosses. The CBI estimates that delays and logistical problems are costing UK businesses £20 billion per year. The report by the Commission for Integrated Transport was brought forward because of this pressure, as the government was keen to put the blame at the door of previous governments.

The current government has vowed to improve things. Over the next ten years New Labour has promised to invest £152 billion on transport infrastructure, compared with £105 billion in the last ten years. Yet a third of this is expected to come from the private sector, and half of that was supposed to be channelled through the now defunct Railtrack. Now all this is in doubt, as private companies are far more sceptical of investing in the rail network.

If New Labour's plans for the London Underground are anything to go by it is clear it has not learnt the lesson from the collapse of Railtrack. The Public-Private Partnership, under which a publicly owned London Underground will run services using trains, tracks and stations operated by private infrastructure companies, means establishing a system which requires dozens of people and many different departments to monitor who was responsible for which problem. It means the principles of competition which led to such a rapid deterioration of the overground rail network and which led to the crashes at Southall, Paddington and Hatfield remain. So determined is New Labour to proceed with the privatisation of the tube that it is giving the go-ahead, even though an independent report has now shown it to be more expensive than if it was to remain in public hands.

So a year which started with the government unveiling a ten-year investment plan to improve public transport has ended with a damning report that places us at the bottom of the European league, and with the rail network on the verge of collapse. Little wonder that New Labour's plans for more privatisation are being met with such hostility from ordinary people.
Peter Morgan


  • The recount of 200,000 disputed Florida ballot papers from the presidential elections have been shelved in the wake of 11 September. The New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN joined forces to examine the uncounted ballots. Due to be released on 24 September, the results are now on hold.
  • McBurger
  • When the minimum wage was introduced in 1998 McDonalds and Burger King paid all staff the adult rate of £3.60. They refused to adopt the cheaper rate for workers aged 18-21 prompting praise from the Low Pay Unit. Now that the rate has been increased the wage differentials have been reintroduced. They claimed they could no longer afford the adult rate.
  • Police are investigating abuse of the operation of Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) set up by New Labour. Over 8000 companies have registered as learning providers but many are using scams to trick people into signing away their £200 ILA entitlement. A common trick has been for firms to offer a computer course but then send only a £6.99 book through the post. Minister John Healy rejects the idea that the scheme is flawed.

    New Labour is taking liberties

    More police powers will lead to further attacks
    More police powers will lead to further attacks

    David Blunkett's repressive Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill is set to become law despite widespread opposition from Amnesty International and civil liberties groups. In the wake of 11 September Britain will opt out of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans detention without trial. It will pave the way for indefinite imprisonment of foreign nationals who the government suspects are terrorists 'threatening the life of the nation'.

    The 124 clauses relating to civil liberties, the extension of police powers and the new law on religious hatred include a definition of 'terrorism' broad enough to be used against anybody the government does not like. Powers also include the right to remove someone's passport, the right of the police to order people to remove 'disguises', and the right of the police to force people to reveal their identity if they feel an offence is believed to be taking place. Unlike the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), it will not have to be renewed every year.

    Britain already has the most draconian laws in Europe for deterring and monitoring suspected terrorists. No other country in Europe has such extensive powers. As with the PTA, where 84 percent of those arrested under its powers were never charged, this new law is likely to be used as a repressive measure against many who are innocent.

    It remains to be seen whether one aspect of the bill, which outlaws the payment of backhanders by British executives to officials and politicians of foreign countries to win contracts, will be implemented. Balfour Beatty is due to face charges in Lesotho over bribing officials in order to win a huge contract to build a dam there. When the anti-bribery measure contained in the government's latest legislation becomes law--possibly in the next few weeks--company executives in such cases will find themselves liable to prosecution in this country, as well as facing up to seven years in jail. No prizes for guessing which aspects of the new bill will be implemented first and against whom.
    Julie Bundy


    Gambling with our future

    They wanted us then, they don't want us now

    Millions of workers in company pension schemes are facing poverty in retirement, according to a new report by the Association of Consulting Actuaries (ACA), a body of pension experts.

    A growing number of employees face lower pensions because companies are ditching 'final salary' pensions, where workers are paid a proportion of their final salary for life after they retire, in favour of 'money purchase' plans.

    This scheme, enthusiastically encouraged by the Labour government, forces workers to convert their pension into a lump sum when they retire which must then be invested. However, unlike the final salary scheme, the staff bear the investment risk, rather than the employer.

    The ACA report looked at the contribution level made by companies with less than 250 employees--which account for 55 percent of the workforce. It found that employer and employee contributions average just 9 percent of earnings--less than the average amounts invested in final salary schemes.

    The ACA recommends that workers starting a pension at the age of 25 need to ensure that an equivalent of between 10 and 25 percent of their salary is invested--something beyond the means of most workers--if they are to retire on about 60 percent of their final salary.

    Those starting a pension at the age of 35 need to invest between 15 and 25 percent of their salary. And those starting at 45 need to ensure that a third of their salary is invested in a pension fund.

