Issue 271 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Part of the growing worldwide anti-war movement|
In a time when politicians and advertisers have devalued the word 'historic' to another piece of hyperbole, 15 February looks set to reclaim it with full force. On that day hundreds of thousands of people will protest in London against war on Iraq. As if potentially the largest demonstration in British history was not remarkable enough, it takes place as part of an international day of action encompassing millions of protesters in 57 cities as we go to press.
The scale of the mobilisation has forced the media to acknowledge 15 February in a way that it has not done for a demonstration in years. This has included a Guardian leader column and an active campaign and petition by the Daily Mirror.
Part of the coverage has centred on an outrageous attempt, supposedly by the Royal Parks Agency but supported by New Labour culture secretary Tessa Jowell, to ban the march from rallying in Hyde Park. Obviously aware of its huge size, which has necessitated two assembly points (at Embankment and Gower Street), Jowell used maintaining the state of the grass as a transparent excuse for maintaining the illusion of public assent. But the resultant anger put her in 'a no-win situation', as she is reported to have admitted. Even readers of the right wing London tabloid the Evening Standard agreed, with 76 percent saying the rally should go ahead in Hyde Park.
A Stop the War Coalition spokesperson told Socialist Review 'We'd like to thank Ms Jowell for attracting so much publicity regarding the demonstration. It's generated so many people writing in absolutely disgusted about the decision, including Labour Party members. Ms Jowell's own ward members petitioned her saying "Let the march carry on in Hyde Park".' The attempt sits uneasily with New Labour's modernisation rhetoric, as it replays 19th century battles by the Duke of Wellington to keep Hyde Park 'clear from mobs'. Both in 1855 and 1867 such decrees were overcome by sheer weight of numbers, and the anti-war movement can consider itself part of a proud tradition of fighting for the freedom of assembly and protest.
A similar struggle is taking place in New York, where an attempt to ban the anti-war protest entirely is also being vigorously challenged. The symbolic importance of the venue is obvious--the events of 11 September 2001 are still being used, albeit increasingly ineffectually, as a blunt instrument against opposition to this totally unrelated conflict. A massive turnout against war in New York will help to bury that manipulative lie once and for all.
The initiative for the international day of action began at the European Social Forum last November, where continental protests were coordinated. The idea was taken up by activists all around the world, with protests planned in cities as diverse as Bangkok and Belfast, Athens and Osaka, Seoul and Sao Paulo, Ramallah and Reykjavik, Glasgow and Geelong. One of the key tools for this co-ordination has been the Cairo Declaration, the anti-imperialist statement drawn up by Egyptian activists which was republished in last month's Socialist Review. Despite very real fears of repression, Cairo will also be the scene of an impressive anti-war protest on 15 February.
Anti-war meetings in towns, cities and villages throughout this country have tapped extraordinary support, with hundreds overflowing from meetings in Plymouth, Lewisham and St Albans, to name just three examples. Local Stop the War groups have sprung up in hundreds of areas, including Llanelli, Ludlow, Dorset and Daventry. All are throwing themselves into mass leafleting, postering, lobbies and protests to build the movement up to and after 15 February.
The impact of this movement cannot be exaggerated. If the huge level of support it enjoys is translated into the kind of mobilisations that are possible we can make this Blair's poll tax. The military power of the US and Britain is daunting. But our rulers are equally anxious about the power of collective action. The Motherwell train drivers who refused to move military equipment have given us a glimpse of that potential. Saturday 15 February 2003 will truly be a date to remember. With no fear of exaggeration we can say it will be the date the anti-war movement makes history.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Supporters of Nuclear Energy have been lobbying for the lame duck company to be bailed out by the taxpayer. Subsidies to this privatised utility are, apparently, 'in the national interest'. Among the signatories to this campaign are Lord (Cecil) Parkinson and Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary. U-turn if you want to...
New Labour's numeracy strategy obviously has a long way to go. The 'five ways to help Labour win' on their official website gives six suggestions.
Forget Kim Howells' ridiculous attacks on rap, new figures suggest it might be hymns that cause crime. The city with the worst crime rate, at 608 offences for a city with only 455 residents, is the Vatican.
Fed up with spam on your e-mail? Well you're not alone. The makers of the tinned 'meat' are so incensed that their product is used to describe junk e-mails that they are spending tens of thousands on advertising to explain the difference between the two.
A mean test for students
'We will not introduce "top-up" fees and have legislated to prevent them.' So promised Labour's 2001 election manifesto. Less than two years later the government's higher education white paper threatens to introduce top-up fees. And they wonder why young people distrust politicians.
Education secretary Charles Clarke's plans are a neoliberal assault on socially provided education and, if they are implemented, the victims will be students from working class backgrounds. They raise the level of fees that universities can levy to £3,000 a year, which students will have to pay as soon as they are earning £15,000 per year. The Independent reported that the repayment rate is likely to be 9 percent of earnings--which would leave many low paid graduates effectively paying a higher rate of tax than millionaires.
New Labour claim that on average graduates earn £400,000 more than non-graduates in their lifetime, and so a toll on education is presented as an alternative means of taxing the rich (the direct version being anathema to them). But these calculations are based on students from the 1960s, when only a tiny minority of the population went into higher education, compared to 43 percent of school-leavers now. A contemporary comparison exposes a very different picture. Arts graduates now earn less than non-graduates with equivalent A-levels. Students who don't have rich parents to pay off their debts are likely to be railroaded into 'work-focused' courses.
