Issue 261 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review





History in the making

Anger againt New Labour is increasing among RMT members
Anger againt New Labour is increasing among RMT members

An important conference of rank and file trade unionists is set to take place in London on 16 March. Organised by the Socialist Alliance, the conference will bring together shop stewards and union representatives, as well as other trade unionists to debate the issue of the trade union political fund and the financial links between New Labour and the unions. It will also discuss the campaign against privatisation.

So far over 600 trade unionists have registered and organisers are expecting the final number to exceed 1,000. Demand to register has been so great that an overflow room may be needed. There will be delegates from virtually every trade union. Over 55 union branches have already passed motions at either branch or branch committee level to send official delegations. There will also be executive members there from both Unison and Natfhe and the conference is supported by PCS general secretary elect Mark Serwotka. The national media has also expressed interest with the BBC's Newsnight programme covering the event as well as the Guardian.

The backdrop to the conference is New Labour's continuing close links with big business and its attacks on the trade unions. New Labour's determination to press ahead with more privatisation as well as Tony Blair's speech in which he referred to those who oppose such policies as 'wreckers' have deepened the tension between New Labour and the unions. This was acknowledged by Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union in the Guardian recently: 'It is New Labour with its agenda of crypto-privatisation and of seemingly valuing links with big business more than those with affiliated unions which has brought the relationship into question. Is it any wonder that union activists are getting increasingly uneasy about New Labour?'.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of funding. At the moment the trade unions and individual union members contribute around 40 percent of Labour's year on year funding. The unions provide around £10 million in annual affiliation fees and donations. This funding is even more important during elections. For the last election New Labour raised around £5.3 million. The unions provided over £3.75 million of this. Now, however, many trade unionists are asking why they should give so much money to a party that pursues policies which are at odds with the aims of the union.

Already a number of union conferences have decided to review their financial links with Labour. Two years ago the CWU union conference refused to increase its contribution to the party and voted to completely break the link with Labour if privatisation continued. More dissent followed the next year as the FBU voted to consider opening up the political fund to parties other than Labour. Unison has also voted to hold a review of where its money goes and the RMT is doing the same. Reports suggest that the RMT may decide to withhold their funding of Labour MPs such as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. The GMB has already decided to withhold some of its money that was due to go to Labour and instead spend it on a publicity campaign opposing privatisation.

The rift between New Labour and the unions means there is growing support for democratising the political fund--opening it up to be used in a way that allows other parties that represent union policy to benefit from it rather than the money automatically going to New Labour. For example in the train drivers' union, Aslef, some members are arguing that a ballot should be held of all union members and money should be allocated to those parties in the proportions reflected in the ballot. So for example, if 60 percent of union members vote to support New Labour then they should receive this proportion of the union's political fund. Yet if, say, 20 percent of union members support the Socialist Alliance or the Scottish Socialist Party, then the union's money should be allocated appropriately.

The political funds were established by the unions to further their political aims. They are intended to create an independent working class political voice. By freeing up the political fund to allow support for candidates who identify more closely with the unions' aims and policies, right wing or Nazi groups would be excluded from benefiting. It would also allow socialists to argue that unions should not support candidates who are in favour of privatisation, such as the Liberal Democrats.

Such a policy will give rank and file members the opportunity to decide for themselves who they wish their union to support politically. It will mean the trade unions will more accurately reflect the opinions of their members. It will also allow activists in those unions, such as the PCS, NUT and Natfhe, which do not have a political fund, to argue that one is set up and for it to allow backing for political candidates.

The future of the political fund is a vital issue for the working class in Britain. It is not simply about voicing anger at New Labour, it raises a raft of questions about the future of working class politics. Where trade unionists choose to place their loyalties has a big impact on whether they feel able to fight industrial battles under New Labour. Already the simmering discontent with the government is threatening to spill out into industrial action. Rail workers on Arriva Northern have struck repeatedly for 48 hours. Tube workers in London in Aslef and the RMT have voted by eight to one for 48 hour strikes. Postal workers have voted by two to one for action over pay, plus there are disputes in the civil service, among local government workers and medical secretaries in hospitals in the north east of England. Votes are also taking place among London teachers and car workers at Longbridge in Birmingham. Whether this translates into a general offensive against the government remains to be seen, but the overwhelming vote to strike in ballots is a sign of how deeply unpopular Labour's policies are.

