Britain - New attacks against the working class - Blair's swan song?

Nov/Dec 2005

Prime minister Tony Blair was not in very good shape this November. Everyone was asking how long he could carry on as PM - and this time, for strictly domestic reasons. The deteriorating situation in Iraq did not even come into it, or not directly.

In fact the current shenanigans at Westminster are reminiscent of the last days of the Thatcher and Major regimes, with their scandals and resignations, the leaked disagreements over policy and tiffs within the leadership. Indeed, the political cartoonist Steve Bell has put Blair into the Y-front underpants which were his way of symbolising former Tory PM John Major's weak and trouserless leadership in the 1990s.

Probably one of Blair's more unpleasant moments so far, in this current episode of "can he, can't he", was the double trouble he faced, with the vote on his controversial "incitement of terrorism" bill and the final discrediting of his Work and Pensions minister David Blunkett, both on the same day.

He had to ask Blunkett, who had been exposed as having broken parliamentary rules requiring the declaration of business interests, to resign, just hours before getting his bill through by only one vote. Then, faced with the threat of a defeat on his "Anti-Terrorism Bill", Blair and his Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, chose to climb down on part of the bill to fend off the opposition. It was another "climb-down" in a long recent series, duly highlighted by the media.

Now commentators are speculating that Blair cannot last another year as prime minister. They point to the fact that he is bound to damage himself and his party, as a result of the undue haste with which he has been pushing through the huge raft of legislation - 45 bills - announced after Labour's 21.6% "winning" vote in last May's election.

The deadline for all these bills is November 2006. And each one in turn, so far, is resulting in minor tiffs between Blair and his cabinet ministers as well as revolts by back-bench MPs (20 "rebellions" since May) - which have also been blown up by the media as symptomatic of Blair's loss of authority.

All this is, of course, in the context of Blair's declaration that he would stand down as prime minister before the next election (likely to be May 2009). That too, is pointed to as a sign of Blair losing his grip, since once he had signalled his intention to go, how could he expect his cronies to see a stake in remaining personally loyal to him? And sure enough, all the various contenders for top government jobs and their supporters are busy lining themselves up in preparation for the final dogfight. But they have to be careful, because they would not want their in-fighting to jeopardise their very comfortable parliamentary seats in the next election.

Of course, to imagine that back or front-bench revolts will somehow curtail Labour's pro-business policies, because of the slim majority of 66 MPs over which Blair presides, would be a big mistake. That is not what "parliamentary democracy" is about. Otherwise, it would have resulted in socialism, and therefore its own demise, a very long time ago.

But even the present parochial in-fighting has its uses. Because it serves to obscure the real content of all the legislation which Blair has lined up - the stepping up of concerted attacks against the conditions of the working class and poor. Behind the smoke billowing up from the tearooms and bars in the House of Commons where MPs congregate to plot their futures, and where press hounds pursue them for a news story, the plight of those at the receiving end of government policy is the least of their concerns.

In fact the scene was set by an actual smokescreen - when the so -called "smoking bill" came before parliament in October.

While carnage reigned in Iraq, while official British resources for the tens of thousands hit by the earthquake in Kashmir were outrageously minimal, while riots due to dire social deprivation and over-policing flared in Birmingham, the country's parliamentary representatives were discussing whether smoking should, or should not, be allowed in public places!

Was the final amendment to exempt those pubs not selling food, due to former Labour health secretary John Reid's opposition to the bill - on the grounds that it is "anti-working class"? Had he pulled one over on new Health Minister Patricia Hewitt? A crucial question! This discussion about cigarette smoking was reminiscent of the debates in 2002 over fox hunting, when Blair was in the process of organising his invasion of Iraq.

As one loyal Blairite MP later complained, "What we need is some legislation we can all get behind and support. The smoking bill was supposed to be that bill, but even that has been watered down." Yes, even this apparently uncontroversial bill resulted in a Labour "split"!

But the true anti-working class nature of much of the planned legislation, unlike the smoking bill, is indisputable. Over the past 8 years, having followed, to the letter, the diktats of the City and big shareholders in general, Blair has ensured that working and living conditions for the working class in Britain have gone from bad to worse - with increased casualisation, lower pay and a channelling of public money into the ever-voracious private sector.

Being poor - a criminal offence?

Having thus induced yet more social degradation, Blair wants to impose more and more punitive measures against the poor. Only by now, these measures have become even more drastic, in a context where British jails are bursting at the seams, with more people incarcerated than at any time in this country's history - just under 78,000 - which is also more than in any other country in Europe in proportion to the population.

The scheduled "Management of Offenders Bill" would seek to impose even tougher sentencing, more electronic tagging, and Blair has promised that new laws will "tackle yobs and restore respect in society"! Thus he supported an absurd ban on people wearing hooded tops and baseball caps - apparently a sign of being up to no good - at Bluewater shopping centre in Kent!

