Socialist Party congress 2006
Since 1997, "education, education, education" has been the dominant theme of Blair and his entourage. White Papers on this issue have rained down like confetti on the heads of the British people, and particularly teachers. Ruth Kelly’s latest effort is the twelfth education White Paper since 1997! Despite the frenzied efforts and boasts of Blair and Co, less than one person in three thinks that schools have improved since New Labour came to power. This is despite a claimed £39 billion investment since 1997. More to the point, two out of three people "feel the existing schools system benefits better off families who are able to get their children into the leading schools at the expense of poorer pupils". The reality is, however, that Britain is still spending less on education as a percentage of GDP than in the 1970s. Blair, while proclaiming that all his efforts are for the ‘disadvantaged’, has advanced educational proposals that will worsen their lot and strengthen the already privileged.
This is made abundantly clear in the latest White Paper. It signifies a complete somersault from Labour’s historical goals – when it was a workers’ party at its base – of education being one of the tools to end inequality in society. Marxists, of course, never believed that by this route alone, without altering the economic or social foundations of inequality in society as a whole, i.e. by abolishing capitalism, that these goals could be achieved. Nevertheless, we give critical support to comprehensive education, the ending of social selection in schools, opposition to streaming, etc. But now, Kelly and Blair want to rip up the historical consensus which existed on Labour’s education aims. Schools will be run by businesses, middleclass schools will expand and those in working-class areas will be even more sink schools. At the same time, the implementation of the idea of ‘faith schools’ opens the doors to religious zealots, together with big business, to take control of education. Blair is playing up to what he imagines is his ‘base’, the middle class. They will be allowed, under his and Kelly’s proposals, to ‘colonise’ even further the state education sector, with schools in their areas attracting the ‘best and the brightest’, the best teachers, more money than others, etc.
If these proposals get through, the New Labour government is poised to implement what the Tories failed to do, even under Thatcher. Her one-time education secretary, Kenneth Baker, recently jeered in The Guardian: "I welcome a sinner that repenteth." He expressed his delight "that the government is bringing forward the same proposals that I introduced in 1988. In effect, they are re-establishing grant-maintained schools." Other capitalist commentators, like Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, are unashamed about what these proposals mean: "To adapt a phrase, the people follows the money; the middle classes exercise choice by colonising schools in expensive areas, moving to leafier suburbs or, in the case of London, opting in large numbers to pay for their children’s education." They will have no need to do the latter now; they can get their children educated in the ‘best schools’ in the state sector. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian also stated baldly: "The White Paper evokes pre-war social selection."
Essential to achieving this aim is the ‘unbundling’ of local education authorities which Thatcher tried in 1990 but was unsuccessful in carrying out. Now Blair treads in her footsteps, and as on many other issues, in the process sheds his ‘progressive’ credentials. He is also forced to eat his own ‘children’, by seeking to abolish Local Education Authorities (LEAs). His creatures, the Labour chiefs of local councils and education authorities, have denounced him and his ‘devil’s work’ in cutting off their legs and thereby their salaries and privileged positions. None other than ‘Sir’ Jeremy Beecham, a right-wing council leader and stalwart of the Blair counter-revolution in the past, has come out against these proposals. These people can swallow academies, selection, the inundating of teachers with paperwork, tests, etc. But woe betide anybody, Blair included, if their institutions and fat salaries are endangered. In fact Blair, as with the largely discredited anti-terror legislation, has faced an avalanche of criticism which could see the complete defeat or severe weakening of his cherished measures, which he hoped would form part of his ‘legacy’.
