49. The War at Home



There were two wars being conducted at this stage in Britain and worldwide. One was in Iraq and the other was the continuous social war of capitalism against the working class, its past gains and organisations.

This second war was orchestrated in Britain by New Labour, with Tony Blair the general of the capitalist ‘army’. We made the point in Socialism Today:

“In all capitalist wars the government of the day invariably bangs the drum of ‘national unity’ as a means of mobilising the population for its war aims. Sure enough, Britain’s official parliamentary ‘opposition’, the Tories, have fallen in behind the Blair government with almost military precision, appropriate for a party now led by an ex-army junior officer [Iain Duncan Smith (IDS)].”1

The late Hugo Young commented in the Guardian: “Never, perhaps, has the official ‘opposition’ been more timid or supine than now: “Far from giving himself elbow room, IDS’s shoulder was thrusting to push ahead of TB’s [Tony Blair’s] in mutual bondage.”2

Moreover, Blair had achieved the compliance of right-wing national trade union leaders for the short term, who waved the white flag over issues such as privatisation at the truncated 2001 Labour Party conference, as well as at the TUC. We pointed to the serious world economic and financial situation, with a looming default in Argentina, which took place subsequently. The seriousness of the situation compelled even the most orthodox capitalist economists to reassess and change their position. The Economist, previously the ideological bulwark of monetarist policies, now stated that “Keynes is back in fashion.”3 This meant that the rosy future painted by Blair for the British economy had been savagely darkened, reducing his room for manoeuvre, and some bourgeois economists were urging a change from cuts to a ‘looser’ regime involving Keynesian measures.

The trickle of redundancies was now threatening to turn into a flood and this exerted pressure on the government to take measures to ameliorate the conditions of the working class. There was rising discontent on tuition fees and even a partial retreat from the government, where there were suggestions that it would introduce a ‘graduate’s tax’, a kind of deferred fees. These issues, together with the growing revolt against privatisation, were partially pushed into the background for a time in 2001-02 in the aftermath of 9/11.

Within months of its election victory, the government had performed more somersaults and body swerves than a circus acrobat. It was busy jettisoning every unpopular policy introduced in its first term of office. It carried through the renationalisation of Railtrack by the back door, which earned the scorn of the city for this ‘confiscatory’ measure. We pointed out that this was a ‘state capitalist’ rather than a socialist measure. Moreover, we said that the government was compelled to rescue an industry ruined by the capitalists and would then seek to renovate and sell it back to the private owners at a later stage.

A revolt was brewing against New Labour. The comments of Roy Gladden, secretary and convenor of the GMB’s 413 branch on Merseyside, were highly significant. Although he was one of the 47 councillors who had defied Thatcher and the right-wing Labour leadership by carrying through an ‘illegal’ budget In Liverpool, he ended up supporting the right wing, and Neil Kinnock in particular, against the socialists and Marxists around Militant. He declared in 2001 though: “For the first time in my recollection I have activists who supported Labour all their lives openly discussing whether the unions should continue to give their political levy or any other financial support to the party, locally or nationally.”  The Liberal Democrats were manoeuvring at this stage in order to benefit from the split which had developed within the Tory party and inevitable disenchantment with Labour. All they needed to do was to stand still and they would appear to be to the ‘left’ of Labour. We concluded: “The seeming tranquillity of the 1990s is over once and forever. The broad consciousness of the mass of the people has not yet caught up with objective reality. But that it will do so, and in convulsive leaps, is certain.”4

The issue of privatisation, specifically the privatisation programme ruthlessly carried out by New Labour, was one of the dominant features of this period. Nothing was sacred: education, the NHS, social services were all subjected to the remorseless pressure of Blair to outdo Thatcher through privatisation. Linda Taaffe, in a frontpage article in the Socialist, recorded the comments of teachers: “Once the fat cats get a foot in the door it will soon be individual schools that are handed over to private companies for profit.” “They will be charging teachers to rent their classrooms next!”5

Such sentiments were forcing teachers and support staff to take action against the privatisation of education services in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. Teachers there were balloting against this proposal, the first of its kind in the country. It was difficult to find anyone in favour of private shareholders making money out of education. Teachers and support workers opposed it. Parents organised a lively campaign against it. Yet the government continued with its programme. Shortly afterwards, “A mass of angry parents, teachers and education workers made a last ditch attempt to persuade Labour councillors to stand up to government blackmail and refuse to hand over Waltham Forest education services to ‘EduAction’.” The Secretary of State, of a ‘Labour’ government remember, had promised to privatise anyway if the councillors did not vote for it themselves. The last time there were stormy scenes like this at Waltham Forest Town Hall, activists recalled, was during the introduction of the poll tax.

