That, in itself, is significant. But, more importantly, the poll gives London's workers the opportunity to cast judgement on Blair's whole "New Labour" programme by rejecting the official Labour candidate in favour of the Independent challenge of Ken Livingstone.
Livingstone was the overwhelming choice of individual and union affiliated members the London Labour Party. His massive lead in the opinion polls shows that he is also the overwhelming choice of millions of Londoners as a whole.
Blair & Co have tried to revive the "loony left" and "Red Ken" tags in a pathetic attempt to dent Livingstone's popularity. They are now trying to dig up dirt on Livingstone's business dealings to question his fitness to run the new London authority -- with little success. It is, after all, coming from a government which recently restored Peter Mandelson to grace after a brief period of back-bench exile for failing to declare a £373,000 loan.
What Blair and his placeman, Frank Dobson, have singularly failed to do is address Londoners' demands on the central issue of the election -- public transport. And that is the one area in which the new mayor will have some authority.
Though the Greater London Assembly is but a shadow of the old GLC with little more than advisory powers the Mayor of London will run a new transport authority which will cover all aspects of public and private transport in the capital.
Dobson's made it clear he'll do whatever Blair tells him, which means the privatisation of London Underground with all that implies for fares, service and safety. Livingstone is opposed to any tube sell-off and he's promised a four year fare freeze as well.
Livingstone has vowed to root out the "corrupt and racist minority" within the Metropolitan Police under the new mayor's powers to finance new independent authorities to finance London's police and fire services. His campaign has also raised demands for greater control by Londoners over other services such as education and health -- campaigns which will have to be fought for by the new assembly and the London labour movement.
A Livingstone victory will be a slap in the face for Blair and his right-wing bloc within the Labour Party. It will make it much harder for them in future to impose candidates over the heads of local Labour parties. It will mark the first stage in the fight-back against "New Labour" within the party and the trade union movement.
Ken Livingstone was formally expelled from the Labour Party this week. He's vowed to "be back soon". That, of course, will depend on the May ballot. We have to ensure that he gets the biggest possible vote to become Mayor of London.
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THE GOVERNMENT'S Green Paper on the future of housing in Britain published last week is designed to step up the speed at which council homes are transferred to the private sector.
Local authorities are barred, by laws passed under the Tory regime, from borrowing on the market to fund much needed repairs and restoration of Britain's council housing stock.
The Tories were openly hostile to all council housing and severely undermined it with the right to buy and by refusing local authorities funds for maintenance -- so the best homes were bought into the private market and the rest left to rot.
And now the Labour government is effectively continuing this policy. It will allow for some local authorities to set up 100 per cent public arms-length companies to take over council estates.
These companies would be able to borrow money on the open market to do the long overdue repairs. More than £l0 million is needed for this in the next four years. That is a flea bite compared to expenditure on other matters but the Government is clearly deciding against funding this directly for political reasons.
Once the estates are in the hands of these companies or housing associations, rents will be subject to market pressures. The new landlords can go bankrupt and the tenants no longer have the same secured tenancies.
It has been estimated that Londoners now need an income of at
least £50,000 a year to be able to get a first time mortgage to buy
If council housing disappears and is replaced by relatively high rent "social housing", most ordinary workers will no longer be able to afford to live in big cities.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has recognised this by proposing a scheme to give those workers in vital jobs -- teachers, health workers and so on -- special help with Government-funded low cost mortgages. These mortgages would be administered by local authorities.
Those who will be eligible have welcomed the idea but it leaves other low paid workers out in the cold. Only a small proportion of low paid workers could claim to be vital in the same way that nurses and teachers are.
Yet big cities also depend on road cleaners, shop assistants, transport workers and of course factory production workers.
The House Builders' Federation has warned that this idea could "stoke up inflation" by increasing the demand for lower cost housing.
This means the real beneficiaries of the Government subsidy will be housing speculators.
It would be far better for councils to offer secure council homes to vital workers and all other workers -- and for their employers to raise their pay in recognition of the importance of their work.
But John Prescott is currently having problems persuading the Treasury to underwrite this scheme.
He has also proposed to transfer Housing Benefit into a tax credit, supposedly as a measure against fraud.
