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2001 - a year of Workers' reawakening
EIGHTEEN MONTHS ago, George W Bush was told by an economic adviser that the USA was heading for a "painful adjustment" (read recession or slump). Bush's reaction was: "If you're right, I'm not sure I want this job [the US presidency]"
Peter Taaffe, general secretary, Socialist Party
Through a mixture of the most blatant electoral fraud worthy of a "banana republic" and a 'legal' coup d'etat by the US Supreme Court, Bush stole "the job" from Gore, the inept Democratic Party candidate.
But he will regret this as his economic adviser's predictions will be borne out in the US much sooner than he expects. The Nasdaq index of technology shares has already dropped by 50% in the last year. The current account deficit of the US economy (the difference between the amount of goods imported and those exported) is already at a record figure.
The only issue at doubt is whether the collapse in the US will have a "hard" or "soft" landing. The very prolongation of the boom, now officially the longest in US history, has deepened the problems of the US economy and enhanced all the factors which can lead to a serious recession or slump.
The collapse in the exchange rate of the dollar, a sudden drop in the profits of industry in the US in particular, or one of many other factors, could be the pin that pricks the huge bubble economy of the US. A default by a country such as Argentina could also bring the US house of cards tumbling down. The winner of the US presidential election could, ultimately, be the "loser".
Like the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo, Bush may well ruminate that "nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won". So could Tony Blair. The effects of a US meltdown will wreak havoc on the world economy and particularly on the exposed British economy.
Eddie George, Governor of the Bank of England, may "welcome" the signs of a slowdown in the US economy. The people he represents, the richest fifth of the population, have seen their share of Britain's post-tax income rise from 36% to a colossal 45% between 1978 and 1998-99. The bosses pay virtually no taxes now. They will not shoulder the main burden of the capitalist crisis.
Nor will the Chief Executive Officers of Britain's largest 100 companies. In the past year their salaries rose by 20% to an average of £717,000. They popped champagne corks with 1,000 corporate financiers and analysts in the City who "earned" £1 million bonuses at the end of last year. In 1983 there were 7,000 millionaires in Britain, now there are 77,000!
BUT THE Luton workers, the Corus steelworkers in the north-east and South Wales who face mass redundancies and many others, unlike George, are not "pleased" at the prospects of a slowdown.
They are seething with anger at the capitalists who open and shut factories, throwing thousands on the scrapheap, with as much ease and as little thought of the consequences, as if they were opening and shutting matchboxes. These workers are given a brutal lesson in the realities of the workings of the "free market", the capitalist system.
Events have conspired to ensure the probable return of New Labour, albeit with a reduced majority. They stand more than ten points ahead of the Tories in opinion polls. The British people consider that the Tories, particularly Thatcher and her heirs, are like war criminals. Their policies laid waste to large parts of Britain, which has resulted in the present catastrophes. Hague promises to compound this.
Indeed, Britain today conjures up the biblical spectre of the "four horseman of the apocalypse". At one stage, an area the size of Lancashire was under water. Natural disasters have been compounded by the capitalist disaster of lack of investment on the infrastructure.
It is now estimated that five million people will be affected by floods in the future and it will cost a minimum of £12 billion for flood defences, whereas the government has committed only an extra £30 million for this work.
We have had the BSE/CJD crisis, which has justifiably aroused fears that hardly any food is now safe in Britain, or elsewhere for that matter. This has been aggravated by the rail catastrophe, which is in turn a product of the crime of privatisation under the Tories, stubbornly and damagingly continued by Blair and Prescott.
Without the memory of what the Tories did and the greater devastation they promise if they were ever re-elected to office, then New Labour would be faced with being turfed out of office in this year's election. This Labour government, unlike previous ones, has been exceptionally lucky.
It has not faced any serious economic crisis since it has been in power. Gordon Brown wrongly ascribes this to his "prudence". The British economy has benefited from the upswing of world capitalism in the last eight years.
At the same time, the government has had lucky windfalls from the sale of mobile phone licenses and a certain rise in revenue from the increase in oil prices in the last year or two.
It is this which allowed Brown in his pre-budget statement to make concessions on education, to pensioners, and promised increases in funding to the collapsing National Health Service.
BUT BLAIR now admits that by continuing with Tory restrictions on state spending he has starved the NHS of funds. He can do little else in the teeth of the evidence of the shameful position which now exists in the NHS.
The chairman of the British Medical Association has admitted that doctors are "clinically depressed" at the state of the NHS. If so, imagine how the rest of us feel when we have to go to a doctor, dentist or wander into a hospital emergency department expecting to be treated efficiently and humanely.
Many emergency departments in hospitals resemble First World War medical outposts. This is the reason, perhaps, why "mobile surgical units, normally restricted to treating soldiers injured in battle, are riding to the rescue of the NHS". [Financial Times, 12 December].
The infrastructure in Britain is collapsing because of years of underfunding. Britain's housebuilding federation has declared: "Britain has had the lowest level of housing investment as a percentage of gross domestic product of any developed country for decades".
Moreover, The Guardian informed us in November that "India's railways still work". The trains in India are superior to Britain. Even writers in the Daily Mail have raised the possibility of renationalising the railways!
