By Rhodri Evans
Stephen Byers resigned as transport minister on 28 May. The same Byers was the member of New Labour's inner circle who blurted out their long-term plans just before the 1997 General Election: introduce state funding for political parties, force a clash with the unions by hard-faced policies, and cut Labour's union links.
The unions didn't like it. But their dislike had no weight with Tony Blair. The new Prime Minister appreciated Byers, who had described himself as a super-Blairite, in his own words "an outrider for the Blairite project", and made him education minister.
Byers famously couldn't calculate 8 times 7 correctly, but blamed "failing" teachers for all schools' problems. Disgruntled teachers could no more bring him down than could resentful union leaders. Byers became chief secretary to the Treasury, then industry minister.
A huge trade union demonstration in April 2000 protested against the break-up of the Rover car company. Byers made no move to nationalise to save jobs. His job was still safe, though.
June 2002: he got promotion to transport minister. Trade union policy is firmly for getting the mainline railways renationalised and stopping the privatisation of the London Underground. So is public opinion. Byers kept the railways in the hands of private profiteers, and pushed forward schemes to put much of the Tube in private-profit hands too. Now the Potters Bar rail disaster has again highlighted the dangerous chaos of privatisation, and the labour movement has finally shown some political clout by toppling Byers? Not at all.
What brought Byers down was not his contempt for trade-union and working-class demands, but rather the opposite. The bosses of Railtrack, the private rail-infrastructure company, had made big profits by letting huge track maintenance backlogs build up, then demanded more and more government cash handouts to keep their profits buoyant as they struggled to clear the backlogs under pressure of repeated rail disasters.
In October 2001 Byers finally lost patience, cut off the cash handouts, and let Railtrack go bankrupt. For once, he did something which hurt not the people, but the Railtrack shareholders whose shares lost value.
The City was furious. Financiers threatened to refuse cooperation to future New Labour privatisation projects. The press, taking its cue from the financiers, harried Byers for every blunder and lapse, calling him "liar Byers".
Unlike the unions, the teachers, the carworkers, and the railworkers and rail passengers, the financiers got satisfaction. They got £300 million compensation - and, now, Byers' resignation.
It shows who has power in New Labour Britain. What we have is a bosses' government. What we need is a fight for a workers' government, under which workers, and not City financiers, will be able to replace ministers they don't want.
By Rhodri Evans