Already, referring to this or that person needing an Anti Social Behaviour Order, or ASBO, has become commonplace in everyday conversation. But these ASBOs are no joke, even if they have been exposed as such on occasion, like when a magistrate recently threw out an obscene behaviour ASBO against a man for wearing a thong in his own home, who, it turned out, had been spied upon by his accusers via a telescopic lens.

ASBOs were introduced two years ago, by former home secretary Blunkett, in the usual way that politicians try to divert blame from their own policies by playing up to reactionary prejudice, in this case by targeting mainly the ghettoised youth of chronically deprived working class estates. No matter that the direct cause of so-called "anti social behaviour" is the decades of neglect and cuts in public housing, schools, youth facilities and social services, in the context of ever-increasing inequality.

But ASBOs can be imposed on children caught smoking, swearing, or congregating on a street corner. Indeed they can be used, and have been used, to criminalise adults and youth who for some or other reason just do not "fit in". And now activities such as flyposting can be subject to an ASBO as will fare-dodging on London Transport, if a private bill goes through parliament in November, with the support of London's mayor, Ken Livingstone. As if Transport for London's raising on-the-spot fines for not paying the correct fare from £20 to £50 was not bad enough, after fares on London's overcrowded buses - mainly used by the poorest - were raised by 20% this year!

In fact Labour has outdone even the Tories in its ability to play to deep-seated prejudices, with regard to immigration, for instance. Soon yet another anti-immigrant bill will be legislated to increase powers to keep unwanted immigrants out of the country and remove them more easily. Aimed, of course, at the most vulnerable and needy, those escaping a future of utter poverty, repression and ongoing civil wars in the Third World, particularly in Africa. This, even though the government and Home Office have already been exposed for their hypocritical attempts to deport Zimbabwean refugees by the Appeal Court, which ruled against some of these deportations. And, to step up the deportation of "illegal" immigrants, the "threat of terrorism", particularly since the 7/7 London bombings, is the card being played to justify this inhumane and racist policy.

Attacks on pensions and benefits are not "reforms"

The ongoing controversy over the reform of pensions and of disability benefit certainly figured in the decision Blair finally made to get rid of his erstwhile crony, David Blunkett. A somewhat discredited minister is not the best choice to steer through vicious attacks against the pension and benefit systems.

Although Blunkett had supported the incapacity benefit reforms, calling the current incapacity benefit system "crackers" and the housing benefit system a "nightmare", he apparently did not agree that the best way to implement changes was through outright coercion, as is Blair's plan.

The 2.7m people who claim disability benefit are to be cut by at least 1m, so the idea was to slash the benefit by £20/week and to force the disabled and chronically sick to take the first casual job on offer, just as the (more able-bodied) unemployed and single mothers have been forced to do, under Labour's New Deal.

So, while Blunkett's second resignation has been seen by most commentators as a "loss" to Blair of an ally, it was the unavoidable timing of the announcement which proved problematic for Blair, rather than Blunkett's actual departure. He has promptly been replaced by John Hutton, an Oxbridge-educated, former law lecturer, who was friend and flatmate of another Blair crony, ex-health minister and privatisation enthusiast, Alan Milburn.

So far, Hutton, now the fourth minister in the DWP in less than a year, has no stains against his reputation (other than being a loyal Blairite!) and can probably be trusted to do as he is told. In his first public interview on Radio 4, he vowed to "take forward a radical reform agenda", even if, for now, he denies there is any intention to cut benefit payments - and claims that the changes to incapacity benefit are merely to "help" people back to work!

But already, at the end of October, it was announced that lone parents with children over 14 years will have to take part in quarterly job interviews (instead of twice a year) or their benefits would be cut by 20%! Margaret Hodge justified this by the need to keep up with the "changing circumstances" of claimants. This too, is just to "help" them into work and onto tax credits! In other words it is actually to help bosses pay low wages, by way of a state subsidy.

The DWP has yet more reforms up its sleeve for Housing Benefit, which became another target for cuts last year. Today, instead of the benefit being paid to landlords, it is generally paid to the tenants, supposedly allowing them "more choice"! Pilot schemes have been running in places like Brighton, where a flat rate local Housing Allowance is paid which is related only to the size of the family and the area, rather than the actual rent being charged by the landlord - unlike housing benefit, which tied the benefit paid to the actual rent.

Obviously this means that tenants reliant on Housing Allowance are in a more and more precarious position as rents carry on rising due to the chronic housing shortage. But it certainly cuts down red tape, and above all, costs, for the government - while shifting the burden onto those who qualify for the benefit, who can least afford it, being among the unemployed, incapacitated, poor pensioners and the low-paid!

