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People before Profit meeting on privatisation: a disappointing snapshot of the Belfast left

JM Thorn

29 September 2006

On 19 September, a public meeting purporting to address the issues of “privatisation and poverty” was held in Belfast.  This meeting, organised by the group People before Profit (PBP), attracted around thirty people.  It took the format of a series of speakers addressing the meeting on different aspects of privatisation. 

First up was Brian Campfield of NIPSA, who announced that he was not speaking for his union, but as a member of Belfast Trades Council.  Brian opened his talk by reminding the audience that this year was the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.  He said that the military revolt against the left wing Government in Spain at that time was an attack upon democracy.  Though not on the same scale the Spanish Civil War, the onslaught on the public services in the North of Ireland could be considered an attack on democracy.  He said that central to this neo-liberal onslaught was privatisation, and this was a process that had been going on since the 1980’s with the sell off of state owned companies such as BT, NIE and also with the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering for services provided by the public sector.  The current wave of privatisation is justified by the argument from Government and business that the public sector is too large and stifling economic growth.  What this means in practice is cutting public spending and reducing the wages of public sector workers.  In the Civil Service, part of the human resources department had already been privatised; there was Workplace 2010 that proposes to sale of public buildings to private companies; soon cleaners at police stations and traffic wardens would see their jobs transferred to the private sector.  In Education and Health PFI schemes were advancing; the Water Service was being moved towards privatisation; and there was speculation that Belfast Port could be broken up and sold off. Brian concluded by saying that all these were the result of political decisions by Government.  They could not be fought by trade unions alone, what was needed was a movement within the community. 

The next speaker was Patricia McKeown of UNISON.  She began by highlighting a number of recent reports of poverty, one from Oxfam on combating poverty in the developing world, and another from the CAJ on the persistence of inequality and discrimination in the North despite the ten years of the peace process.  Patricia said that the North of Ireland had some of the worst health inequalities in the world.  If these were to be overcome that it would require the active intervention of the state – only public services could lift people out of poverty.  In health, the emphasis had to be on primary and community care.  She claimed that the NHS was an example of “socialism in action”.  However, that was under threat by the constant reorganisation of how healthcare is organised and creeping privatisation.   This started in the 1980’s with the outsourcing of catering and cleaning services.  Despite this, the North remained the part of the UK where privatisation has advanced least.   This is because local workers took action against it.  She pointed to small victories such as catering services at Altnagelvin hospital being taken back in-house as an example where privatisation has been reversed.   Patricia said the local NHS was now facing a major threat because the British Government wanted to impose the healthcare model that was operating in England. Another threat was the advance of the Public Finance Initiative, which was nothing more than the transfer of public money into private hands. The proposed PFI driven hospital building programme for the North would amount to the transfer of £200 million from the public purse to private business. These were the sort of liabilities that had created a crisis and forced the Government to review the scheme in London.  Patricia ended by saying that a militant campaign of strikes and demonstrations was needed to push back the privatisation agenda.

The third speaker was Tayra McKee, a T&GWU official with responsibility for the recruitment of migrant workers.  Her talk focused mainly on the position of migrant labour within the Northern economy.  She said that migrant workers were coming into the North in their thousands and were bringing about a change in the structure of the workforce. Tayra said that immigrant workers were mainly employed in the health sector or and in small companies.  In many cases migrants were being used to undermine the wages and conditions of local workers.  She gave the example of Moy Park, where employment agencies were being used to replace permanent staff.  Tayra alas explained that migrants could not be considered as one group.  There was a hierarchy within the migrant workforce, with employers giving preference to white English speaking workers from Europe.  Non-white and immigrants from outside the EU were in the most vulnerable position and forced to accept worse conditions.  Government polices were also making it easier for employers to exploit migrant workers.  They can’t claim benefits for a year, and employers hold their registration.  For non-EU nationals the situation is even worse as their work permit is held by the employers; they are under threat of being sent home as illegal immigrants.  There was also discrimination in the form of restrictions being placed on migrants from the new assession countries in the EU.   Tayra admitted that the trade union movement hadn’t reached many of the areas where migrants worked.   To advance the trade union movement had to diversify.  This meant reaching out to ethnic minorities, women and young people.  On a practical level it meant being able to talk to migrant workers in their own language. There was also a need to make partnerships with the community sector, though Tayra admitted people in this sector were obsessed with funding rather than campaigning.  She ended by saying that the trade union movement had to lobby the Government to get better conditions for migrant workers. 

The next speaker was Carey Anne Clarke of the Communities Against the Water Charge.  She said that the Government guarantees on water charges were worthless – the eligibility criteria were unclear and there were no guarantees that any concessions would continue beyond 2010.  In any case the creation of a new water company was moving the Water Service towards privatisation. When this happened any concessions would be void.   The Department of Regional Development already had consultants in advising on privatisation.  Carey finished by saying that the only way to stop water charges was through a community based campaign. 

