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Don’t Want to Sleep with the Common People: Blair’s First Year in Office

Dave Osler

MAGGIE, MAGGIE, Maggie – out, out, out. Labour to power on a bold socialist programme. Far left politics used to be a damn sight more straightforward back in the good old days. But simple anti-Conservatism is no longer enough.

After 18 wasted years of Tory rule, Labour swept to power last May with a 179-seat majority. Socialist analysis of contemporary British politics now has to be that much more incisive. The key question the far left must grapple with is the changing class nature of the Labour Party. It is vital to draw the correct tactical conclusions, all of which point to the necessity of working towards a party of recomposition in Britain.

New Labour of course remains a bourgeois workers’ party on the narrowest definition, by virtue of the much diminished but nevertheless still extant trade union link. But it is clearly no longer a reformist-socialist mass workers’ party, in the sense that Marxists have traditionally understood such categories.

That much is evident on both organisational and ideological levels. Following the process begun under Kinnock, which culminated in the Partnership in Power package agreed at last year’s conference, the Labour leadership is insulated as never before in history from the pressures sometimes brought to bear in the past – in recent decades largely at Trotskyist instigation – through the unions and the constituency rank and file.

Far from Labour being, in Lenin’s classic formulation, the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, the average trade union general secretary now has less access to Number Ten than the average three-chord Britpop guitarist. Tony Blair doesn’t want to sleep with the common people.

Holding up the abolition of Clause IV as some sort of Rubicon, as Scargill did in launching the Socialist Labour Party, misses the point. The abandonment of what Marxists saw as reformism and Labourism – and what Labour activists right and left sincerely considered as socialism – is all pervasive. It is shot through every speech by Blair, every policy document, every heavily spin-doctored off the record briefing. Lord Hattersley is on the case. Incredibly enough, some Trotskyists aren’t.

Let us look, then, at one year of New Labour in office.

Within days of electoral victory, chancellor Gordon Brown handed the Bank of England power to set interest rates, taking away one of the key weapons of even moderate Keynesian strategy. The move was symbolic of a government that accepts – rather than challenges – its ostensible powerlessness in the face of globalisation and the unimpeded reign of market forces.

Brown’s first budget in July last year cut corporation tax by two points to 31% and further reduced taxation on small and medium-size businesses. While presented as a token of radical intent, the imposition of a £5.2bn windfall tax to fund the welfare to work programme has to be read in the context of the overall reactionary nature of the government’s welfare state reform plans.

The 1998 budget saw a further reduction in corporation tax and capital gains tax, and cash hand-outs to legitimise low wage employment. New Labour’s alacrity in introducing measures to favour business contrasts starkly with their reticence to take even the most minimal steps in favour of organised labour.

Meanwhile, the conjunctural economic outlook remains precarious. High interest rates, set by the Bank of England, have made sterling the most over-valued currency in the world, trading at 15-20% above fair value. This has hit manufacturing exporters badly, even as it bolsters the financial services sector.

The TUC is predicting 200,000 job losses, mainly in manufacturing, over the next year. The OECD has slashed its forecasts for UK GDP growth, while Cambridge Econometrics is projecting outright recession next year. Much will depend on the outcome of the financial crisis in the Far East. Another potential flashpoint will be the advent of European Monetary Union, due to start on 1 January next year.

One of the worst clichés in Trot journalism is to postulate a mechanical read-off from the proposition that the state of the class struggle is in inverse proportion to the state of the economy. But recession could bring on a bout of mid-term electoral blues, on a scale that would break B.B. King’s heart.

The earliest days of the new administration were also notable for the fanfares heralding the ethical arms policy that wasn’t. Cook started out as the intellectual standard-bearer of the reformist intelligentsia and has ended up the first former leftist to capitulate openly to the Third Way. The one-time participant in the clandestine Supper Club opposition to the 1991 Gulf War came close to presiding over a repeat performance. Our former CND stalwart even dropped oblique hints that he was perfectly prepared to nuke Baghdad to the Islamic equivalent of Kingdom Come.

This time round there was absolutely no opposition from the soft left, with only 21 Labour MPs – compared to 59 in July 1991 – voting against. Many Campaign Group members demonstrated the worst variety of political cowardice by simply abstaining.

Blair’s plans for constitutional reform are extremely wide-ranging, despite their protracted time scale. We are living through the most significant overhaul of the machinery of the British state since 1688 or 1707. The overall process should be supported, as many of the consequences will be positive, despite Blair’s reactionary intent.

Last September saw "yes" votes for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. A referendum on a mayor for London was due at the time of writing. There remains an ill-defined commitment to the removal of hereditary peers in the next parliament, and even the likelihood of proportional representation in European, Scottish and Welsh elections.

PR would offer the electoral space to build a party of recomposition to the left of Labour. For that reason alone, it deserves the enthusiastic support of the revolutionary left, even though the precise variant adopted will doubtless be unfavourable towards us.

A major debate over Scottish nationalism is to be had on the left. Whatever outcome we may wish, the dynamic towards Scottish independence is plain. Realisation of the "break-up of Britain" scenario will have both positive and negative consequences, with a weakening of the bourgeois UK state prominent among the former. The English left could see substantial growth if left nationalism becomes a significant current in Scotland. There is every indication that this will be so. In the wider scheme of things, the current orientation of Scottish Militant Labour towards a Scottish Socialist Party is probably correct, despite the obviously deleterious effects on the Socialist Party in England.

The Good Friday peace settlement relies on presenting itself as all things to all Irish men and women, while not even offering a consistent bourgeois-democratic settlement. It is therefore unlikely to stick. Whatever the media hype and irrespective of the vote in the referendum, even the limited changes it proposes remain unacceptable in principle to armed hardline elements in both the nationalist and unionist camps. The situation remains as unresolved as ever.

