Vauxhall and the political alternative

Learning from Thatcher Text of speech made by comrade Steve Freeman to the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance

Some of you may remember that I spoke at the founding meeting of the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance in October. The main themes at that meeting where why we need a Socialist Alliance, why we need left unity and a clear set of policies to unite around. We got off to a flying start when the meeting voting unanimously to get rid of the monarchy. The left may have many differences, but republicanism is one thing that can unite the left. Everybody from Tony Benn leftwards wants to abolish the monarchy.

So it is very encouraging to come back again to Luton and see what has been achieved. You have now established Bedfordshire SA with officers, members, and a constitution. You now have an excellent prospective parliamentary candidate in Joe Hearne. You now have a set of policies that can give members confidence and empower you when speaking to non-members. You can say, 'This is what we stand for.'

I have a special interest in Socialist Alliance policy because I am acting convenor of the national network's programme working group, whose role is to prepare members for the national policy conference in March. The list of submissions indicates the most politically advanced parts of the SA. West Midlands, Leeds, Merseyside, Manchester and Leicester have made submissions. These are alliances which have actually democratically involved rank and file members in making policy decisions. We can add Bedfordshire to that list. It puts you on the national political map with something to say to the rest of the network.

It seems to me that your progress has been rapid and very commendable. The problem is that we have a huge gap to make up and, with an election in May, very little time to do it. So we need your help. Since December we have an additional local factor - namely the closure of Vauxhall, an issue that has local, national and international dimensions.

Let us begin with the general election in May. At election time the big issue, the central issue, is, 'Who will govern the country?' The formal answer of course is that we are going to elect her majesty's government. But, strictly speaking, we are going to ask her majesty to appoint a government from the party that gets the most parliamentary seats, though not necessarily the most votes.

I want to start from a basic proposition that this system of government is rotten to the core. It is bureaucratic and secretive. It concentrates too much power in the hands of too few people. There is very little that is democratic about it. There is no real choice. It is not accountable to the people. It does not serve the interests of the people. Many people are disillusioned and alienated from it.

Take BSE or mad cow disease. Our system of government is responsible for the deaths of hundreds and possibly tens of thousands of us. Look at the dome in Greenwich, a national monument to gross waste and mismanagement. So who is in charge of all this?

The basic answer is the treasury plus the home office, foreign office, department of environment, etc. The 'great' departments of state and the top civil servants or 'mandarins' who are in charge. A few weeks ago I was listening to Steve Norris, ex-Tory minister and candidate for mayor of London, in a Radio Five Live debate on rail transport. I have to say he did a very good job of defending the indefensible. He told listeners that her majesty's treasury had for years and years starved British Rail of investment. So much so that British Rail was completely knackered. Suddenly, the Tories appeared on the scene. Who knows where they came from! Like St George, they rescued British Rail from the grips of the mean and wicked treasury and handed it back to the people at very reasonable knock-down prices.

What a great way of deflecting attention from the Tories. Weren't they in charge of the treasury for 36 out of the last 50 years? It was the Tories who were responsible for a clapped-out British railway system. They must get the blame. Yet in a certain sense in making his alibi for the Tories, Norris spoke a truth. The treasury is in charge of economic policy. This is something that is a widely understood. So much so that nobody thought to challenge Norris.

The treasury has starved not only rail, but health, education and the whole public sector of the necessary investment funds whilst holding down public sector pay. Who is in charge of the treasury? Certainly not parliament. Not even the chancellor. The real power is next door in the banks, insurance companies and the markets of the City of London.

What about parliament? After all, we are going to stand for parliament. We must be completely honest about it. It is a side show. It does not really control anything. It reminds me of a Roman amphitheatre, with Blair and Hague as two gladiators slogging it out. It is entertainment for the masses, not real democratic decision-making. I would prefer to call it the 'Punch and Judy' show.

It is worth noting that parliament is underpinned by two factors. First, it is basically a two-party monopoly. You can vote for Punch or vote for Judy once every five years. The pendulum swings from one to the other and no more. If the Tories are in, then all we can look forward to is Labour. If Labour is in, we have the threat of another Tory government.