The proposed maintenance grant will be only £1,000 per year, barely half the level of the grant abolished by New Labour in 1997, and will only be available in full to students from households with a total income of less than £10,000 a year. Charles Clarke has said that he doesn't believe student debts of up to £21,000 are a problem.
Clarke wants more 'autonomy' for universities to control finances and create a market of different fees for different institutions and courses. This will widen a two-tier structure where prestigious 'Russell Group' universities can attract corporate research subsidies in courses dominated by richer students, while the underresourced 'new universities' will struggle further to educate overwhelmingly poorer students. Once implemented, these 'reforms' will surely be used as a cover for reducing direct state funding. Universities will be told that if they need more money they will have to charge their students more.
On the failed model of the railway system, this free market dismantling of public provision will be accompanied by the introduction of a toothless regulator. The 'access regulator' is meant to ensure that systematic disadvantages throughout pre-school, primary and secondary education, combined with the prospect of mountains of debt, does not put working class children off from attending university. The rumoured frontrunner for the job is 'millionaire philanthropist' Peter Lampl. A class warrior, perhaps--but which class?
Students have responded angrily to the moves. A group chanting 'War on fees, not Iraq' chased Charles Clarke off stage at a recent debate. The National Union of Students (NUS) is planning a national shutdown of higher education to coincide with a lecturers' strike over London weighting allowances. Anti-war activists will be campaigning for occupations on that day. Student union officers are also being balloted about calling a national demonstration. It should need no debate. NUS policy is against top-up fees and students should be given every opportunity to put those words into action
Years of underfunding combined with New Labour's obsession with privatisation are to blame for the near disaster when a London Underground train derailed at Chancery Lane last month. The RMT and Aslef have been warning for years that the disasters we've witnessed on the privatised national rail network will replicate themselves on the tube. Both unions have also taken industrial action over the issue of safety and privatisation. Staff have been reporting suspect motors--the cause of the Chancery Lane incident--for a long time. Indeed last year there was a similar derailment at Loughton.
Blair tells us that privatisation will bring in much needed funding for the tube. It's certainly true we need billions, but where's the money going? Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been handed over to private companies like Amey to keep them afloat so that they are in a financial position to sign the contracts in the spring.
The tube has been running as a 'shadow PPP' as if it were already privatised. JNP Lines (Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly) were handed over to the privateers over Xmas. BCV lines (Bakerloo, Central and Victoria) and SSL lines (Sub Surface Levels, ie District, Metropolitan, Circle, and Hammersmith and City) are due to be handed over in the spring. Performance targets must be met or else the companies face financial penalties. Instead of a guard on every train we have 'station assistants' on platforms. While the guards' role was to ensure the safe exit and boarding of passengers, the 'station asssistants'' role is to get the train moving on as fast as possible to reduce 'dwell time'.
It's not just the government and London Underground management that are at fault. Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate (HMRI) has to take responsibility as well. All train operating companies must provide a 'Safety Case' to HMRI. The Underground's Safety Case for the PPP scheme was co-authored by Mark Brown of HMRI, who was appointed by the government. He has since left HMRI to become the director of safety for Tubelines, the group which includes Jarvis, that has just taken over the JNP lines.
This is the same safety body that told the unions that, other than the 22 stations with lifts on the underground, the tube could continue to run safely in the event of a firefighters' strike. And George Bain, the man who wants to cut the fire service, sits as a director on the board of Bombardier, one of the private firms lined up to profit from PPP and owner of ABB, the firm that supplied the trains now used on the Central Line.
We are constantly told the tube is safer than other means of transport. But how safe do you feel safe in the hands of the privateers?
The dark side of the net
If you have watched the television or read some of the tabloids over the last few weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the web has become the realm of the child pornographer and the paedophile. But this isn't anything new. The reality is that the web has made the distribution and accessibility of pornography very easy, and it was the pornographers who grasped the potential for the internet to make them very rich indeed.
Big on-line retailers, like the booksellers Amazon, waited years for their first profits (if they didn't go bust long before then), but sex sites frequently earn their owners millions of hits and consequently huge profits. See the article at abcnews.go.com for some of the surprising multinationals behind the sex industry.
It isn't the first time that pornography has been the driving force behind new technology, and it certainly won't be the last. After losing billions of pounds purchasing third generation licences for mobile phones, these mobile phone companies are 'trying to tie up deals with adult content providers such as Playboy, as full colour phones capable of displaying high-resolution images become more popular'. The Guardian reports at media.guardian.co.uk that this could lead to almost £2 billion in revenue by the end of the year.
The nature of internet use can perhaps be seen from a report at cyberatlas.internet.com which lists the most commonly entered terms on search engines. First is, of course, 'sex'. Other terms include 'music', 'free' and 'MP3', reflecting the fact that millions of people use the internet to download free pirated music (to the horror of the music industry). Google's 'year-end zeitgeist' at www.google.com allows you to 'Check out the year's top gaining and declining search terms as well as the most popular brands, music, movies and women on the web as seen by Google users.'
It's a sad reflection on the internet that its development has been driven by some of the most cynical and unpleasant industries. And the media are more interested in venting their anger on a few individuals, rather than the multinationals which are exploiting the web.