The most sensitive privatisation planned by Blair and driven through by health secretary Patricia Hewitt are the plans to dismantle what remains of the National Health Service. There is a widespread consciousness in this country both of the advantages of the British system and the ingrained inequalities that exist in the two-tier system in the US, for instance. When they look across the ‘pond’, they can see a mirror of their own future if Blair, aided and abetted by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, succeeds in driving through his plans. However, bourgeois public opinion is united behind Blair on this issue. Nick Cohen, the quixotic populist writer in The Observer, this time got it right when commenting on the attitude of doctors and patients after the London bombings: "The strongest impression I got was of a sense of the unity of the NHS; how, when the chips are down, everyone is on the same side and shares the same public service ethic." He contrasts this to the government and its hangers on: "It is this unity which the political class is trying to destroy. I say the ‘political class’ rather than the government, because the rightward-moving Liberal Democrats, virtually every pundit and the old Tories are as keen on getting private companies to take chunks of the NHS as New Labour." His conclusion is: "In short, the NHS has been shattered."
This is the view of health experts, doctors and patients as well as the broader population. Alyson Pollock, trenchant health critic of the government, has pointed out that in May 2005, the right-wing Adam Smith Institute organised a gathering for hundreds of top NHS private healthcare executives together with Hewitt’s NHS strategy director – he used to run the corporation that owns B&Q – and a host of capitalist luminaries. A senior NHS official commented to the gathering: "We created a marketplace. It is up to you now… together we have created a new era of healthcare provision which can only get wider." The appetite of this gluttonous crowd was whetted by a "frank account of New Labour’s plans to privatise the NHS". According to Pollock, there will be a Premier League of foundation trusts and independent sector treatment centres (ISTCs) lauding it over the rest. And as in football, commercial interests will prevail over all of them. Hewitt has promised £3 billion to the private sector for ISTCs yet the Department of Health does not require the same level of training for doctors working in this sector as it does for NHS units. Six surgeons working for the private sector on NHS cases have already been suspended for what are termed ‘serious surgical errors’. Moreover, this system allows the cherry picking of NHS staff and the draining away of work from the state sector.
The process of privatisation is following the guidelines of the Health and Social Care Act 2003. Primary Care Trusts can contract out all aspects of primary medical services – from cancer screening and family planning to maternity services and minor surgery. By the end of 2004, 55% of GP ‘out of hours’ services were expected to be delivered by companies like GP Plus and Asda. The consequence of what has happened is disastrous chaos. It is estimated that 73% of hospital trusts face a funding shortfall in the current year. The government has required them to introduce ‘savings’, read cuts, averaging £6.2 million per trust. Almost half the trusts are proposing recruitment freezes and 27% were considering redundancies. Some trusts are also intending to close beds. The Royal College of Nursing, for instance, has said that one thousand nursing jobs could be axed this year to contain the trust deficits that are likely to be hit with a combined total of £1 billion. At least 25 hospital casualty units face closure after previous cutbacks and 200-250 have closed in the last ten years.
Hewitt also wanted to ‘privatise’ 250,000 nurses and other medical staff in one ‘big bang’. This was to be done by trusts stopping directly employing the staff in chiropody, physiotherapy, speech therapy and other similar services. These plans were ‘slipped out’ after the government went on holiday in July. Even Blairite MPs, it seems, were alarmed when the details emerged and Hewitt was ‘roughed up’ in a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. She has now been compelled to withdraw this proposal. She was also defeated on the government’s privatisation schemes at the Labour Party conference. This, however, will not stop either her or Blair proceeding to dismantle the NHS, piecemeal if necessary. At the Labour Party conference she wailed: "Haven’t we learnt that profits are not a dirty word? They are part of a dynamic economy and are helping to build 100 new hospitals as well." Yet in 2004, PFI hospitals, lauded by Hewitt, had some of the biggest deficits and were shutting wards and freezing recruitment. This led the British Medical Association in 2005 to warn that there may not be jobs for those in the expanding doctor training programme!
This is an example in the ham-fisted, anarchic situation resulting from privatisation going together with the control freakery of an army of bureaucrats. This in turn is an intrinsic part of the government’s pro-big business interference in the health sector. Since 1948, the NHS has been ‘reformed’ on average once every six years. But Hewitt’s present efforts are the third ‘most tumultuous upheaval in eight years’ under Labour. Despite all this, Dave Prentis, the leader of Unison, the biggest health union, can declare himself a "friend of the government"!