At the same time the government is intending to get rid of all rent restrictions, which makes one wonder where this section of the population is going to find an affordable roof to cover their heads. Already gross overcrowding and the sharing of one "bedsit" room by 2 (or more) young workers has become normal in urban Britain.

As for pensions, the increase of retirement age from 60 to 65 is already under way in the public sector. However, the main state pension "reforms", await the publication of the report of the Pensions Commission, headed by former CBI chairman, Adair Turner and due on 30 November. The report is a foregone conclusion, however. Either workers will be forced to retire later (with 67 years being favoured as the qualifying age by a government think-tank, and 70 years by that bastion of the bosses, the Institute of Directors), or workers will have to pay higher national insurance contributions, or both.

In the meantime, the government's pension regulator has stipulated that companies which anticipate a deficit in their pension funds (there is an estimated shortfall of around £130 billion in final salary pension schemes at present) must agree "recovery plans" with financial targets which are achievable within the next ten years. If they do not, and go bust, they will not be rescued by the government's recently established Pension Protection Fund. This of course, just gives them a pretext to increase the retirement age and the contributions of their employees. Which the Pensions Act of 2004 already anticipated, by allowing a change in rules of final salary pension schemes so that companies can make up for anticipated losses in this way.

The case of state-owned Royal Mail's £4.5bn pension "black hole" says it all about the government's hypocrisy. Having taken pension contribution holidays all through the 1990s, while accruing to the Treasury the large Royal Mail pension surplus of these years, as well as Royal Mail's profits, the government refuses to plug the black hole it created itself - just like a typical private sector shark. RM's workforce is expected to pay for this deficit through another round of job cuts, on top of the 30,000 job losses over the last two years and through privatisation of the more lucrative parts of the "business". And the public will pay through more stamp price increases.

"Public" services for the rich?

After the publication of Ruth Kelly's White Paper, "Higher standards, better schools for all", launched on the 27 October and new Health minister Patricia Hewitt's pledges to step up private involvement in the NHS, the government's overall aim with regard to health and education has become even more open.

The intention is to create a market of private "providers", both in health and education. The state would fund these providers either directly, or maybe through a voucher type scheme whereby pupils and patients ("customers") would use these to buy their health care or schooling. However unless they can afford to top up their "vouchers" and pay more, they would get the barest minimum.

The model for this is, of course, the US system, with all its appalling consequences, like leaving a large part of the population on the sidelines without anything. But at the same time, it means a further huge diversion of state funds to private companies, which are already the main beneficiaries of the state investment in infrastructure via PFI and PPP.

It was Ruth Kelly's education White Paper which in fact, caused one of the recent leadership "tiffs". Newspapers leaked that there had been a clash in the Cabinet between Blair and his deputy John Prescott over its "elitist" schools proposals.

Indeed, the paper was introduced in a very long speech by Blair himself. And its centrepiece was a proposal for all schools eventually to become Trust Schools, or as the White Paper describes them, "Independent State Schools", which is exactly what Thatcher wanted to call her opted out, "Grant Maintained Schools", before her officials warned her against the use of the word "independent".

These schools will be self-governing, independent of the local education authorities (whose role is to become one of "purchasing" education on behalf of "customers") and they would gain freedom to select which pupils are admitted to the school and what gets taught in it. In other words they are replicas of Thatcher's ideal school!

Already it is the case, that in the City Academies created by this government with the involvement of the private sector, 8 out of 14 academies for which figures are available, have a reduced proportion of children from disadvantaged backgrounds - measured by the uptake of free school meals. As a teachers' union spokesperson rightly said, "Instead of changing the school, they are changing the children. The children who are likely to depress their test and exam results are unwanted."

Education is already far too elitist as it is, with its existing "independent sector" of fee-paying "public" schools which provide the children of the rich with the best education and a sure pathway into the best universities. The children of the poorest have little more than a chance in hell of getting even halfway along this road. And Blair's plans can only reinforce this social selection. All the more so because, with the advent of the private sector into education there will be even less public money available for improving education for the children of the working class as more and more is gobbled up in shareholder profits.

Blair's care for the health of profits

While MPs were sanctimoniously debating the new health bill which would ban smoking in pubs and restaurants, supposedly out of concern for pub-workers' health, the NHS was once more facing a new stage in Blair's privatisation crusade, which, if it is allowed to develop, will damage everybody's health. And this, without any new "bill" going through parliament, yet, but thanks to John Reid's pledge in Labour's election manifesto last May to cut NHS administration costs by £250m!

By the 15 October, Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs are responsible for regional health services) were meant to have presented plans for cutting the country's 300 Primary Care Trusts (PCTs - comprising GPs and community health services) down to around just 200, which would also mean cutting SHAs from 28 to 10. So the SHA's bosses had a vested interest in showing their "goodwill", as 28 of them will be competing for just 10 jobs in the future. The PCTs are supposed to turn into purely purchasers of services, rather than providing local services like health visiting, physiotherapy, etc., which they do at present.

