SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Blair’s ‘war on the home front’

"THE WORLD economy is suffering its sharpest downturn since the 1974 oil crisis, a ‘synchronised slowdown’ that is the most rapid for two decades", argued the chancellor, Gordon Brown, in his November pre-budget report.

When New Labour came to power Brown declared that his ‘prudence’ would mean an end to ‘boom and bust’ in the British economy. Quietly shelved some time ago, this claim is now in tatters. The reality of the capitalist system that New Labour has so lovingly embraced, is going to be increased hardship for working-class people. For New Labour themselves it will mean coping with economic crisis and political and industrial unrest, with the fire-fighters’ struggle the first, critical, instalment.

Since the March budget the value of the London stock market has fallen by 22%. The government estimates that their revenue from corporation tax has already fallen by 14% as a result of the economic slowdown. In the seven months from April to October the government borrowed £10.3bn, while in the same period last year it repaid debt of £2.6bn. According to economists at JP Morgan, Brown could face a shortfall of £23bn over the next three years. In fact this is likely to be an underestimate. In the 1989–1992 recession the then Tory government’s budget plummeted from a surplus equivalent to 1.4% of GDP in 1988, to a 7.8% deficit by 1992-93, as tax revenues decreased and spending (particularly on unemployment benefit) increased. The world economic crisis today is, as Brown confessed, far worse than that of the early 1990s. Yet even a recession on a similar scale to then would mean a turnaround in the government finances of something like £100bn. Like the Tories before them, New Labour will turn to a massive increase in borrowing, combined with deep spending cuts and increased use of ‘private finance initiatives’ (PFIs) to fund public services.

The economic crisis, however, will also create havoc for their privatisation programme. The prospect of ‘a hundred Railtracks’ will be posed. As some of the private companies running public services inevitably hit financial crisis, New Labour will have two choices: to pour public money into propping up private companies, as they have done with the privatised British Energy company, or, as they were eventually forced to in Railtrack’s case, step in and partially renationalise. Whereas one forced renationalisation could be construed as bad luck, several would make a complete mockery of privatisation and PFI.

But it would be wrong to imagine that New Labour will react to economic crisis by moving to the left. They will cling to privatisation until it collapses around them. It is true that Digby Jones, director general of the employers organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), has loudly expressed his fear that New Labour intends to increase corporation tax to try and boost government income. Brown has responded with soothing (and accurate) noises about the government being ‘the CBI’s friend’. And in fact Britain’s corporate income tax rate is one of the lowest in the advanced capitalist world, at 30%, with even George Bush’s USA levying far more (45%). New Labour’s mantra about making Britain the most ‘business-friendly environment in the world’ is graphically illustrated by fact that the total tax take from business has fallen from 3.6% (as a share of GDP) in 1996 to 2.8% this year. Digby Jones’ grumbles do not represent a real divergence between New Labour and big business; they are more akin to someone beating their dog to ensure its continued obedience. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that large sections of the British ruling class must be desperately wishing that the Tories were in better shape. In the past they relied on the Labour Party to be a ‘second eleven’ that could stand in for the Tories when necessary, but now there is no credible party waiting in the wings if New Labour hit the rocks.

The fire-fighters’ strike is by far the most serious opposition New Labour has faced, and they appear weak, divided and incompetent in the face of it. Before the strike New Labour was full of bravado about how the fire-fighters would be Blair’s equivalent of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Andrew Rawnsley summed up their previous mood in The Observer when he recalled a "conversation with a member of the New Labour high command just before they first came to power. He positively looked forward to a strike by a big union. His face lit up at the prospect of showing the unions – and the voters – who was boss. ‘We will crush them’, he smiled". But as Rawnsley went on to comment, "I doubt that he is smiling now".

Blair and his government, with no major strikes since 1997, have never really been tested in a large-scale conflict. Blair didn’t even have to win the battle to cleanse the Labour Party of socialism, his predecessors did most of that and handed him ‘New Labour’ on a plate. The result is an extremely arrogant and short-sighted government with a serious overestimation of its own powers. They undoubtedly provoked the fire-fighters strike, firstly by blocking attempts by the fire authorities to offer an incremental 16% pay rise earlier this year, and secondly via the Bain report. Then, through incompetence, they made doubly sure that everyone in the country clearly understood that they were provoking the second round of strike action through the fiasco of John Prescott’s last minute refusal to ratify the agreement reached between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) executive and the employers.

It has since become clear that John Monks, secretary of the TUC, was deeply involved in these negotiations. His role was undoubtedly to convince the FBU leadership to accept a ‘modest’ proposal on pay and some elements of ‘modernisation’ (in reality cuts). However, having worked for a deal and had New Labour throw it back in his face, Monks has had no choice, given the fury of trade unionists with New Labour, but to step up his verbal support for the fire-fighters. John Edmonds, leader of the general workers’ GMB union, summed up the situation when he said that this is now "a fight between the government and the whole union movement". Whilst the right-wing trade union leaders currently have no intention of turning their words into solidarity action, if the strike escalates they will come under phenomenal pressure.