Compare this "wee tim’rous beastie", as Rabbie Burns would say, to somebody like Alyson Pollock who has drawn an analogy between the big business takeover by the Glazer family of Manchester United and what is happening in the NHS. She stated in The Guardian: "If this was football, the media would be full of it. But to paraphrase Bill Shankly, it’s only life and death. Supporters of the NHS should take a leaf out of the Manchester United fans’ book. Patients should insist on being treated in the NHS hospitals. NHS staff should refuse to work in the newly privatised sector; journalists and academics should monitor the impact of the private sector on entitlements to healthcare. And they should be willing to depose board members – such as Blair and Hewitt – who brought in the hundreds of Malcolm Glazers who will bestride the British healthcare like colossi." Pharmaceuticals & avian flu
These comments, taken to their logical conclusion, naturally lead to the idea of a break with the party of Blair and Hewitt and a new mass workers’ party. A vital part of the programme of such a party will be full defence of the NHS, no more privatisation and an ideological offensive against ‘profit’, that is the unpaid labour of the working class, in all its forms, where it touches on the vital basic concerns of working class people such as in healthcare. The incompatibility of Hewitt’s ‘profit’ and the health of the majority of the people is underlined by the threat of avian flu. The pharmaceutical giant Roche has a virtual monopoly over the production of Tamiflu, which can be used for flu victims and when taken twice a day for five days could save lives, for instance from flu leading to pneumonia. The old and the young are the most vulnerable but it is not ruled out that other big sections of the population could also be affected. The British chief medical officer has stated that it is not a question of "Will it?" affect Britain but "When?"
Yet, on the spurious grounds of ‘intellectual property rights’, Roche refused to allow other companies to produce the drug. It is not difficult to see why as its company profits have been boosted by 20%, because sales of Tamiflu have doubled in three months. It was mostly ‘those in the know’, in the medical profession in particular, who have bought up this drug. Governments in the rich countries have also begun to buy up stocks but the ‘third and fourth worlds’ cannot afford to do so. This is another example – illustrated by the fiasco over AIDS drugs for the developing world – of the failure of the pharmaceutical companies, which are primarily concerned with profit and not the health of people. Blair will resist to the end the demand for the public ownership of the pharmaceutical industry, but the clamour for this will grow and form an important plank in the programme of a new mass workers’ party.
Diplomatic and ‘friendly’ pressure on New Labour is justified by Prentis and other union leaders in the health sector because they can get ‘results’ from New Labour. An alleged example of this is the ‘25%’ increase for low-paid workers such as hospital porters, cleaners and other contract staff in the health sector. Both Hewitt and the union leaders have hailed this as a huge step forward. What is the reason for this celebration? Impoverished workers in this sector will now receive a minimum wage of £5.88 an hour! Any increase from the slave-like poverty wages they were on before is a step forward but hardly something which can set the heather alight. It is below the European Decency Threshold. Moreover, as part of the so-called ‘Agenda for Change’, these ‘concessions’ have been balanced by the government with actual decreases in pay for other health workers. Health workers, numbering a million now, are a vital part of the British working class. They, together with patients, could form the backbone for action to save the NHS, defeat privatisation and fight for a living wage for all.
The number of local and regional campaigns to defend the NHS has grown. In some of them we are in the leadership while in others we have a strong presence. The scale of the attacks and the opposition to them are such that a stage is being reached where a call for a well-prepared national demonstration and national strike action can find a big echo. In modern ‘de-industrialised Britain’ the work of our party in sectors like this is crucial for raising consciousness and winning the most energetic and combative elements to effective trade unionism and to the idea of the socialist change in society. Terrorism & democratic rights
The London bombings of 7 July and the attempted bombings two weeks later provided the government with the same pretext as Bush after 9/11 to launch an intensified attack on democratic rights and civil liberties. However, the opposition to the government’s proposed legislation to combat ‘terror’ shows that the shock at the events is balanced by distrust of the government. Blair and Clarke’s proposals for ‘internment without trial’ to be extended to 90 days, were not accepted by parliament. But even the ‘compromise’ of 28 days to hold suspects without charge is a longer period than in any ‘democratic’ country anywhere in the world. It will do nothing to undermine the threat of more bombings; the underlying causes are in the disconnection and alienation of a significant section of the Muslim population.