The Socialist Alliance conference will bring many of these people together. It will show there is an alternative to the pro-business policies of New Labour. It will also be important in building a network of rank and file activists, and arming them with the arguments about the trade union political fund that are certain to arise at this year's trade union conferences.
Peter Morgan


  • You've heard of a fly in your soup, but what about a lump of metal in your pickle? Sue Taylor bit on something hard in her Nestlé Branston Pickle, reports Which? magazine. It was a dark metal cube which bore the number 2.5. When she contacted the environmental health office they informed her it was a piece from a vegetable chopping machine. Nestlé argued it had taken all reasonable steps to ensure food safety and avoided prosecution. It did, however, give Sue £30 in compensation.
  • McDonald's workers in France have made history after being out on strike for 115 days, the longest ever in the multinational's history. The victory included the reinstatement of five sacked strikers and payment of full wages.
  • Enron
  • The White House has assured us that Enron chairman Kenneth Lay was no more than a 'supporter' of George Bush. However recently released letters between the two paint a far cosier picture. In the correspondence Bush describes Lay as 'Kenny Boy' and they also swapped birthday greetings and jocular memos about jogger's knee, a complaint which they both suffer from.

    Europe's number one fortress

    Yarls Wood detention centre built without sprinklers
    Yarls Wood detention centre built without sprinklers

    David Blunkett's white paper on asylum and immigration, Secure Borders, Safe Haven, published last month, will lead to further persecution of asylum seekers. Under the proposals, asylum seekers are to be systematically segregated--they will either be forced to stay in accommodation centres or locked up in detention camps. New arrivals will be sent immediately to 'induction centres', modelled on the controversial Oakington centre near Cambridge, where their claims will be processed. Here already frightened, desperate people will be confronted with an array of immigration officials. They will be obliged to sign a document saying they understand the asylum seeker system. They will then be either dispersed to run-down estates or to 'accommodation centres'. The policy of not allowing asylum seekers to work while their claims are being processed is to continue, and they will only be provided with the equivalent of 70 percent of income support.

    Blunkett also proposes to quadruple to 30,000 the number of people the government deports each year. Among those under threat of being deported will be people who have established themselves in this country over several years, some of whom have children born here.

    As well as imprisoning innocent people, Blunkett is also proposing to cherry-pick the cream of potential migrants. Under pressure from big business a system based on the accumulation of points is to be introduced, allowing potential migrants the opportunity to work here, initially for one year and then, providing they get further work, to stay longer. Some overseas students will also be allowed to remain working in this country after they have finished their studies. Despite these minor concessions however, if these proposals are introduced Britain will have some of the toughest immigration legislation in Europe.

    Blunkett's proposals on immigration and asylum can be stopped. The fact that the government has been forced to scrap the hated voucher scheme for asylum seekers is a tribute to the many campaigners and trade unionists who took up the issue. Also a growing number of people have been angered by the government's barbaric measures and have already become active in a number of campaigns across the country. Some are focused on stopping deportations, and some living near detention centres have been protesting for their closure because of the appalling treatment of those being held. This includes the campaign at Yarls Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire which recently burnt down.

    Defend asylum and immigration rights

    At the same time, trade unionists have, in a number of important trade unions, passed resolutions condemning government policy and calling for resources to be directed at backing protests. Now several campaigns have come together to call a conference in Manchester on 23 March to build the unity and co-ordination needed for a major campaign against government policy.
    For details, contact the CDAS: 07941 566183 or
    Alan Gibson


    The humiliation of an entire people

    Israeli soldiers pose for their pictures beside a dead Palestinian
    Israeli soldiers pose for their pictures beside a dead Palestinian

    February 2002 has undoubtedly been Ariel Sharon's toughest month in power since his overwhelming election victory just over a year ago. A string of Palestinian military successes has created a climate of near panic in the Israeli press. A large roadside bomb destroyed a Merkava tank, and an officer from the undercover Duvdevan Unit was killed by falling masonry while overseeing the demolition of a Palestinian house. Then six Israeli soldiers were ambushed and killed at a checkpoint and their Palestinian attackers got away. The Israeli army has responded by attempting to batter the Palestinian civilian population into submission. As the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot pointed out, the payload of the Palestinian militias' home-made Qassam 2 rocket weighs in at 3 kilogrammes while the Israeli army pounds Palestinian cities with 3 ton bombs.