These local health services would presumably then be bought by GPs for their patients, from private companies, whose shareholders would then have access to a part of the £40bn annual budget allocated to PCTs!

The estimated 250,000 NHS staff employed in primary care would have to transfer to these private companies - most still non-existent - with many of them losing their jobs in the process and all losing their NHS pensions and probably facing new terms and conditions and lower pay further down the road.

Thames Valley Strategic Health Authority decided to pre-empt this programme by implementing it immediately. So this SHA voted through proposals on 12 October to amalgamate all of Oxfordshire's primary care trusts into one giant PCT under new, outsourced management by April 2006, who would then buy in all patient services - presumably - from a new private primary healthcare sector and the existing Foundation hospitals and NHS trusts. Of course, this had been met with huge opposition locally and anyway, since the private sector has yet to develop locally it is not likely that the SHA's proposals can come to fruition at any time soon. But this is the intended shape of things to come.

The new health minister Patricia Hewitt had only been in office a matter of days before she was announcing that private "Specialist Treatment Centres" would be taking over 15% of NHS procedures. So she faced a rebellion at Labour Party conference, where a resolution was passed decrying "backdoor privatisation" of the NHS, moved by the health service union, Unison. Now the policy to privatise primary care has been blamed on the NHS chief executive, Sir Nigel Crisp, and Hewitt is being applauded for "backtracking", albeit under pressure, on this policy But has she? In fact all she has done is to agree a period of consultation, which had not been envisaged before.

In the context of a general financial crisis throughout the NHS, with a net deficit of £600m in 2004/5 for PCTs and trusts only (some say £750m), despite the supposed unprecedented increase in government funding, drastic cuts in the service are going ahead as we write! 12,000 hospital beds have been cut since Labour took office in 1997. But this autumn, in the east of England alone it is estimated that another 450 beds will be closed along with 7 wards and 25 community hospitals and day centres. In Essex, £20m is being taken out of the NHS to pay for private treatment centres. In Cambridge, £11m is being cut from elderly care and mental health facilities. In Brighton, 85% of orthopaedic work is to be transferred to the private sector. And Hewitt has admitted that this will mean that if NHS hospitals do not "attract" enough referrals from "purchasers" (i.e.GPs under control of their privatised PCTs) hospital doctors would be laid off! Already, the diversion of non-acute surgery to private treatment centres is posing a problem for training new doctors in surgical techniques. The consequences of this policy are far-reaching but Blair's government is only interested in helping a growing private healthcare sector to make a quick and very large buck!

These attacks won't be stopped by concessions

In one way or another, all of Blair's plans can only result, directly or indirectly in a further drastic fall in the living standards of the working class.

This comes on top of the already significant damage done by increased casualisation and chronic low pay as a result of the tidal wave of subcontracting, both in private and public sectors in the last decade. And it has been vastly aggravated by the on-going redundancy programmes affecting workers in most large companies, which result in an overall loss of relatively decently-paid permanent jobs and their replacement by lower-paid temporary jobs.

That may well be alright for government ministers, like Hewitt who, when she was still head of the DTI, said that sacked MG Rover workers would be OK taking jobs at Tesco (even if two-thirds of them still cannot find any job). But this is not "alright" for the working class!

At the last TUC conference, public sector union leaders made a big show of their "militancy" by threatening the largest wave of industrial unrest since the 1926 General Strike, if the government went ahead with its plan to raise retirement age to 65 in the public sector. But within weeks the same leaders were celebrating a "victory" after having got Blunkett to agree to cancel his plans for existing employees in health, education and the civil service, while implementing it straight away for new recruits in these departments. Not only did this agreement open a breach for the government's attacks and sell out the rights of future public service, but it left the rest of public service workers high and dry without the possibility of a unified response across the public sector. A victory indeed!

If Blair gets away with his plans, the next generation of public sector workers who retire will have had to work until 65 or 67 years, only to receive a reduced pension which they will have had to save for themselves, most likely with minimal state contribution. Private sector workers may be even worse off, forced to work till 70 years, only to have to rely on their own "savings" when they finally retire, if they do not first drop dead from overwork.

The idea that solidarity between generations will provide for future pensioners may seem jeopardised by casualisation and the huge redundancy programmes. But anyway the fight for workers' pension rights cannot be dissociated from the fight against job cuts and casualisation.

And what about the concerted attack on the health service and education provision - both with the intention of marketisation, which threatens to push the poor back onto the margins of society and is in effect a throwback to the pre-WW2 days?

This is a huge onslaught planned against the working class as a whole. Of course, Blair is in a hurry to complete his obligations to the capitalist class before he leaves, while proving that it is only a "Labour" government which can go this far, without being faced with an angry, widespread rebellion on the streets.

But that is precisely where he should be proved wrong.