Socialism Today   Socialist Party magazine

Tony Blair’s new domestic disorder

THE YEAR 2002 had barely begun when strike action by rail workers drove the overall meltdown in the rail industry into the national headlines. Rail managements and, in effect, the New Labour government, were besieged by united and determined action by RMT members on South West Trains, Arriva Northern and Scot-Rail. In addition, 40,000 job centre and benefits office staff are taking strike action over a health and safety issue in the largest civil service strike for a decade, and 150,000 post office workers are balloting for action against low pay. The media speculated on whether a ‘winter of discontent’ is looming, and whether it marks the ‘beginning of the end’ for New Labour in power, and a resurgence for the Tories.

Last year, the problems in the rail industry went from bad to worse following decades of neglect and lack of investment. Transport secretary, Stephen Byers, tries to claim credit for taking action when he wrested ownership and control of Railtrack out of the hands of its shareholders and directors last October. But in reality he had little choice, faced with a company in dire financial crisis, led by profiteers who had no interest in providing a rail service. Since then, the situation has deteriorated further, with expectation of a 12 month delay before a new company is installed which satisfies the government’s demand that it is not publicly owned.

Train users have expressed great anger at the state of the industry and some have taken protest action, such as those who occupied a carriage last year in Hampshire when their train halted two stops short of its expected destination. Other, more prepared protests by users, are also possible, such as the planned ‘passenger strike’ on 1 March. But it has taken the rail workers’ action to force the government into a corner on the crisis in the industry, showing where decisive power lies.

One of the aims of the Tory government in privatising and fragmenting the rail industry was to end the prospect of unified strike action by the workforce. However, the present action shows that the power to take effective action remains, despite privatisation, and has the potential to spread throughout the 25 train operators and beyond, into other areas of the private and public sector. The spreading of action is the greatest concern of the capitalist class. This is reflected in the screaming of some of their media representatives against the rail strikers, and in particular against RMT leaders such as Bob Crow, described in an article in the Sun newspaper as ‘Public Enemy No1’. A recent headline in the Sunday Telegraph (13 January) expressed outrage that "trade union leaders of the hard left are back, but this time they’re more cunning than ever", turning "privatisation to their advantage". The writer was referring to train drivers who have been able to exploit the general shortage of drivers, caused by excessive lay-offs following privatisation, to gain improved wages. But predictably, the article said little about the very low wages being received by a majority of rail workers, the so-called ‘non-essential’ workers as management refer to them.

Fearing an escalating strike wave, the government has been weighing up whether to bring in more anti-trade union legislation, such as forcing unions to negotiate with an independent adjudicator. However, reflecting the mood from below, ASLEF leader, Mick Rix, said that this would never be accepted. In any case, legislation that the government tries to enforce can be swept aside when workers’ anger reaches boiling point. To try and break the PCS strike, the government has gone as far as offering up to 10 days extra holiday to strike-breakers, and has threatened strikers with the withdrawal of promotion promises.

Faced with an economy in rapid decline and huge anger at public sector underfunding, the government has so far offered no solution to the rail crisis. Their latest plan to turn the industry around, diverts an extra £4.5bn of public money into rail transport to top the government’s contribution up to £33.5bn over ten years, with a further £40bn to be raised from the private sector. But the industry has been badly underfunded for so long, that this plan came alongside a list of rail projects that are to be shelved, and an admittance that targets for a 50% increase in passengers and reduced overcrowding on London services might not be met. An editorial statement in the Financial Times (15 January) said that the plan "should be read as a work of fiction". This was because it was greeted by a chorus of sneers from representatives of the top financiers at the idea that they would get enough ‘commercial return’ out of the industry to be worth them putting in the sums requested. They have made it clear that the government will have to pay a price for upsetting the Railtrack shareholders (themselves included); this being a guarantee of extra fat profits to compensate them for their added ‘risk’.

It would be wrong to say, however, that British big business is indifferent to the fate of the rail industry. The rail crisis hits their profits through its effects on the transport of both workers and goods. Likewise, the running down of the post office (Consignia) has repercussions on their profits, problems which will grow as Consignia (with government approval) pursues a course of ‘restructuring’ in which up to 30,000 redundancies are threatened. But the madness of privatisation and swingeing cuts in public expenditure is not carried out with the long-term interests of British capitalism in mind, but rather is to extract the greatest possible short-term gains out of a system in decay.

Byers, a Blair loyalist who has faithfully courted the private sector, has momentarily recoiled from its excesses. Although desperately trying to avoid much-needed public ownership of Railtrack, and the rest of the rail industry for that matter, he is considering reversing fragmentation of the network by reducing the number of train operators, and possibly of giving them control of their own areas of track.

Meanwhile, New Labour is still pressing full steam ahead with back-door privatisation in health and education. Sixty thousand NHS patients are to be treated through private sector deals this year. It seems that a new privatisation initiative is announced almost every day at present in education or health, with the latest being the inviting-in of private sector managements to ‘failing NHS hospitals’, and a new state school in South London to be run by a private group.

These measures are increasing the anger felt by ordinary people, and this is with a background of greater insecurity and fear caused by recently released crime figures revealing an escalation in street robbery, and also of job losses, as the economy declines. 146,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the year to November 2001, with as many as 200,000 expected to follow this year. It is only a matter of time before the entire economy enters full-blown recession, as it is only being kept at bay for the moment by unsustainable levels of debt-based consumer spending.

Despite the current strikes, the number of strike-days in Britain at present is only a small fraction of the level in the 1970s. During the winter of discontent in 1979, strike-days totalled 29.5 million. We are witnessing, though, signs of significant future change in the level of struggle, which will bring with it renewed confidence by British workers to fight back against the onslaught of government attacks.

Judy Beishon


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