Sunday, October 2, 2022

Aborigines (1981)

From the October 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Very often large firms engage costly public relations consultants to influence public opinion in a way favourable to what they deem to be their shareholders’ interests. In Western Australia a subsidiary of the giant mining company RTZ—Ashton Joint Venture (AJV)—has engaged the services of one of the most expensive public relations firms in the world, Eric White Associates, to off-set unfavourable publicity on AJV’s snatching of Aboriginal lands in the Kimberly region of Western Australia.

Before it settled its plans to steamroll into Aboriginal settlements, AJV managed to “persuade” four members of the local community, whom it recognised as the traditional owners of its potential main mining site, to sign away their rights to the land. But since that agreement it has been claimed that at least 35 Aboriginals have rights to the land signed away to AJV, and a fierce quarrel has arisen with AJV steadfastly clinging to its ownership by virtue of the signed agreement.

So in this dispute the Aboriginals, who are not yet familiar with the ruthlessness of the profit-system, will largely be left to fend for themselves, while AJV will award their PR company 315,000 Australian Dollars to mount a lobby with state and federal government ministers, MPs and appropriate members of the public service in an effort to ensure that the mining company now have valid, legal ownership of the settlement lands.

Political Notes: They have been warned (1981)

The Political Notes Column from the October 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

They have been warned

It seems always to escape the attention of most of the people who vote for it, but every period of Labour rule in this country has been notable for a bitter fight with the working class over wages.

To add insult to injury, Labour ministers have the impudence to tell us that they are fighting us for our own good. The late Richard Crossman went so far as to describe a Labour incomes policy (which in plainer language means wage cuts) as “socialism”, on the argument that everyone (every worker, that is) was supposed to suffer equally under it.

Workers who resisted wage restraint have always been dubbed by Labour governments as saboteurs of their plans for abundance and security. Thus Attlee’s lot castigated “communist agitators” in the mines and the docks: Wilson huffed and puffed about “a small minority of politically motivated” seamen fomenting a strike in the merchant navy; Callaghan had his “winter of discontent”.

Well, they are still at it, even though they are out of power. Last month’s TUC spent some time discussing how they thought the issue of wages would be handled under a Labour government. Their clear decision against wage restraint was no comfort to Peter Shore, the man lined up to be Labour’s next Chancellor of the Exchequer and who, like all his predecessors, is hoping the unions will do a deal with him and so save all that unpleasantness about striking.

Shore’s disappointed response to the vote was to offer a euphemism fit to take its place among the countless others uttered by Labour leaders about pay. He talked about a “new economic consensus” in which pay would be an element. These menacing words promise battles to come, if the workers are foolish enough to think that another Labour government would handle the crises of capitalism any better than the Tories.

And that is something which the unions still, in spite of all that experience can teach them, seem determined to fight for. For example Postal Workers’ leader Tom Jackson advised the assembly to “pray for the return of a Labour government”.

Well, they have been warned.

Nothing new

The Social Democrats, as is clear to anyone who can swallow an outworn cliche, are a party with a new outlook; a fresh departure from the weary, discredited old gang who have made such a mess of running Britain. Well anyway that’s what they say.

It is, of course, impertinent for people like Roy Jenkins and David Owen to claim that they stand for anything new — and especially so when they are simply rehashing the elements of the mess they themselves managed when they were in office.

Of a type with this is the squabble which went on over the election of a SDP leader. In the course of this, the bonhomie which bonded the Four into a Gang, in those carefree days of the Limehouse Declaration, was seen to be melting fast in the heat of the battle for the top job in the party.

It is instructive to note the line up in the preliminary clash in this battle, over the method of electing the SDP chairman and their leader in Parliament. Jenkins and William Rodgers forgot all about this desire to get away from the old style and plumped for election of the leader by MPs only (and so did the majority of SDP MPs) which was the very method used by the Labour Party before they changed it at their Wembley Conference last year.

On the other hand Owen and Shirley Williams went for election by the entire membership and this is also interesting because it was when Labour changed their rules for electing their leader to something like this that the Gang of Four decided that they had had enough. Well at least none of them can be blamed for being hidebound by principle.

So even before they have an agreed constitution, or the necessary programme of promises with which to deceive the electors, the SDP is in the sort of mess we have grown accustomed to seeing from the Old Gang parties of capitalism. A mess of cynicism, backtracking and double dealing. And in that there is nothing new.

Long knives

It was not exactly a Night of the Long Knives, more like a month of them because, if the copious leaks to the press were any guide, Thatcher took some weeks in deciding on the reshaping of her government. It is said, for example, that Ian Gilmour wrote his resignation statement a month before he got the chop.

Significant beyond all the chit-chat about how many wives, children, neckties, pieces of toast for breakfast, the new ministers had, is the fact that so drastic a reshuffle indicates a serious crumbling of support among Thatcher’s higher ranks.