The Iraq war is a factor, a crucial one, moreover, fuelling the anger of the Muslim youth. This has been underlined by the recent report of ‘Islamic leaders’ surprisingly endorsed even by the Blairite android, Hazel Blears. We have gone over the perspectives for Iraq at length in our public material and, if necessary, we will produce special material for the conference. Suffice to say here that we have to continue to campaign for an end to the occupation, which is completely unviable and is facing not just a stubborn insurgency in Iraq but mass pressure in the US to get out. Bush could even be pushed into ‘declaring victory’ – handing over to ill-prepared Iraqi military forces – and ‘bringing the boys home’. But the legacy of Bush’s adventure is an unprecedented alienation of the US worldwide and particularly amongst the 1.3 billion Muslims. This has fuelled an ‘anti-US/Western’ mood – and anti-British as well because of the presence of British troops – which has created the condition in which the jihadist ‘vanguard’ of terrorists and suicide bombers can operate. It does not require majority support from Muslims; a minority of active ‘supporters’ is sufficient for the terrorist campaign to be carried over a protracted period. Because of the pressure both in Iraq and in Britain, it is not excluded that British troops could be withdrawn in 2006.
However, mixed messages are still emanating from the government, with defence minister Reid insisting that troops will stay in Iraq until the ‘job is done’, i.e. viable Iraqi forces are installed. Presently, however, Iraqi police and army units are linked to sectarian forces and spheres of influence. The situation established in the Kurdish north will set the pattern for elsewhere in Iraq. A ‘national force’ will be a chimera. From the frying pan into the fire, however, Reid wishes to redeploy British troops withdrawn from Iraq to Afghanistan! The likelihood is that British troops in Iraq will be withdrawn sooner rather than later.
It is world events as well as developments in Britain that will determine whether or how seriously this bombing campaign will continue. We have to be prepared for another terrorist outrage, which could cut temporarily across even positive moods for class and ethnic unity which might develop. Under the aegis of ‘fighting terror’, Blair and Co will still fight to introduce draconian anti-democratic laws. ID cards are part of the panoply of measures proposed. However, this has run into difficulties; the House of Lords estimates that ID cards replacing passports will cost £300 each. Even if this hurdle is surmounted, it is now being revealed that ‘hi-tech’ scans have ‘difficulties’ for instance in recognising people with brown eyes! It is also reported that balding men and labourers with worn-down fingerprints might be incorrectly identified by the technology needed to make the scheme work. Alarmingly, it is now suggested that any of the 13 biometric tests on faces, irises and fingerprints could identify one in 1,000 people as someone else. Also, there could be wrong matches for black, disabled and elderly people. Therefore, the scope for any number of future miscarriages of justice like the Birmingham 6 or the Guildford 4 is possible. The opposition to this proposal is so great that the government saw its majority slashed to 25 in a House of Commons vote and the House of Lords could reject the government’s proposals.
This is linked to the proscription of ‘terrorist’ organisations proposed by the government. It is proposed to catch even those like Hizb ut-Tahrir which, which – despite being a right-wing-led political Islamic group that supports the re-establishment of an Islamic ‘caliphate’ – are nevertheless on record as opposing ‘acts of terror’. Also one of the organisations banned is the ‘Islamic Jihad Union’, seemingly on the suggestion of the Uzbekistan government, which boils alive opponents and is therefore hardly reliable! In fact, so far to the right is the government on this issue that the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan has questioned the Uzbek government’s account and the actions proposed by New Labour.
Moreover, the government has come into collision with even capitalist judges – not noted for pronounced liberal tendencies in the past – on anti-terror legislation, which amongst other things infringes the European Human Rights Act. We should not underestimate how these actions of the government – initially against ‘terrorist’ organisations – can be extended to all opponents of the government, including those on the left like the Socialist Party. Already protest has been criminalised, with prosecutions under the 1994 Criminal Justice Act introduced by the Tories including a student who handed out leaflets against the commercialisation of ‘university research’.
