Socialist Worker

Is Blair going off the rails?

Issue No. 1782

TONY BLAIR returned from his jet-setting this week to face a domestic political crisis. He and his government face a groundswell of opposition over a range of issues - the crumbling NHS, mounting job losses and, above all, the transport crisis. A top aide to transport secretary Stephen Byers infamously wrote on the day of the destruction of the World Trade Centre, 'Today is a good day to bury bad news.'

The New Labour government has been using George Bush's war to do exactly that for four months. Now the frustration and bitterness that was developing with the government before 11 September has returned - sharpened by the mass opposition over the last few months to the war itself.

Byers, once tipped as a future prime minister, is under pressure to quit. Some of the very big businessmen New Labour has courted now want Byers' head for winding up Railtrack. They are furious that his move has stopped the endless stream of cash they were grabbing courtesy of public subsidies.

The government faces far greater opposition from ordinary people who have suffered the effects of its privatisation madness. Over the Christmas period there were a series of reminders of just what that mania has meant for transport. A senior Railtrack whistleblower revealed that cost-cutting had left 10 percent of rail tracks in a dangerous condition, with another 30 percent due to wear out in five years time.

The company itself then proposed halving the number of trains on some lines as the only way of getting them to run on time. Profitable train operating firms had the cheek to announce fare rises of up to 17 percent, which came into effect on Monday. Finally Byers admitted the railways are even worse now than when New Labour came to office in 1997.

Rail bosses who have stuffed their pockets while creating this mess have the gall to blame it on rail workers. Those workers campaigned to stop privatisation under the Tories, and are now standing up for both themselves and the interests of ordinary passengers. New Labour's response is to condemn the strikes on South West Trains, but not its owner, Stagecoach boss Brian Souter, who has made himself a multi-millionaire from rail and bus privatisation.

And the government's solution to the crisis is to commission yet another report to tell us what we already know. This latest one comes from the former head of the BBC, Lord Birt. He made his name there for turning himself into a private company so he could write off the tax on his Armani suits.

Every instinct of New Labour is to side with the rich and powerful. That means the chasm between the government and millions of working people is set to grow. And that makes the government weak but no less nasty. The way limited industrial action by some rail workers has dominated the news and official politics shows how vulnerable the government is.

It also showed that New Labour is quite capable of turning on a group of workers with all the venom and lies the Tories directed against trade unions. Everyone who is sick of the Tory policies that have continued under Blair should back the rail workers and their unions. New Labour wants to leave the fat cats in charge of the railways. The workers call for what 75 percent of people in Britain want - renationalisation.

The same picture is there on a wide range of other issues. Blair pushes privatisation in the NHS and schools. The vast majority of people want properly funded public services. Over the last year and more we have seen a growing minority in society who have seen through global capitalism and have begun to protest against it. That minority has developed through the movement against Bush and Blair's war in recent months. The job of everyone in those movements now is to connect with the far wider numbers in society who are furious and bitter at what capitalism and this government mean for their daily lives - in transport, the NHS, jobs and much more.

Debate union funds

IN EVERY workplace trade unionists are asking why part of their dues should automatically go to a party which is attacking them in government. Many unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and pay it money. New Labour's drive to become the natural party of big business has put those links under strain.

Mainstream union leaders such as John Edmonds of the GMB are talking of withholding money from New Labour. The Socialist Alliance has been formed over the last year or so as a national organisation to challenge New Labour from the left, and stood candidates at the general election with modest success in some areas.

It has now called a conference for trade unionists to discuss what should happen to unions' political funds. It is asking the Scottish Socialist Party to sponsor the conference, which is aimed at attracting trade union activists from across Britain.

The conference is about a democratic discussion about how best to represent the interests of working people. Every trade unionist should make sure they take part in that debate.
For more on the conference click here.

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What We Think
Sat 12 Jan 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1782
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