The campaign culminated in a one-day strike by about 100 workers in the NUT, Unison and the Transport and General Workers’ Union in protest at their jobs transferring to a private company. On the two large and lively picket lines, strikers had little difficulty in persuading other workers not to cross them. The Education Centre was almost empty and the Education Department severely depleted. In the evening the campaign reassembled for the full council meeting. Only the Liberal Democrat councillors, now placing themselves to the left of Labour, decided to vote against, even though they had taken no part in the campaign over the previous year. Every other councillor was given a severe ear-bashing by the demonstrators. To add insult to injury, a couple of directors of private education companies suddenly turned up for the council meeting. This was a red rag to the bull. They had a hard time getting in and had to be escorted out by police.

Earlier in the year at the annual general meeting of Nord Anglia the chairman of the company had stated, referring to the Waltham Forest privatisation, that they believed they could fulfil their promise to shareholders with “these new market opportunities.” He then added: “I am confident we are on course to meet our profit expectations.” Our report concluded: “No doubt they will be giving thanks to Labour… As the two directors left the building they were again berated by strikers. There is no mood just to accept this decision. This is not the privatisation of ten years ago. The mood has changed. The campaign will reconvene in September to decide what next, but borough-wide and national action must be on the cards.”6

This battle was typical of those that were taking place in other areas, usually with Socialist Party members providing leadership but workers at local level were invariably left to fight alone. National and regional trade union officials rapidly disowned any local leaflets and other propaganda produced by local union branches that implied that industrial action had anything to do with privatisation. The excuse was that the courts had deemed these as ‘political’ strikes and were therefore ‘illegal’. This meant that workers were forced to oppose the effects of privatisation, rather than the privatisation itself. This in turn meant that the real position of right-wing union leaders, aired just behind the scenes, was that it did not matter who runs the service or industry as long as their members’ conditions were protected. The essence of the matter was, however, that privatisation was an essential part of neoliberal policies, with the ultimate end being to drive down wages, which had been the overwhelming experience of the working class since these policies were introduced.

This position led to a campaign orchestrated by a number of union broad lefts to coordinate action against privatisation. Left Unity in the PCS, United Left in Unison, the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance and Campaign for a Democratic Fighting Union in the NUT, the CWU Broad Left and NATFHE Rank and File banded together to call an anti-privatisation conference for 24 November 2001. On this date, 100 delegates from more than 13 different trade unions attended with the six national trade union broad lefts represented as well.

Mark Serwotka, recently elected general secretary of PCS, explained the determined mood to fight back and win. Since his election in January, there had been 147 separate submissions in the PCS for strike action. Brian Debus from Hackney came straight from the picket line to speak to the conference. He pointed out that 96% of library workers voted for strike action over the issue of Saturday payments for their work. Representatives from Brighton GMB and the Northern Ireland Public Sector Alliance (NIPSA) also spoke, as did Linda Taaffe. Speaking in a personal capacity, although a member of the NUT’s National Executive Committee, she pointed out that while some privatisation ventures, such as Education Action Zones, were falling by the wayside, others were going ahead and planned for the future: “The union leadership doesn’t inspire confidence. But we can fill that gap. Rank-and-file teachers organised a campaign against performance related pay.”7

Members of the London Underground Regional Executive Committee of the RMT said it was just a matter of time before the Paddington or Hatfield rail disasters were repeated on the Underground. Under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP), profits would come before safety. Such was the feeling growing against privatisation alongside hostility to the already privatised industries that the government was compelled at the end of 2001 to announce the renationalisation of Railtrack. Stephen Byers, then the Transport Secretary but later to be sacked himself, admitted “Railtrack is finished”.

