Blair pretends to talk tough, but his government is at its weakest since its election in 1997. Nothing sums this up better than its approach to the dispute with the firefighters. One week before the strike was due to start Gordon Brown warned that he ‘would not tolerate inflationary pay settlements’. Two days later Blair let it be known that he regards the FBU’s actions as ‘Scargillism’, by implication comparing himself to Thatcher. The next day John Prescott talked of possible reconciliation and negotiations, with hints that there may be more money on the table. Little wonder that the right wing ‘Sunday Telegraph’ wrote in its editorial (27 October), ‘The prime minister’s strategy towards the FBU has veered confusingly from rhetorical provocation to private appeasement… While the FBU’s aims have been clear all along, the government’s approach has been completely incoherent.’ As we go to press the outcome of the firefighters’ dispute is still not clear.
At the centre is the issue of pay. Millions of workers are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The cost of housing and transport in some parts of the country are now so high that it is forcing many working class people into extreme difficulties. Problems over pensions, endowment mortgages and student tuition fees raise the general feeling of insecurity over pay.
This sense of discontent is combined with the growing movement against war and capitalism. 28 September saw the biggest anti-war demonstration ever in this country. This revolt is spreading to the US itself, where recent protests in many cities have drawn hundreds of thousands onto the streets. The signs are that the movement is spreading and gaining in confidence.
There is a lesson here for all those who are fed up with the policies of New Labour. Bush and Blair are desperate to go to war with Iraq. The military build-up in the Gulf continues. But the size and breadth of the anti-war movement is clearly putting them under extreme pressure. It is forcing other world leaders to think twice before they blindly follow the warmongers in the White House and Downing Street, while for the people involved the huge protests raise the possibility that another world is possible.
Over the coming weeks this opposition is likely to grow. The anger against war will deepen as the move to war proceeds. The mood over pay will deepen as the government tries to dig its heels in. Whatever the outcome of the firefighters’ dispute, the government has no real solutions to the question of public sector pay.
Blair has already shown that he is weak when faced with a determined and militant opposition. The important thing is to make both movements stronger, and to combine them. Those due to strike in the coming weeks, such as teachers, public sector workers and rail workers, must combine with other workers to build the movement against war. Likewise, the anti-war movement must be spread throughout the working class. The more we bring the two together, the more chance we have of ensuring that the nightmare of capital and war that New Labour gives us today can be a thing firmly buried in the past.