    But these figures are all dependent on the economy, and investment funds, performing well. As soon as the economy slips into recession, as it is doing now, then it will be pension funds and investment funds that will bear the brunt. No wonder the report describes this as a 'pension timebomb'. Many workers will suffer when it explodes.


    The war on terrorism Mugabe style

    Worrying times for Mugabe
    Worrying times for Mugabe

    President Robert Mugabe has intensified repression in Zimbabwe in the run-up to the presidential election early next year. He has thrown opposition figures, trade unionists and journalists into jail, and unleashed the 'war veterans' on the main party of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The ruling party, Zanu-PF, mimicking America's war on terrorism, has declared that 'terrorists' of the state will be hanged. The British government has also been singled out for funding the 'MDC terrorists'. At the same time the government uses left wing rhetoric against the 'foreign imperialists' while calling for 'the land seizures' for the poor. The reality behind this language is a regime determined to remain in power.

    The context for this crisis is the rise of the MDC. The opposition movement emerged from an unprecedented level of working class struggle in Zimbabwe between 1996 and 1998. Discontent exploded after years of broken promises and suffering caused by structural adjustment programmes that were implemented by the Zimbabwean regime at the behest of the IMF and World Bank.

    The main trade union federation, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), was forced to call a general strike and protests. Strike committees were formed, and a powerful rank and file movement took the initiative away from the cautious ZCTU. One activist describes the atmosphere in Zimbabwe at the time: 'This was a momentous occasion in the history of this country because it brought confidence--you could smell working class power in the air.'

    The MDC came out of a conference convened by the trade unions in 1999. They were responding to pressure for a 'workers' party' from rank and file trade unionists. But the pressure and size of the mass movement worried other classes in Zimbabwe. It led many middle class and white Zimbabweans, disillusioned with Mugabe's failure to handle the crisis, to enter and seek to control the MDC. It terrified the regime into taking up a desperate 'left stand' against 'white landlords' who the regime had protected since independence in 1980. Mugabe also co-opted the 'war veterans' who were involved in the protest movement. They were a broad group of ex-combatants from the guerrilla war in the 1970s, discarded by the government and forced into poverty.

    The consequence of these developments has meant that the MDC fought the parliamentary elections last year with 'free market' policies and a commitment to the privatisation demanded by the IMF and World Bank. Despite these policies and widespread violence against the party, it almost won the election, gaining 57 seats. While there are serious tensions within the MDC, it is still regarded as the only vehicle to get rid of Mugabe.

    Although Mugabe rules out the possibility of defeat, he is preparing for it. Elements of the 'war veterans', are being armed, while other loyalists have set up a rival trade union federation and have launched government-sponsored factory occupations.

    The opposition has repeatedly failed to effectively challenge the regime. Protests planned to oust Mugabe at the end of last year, similar to the revolution that removed Milosevic in Serbia, were cancelled because of pressure from the European Union, which was frightened about the 'forces' that might be unleashed in Zimbabwe and across the region.

    Zimbabwe faces a major crisis. Poverty is at record levels, with 60 percent unemployment. Privatisation of public utilities continues. The hope is in the re-emergence of 'jambanja'--militant mass struggle--that can bring about real and lasting transformation for ordinary Zimbabweans.
    Leo Zeilig


    Dam lies and statistics

    The withdrawal of major backer Balfour Beatty from the $1.2 billion Ilisu hydroelectric dam project in Turkey is a major victory for all those who have been campaigning against the project. This news was followed by the rapid departure of the Italian consortium member, Impregilo. With only one multinational, the Swiss firm Sulzer, left (Swedish company Skanska withdrew from the consortium last year), and with the Turkish government unable to go ahead without additional funding, the project's status has now been called into question.

    Mark Thomas, comedian and director of the Ilisu Dam Campaign, has been giving an eloquent and powerful appraisal of the two and a half year campaign in his recent tour, which ends in the first week of December. He also gives a moving eyewitness testimony of the brutalities of the Turkish government in its treatment of the Kurds, and a commitment to continue fighting in their defence.

    The Ilisu dam project would have led to the displacement of 30,000 people, and the destruction of 15 towns and 52 villages. Two environmental impact assessment reports, one by the Department of Trade and Industry and the other by the European Parliament, concluded that all future dam projects should gain the consent of those who would be affected before any planning can take place. They also said that those involved should get adequate compensation, and that there should be no disproportionate impact on the environment.

    None of these considerations was enough to stop Tony Blair supporting the project. But the withdrawal of the multinationals because of worries over the bad publicity and the impact of the anti-capitalist movement has undoubtedly put the project in jeopardy.

    The possibility of attacks on Iraq in the second stage of the so called 'war against terrorism' will undoubtedly raise the plight of the Kurds as another humanitarian concern.

    The success of the campaign has brought to the fore the issue of human rights in Turkey, and has also exposed the hypocrisy of those who use the Kurdish people as pawns in yet another great war game.

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