The famous Walter Wolfgang, who interrupted Jack Straw with "Nonsense!" at the Labour Party conference, could have been charged under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 if he had repeated the word twice! This act was allegedly introduced to protect women from stalkers but the first people to be arrested under this act were three peaceful protesters. Since then, it has been used by the arms manufacturer EDO to keep demonstrators away from its factory gates. This goes together with the harassment of our paper sellers and of other organisations in shopping precincts throughout Britain.
The most useful act to suppress dissent is the one under which Walter Wolfgang was held, Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This has also been used against the peace camp outside the Fairford military base, from which huge B-52 bombers launched raids against Iraq. Even the 1824 Vagrancy Act has been used against demonstrators by the police! Clarke assured us that all MPs should consult over the necessity to detain suspects for 90 days. The attempt to crush dissent in the Labour Party merely mirrors what the New Labour autocrats are trying to do in the country as a whole. The anti-crime, anti-‘hoodie’ measures are of the same piece as these anti-libertarian measures. It is an attempt to mollify those who are in real fear of crime, vandalism and violence.
Violence & crime
The poor are the main victims of crime, with those living in the poor neighbourhoods six times more likely to be murdered than those in the most affluent areas. This is organically linked to the economic deterioration and social segregation resulting from this, which despite the surface impression of ‘prosperity’ engendered by Blair and Brown, is the reality for broad swathes of the population. Significantly, the recent report, ‘Criminal Obsessions’ pointed out that "the polarisation of a generation caused by mass unemployment in the recession-hit earlier 1980s could be to blame" for many crimes. The dog-eat-dog society extolled by Thatcher and the Tories in the 1980s – "there’s no such thing as society" – reinforced by the television and violent exploitative films, has contributed to this. The weakening of the trade unions, together with the collapse of the Labour Party as a voice of the working class is also an important factor. Collective action – the simple idea of sticking with each other –the undermining of ‘community consciousness’ have all added to a sense of alienation, of helplessness, and above all a lack of feeling that you have a ‘stake’ in society, through a proper job. This has afflicted an important section of young people in particular.
The murder rate is just the tip of an iceberg of violence. While it would be crude reductionism to merely ascribe one factor, poverty and the worsening of the social and economic situation, for violence and crime it is a powerful reason for the social disintegration that can foster crime. The ‘Criminal Obsessions’ report comments: "The rise in murder in Britain has been concentrated almost exclusively in men of working age living in the poorest parts of the country." The authors state that violence can be seen as "a marker of social harm". For murder rates to rise in particular places and for a particular group of people living there, life in general has to be made more difficult to live, people have to be made to feel more worthless. "The rate has risen most for those demographic groups and in those areas for whom and where people have become relatively poorer over time." The use of firearms has risen in the poorest wards in the past 20 years. But those killed in the poorest areas are more likely to be stabbed with a knife or broken glass and in 4% of cases die in a fight, usually by being kicked to death. There is also a marked rise in young men in particular from the poor ‘socio-economic groups’ who have committed suicide.
Globalisation means that people are more ready to move from one country to another. But, as an indication, perhaps, of the frustration at the situation in Britain, more than one million people have moved abroad in the 1990s. Significantly, 16-year olds from poverty-stricken areas would have found it much harder to get a job in 1981 than any set of school leavers from the previous 40 years. If anything, that situation has got worse since then. The conclusion of the authors of ‘Criminal Obsessions’ is: "The lives of men born since 1964 has polarised, and the polarisation, inequality, curtailed opportunities and hopelessness have bred fear, violence and murder." This is a crushing indictment of capitalism in Britain.
The last two and a half decades have seen, as we have explained above, the ‘triumph’ of neoliberalism. Capitalism in this period has managed to inch ahead – we have not seen the economic fireworks of capitalism in its progressive heyday. But this has been on the basis of sweated labour, vast inequalities, joblessness or insecure, badly-paid, jobs, leaving in its wake sometimes, discarded workers, broken communities and shattered lives. The New Labour answer to this is the big stick of ASBOs, bigger prisons, already stuffed to the gills and, incredibly in the past period, a proposal to sell off lock stock and barrel the probationary service. Clarke intends to abolish the 42 local probation boards and instead create a "vibrant mixed economy" in the management of 200,000 offenders. This is believed to be the first time ever that an entire group of public sector professionals have been threatened with privatisation.