Now it would need a very naive person to believe that this is due to any concern for working class suffering. If Thatcher had been lucky enough to be in office during a boom, with belching chimneys blackening the sky and all the Job Centres empty of customers, there is little doubt that people like Gilmour and Prior would not have found much to quarrel with in her policies.

When Gilmour warned that the government is steering “full speed ahead for the rocks” he probably meant the rocks of electoral defeat. It is by that standard that the administrations of capitalism are judged. None of them can master the system; they blunder a while in the dark and how they are remembered by the working class is something largely out of their control.

Perhaps the Tories are beginning to think they are having bad luck with their leader, who can’t be helping their prospects with her pose of stubborn belief in her own rectitude and by her liking for giving the other side some wonderful propaganda chances.

On the buses (1981)

From the October 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Confronted with some socialist literature and an SPGB candidate at the last GLC election, one local newspaper responded in amazement that, while everyone else was worrying about problems like urban decay, unemployment, rubbish in the streets, high rates, inflation and the lousy bus service, our only solution was the prospect of a classless, moneyless world community. A candidacy like that, said our local rag, was eccentric to say the least.

As long as there are so few socialists then what we do is bound to seem eccentric to the rest; so let’s give the local newspaper their conventional point. But from our side of the fence the policies promised by the other political parties as solutions to the problems of the day are not just eccentric, they are laughable; and when workers keep their wits about them they agree with us. During the GLC campaign some members of the Labour party toured the constituency of Islington in an ancient, open-topped, double-decker bus, all festooned with balloons. Two women were talking on the pavement as it passed. They looked up and one remarked, “that must be the extra bus they promised in their election leaflet!”

Better than the most comprehensive set of facts and figures, heartfelt graffiti on the bus shelters reflect the situation; “They don’t bury people in Finsbury: they just stand them at bus stops”. All of the other political parties had promised to do something about the bus service in London it’s the one truly inexhaustible political concern. Voters can forget the bomb, but never the number nine bus.

A Dose of Capitalism
In the 1930s congestion, lateness and dropped services were blamed upon the trams, which were considered to be noisy, uncomfortable, expensive to run, inflexible and the cause of traffic jams at junctions. So they were phased out. In the 1950s the blame was put upon the trolley buses, which were considered expensive to run, inflexible and the cause of delays when their pantographs slipped off the overhead wires. So they too were phased out. Since the 1930s too we have seen the end of private enterprise when London and General were bought out by the London Passenger Transport Board in a partial nationalisation scheme; followed later by the London Transport Executive. Since those days when big was considered beautiful, London Country Services have been bought out by the omnivorous National Bus Company (which grew big by snapping up corporation bus systems that could not meet their financial deficits out of the rates) and the National Bus Company itself has become as famous as Beeching for cutting services.

The range of this history takes in what the politicians are offering today. With the rise in the price of oil since 1973 all concede that electric trolley buses would now be cheaper to run than diesel buses; but nobody can afford the outlay on a new overhead system. Others favour high subsidies from the rates, while their opponents insist that local industry is being crippled by the existing rate burden and that private enterprise buses are the only answer. So it’s back to trolleys, the London and General and square one perhaps. Meanwhile the buses suffer from a really bad dose of capitalism.

Runners and Chokers
Why does reality so rarely match the promise? What stops public transport from being a public service? The bus industry provides a set of jobs that display perfect symbolic parodies of the capitalist and worker relationship; so that, even without the administrative and technical problems above, it is unreasonable to expect anything except what you get.

The job routine can turn workers into mechanical beings, jack-in-the-boxes who pop up when the alarm clock triggers them off. Who better to observe this than the bus driver on an early turn?
There was I, driving along without a care in the world, I turned a corner and runners came at me from all directions. They seemed to come up out of the very drains, running, shouting and waving their arms. In two stops we were chock-a-block, I got three bells from my clippie and the old RT groaned along on sagging springs, steering like a pregnant camel. Four stops later they all poured off at the factory area and we were empty. Rape must feel like that.
A London Country driver 
This is not an essay in cynicism. To the bus company accountants there is no difference between hauling coal by road and hauling people, except that on the buses the load gets on and off of its own accord at each stop. The attitude of the bus crews to the passenger-commodities is a measure of the dualism that goes with production for sale. Passengers are both mere bundles of exchange value and living characters who kick when they are treated like cattle. What can a poor conductor do? If he takes the passengers’ side that buses should be a public service based upon need, then he would run the bus as the users desire, collect no fares, make detours from the schedule and get sacked when an inspector found out. If he takes the company side then he has to dawdle and pick up the maximum number of passengers, yet keep to the timetable within an accuracy of one minute, collect all fares on his fully loaded bus by every third stop, while helping mothers with push chairs, children and the disabled on and off the bus. Telling all and sundry the time and how long the next bus will be (time you bought a watch and twenty-seven feet).

Them Versus Us
It used to be worse of course. During the blitz in the last war the employers forced the crews to suspend the rule of five only standing downstairs (in the interests of national production) and for a time the throughput of passengers on London Transport approached that delight of first world war infantry, the French cattle truck, with its plate bearing the legend “cheveaux 8, hommes 40”.

