Socialist Worker

The anger is rising in Britain

Issue No. 1832

LAST YEAR could leave no one in any doubt about where the New Labour government is going. It began with Tony Blair in February denouncing public sector workers who oppose privatisation as 'wreckers'. It ended with the whole government mounting a vicious propaganda campaign against the firefighters and their union.

In between, home secretary David Blunkett caved in to every racist prejudice against refugees. Meanwhile the government pressed on with privatising everything-from large parts of the NHS through to the whole of the London Underground.

A rail crash at Potters Bar killed seven people, yet even after the collapse of Railtrack the government refused to renationalise the whole network. Blair's policies and his support for Bush's war drive brought a widening breach between the government and the trade unions.

The TUC conference in September witnessed a very sharp debate, where the new generation of left wing union leaders drove home the case against war. The Labour leadership was then defeated at its own party conference in a debate on PFI. Unions and workers' resistance became headline news.

July saw the largest ever one-day strike by council workers. The biggest teachers' strike for 30 years took place in London in March. More teachers in the capital struck again in November as a second union joined the action. Council workers struck on the same day across the capital.

That strike symbolised the growing demand for united action across the unions. Firefighters got tremendous support for their strikes. The strikes have demonstrated just how nasty the government can be, and just how much pressure its supporters in the TUC could bring to bear on union leaders to back off from real confrontation.

Increasing numbers of trade unionists began to debate what alternative there is to New Labour. The issue of whether trade unions should continue to fund the Labour Party ran through the union conference season. The Socialist Alliance hosted a 1,000-strong conference on the political fund in March.

Two months later it got its best results so far in May's council elections. In October Paul Foot rattled New Labour in Hackney when as Socialist Alliance candidate for mayor he got 13 percent of the vote.

In Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party continued to grow, and polls showed it on course to make significant gains in May's elections to the Scottish Parliament. Major unions threw their weight behind the anti-war movement, affiliating to the Stop the War Coalition. Most of the pressure from rank and file union members for action did not break through.

But anger with the government rose, as did calls for strikes over a range of issues, from pay through to defending pensions. One sign of the growing discontent with New Labour was the success of left wing candidates in union elections.

Bob Crow was elected general secretary of the rail workers' RMT union at the start of the year. July brought what the Financial Times called 'a defining moment in the history of the labour movement'.

Blairite Sir Ken Jackson lost the election for general secretary of the engineering part of the Amicus union. Derek Simpson won on a platform of opposition to partnership deals with the employers and to the right wing machine that had run the union for many years. A rank and file campaign defeated attempts by the right wing of the PCS civil servants' union to stop socialist Mark Serwotka becoming general secretary.

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Sat 4 Jan 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1832
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