The second aspect is that 'Punch and Judy' have got a deal going. We can call it a political consensus. We might see them bashing hell out of each other in the parliamentary circus. But in reality they are closely aligned. Political power is a joint venture, or a two-party monopoly.

In the 1940s the two parties developed a new consensus. This involved support for the constitutional monarchy, welfare state, mixed economy with nationalised industries, full employment and the so-called special relationship with the USA. This consensus lasted until the 1980s. It was mass unemployment and the defeat of the miners in 1985 that opened the way for dismantling the old 1945 consensus. This was the so-called 'Thatcher revolution'.

Since then we have seen the forging of a new consensus. The basis for this capitalist modernisation is free market economic policy and flexible labour markets. This means removing all social rights and social protection from workers. It is why in Britain it is relatively easy to close Vauxhall. The political side of this is a reformed constitution. The new consensus combines the politics of Thatcher and Blair. With his constitutional reforms Blair is completing the Thatcher project, albeit with political changes that Thatcher, as a political conservative, would have opposed.

When Hague says he will accept the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly and Blair privatises air traffic control, we can see this consensus in practice. Both are committed to the draconian anti-union laws. This is not to say there are no disagreements, notably on Europe. But even here the rhetoric and reality are different. The Tories can never stray too far from the interests of big business if they are to survive. So whilst Punch and Judy might bash the hell out of each other in parliament and on the telly, there is agreement on fundamentals.

What should the Socialist Alliance say? What are we against and what are we for? First we must oppose the undemocratic system of government and the two-party monopoly. We must oppose this latest Tory-Labour consensus. This means opposing free market economics, privatisation and flexible labour, with political opposition to a reformed constitutional monarchy.

What should we be for? The Socialist Alliance is tiny in relation to the millions of workers, citizens and voters. But we have two weapons in the ideas of democracy and internationalism. Democracy is a very powerful impulse. The people want to have democratic control over their own lives. We want to have our say at work, in the community, and in social and cultural life. The desire for real democracy is a very powerful and progressive impulse.

If we go out and preach and proselytise for democracy, we will get two responses. We will meet those who agree that this system is not democratic. We should say to them, support us, help us and vote for us. Others will say that we have got 'democracy' already. We will have to explain to them why this is not the case. We might just say that they should go and ask those workers in Vauxhall how much democracy they have had about the decision to shut their factory.

Internationalism is equally important. We live in an increasingly globalised world. Many issues cannot be solved in one country. Pollution, the environment, poverty and unemployment cannot be solved in one country. We are not looking to foreign governments and multinational corporations for a solution. We have to look to people like ourselves in other countries for support and unity against common threats. We have to work for unity of the working class. If democracy and internationalism are relevant, then we have the acid test. We must show they are relevant and indeed vital to the Vauxhall workers.

My final point is this: 'Who runs the country?' is a famous question posed by Ted Heath at the 1974 general election. Was it the Tories or was it the miners, who at that time were on strike? The country decided that they preferred the miners to the Tories, and Heath was kicked out. The Tories quickly learnt the lessons. Next time they got their election victory in first. In 1983 Thatcher won a second term. This time they were firmly in control. They would not ask the country about the miners. They would use their mandate to defeat them. The 1984-85 miners' strike changed the course of history. The Tories showed their expertise in combining industrial and political struggles.

We have to apply that lesson here. The industrial struggle in Vauxhall must be combined with the political struggle in the general election. Bedfordshire SA and the Vauxhall shop stewards have to work together. We have to plan together. We have to unite together. The Labour government and General Motors are working together to carry through the closure. Bedfordshire SA is challenging the local Labour MP. The shop stewards are challenging General Motors. We should do this together in unison.

If Vauxhall shop stewards are taking action, Bedfordshire SA should help them in whatever way we can. Equally, when the SA is out leafleting, petitioning, demonstrating or going round 'on the knocker', we should ask the shop stewards to help us. We can succeed together, or fail if we act separately. A united front cannot guarantee victory, but without it we cannot succeed. Help us, join us and vote for Joe Hearne.