Then, after years of austerity, in 1949 the bus crews flexed their trade union muscles and tried a half-day strike to wipe out a long-standing anomaly and achieve time-and-a-half for Saturday afternoon work and double-time for Sundays. The employers promptly invoked an agreement forced through during the war and threatened legal action against the strikers (this in a nationalised concern and under a Labour government). Fortunately the bus crews faced down the employers and got what they wanted.

But, as if to show that trade union action unlinked to a movement for socialism is futile, in 1971, when the crews were desperate for a pay rise, the employers faced them down over a strike and offered them half of what they wanted, on condition that they worked Saturday and Sunday at flat rate. The crews accepted and things got worse again.

There may exist a more tricky bunch of accountants than those employed by London Transport, but you'll never convince the crews that this is so. It is legendary at all garages that just before a pay claim goes in the fleet of cars that are held for the use of the managers at administrative centres like Chiswick, Crawley and Marylebone are all renewed. So, whatever the true trading position, the accountants can demonstrate to any tribunal that the board cannot possibly afford any wage increase.

These board members cannot be got at by the crews, but there are surrogates—the inspectors or jumpers, who jump the buses and have to get the crews to sign their cards so many times a day. An index of industrial friction at any shed is the number of crews who refuse to sign the inspectors’ cards, or do so only “under protest”.

Jumpers and cash
The bus crews and the jumpers are at war with each other, either openly or concealed, and the result is occasionally an absurd farce that can only be appreciated long after the event.
You’d never believe what we used to get up to. There was a rota with a dead journey from Luton back to Hitchin at 3.15 every Wednesday (dead because nobody ever travelled on it). My conductor at the time wanted to build a garden shed, but couldn’t afford new wood. So 1 rushed the bus out to a builder’s scrap yard in Luton at 3.15. In pissing rain we loaded the lower deck with half a ton of old timber and dashed back to his house at Hitchin. Halfway, I came over Offley Hill and there was a bleeding jumper with his arm out at a stop. If I picked him up we’d have both got the bullet. So I sailed past to his pitiful cries and covered the bleeder with spray. But the bastard saw the wood as we passed and there was hell to pay when we finished the rota that night. We stuck to the story that we didn’t see him in the rainstorm and as he couldn’t prove anything got away with it. But they came down on us all like a ton of bricks over the tiniest fault for months afterwards.
A London Country inspector (ex-driver) 
But most of the aggro between jumpers and crews centres on fiddling of fares. A wise conductor will be tardy over collecting upstairs fares on a bus where the passengers alight at a terminus. As they come down the stairs he'll run off a string of tickets at the lowest fare and pocket the difference between them and the real fares handed to him. Cunning ones will not dump the scroll run off this way in the used ticket box, because equally cunning inspectors search the boxes for them as the first pointer to a fiddler. The cash clerks at the shed, who receive and inspect the take at the end of a rota, here link up with the roving jumpers. Every journey has to be logged by the conductor and the take broken down into the number of tickets of each denomination run off; in this way the cash clerks build up the history of all such journeys. So when the take on a regular rota falls below the average and the number of low value tickets rises above the average, the word gets around and the jumpers start hiding behind cars and lurking in doorways at strategic points to catch the culprit.

It puzzles some people why services with a fare-box facility beside the driver are not supposed to provide change. Most drivers will oblige of course as it provides a fiddle that is impossible to trace. You give the driver fifty pence for a twenty pence fare, he gives you thirty pence change and as you move away he drops two coins in the box. They may be pennies, tuppences or fivepences, depending on how far the driver is pushing it. The only answer the company has to this is to police the buses with a large plain-clothed inspectorate.

The Political Terminus
Work on the buses is not unique, but it provides a caricature of the shifts and subterfuges, the collisions and the wrangles that go on wherever workers handle the revenue that keeps an institution going. Over the years the characteristically cynical attitudes of the bus crews to the passengers has been formed by their experience in the “public service vehicle industry” and any politician who fancies the chances of cutting through the omnibus jungle, uniting the employers, crews and passengers in a real public service is indulging in self-deception.

Even the abolition of fares would have little overall effect. To be sure the bus companies would save on fare machinery, the wages of conductors and cash clerks; while the omnibus jungle would be thinned out as each bus journey ceased to be a transaction between the public and the company. But another jungle of political wrangling would spring up around the problem of who pays for the service. Should the burden be equally loaded on the rate bills of shops, offices, factories and householders; or should the money come from central government? Such questions are the perennial concern of governments, whose battles are fought in the capitalist jungles of council meetings and offices, parliaments and civil services. You get ideological glimpses of these battles at elections and ultimately you may be called upon to do a government’s international battling when the fighting becomes real in war time.

There you are, just one industry, just one problem that all politicians promised to reform at the last GLC election. Yet it proved to be as tangled as the whole capitalist world.

Who are the eccentrics now? The socialists, who want production for use and free access—or the politicians who promise the earth for nothing?
B.K. McNeeney