    At the same time, serious cracks in the unity of the Israeli army have begun to emerge. Soldiers from reserve units signed an open letter refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Their petition stated bluntly, 'We will no longer fight beyond the green line with the purpose of controlling, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people.' On 1 February Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's notorious secret police Shin Bet, told a television interviewer that he was concerned that not enough Israeli soldiers were refusing to carry out 'blatantly illegal orders'. For the first time since the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000 the Israeli peace movement has mobilised thousands in a series of demonstrations calling for withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

    Economic problems have hurt Sharon's popularity as well. Unemployment is rising, the tourism industry is facing collapse, and squabbles over welfare cuts nearly wrecked Sharon's budget. Some commentators have begun to argue that Israelis have a clear choice between occupation or economic recovery. An editorial in the influential Israeli daily Ha'aretz argued that, 'By promising it can have the territories as well as peace, security and prosperity, the government is deceiving the public.' Meanwhile, Sharon's rating in the polls has fallen dramatically. According to figures released on 22 February only 54 percent of Israelis now think Sharon is a credible Prime Minister while 61 percent criticised his handling of the Intifada.

    The pressure on Sharon has opened up a space for those who oppose him. In late February the Council for Peace and Security, a group of reserve generals and security officials, launched a campaign for unilateral withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Meanwhile, high level negotiations with moderate Palestinian officials such as Abu Ala have continued. The main channel for these talks has been Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Although Peres' Labour Party is still divided, a growing number of Israelis support his position of returning to negotiations. A recent opinion poll also showed 57 percent of Israelis were in favour of evacuating settlements in the Gaza Strip, while 59 percent supported at least a partial evacuation of settlements in the West Bank.

    Clearly an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories would relieve some pressure on the Palestinian population. Yet even if the withdrawal also meant evacuation of some of the settlements this solution would still fall far short of a just peace.
    Anne Alexander


    A case of trial and error


    Radical academic Noam Chomsky threw the spotlight on Turkey's repressive laws last month when he challenged the Turkish state security court to prosecute him for sedition. A Turkish publisher had been hauled before the court for printing a translation of Chomsky's writings discussing the repression faced by Kurds in Turkey. In front of the world's press Chomsky argued that if stating this fact was a crime, he and not his publisher should be in the dock.

    World media attention ensured that the charges were dropped, but for hundreds of human rights activists and Kurdish campaigners this kind of persecution is part of daily life. For the past four months Kurdish activists in Turkey have been campaigning for the right to receive education in their mother tongue. University students have now been joined by parents and pupils at primary schools across Turkey, and campaigners say they have won support from local trade unions and human rights groups. More than 20,000 people have now signed petitions supporting the campaign.

    The response of the Turkish government has been brutal--hundreds have been arrested and charged. Kurdish press reports describe how parents are being dragged from their homes by the police after asking for Kurdish education for their children. The Turkish state news agency reported that 46 primary school pupils and their class teacher from Diyarbakir in southeastern Anatolia were detained by the authorities in January. Even the tabloid press in Turkey has criticised the government clampdown, and Chomsky's case will add further pressure for an end to the repression.
    For a free copy of Noam Chomsky's book 9-11, subscribe to Socialist Worker


    A war conceived in Washington

    The Colombian army enter the demilitiarized zone
    The Colombian army enter the demilitiarized zone

    President Andres Pastrana has announced the end of the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). His latest declaration to the people of Colombia had a ring of deadly finality as he authorised General Fernando Tapias, head of the Colombian Armed Forces, to retake the demilitarised zone with immediate effect.

    Just hours after the proclamation, military planes were overflying the demilitarised zone and dropping bombs of up to 250 kilogrammes. By the morning after the first night's bombing they had dropped more than 200 bombs on military targets they had been planning for months from their zone frontier base at Tres Esquinas. This is Plan B--the small print of Plan A, or Plan Colombia. More than 13,000 troops have been mobilised from different parts of the country to make their way to the zone.

    In his public speech, Andres Pastrana referred to his concern for the safety of those civilians who have been resident inside the zone throughout the peace process. He suggested the Colombian army would protect them--however, the evidence of all too recent history casts very serious doubt upon this assertion.

    When the army enters the zone, so too will their paramilitary soulmates. Already hit lists are circulating among the civilian populations of the zone warning certain people to leave if they want to stay alive. There is no doubt that we are about to witness a civilian bloodbath with government authorisation.

    Under the new Law on Defence and National Security, the demilitarised zone is a major designated 'theatre of operation' in which the army will have total judicial autonomy, unaccountable to any civil judicial authority. In the name of 'public order' they will have complete freedom to detain, torture, disappear, rape and murder with total impunity and without being answerable to any authority but their own. In addition, the new statute actively requires them to form new paramilitary groups from the civilian population.

    The reasons given by President Pastrana for the rupture of the peace talks were the Farc's attacks on utility companies and their detention on 19 February of Senator Jorge Eduardo Gechem Turbay. However, much less emphasis is put by the media on the fact that state-sponsored paramilitaries and national security forces have been continuing their rampage of death and devastation in different regions of the country. In the meantime, trade unionists protesting the privatisation of public utilities and their sale to foreign multinationals are being threatened, disappeared and assassinated.

