'FLAKY.' That's how transport secretary Stephen Byers described the core ideas of the New Labour government this week. It is an astonishing admission from a man who has long been one of Tony Blair's closest allies. Byers was an evangelist for the 'Third Way' ideas he now concedes are off the wall.
After five years in office New Labour has made the chaos and devastation of public services left by the Tories even worse. Our transport system is quite literally flaky, and schools and hospitals are crumbling.
But the government shows no signs of changing course. Like a religious sect, New Labour ploughs on with its fanatical commitment to the 'flaky' privatisation dogma that lies behind the chaos. Just this week health secretary Alan Milburn announced another insane privatisation scheme for the NHS.
No wonder the gulf between the government and the majority of people is growing, and that bitterness with New Labour is welling up. The discontent has begun to spill over into resistance, with strikes on the rail, and threatened in the post and elsewhere. This has been seized on by much of the media to talk of a rebirth of trade union militancy, a 'return to the 1970s', and a new 'Winter of Discontent'. The Winter of Discontent was in 1978-9, when bitterness among ordinary people boiled over against the last Labour government.
It too had been in office for five years, and had systematically betrayed the hopes of the people who had voted it in. The government cut public spending, held down pay for most people, and unemployment rose as the economy slid towards crisis.
Union leaders spent years fighting to contain the anger of their members. But finally the dam burst, and some of the anger spilled over into a rash of protests and strikes. A similar turning point came in the previous Labour government under Harold Wilson in the 1960s, again after five years in office. In both cases, though, the anger and the strikes had no clear focus and remained fragmented.
They did not lead to a coherent challenge to the government from the left. The result of this was that the Tories were able to take advantage of the disillusionment with the Labour government. The great challenge today is to encourage the resistance to New Labour at every turn, but also to fight to give a socialist political focus to the discontent.
Socialist Alliance is big news
A STRING of newspapers has linked the strikes and talk of a Winter of Discontent to supporters of the Socialist Alliance in the trade unions. The Daily Mail, the Sun, the Times and the London Evening Standard have focused on people such as Greg Tucker, an alliance supporter involved in the rail strikes, and Mark Serwotka, the alliance supporter elected to lead the PCS civil servants' union.
The strikes and discontent are not created by socialists. They spring from the anger working people feel. Privatisation, low pay and insecurity are the issues pushing people to make a stand. The media focus on the Socialist Alliance shows that they recognise the potential for the discontent with the government to feed in a left wing direction.
The Socialist Alliance has existed for barely a year as a national organisation. It pulls together socialists and campaigners from a wide variety of backgrounds, including many former Labour Party members, to unite on the need for a socialist challenge to New Labour. It has had some modest success, but much more needs to be done to establish the alliance as the voice of the discontented.
That means the alliance being on picket lines supporting rail workers and others fighting back. It means campaigning on the streets over issues like transport and the NHS. And it means the alliance being rooted in workplaces and local communities. A crucial step is the conference sponsored by the alliance in London in March to discuss the trade unions' political funds.
Most unions have traditionally given money from their funds only to Labour. A growing number are now seriously debating whether they should open the fund up to other parties, a feeling driven by anger at what the government is doing. The conference provides a vital opportunity to widen that debate, and to put the Socialist Alliance at its centre.
Conference for all trade unionists
The political fund: where should it go?
Saturday 16 March, 11am-4pm Camden Centre, Bidborough Street, London WC1
'I AM supporting the conference because New Labour is set on privatisation, which can clearly be seen in the public sector in its use of PFI. Its complete retreat from even traditional 'municipal socialism' is a clear indicator that it is now solely a representative of big business, and no longer representative of workers and the labour movement.'
'THE TRADE union movement has to reassess its relationship to the Labour Party. Union support gives the party not only a major source of income but also legitimacy as the party of labour which it no longer deserves.'