One of the factors leading Clarke to make this proposal must be the militant stand of the Prison Officer Association who stood on the left in debates and discussions at the last TUC Conference. Another is to satisfy the lobby of private companies such as Group 4 to get their hands on this service. Probation boards are to be abolished and replaced with new probation ‘trusts’, which will be packed with senior business and financial people, so they can "win contracts in the first place in a competitive environment" [The Guardian]. This decision has provoked big opposition from the probation board and from the probation officers union, which has claimed that fragmentation and privatisation would drive down standards, cut wages and lead to less cooperation and not more between criminal justice services. Tellingly, they state: "Probation is not a business but a viable public service."
The decision of the government has been welcomed, of course, by the CBI, but roundly condemned by Labour MPs and other parties because it goes much further than the initial plan to "open up the probation service". The approach of New Labour is a mixture of privatisation, the widespread use of social Elastoplasts to cover problems and threats of repression to mollify their increasingly middle-class constituency. Marxists are not indifferent to crime, or the growth of the so-called ‘drugs industry’ and the terrible consequences this has, primarily on working class people.
At the same time as posing a lasting long-term solution to the social ills of class society through changing society, we must also support all those progressive demands and steps which can begin to pose solutions to the problems of the working class. One thing is clear: a policy of repression alone cannot work, as France has demonstrated. The trigger for these events – referred to in the bourgeois press as ‘echoing 1968’ – lay in the death of two young alienated inhabitants from a satellite town in the suburbs of Paris, following a police chase. But the underlying reason is in the endemic unemployment, social deprivation and searing racism towards the inhabitants in these towns and in others on the outskirts of France’s major cities, where the immigrant population and their descendants live. The provocative remarks of rightwing interior minister Sarkozy in President Chirac’s government have stoked the flames. He has literally played with fire.
Race & class
This urban uprising has been fuelled by young unemployed people born in France, some of them part of the 6 million Muslim population and the one million immigrants from other ethnic groups. However, this movement embraced some white youth as well. It was not a racial or ethnic uprising but a "class act", as The Guardian journalist Gary Younge put it. It could have coalesced at a certain stage with the massive discontent of the working class in general, symbolised in the recent big strikes in France. At the very least, it could reinforce the huge discontent which exists among the working class. The analogy with 1968 is therefore not farfetched. The difference between then and now is the weakness of socialist ideology and of the mass parties of the working class. In 1968, the students were repressed by the police, which led to the working class coming out in their defence and then moving to occupy the factories in the greatest general strike in history. The working class reached out its hands for power, took French capitalism by the throat but its fingers were prised away by the leaders of the Communist Party and the future leaders of the Socialist Party.
The weakening of the forces of socialism since then, aggravated by capitalist globalisation, has left a vacuum into which ‘fundamentalism’, both of the market and religious kinds, has stepped. One commentator has accurately described this as the "transition from welfare to market state (to corporations rather than people)… which in turn replaces moral values with commercial values, caring with indifference, altruism with selfishness, generosity with greed." In place of third world revolutions and great working-class movements in the West, which marked out the seventies and eighties, the point of reference to the alienated sons and daughters of recent immigrants to France is either inchoate nihilism – striking back at the symbols of their oppression – or the mistaken ideas of right-wing political Islam.