The founder of The Independent newspaper, Andreas Whittam-Smith, bluntly outlined in December in his column: "the capitalist case for renationalisation". Yet not only does New Labour refuse to renationalise Railtrack and the other rail companies, but billions of our money, will be pumped into Railtrack. It is now estimated this will give the bloodsuckers who invest in this company profits of £3 million a day in five years time.
The privatisation of air traffic control has been pushed through by Prescott for one reason only: to give a short-term financial boost to government finances in preparation for more pre-election bribes in the March budget.
Almost 40 Labour MPs voted against this measure in the House of Commons, but the House of Lords eventually acquiesced. 67 Labour MPs have called for the renationalisation of the railways.
But the muted parliamentary rebellions we now see are only a pale reflection of the deep and growing opposition, even abiding hatred, which exists among significant sections of the population towards New Labour.
A RECENT headline in The Independent summed up the situation: "Things are not getting better for Britain's poorest". Half a million more officially classified poor have been added to the one-quarter to a third of the population in Britain already in this category when the government was elected three and a half years ago.
The Economist, mouthpiece of world finance capital, which fatuously described the present situation as "a golden age", and has hailed the "boom" in Britain, nevertheless admits: "The British people [some of those in work - PT] are doing better by working longer and harder, not by working 'smarter'
It further comments on Britain's economy that "its underlying inefficiency is actually getting worse in relation to the rest of the world" [The World in 2001, Economist publications].
The bill for this situation will be presented to the government in the post-election period by working-class people. The fuel uprising in September, which was preceded by the mass outburst of anger at Rover earlier in the year, and now by the fury of the Luton workers - who brought a little of France or Spain to Britain when they stormed Vauxhall's headquarters - is a foretaste of what is to come.
If the bottom falls out of the world economy and Britain is severely affected by mass redundancies, outbursts on an even higher scale are inevitable.
Millions of workers are seething with indignation at their stagnating or deteriorating living standards, while the millionaires and billionaires coin it in. Teachers are straining at the leash to take action against their miserable wages. Two-thirds of university lecturers, according to their union NATFHE, are prepared to take strike action to improve their position.
Events just before the turn of the year in Spain, where a massive strike of 2.2 million public-sector workers - the first there since 1996 - a similar general strike in Greece and a huge industrial wave in Southern Ireland are portents of what will take place in Britain.
In matters big and small, this government is a mouthpiece for big business. The government knew about the proposed redundancies in Luton but never informed the unions or the workforce. Luton's workers are cheaper to sack, as was the case with Rover and Ford workers, than their German counterparts.
Bowing the knee to businessmen specially invited to 10 Downing Street, Blair even promised them in November that the minimal defence measures for workers unfairly sacked would be further weakened. Employment Tribunals will be given new powers to strike out "ill-founded claims" that allegedly "have no real chance of success".
IN THE last three and a half years, the right-wing trade union leadership has shamefully acquiesced to the anti-worker, pro-big business agenda of the New Labour government.
Their attitude was perhaps best summed up by the discredited general secretary of the MSF union, Roger Lyons. He recently led officials and some national executive committee members in a vigil outside the Bank of England. Complete with a priest and candles, with some participants kneeling down, Lyons led a plea for a reduction in interest rates to "help manufacturing industry".
A "prayer" is the only policy of these trade union leaders rather than action to defend workers' interests. But even they will be forced to reflect the growing indignation of workers against the bosses and the government.
Right-wing GMB general secretary John Edmonds has admitted that the trade union leaders were restraining workers before the election. But he claimed it would be a different matter after the election.
The British working class is sometimes very slow to move and appears a bit more ponderous than their European counterparts. However, the experience of Vauxhall's Luton workers shows that this attitude could now be changing.
The new generation will not accommodate themselves to the prospect of being driven back into poverty and deprivation. This period will see the reawakening of the traditions of struggle and solidarity on the shopfloor, in the office and the workplace.
This will also be reflected within the trade unions. The victory of Mark Serwotka, a left candidate for the PCS general secretary, supported by Socialist Party members in Left Unity, is a symptom of this mood.
POLITICALLY, THERE is growing hostility to big business amongst workers and youth. Indeed, The Economist, in its survey for the next year, has admitted: "The anti-capitalists have scored notable successes"; [they] "have been winning the battle of ideas".
Yet, they also claim that globalisation, the "new economy" and the capitalist system which they firmly defend, will continue seamlessly in the next period.
The claims made for this system as the bearer of culture, of new technology for all, of rising living standards, and a future of undreamed of plenty for the mass of the peoples of the world will be further undermined in the next year.
Even now, before the onset of a serious recession or slump, the world's resources are clearly seen as unequally divided. Barely 2% of the world's population of more than six billion are linked to the Internet. Most people on the planet have not even made a telephone call.
There are more telephone lines in a big city like Tokyo than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. In the US, Internet access costs the user only 1% of average monthly income, whereas in Uganda it costs more than a month's average (per capita) income.
This unequal world, capitalist society, oozes inequality from every pore. But it has been seriously challenged by significant sections of youth and workers in the last year. That will continue on a higher scale in the next year but will go alongside those who are drawing the conclusion that not only is this system not working but that a real alternative, socialism, must be put in its place.
Ten years after the defeat of Thatcher - and her legacy has been continued by Blair - working-class people are set to reject not just the effects of Thatcherism but to turn to those very ideas she claimed she had buried, democratic, liberating socialism in Britain and the world.
In The Socialist 5 January 2001:
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