The RMT union, which organises a section of London Underground rail workers, are currently balloting for strike action after tube drivers were sent home without pay because they were unwilling to drive, on health and safety grounds, whilst the fire-fighters were on strike. Unfortunately, the ballot will delay action in defence of those drivers until the third planned eight-day strike in the middle of December – too late to put a stop to their victimisation – but nonetheless, if the fire-fighters strike continues, the prospect is raised of the whole London Underground being out at same time as the fire-fighters. Even Monks has had to take a neutral position on trade unionists on the underground and elsewhere refusing to work on safety grounds during the fire strikes, saying that it was up to the unions concerned to ensure that their members were safe.

Monks joked that there was no need to worry, he wasn’t planning a ‘mini general strike’. If the government go on the offensive against the fire-fighters, however, the need for words to be backed up with solidarity action, including if necessary a 24-hour general strike, will be posed. If the TUC are unprepared to do this the responsibility will fall on the newly-elected left trade union leaders. A call to take solidarity action by trade union leaders, if built for, could receive widespread support. There is an enormous groundswell of sympathy for the fire-fighters. Over the last eighteen months strikes have broken out amongst local authority workers, lecturers, London teachers, civil servants, rail workers and, of course, the fire-fighters. Significantly, the main issue in most strikes has been pay, although privatisation is also a massive issue. After twenty years in which British workers’ pay and conditions have been ceaselessly eroded, a tidal wave of feeling has developed that ‘enough is enough – its time to take a bit back of all that has been stolen from us’. The fire-fighters are rightly seen by trade unionists as the ‘advanced guard’ of everyone’s struggle for better pay and conditions. In addition, although the mood could change as events develop, the Prescott fiasco has currently hardened support behind the fire-fighters well beyond the organised working class. The majority of society, including sections of the middle class, are supporting the fire-fighters because they want Blair and New Labour to receive a bloody nose.

New Labour seems to be split and unsure on how to respond. On the one hand, against the background of economic crisis, they are terrified that a high profile victory by the fire-fighters would, as Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, warned, open the floodgates as other public sector workers gained confidence to fight. Gordon Brown, above all, seems set on taking on the fire-fighters.

On the other hand the deal that was blocked by Prescott included major concessions by the FBU leadership. And New Labour is faced with real difficulties if they escalate the strike. The fire-fighters are determined, and seem prepared for a long and bitter struggle. Virtually all of the national trade union leaders, under pressure from their members, are at least verbally backing the fire-fighters.

At the same time the government is under attack from different sections of the establishment for the way they are handling matters. Some of the military chiefs are openly expressing their worries that, if the strike continues, they will not be able to supply British troops for a war against Iraq. The Chief Police Officers Association has said that they won’t cross picket lines, and army commanders have also expressed their reluctance to do so. This partly reflects the mood of the rank-and-file in the army and police, but it is also an indication of the antagonism between the tops of the police and army on the one side, and the New Labour government on the other. Whilst New Labour has proved its dedication to neo-liberal capitalism again and again, it cannot call on the same deeply-engrained loyalty from sections of the state and the establishment that the Tories had in the past. When it appears weak, as it does now, the instinct of a layer of those were traditionally Tories is to kick a Labour government while it is down.

However, if New Labour steps up their offensive on the fire-fighters these antagonisms will tend to be submerged by the class struggle, and the different sections of the state will largely do what is asked of them, including crossing picket lines and taking engines. The fire-fighters can only rely on their own cohesion and solidarity action from other trade unionists to win their struggle.

Against the background of increasing industrial militancy a victory for the fire-fighters would massively embolden working people to fight for decent pay. This could coalesce with the development of a mass anti-war movement, as Blair follows Bush on the road to a showdown with Iraq. In the latest opinion polls only 13% of people ‘strongly support’ a war on Iraq, while 59% think that a war would be fought to protect US interests in the Middle East. It is possible that, in a matter of months, Blair could go from being ‘Teflon Tony’ to being forced out of office. Brown, who imagines he will be Blair’s successor, could find himself even more unpopular than Blair, given his responsibility for the economy and his intransigence on the fire dispute.

At this stage there is still no mass political alternative to New Labour and the other capitalist parties. The Socialist Party’s demand for a new mass workers’ party is increasingly popular amongst rank-and-file trade unionists, particularly fire-fighters. The FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist, unfortunately, is still arguing that the task is to force Labour back to the left. Even he, however, had to admit at a fringe meeting at the November 16 London Labour Party conference that was starting to think that ‘I must have been mad’ to argue such a position.

Certainly, he will not be able to convince his members that they should keep paying money to the Labour Party. Even before the strike whole watches had decided not to pay into the political fund. Once this strike is over, it is doubtful that many fire-fighters will be still be paying money to Labour. However, this urgently poses the question of what should be done with the money. At this stage, given the lack of an alternative, some fire-fighters have started to give the money to charity. What is needed, however, is for the unions’ political funds to be used to build a new workers’ party that will fight for the cause of the fire-fighters, and of the working class as a whole.

Hannah Sell


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