Britain is not all that far removed from France, although the contours of the racial and ethnic problems of Britain are somewhat different. The widespread upheavals in France are a wake-up call to the French ruling class. The clashes in Birmingham are no less a warning to British capitalism. However, these events also reveal the growing tensions between different ethnic groups in Britain, particularly the Afro-Caribbean/white and a section of the Asian community. Despite the weighty reports in the wake of the riots of the 1980s in Brixton, Liverpool and Bristol, the fundamental inequality and discrimination against immigrants and their children from an Afro-Caribbean and, increasingly, an African background, as well as Asians on the one side, and the rest of the population on the other, is as great as ever. Statistics show that in terms of poverty, job opportunities, unemployment rates, positions of authority within industry, education, etc, life is heavily weighted against the black and Asian population. Those at the bottom of the pile with the highest level of unemployment seem to be those from Bangladesh, with a substantial section of recent immigrants from Africa also down there with them.
While the riots of the 1980s did not open up substantially greater opportunities for the majority, for a middle-class layer in the ‘professions’, including the ‘race relations industry’ there was some benefit. This has resulted in reports by the lorry-load diagnosing the problem, but with little in the way of concrete measures to change the situation fundamentally. Historically, capitalism has always used immigrants as a source of cheap labour to undermine the conditions of the ‘indigenous’ population. It has suddenly dawned on ‘liberal commentators’ that this is a conscious policy of sections of the British bourgeois and the Tory party today, such as John Bercow MP. He advocates, alongside Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times, a complete ‘open door’ policy on immigration, arguing that in a global economy the UK needs migrants to fill jobs the British are ‘unwilling’ to do.
But, as Gate Gourmet has illustrated, immigrant labour has been used to systematically undermine wage rates to such a point that it is an enormous discouragement to British workers to take these jobs and live on the wages on offer. Of the seventy thousand building workers likely to be employed on the transport infrastructure for the Olympics, it is estimated that 30,000 will come from Eastern Europe. The answer, of course, is not to seek to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ but to organise them in unions as we suggested earlier. But these statistics, when put together with the weakness of the trade unions and the absence of a strong labour movement, pose the danger of a tendency towards inter-ethnic conflict. Rather than facing the real enemy, the exploiters and bosses, workers without leadership can turn on one another.
Birmingham is a big warning in this respect as the Asian and Afro-Caribbean populations took it out on each other, fuelled by rumours of an attack on an Afro-Caribbean young woman. This later resulted in a death. The scramble by the leaders of both communities for a share of the finance doled out under the myriad urban schemes meant to help poor ‘ethnic’ areas was also a factor in furthering conflict along ethnic lines. At the same time, Britain is not the same as France which has more rigid segregation, relegating immigrants, in the main, to the outskirts of the major cities.
It is true that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, warnings were given by Trevor Philips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, that Britain could be "sleepwalking" towards a similar separation of the races as the US, revealed in New Orleans. However, as has been shown by a series of reports since then, in the analytical material in the paper and journal, segregation is not yet a fact in most parts of Britain. The pattern of existing segregation is complicated and contradictory. There are tendencies both towards and away from further segregation, with wide variations even within single towns and cities. We will continue to analyse and discuss these complex trends. However, we remain balanced in our approach. We have not yet reached the racial polarisation which exists in the US. Nevertheless, there is a danger of ‘segregation’ if not always in a rigid demarcation between areas of Britain or within cities but certainly in the outlook, in the minds, of different racial groups. The task of the labour movement and socialists, in fact almost its first principle, is to seek to overcome all divisions in the working class, racial, gender, religious and ethnic ones. It is for this reason that we always pose a class approach. This remains our position today in a different society – from an ethnic, religious and cultural point of view – compared to the early 1980s. There are about 240 mother-tongue languages now spoken in London schools.
The retreat in consciousness that we spoke about earlier, now reinforced by the sense of alienation of the Muslim population following the London bombings, has led to the demand for the setting up of more ‘faith-based’ schools. New Labour’s programme on education opens the door to schools being taken over by big business and religious zealots. We are in the process of formulating a rounded out policy on the thorny issue of ‘faith schools’.
More important is the need for a programme and concrete work to cement class unity at all levels of society and the labour movement. Crucial in this respect is the work of our party to rebuild the caucus of comrades from different ethnic backgrounds, particularly black and Asian comrades, who now form a vital part of the labour movement in areas like London, the south-east and many other areas of the country. This remains a vital part of our work.