The final speaker was Paddy Hillyard from the Sociology Department at QUB, who had conducted research on the extent of poverty in the North.  Using a “Standard of Living Index” he illustrated how society was divided up into 25 per cent who were “very comfortable”, 50 per cent who were “fairly comfortable” and 25 per cent who were in “hardship”.  Despite the raft of equality legislation, the North was a very unequal society.  Paddy also pointed out that religion was not the main determinant of poverty – disability and marital status were more important factors.   He said that inequality mattered because it dragged down the whole of society; it was bad for health, led to increases in violence and crime, and as a consequence was costly in terms of public expenditure. Paddy finished by setting out a number of polices that he believed could reduce inequality.  Firstly, the legal structure of corporations had to be changed to make them socially responsible.  Secondly, the rich had to be made to pay their share of taxes. Thirdly, there needed to be a system of rates which shifted the burden to the better off (Paddy believed the new rates system for the North actually did this to some degree). Fourthly, house price inflation had to be brought under control, and finally devolved Government had to be restored to give people more influence over policies. 

The meeting was then opened to the floor. The first two speakers were from the SWP.  Mark Hewitt said that People Before Profit was about building a network of people to oppose privatisation.  This had to be a broad movement within communities that would give people the confidence engage in political activity once again.  Barbara Muldoon highlighted the plight of migrant workers. She argued that trade unions and political campaigns had to develop new methods of organisation if they were to attract the support of this section of working class. She pointed to the recent postal strike as an example of activism that could break down community barriers.  Barbara wrote off the current campaign against rates rises as middle class, and said that we couldn’t rely on politicians to defend public services. 

The next speaker was from Socialist Youth.  He said that there was a need for a united campaign against privatisation.  But there was the need to go beyond this to raise the whole question of the inherent exploitative nature of capitalism, and how it had to be replaced by socialism.  He was followed by his comrade from the Socialist Party Padraig Mulholland.  Padraig said that there was an ongoing class struggle in the North, unfortunately it was the capitalist class on the offensive.  He said that the trade union movement needed to rebuilt as a political campaigning movement, pointing to the strikes over pensions and in the education sector as evidence that such a revival was under way. Padraig reminded the audience that it was not just the British Government which was responsible for the introduction of neo-liberal polices, many of them, such as water charges, had the support of the Assembly and executive when they were up and running.  He ended by calling for unions to review their relations with the British Labour Party and for the creation of a new workers party that would lead the struggle for socialism. 

The next speaker, who was not aligned to any political party, introduced a sobering note to the meeting when she recounted how hard it had been to organise a campaign to oppose health cuts in the Lisburn area because Loyalists in the Old Warren estate were opposed to any joint activity with people from the nationalist Poleglass estate.    The discussion was rounded off by Mark Hewitt of the SWP who said that a network was the best form of organisation for diversity and allowed for new creative thinking.  He said that PBP intended to have an organising meeting within two weeks to establish a branch in Belfast.  In the meantime he encouraged people to get on the bus to Manchester for the anti-war demo at the Labour Party conference.

As a snapshot of the state of the left in Belfast this meeting was both revealing and  disappointing.  More than anything it showed the political degeneration of SWP.  Any concept of the working class organising independently from below has been abandoned; replaced by diplomatic gestures towards trade union bureaucrats and a retreat into the dead end of community politics.  The Socialist Party aren’t much better.  Despite there rhetorical toughness, they are on the same course as the SWP, particularly in their accommodation of the trade union bureaucracy.  Their claim of wanting a united campaign against privatisation is risible.  Anyone who has encountered their We Won’t Pay campaign will know this.  It has refused to co-operate with any other campaign, and has even to tried to have people who propose any tactic other than non-payment excluded from the co-ordinating group of the anti-water charges campaign.  It’s no wonder that the trade union officials have no difficultly in addressing such gatherings, as what they say goes unchallenged.  The NIPSA and Unison officials railed against privatisation but they have done next to nothing to oppose it, indeed in some cases they have facilitated it.  One need look no further that the lack of trade union opposition to the privatisation of the Water Service.  Despite rhetoric about strikes the TU campaign amounted to a token one day strike early last year.  When the Government later went ahead with privatisation of parts of the Water Service there wasn’t a peep out of the trade unions.  No wonder workers in the Water Service are queuing up to be transferred to other parts of the Civil Service; they clearly have no confidence in the trade union leadership to defend them. 

Brian Campfield summed up the trade union position well when he said that privatisation was a political issue; in effect this means that trade unions will not challenge it.  Their idea of opposition is to get unionists and nationalist politicians to sign a statement opposing privatisation.  The only strategy they have is to lobby politicians in the unlikely event of the Assembly and executive being restored.  The lack of seriousness by the participants at the meeting was indicated by the glaring absence of any mention of the Government announcement a few days earlier that the North’s transport network was being opened up to private contractors. 

This absence indicated that the meeting was not designed to build a campaign against privatisation.  It was really nothing more than showcase event organised by the SWP to get people on the bus to Manchester.  So much for creative new thinking! No wonder everyone at the meeting is so keen on the network as a form of organisation, not having to commit themselves to a political position or a course of action accommodates perfectly their dishonest posing.

The new waves of privatisation will eventually produce a layer of workers in opposition. On the evidence of this meeting we can be forgiven for doubting if the left bureaucracy of the trade unions will be part of the opposition or even if the majority of the existing  socialist militants will be able to recognise working class action when it arrives.


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