    What is strange is that this latest and most final rupture in the process has coincided with the US government agreeing to provide yet more military aid to the Colombian army, and to allow this aid to be used directly against insurgency as part of their 'war on terrorism'.

    This was a planned war, conceived in Washington. Its blueprint was Plan Colombia. The peace process was never going to work, because there were powers in the White House making damn well sure it wouldn't.

    The international community must open their eyes to the major role that has been and is being played by the US and the Colombian state in the terror and violence that is killing and displacing thousands of innocent Colombian civilians every year.

    To deny the integral responsibility of the US and the Colombian state and fail to confront them is just to see the terror, violence, repression and suffering go on ad infinitum.
    Liz Atherton
    Colombia Peace Association

    For more on Latin America see pages 22-23


    Sold to the highest bidder

    Milovsevic on the second day of his trial
    Milovsevic on the second day of his trial

    The trial of Slobodan Milosevic opened in The Hague last month to much self righteous acclaim. Commentators were quick to draw comparisons with the trial of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. Yet far from being a testimony to the moral rectitude of the west, the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is a symbol of its moral duplicity.

    The mere fact that this is indeed the first international war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg and Tokyo speaks volumes. Why were there no such tribunals for the US carpet-bombers of North Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, where millions lost their lives? And few commentators saw fit to recall that at Nuremberg the first count on the charge sheet against Nazi leaders was that of planning and waging aggressive war. In 1999 it was Nato that planned and waged aggressive war against Yugoslavia.

    The evidence that the ICTY is a political tool of the US and Britain is extensive. For example, Milosevic was hastily indicted during the bombardment of Yugoslavia for the crime of forcibly deporting 740,000 Kosovan Albanians (few commentators note that the indictment says deportation began on 24 March 1999, the day Nato started bombing). But when 250,000 Krajina Serbs were ethnically cleansed from Croatia in 1995, no indictment was ever issued against the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, who died a free man in 1999. Tudjman was an ally of the US. As one Croatian MP put it, 'The US gave us the green light to do whatever had to be done.'

    Instead the ICTY has now indicted Milosevic for deporting Croats from Serb areas in Croatia, while the president of the Krajina Serbs, Milan Martic, was charged with launching cluster bombs against the Croatian capital, Zagreb, killing seven. When Nato employed cluster bombs during the attack on Yugoslavia (the US dropped 1,100, containing 220,000 bomblets, the British about 500 with 147 bomblets each), the ICTY chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, said, 'I accept the assurances given by Nato leaders that they intend to conduct their operations in Yugoslavia in full compliance with international law.' Her successor, Carla del Ponte, later declared that Nato leaders would not be indicted as the ICTY was 'very satisfied there was no deliberate targeting of civilians'. Five days later Amnesty International published its report accusing Nato of targeting civilians when it bombed Serbia's television and radio station.

    Set up in 1993 'at US behest', to quote Henry Kissinger, the ICTY's loyalties have never been in doubt. As Nato spokesman James Shea put it, 'Nato is a friend of the tribunal. Nato countries are those that have provided the finances to set up the tribunal. We are among the majority financiers.' Control is also exercised by regulating the flow of intelligence information. In 1997 Arbour complained that vital intelligence was being withheld from the ICTY: 'There is no doubt that there might be extremely valuable information contained in the intelligence archives of many countries...the difficulty of access to this kind of information, first of all, is obtaining an acknowledgement that it exists.' But when Nato sought Milosevic's indictment during the bombing of Yugoslavia, Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, announced that he would make available to the ICTY 'one of the largest releases of intelligence material ever authorised by the British'. Control is also exercised over the appointment of ICTY judges via the UN Security Council, where the US and Britain have vetoes. As Cherie Booth QC, Tony Blair's wife, conceded in the Guardian last year, 'The selection of international judges is often a highly politicised affair,' and 'some judges may find it difficult not to be loyal to their own states.' An English judge, Richard May, a former Labour Party parliamentary candidate, is presiding over the Milosevic trial.

    Milosevic should have been tried in Belgrade before the Serbian people who risked all to overthrow him during their revolution in October 2000. Instead, under intense pressure, the Serbian government sold him to the west for $1.2 billion of desperately needed aid. The west will exploit the trial to flaunt its alleged human rights credentials. But, as with any court that prosecutes one criminal only to leave others at large, we must argue that the ICTY does not deserve to be called just until Nato's leaders and their Balkan accomplices join Milosevic in the dock.
    Dragan Plavsic

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