Only two months before this New Labour had said it couldn’t possibly take back control of Railtrack because it would be “too expensive” and contravene the Human Rights Act! But they were now forced to call in the administrators and take the company out of private hands. As Christine Thomas commented: “At last New Labour have had to admit what everyone else already knew; privatisation on the railways has been a total disaster… ‘Profit before safety’ seems to have been Railtrack’s slogan. Seven people died in the Southall train crash, 31 at Paddington and four at Hatfield. Cost-cutting and mismanagement linked to privatisation were implicated in all three disasters.”8 However, while giving this decision a qualified welcome we also called it “Nationalisation – but not as we know it… New Labour are desperate to avoid being accused of ‘renationalisation’ but for the ‘shocked’ City investors this is what it is. The financial pages of the Independent (10 October 2001) called it ‘confiscation’.”

This did not represent a wild swing to the left. They were only acting in the same way as previous Tory and Labour governments had both done. When faced with a major crisis of a key part of the British economy which, if allowed to collapse, would cause major damage to the profits of other companies, they implemented state capitalist measures – top-down nationalisation in order to benefit the capitalists themselves, invariably with lavish overcompensation.

We took this opportunity to explain our alternative of democratic public ownership. Rail workers were and are the real experts in the industry. We therefore demanded that “The rail unions must have a major say in the running of the industry. That means direct representation on the board of a wholly publicly owned rail industry.”9 They should represent roughly one third of the positions on the boards running the industry at every level. Another third should come from representatives of the trade unions as a whole and, if it was deemed necessary, one third from the government itself. All representatives to be subject to recall and having the average wage of the people that they represent, rail workers and workers generally.

There were further retreats by the government at this stage. The New Labour government made a big U-turn on higher education on 3 October, by announcing it would restore student grants and review its position on tuition fees. Yet despite the furore, as we explained, this was not a return to free education on the part of New Labour’s education secretary, Estelle Morris, but the introduction of a graduate tax. The reasons why she proposed the change were because “‘many low-income families find fear of debt is a real worry’ and that this could act as a barrier to higher education”.10 How much more so is that the case today when tuition fees are at a far higher level than was the case then? And New Labour’s measures prepared the way for the ‘ConDem’ coalition government to introduce their draconian attacks on young people, with massive increases in tuition fees, which has crippled the educational ambitions of young people today. As we entered 2002, thousands of workers went on strike to defend their conditions and fight for a living wage. 60,000 PCS union members working in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) took two days of strike action towards the end of 2001 and threatened further action in benefit offices and Jobcentres. They were encouraged by the election of new left leaders in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Communication Workers Union (CWU).

This was followed by RMT members on South West Trains striking in protest at an inadequate increase of pay of 7.65% over 18 months. This was followed by management’s threat to sack striking train workers orchestrated by the infamous Brian Souter, the billionaire owner of Stagecoach, who also owned this company. He had jumped on the bandwagon of many anti-working class and reactionary social issues in the previous few years. Mick Rix, then general secretary of ASLEF, waded in to support the RMT. As was the norm at this stage, the TUC was playing a despicable role, holding secret meetings involving government ministers with the intention of backing the bosses. We advocated: “The RMT should go over the heads of the TUC and make a direct appeal to trade union members to come to the aid of the rail workers. The stage is being set for a mighty struggle. Perhaps not yet on the lines of the 1970s, but the issues are the same – solidarity with those in struggle and the need for a bold union leadership.”11

In the midst of the strike wave Blair, at New Labour’s local government conference, attacked as “wreckers” anyone who opposed his privatisation plans and compared them to “the Militant Tendency”. On behalf of the Socialist Party, I publicly replied to him: “At the time of our expulsion from the Labour Party, we predicted that the campaign against the Militant Tendency would be the thin end of the wedge. Militant ferociously defended public services against Tory cuts… We warned that the right wing’s attacks on the left would not end with the expulsion of the Militant Tendency, but that socialist policies and even the defence of the living standards of the working class would be next in the Blairites’ sights… the right-wing trade union leaders did not heed our warnings; on the contrary they backed our expulsion… [Then GMB leader] John Edmonds has correctly compared New Labour’s privatisation programme to Thatcher’s poll tax. However, the poll tax was not defeated simply because it was unpopular. It was defeated because our party took the initiative to launch what became an 18 million strong, organised campaign of non-payment… We appeal to trade unionists to fight for a new party, a party that represents the working class instead of the fat cats, a mass workers’ party that campaigns for socialist policies.”12