PFI row rocks New Labour

"Everything Labour used to stand for has gone out of the window"

"I CAN no longer defend the indefensible. There is no alternative for me but to stand up and be counted." These are the words of Mark Irvine, a leading full time Scottish official for public sector union UNISON. He resigned from the Labour Party last week.

A huge row has erupted inside the Scottish Labour Party. It is centred on the government's PFI privatisation schemes, where private firms are invited to make a fortune from building and running our schools and hospitals. In his resignation letter Mark Irvine wrote, "Vital local services are visibly failing. Cuts in council spending mean that 10,000 fewer elderly people now receive a home care service than was the case in 1996. In opposition, Labour denounced broadly similar plans from the Scottish Tories as an affront to a decent civilised society."

Labour leaders desperately tried to claim Irvine's protest was a one off rebellion. But Irvine's resignation reflects deep unease and anger at New Labour's right wing policies even among solid Labour members and supporters. Scottish Labour Party treasurer Bob Thomson claimed PFI was a "running sore" which was causing a revolt in the party. He said PFI could cost the party the support of "core Labour voters who might not vote Labour on 6 May. "It's an understatement to say people are unhappy about the situation."

Irvine's resignation was followed by a public attack on the government from Tom Waterson, the UNISON convenor at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. The hospital is to be demolished and a new hospital built by giant private firms under the government's Private Finance Initiative. Waterson spoke out after the Labour candidate for the Edinburgh South constituency, Angus MacKay, outrageously claimed that most doctors and nurses supported the PFI scheme. "It's a total lie," said Tom Waterson. "Everything Labour used to stand for has gone out of the window. I used to be a supporter of the Labour Party but I can no longer justify giving that support."

Picture: JESS HURD

WORKERS PROTESTING outside this year’s Scottish Labour Party conference

The 1,500 strong UNISON branch at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (ERI) has just voted to disaffiliate from every Labour constituency party in the Lothians region in protest at PFI. The doctors' BMA also reacted furiously. It issued a statement calling the Edinburgh PFI scheme "potentially an unmitigated disaster" which would burden future generations with debt. The BMA calculates that under the PFI scheme the ERI will cost the NHS £720 million over 25 years. But if the government publicly financed a new hospital the cost would be just £180 million.

Labour's election manifesto for the Scottish Parliament gives the impression eight new hospitals and 100 new school developments will be built, but only if people vote Labour. In fact four of the "new" hospitals and at least 29 of the "new" school developments are already under construction. Labour also failed to mention in its manifesto—they are all funded by private, profit making companies.

The Scottish National Party is trying to capitalise on people's worries over job losses, like the 2,000 threatened at Kvaerner Govan shipyard, student tuition fees and the paltry level of the minimum wage. The party has called PFI "New Labour's poll tax". But although the party has plans to replace PFI, an SNP run council in Banff and Buchan is pushing through a massive PFI scheme. SNP leader Alex Salmond tried to justify this by claiming, "When you are presented with the only game in town, that is the only game you are able to play." His comments highlight the need for a left wing alternative to Labour that fights PFI and all New Labour's Tory policies.

Scottish TUC conference

Union leaders try to derail rising dissent

THE OPENING two days of the STUC conference in Glasgow this week showed the deep unease with the government's policies. But it also saw the trade union leaders manoeuvring to prevent any real clash between the conference and Labour.

The majority of the conference want PFI scrapped, want a much higher level for the minimum wage and have doubts about the war in the Balkans. But the people at the top of the STUC have made every effort to blunt the opposition to the government's policies. The STUC leadership has done a deal with chancellor Gordon Brown to shut up in return for vague and secret promises that things will get better in the future.

A sense of the real mood inside the conference came from the response to the opening address of STUC president Anne Middleton. She said, "The people of Scotland wish a fairer society, and workers' expectations of the parliament are high. It must be radically different from Westminster. There is deep disappointment that the government did not pursue the trade union movement's view in relation to the statutory procedures for union recognition."

On the key issue of PFI there was loud applause when Anne Middleton said, "Using the Private Finance Initiative to fund investment in capital projects such as schools, hospitals, colleges and housing must be stopped." But when it came to the motions the STUC leaders, helped by the heads of the component unions, pushed most controversy off the order paper.

The RMT rail union went into the conference with a motion on transport which said that decent services were "best achieved by a publicly owned transport system, in particular in the railways". But by the time the motion was discussed this line had disappeared. Several big unions backed the call for a minimum wage of £4.79 an hour, until it got to the debate by which time this demand had mysteriously been spirited away. It is unclear whether the arm twisting would stop the conference voting to stop PFI.

Many delegates were angry at the deals. On the war the STUC general council statement is a masterpiece of hesitation and fudge—but it eventually comes down on saying that military intervention is inevitable. Socialist Worker went to press before several key debates. The leadership hoped to keep rows to an absolute minimum. But the mood of anger with Labour is growing and clever deals will not stop it bursting out at some point.