The Green Paper is unlikely to be able to be framed into a parliamentary Bill before the next general election.
This allows us vital time to campaign to protect council housing. It is a campaign that must be moved to the top of the agenda if we are to resist a return to the bad old days when workers depended almost entirely on the private rental market for homes and could expect to be out on the street if out of a job for too long.
Even now some 100,000 people in London are threatened with eviction because greedy landlords have raised rents above levels that are covered by Housing Benefit.
This means that tenants who are unwaged or low paid simply cannot afford to give in these properties. The landlords are not bothered -- there are better paid workers who will cough up.
There is more need now for a big new programme of council house building that at any time since the Second World War.
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by Caroline Colebrook
THE LABOUR government last Monday experienced its third largest revolt of back bench MPs since coming to power in May 1997 when 41 MPs voted in favour of an amendment to the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.
The amendment called for the restoration of the link between average male earnings and the level of the basic state pension.
This demand has been the focus of campaigning by the pensioners' movement over the last few years and the size of the revolt is a measure of the impact the campaign has made.
The amendment was defeated by 240 votes to 75 but the size of the revolt has been an embarrassment to the Government.
The Government policy has been to "target" aid only at the poorest pensioners -- in other words supplying only means-tested benefits where pensioners have to go through complicated and humiliating procedures to prove they are poor.
Chancellor Gordon Brown last month announced a link between the pensioners' guaranteed minimum income and earnings -- that means the Income Support top up on the basic pension for those who have no other income.
But the basic state pension is being left to wither in value while pensioners-to-be are being pressured into taking out private pensions. The whole policy is designed to save the Government money.
It leaves pensioners at the mercy of the private pensions market with all the risks involved. And it condemns those who cannot afford a decent private pension -- women who take time out of work to care for children, those in casual work, the unemployed, the disabled and so on -- to an old age of abysmal poverty on a pitiful state pension with an Income Support top up.
Social Security Minister Jeff Rooker tried to defend Government policy, claiming that he himself had voted for the restoration of the link for much of his time in Parliament but, he said, people had voted against restoring the link as part of Labour's overall economic package at every election between 1983 and 1992.
Tony Benn MP warned the failure to restore the link was leading to "disillusionment, anger and frustration" among pensioners.
John McDonnell MP said: "Pensioners feel a sense of betrayal, because they always looked to the Labour Party as the champion of pensioners."
Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow said the basic state pension is the "quickest and most effective way" of getting money to the poorest pensioners.
One campaigning pensioner told the New Worker: "The level of this revolt is encouraging. It shows our campaign is having an effect. We must step up our efforts.
"Tony Blair and his cronies think they have it all sewn up and can get their New-Labour-Tory policies through no matter what. But things are starting to come unravelled for them. The left is fighting back."
Meanwhile British Telecomm last week announced that it is ready to raise the retirement age to 70 or over because of a growing shortage of management skills at senior level.
The official retiring age at BT is 60.
This will affect only a handful of workers but comes after worrying proposals that the Government could cut the pensions budget by raising the official retirement age.
As things stand now this would simply add to the number of unemployed -- though unemployment benefit is even lower than the basic state pension.
Many pensioners are very active, capable and willing to go on making an economic contribution to society for many years after the official retirement age.
Some would welcome the opportunity to carry on working perhaps on a part-time basis.
But this should be entirely voluntary and those who feel worn out after a lifetime of hard work should be entitled to retire on a decent pension that is enough to enable them to enjoy some years of active leisure.
The Government last week made an official apology to pensioners after mistakes by the Department of Social Security over the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (Serps).
Permanent secretary Rachel Lomax offered an apology to the Public Accounts Committee for the "deplorable" mistakes which left many approaching retirement badly advised and unaware of impending cuts in the scheme.
Millions of contributors were misled and costs to the Treasury could exceed £8 billion.
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By Li Xuejun in Baghdad
A EUROPEAN aircraft has landed in Baghdad in protest at the decade-long sanctions against Iraq. The plane, with four passengers including an Italian MEP and a French priest, touched down at Baghdad's Al-Rashid military airport Monday evening. All flights to or from Iraq must be authorised by the UN Sanctions Committee. This flight had no prior approval from the UN.
At the airport, Jean-Marie Benjamin, the leader of the group, read out a demand for the immediate and total lifting ofthe sanctions.
Benjamin and his companions are among the growing number calling for the end of the sanetions regime. British Labour MP George Galloway made a similar flight in 1997. Galloway, now visiting the United Arab Emirates (UAE) told the press that public opinion in the West has begun to oppose the continuation of sanctions.
And over 70 members of the US Congress have written to President Bill Clinton calling for an end to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq by lifting sanctions.
The call of the US Congressmen coincided with the resignation of top UN officials in Baghdad in protest at the devastating effect of sanctions on the Iraqi people.
Hans von Sponeck, who resigned as UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq last March, has been a vocal critic of sanctions, arguing it has brought tragedy to Iraq. Sponeck followed the example of his predecessor, Denis Halliday, who quit his job in mid-1998 after months of voicing similar views. And so did, Jota Burkhart, who represented the World Food Programme in Baghdad.
On the UN Security Council, Russia, People's China and France have been calling for ending sanctions. In the Gulf, UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan is demanding the end to the trade embargo as well.
Iraqi people, especially children and the elderly, are hardest hit by sanctions. The Iraqi Health Ministry reports that sanctions have claimed the lives of over 1.2 million people, a direct result of malnutrition and medical shortages caused by the sanctions regime.
A recent report by the International Committee of the Red Cross draws a grim picture of the people's lives under sanctions.
"Deteriorating living conditions, inflation and low salaries make people's everyday lives a continuing struggle," it said.
But there are signs that the sanctions regime is beginning to erode. Bahrain, which broke off relations with Iraq in 1990, has now re-opened its embassy in Baghdad. Two other Gulf states, Qatarand Oman, have made similar moves.
There has even been a thaw in relations between Iraq and its traditional Arab rivals such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, who took part in the US-led coalition against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.
Iraq has opened an diplomatic interests section in Damascus, the
first formal diplomatic link with Syria in almost 20 years. Lebanon restored
diplomatic relations with Iraq in October 1998 after a four year break.
The volume of trade between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has now topped 100 million dollars a year. Last August Saudi Arabia released a million dollars-worth of Iraqi assets frozen in Saudi banks.
Jordan and Turkey are benefiting from trade with Iraq and many other countries are vying for a slice of Iraq's lucrative reconstruction market -- put at 200 billion dollars -- by bidding for contracts under the food-for-oil programme and hoping to get a firm foothold once the sanctions are lifted. France, for example, has sent a diplomat and opened up a trade centre in Baghdad, for the first time since 1990. -- Xinhua
* Paris said on Tuesday that the Baghdad flight did not violate any UN resolution. The French Foreign Ministry declared that an air embargo against Iraq had no legal basis, as no UN Security Council resolution calls specifically for such an embargo against Iraq, unlike those imposed on Libya and Yugoslavia. Nor are people banned from flying to Iraq as long as they are not engaged in economic or financial transactions.
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CHRISTINE Hancock, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, warned the Government it has just six months to save the NHS.
She was opening the union's annual conference in Bournemouth Last Tuesday and said the NHS could no longer cope with the all-year-round pressures, which were exacerbated in the winter when patients were left on trolleys in corridors because there were no beds available.
She said that immediate action is needed to save the health service from collapse.
"The service is at risk. It needs saving. Targets and headlines are all well and good, but if we see a repeat of this winter's sorry tale of the NHS on its knees, people will lose faith in the service.
And it's not just a winter's tale anymore. In some areas the impact of emergency pressure on patient care is taking its toll throughout the year.
"We need immediate action. We cannot stand by and let last year's winter trolley waits occur again."
The union voted emphatically in favour of changes to the way long-term healthcare is funded. They agreed that the current system financially cripples too many elderly patients.
They voted against means testing for the provision of long-term care.
The conference also heard of the vital role played by nurses in rural areas where many patients find it difficult to travel to see their GPs, especially when they are feeling ill.
One delegate said that many farming community people see their vet more often than the doctor and are inclined to talk over health problems with them. Currently less that one in five rural parishes has a GP.
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