From a Labour left/entrist left standpoint, perhaps the highlight of Blair’s first year in office was December’s decision by 47 MPs to vote against cuts to benefits for single parents. This was small beer as Westminster rebellion goes, amounting to little more than one in ten of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It did, however, force the Blairites to tread more carefully. Thus the March green paper on welfare reform amounted to more of a statement of intent than the long-threatened Mad Frankie Field blueprint for Pinochet pensions.

New Labour’s record on the National Health Service has also been disappointing. In opposition, the party made its promise to cut NHS waiting lists by 100,000 one of its "five early pledges". By last February, waiting lists had actually increased by 100,000. Meanwhile, New Labour rhetoric has contradicted its claims to oppose the internal market in the NHS by its commitment to maintain the purchaser-provider split, outlined in a green paper last December. A number of the public health targets set by the Tories – in areas such as heart disease, malnutrition, mental illness and AIDS – have even been watered down.

The Thatcherite privatisation onslaught continues apace. Blair’s government last year published a 546-page National Assets Register, detailing all state holdings down to the last civil service canteen kettle. The job lot is worth £300 billion, and Brown is eager to get on with the serious job of flogging off the family silver. Thus we have seen the sale of the government’s 14% holding in Mersey Docks and Harbour Company earlier this year, which raised £370m, after the government refused to use its stake to intervene in the long-running Liverpool docks dispute. Nice one, Chumbawumba.

A lengthy list of sell-offs is now on the agenda. The Benefits Agency Medical Service will fetch £300m. A consortium backed by Goldman Sachs merchant bank has been awarded a contract to privatise some 700 Department of Social Security offices across Britain. Unbelievably, a firm of cabbies is now responsible for much of the ambulance service in the City and East End of London. They all want stringing up if you ask me, guv.

London Underground will be subject to a madcap de facto sale and leaseback deal, beyond the wildest dreams of the average right wing think-tanker, if you will forgive the resort to rhyming slang. The sale of 830,000 square meters of public sector office space will go ahead by 2000, despite a National Audit Office warning that breaking rental agreements could cost the taxpayer up to £500m. That in itself is a scandal on a par with many of the great Tory privatisation rip-offs of the Eighties.

Other privatisation candidates include the Commonwealth Development Corporation, the Post Office, the Tote betting pool, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, Manchester Airport, Channel Four, the National Air Traffic Control system, parts of the BBC and even the Royal Opera House.

Labour’s reactionary agenda is clearly demonstrated by its policies on law and order. Home Secretary Jack Straw has taken over Michael Howard’s drive to expand the private prison system, despite his protestations in opposition that he considered the policy morally repugnant. Even the return of prison ships has been continued.

Meanwhile, Lord Irvine – that soi disant latter-day incarnation of Cardinal Wolsey – has stripped millions of people of their right to pursue state-funded legal action, with proposals to abolish legal aid for two-thirds of current cases, and has pushed on with Tory plans to abolish the right to trial by jury in many instances. Got to save enough to pay for the wallpaper, I suppose.

In the field of education, Labour has grabbed many favourable headlines by promises to reduce class sizes and scrap outdoor toilets in schools. Worthwhile though both initiatives are, the combined cost is just £57m, less than half of one per cent of either the overall Department for Education and Employment budget, or for that matter, Britain’s contribution to the Eurofighter project.

The favourable headlines came cheap. These minimal gains are negated by the primarily reactionary thrust of New Labour education policy. Student grants are to be scrapped and tuition fees of £1,000 a year introduced, pulling away even the limited ladder of opportunity that once existed for working class students such as, well, David Blunkett, to give one example. New Labour’s Education Action Zones policy will undermine nationally agreed terms and conditions for teachers, and could even represent the thin end of the privatisation wedge for many schools.

Most cringeworthy of all has been New Labour’s descent into Tory-style sleaze, graphically illustrated by the £1m "fags for favours" bung from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and Blair’s intervention with Italian prime minister Romano Prodi on behalf of Rupert Murdoch, initial denials notwithstanding. All this plus Irvine’s £600,000 crash-pad refit, Lord Simon’s continuing £2m shareholding in BP – a company that bankrolls death squads in Colombia – and the little matter of Postmaster General Geoffrey Robertson’s offshore trusts and colourful romantic liaisons.

Then there was the suicide of Gordon McMaster, amid welters of homophobia and probably religious sectarianism back home in Paisley, pervasive local government corruption in Glasgow, Hull and Doncaster and the laugh-a-minute tabloid stuff on Jack Straw’s dope-dealing 17-year-old offspring. Do us all a favour and give the old man a decent toke next time, sunshine.

Blairism’s upshot could be the first major recasting of British bourgeois politics since the Twenties. Already an informal semi-coalition with the Liberal Democrats is in place, giving Ashdown and Co seats on cabinet committees in what is presumably an insurance policy against the anyway unlikely prospect of a rebellion from the Labour soft left. Blair has also courted the Kenneth Clarke wing of the Tory Party, to the same end. The spectre of a national government rears its ugly head.

Meanwhile, rightist forces are starting to cohere. Anything up to 250,000 wax-jacketed quasi-Poujadists hit the streets of London during the Countryside Alliance demonstration earlier this year. No left-wing protest this decade has pulled a five figure crowd. Despite GMB general secretary John Edmonds’ insistence that the unions could beat this turn-out, it is at least debatable whether even a TUC-backed mobilisation could currently muster 50,000.

There is ample potential for a future mass English nationalist movement feeding on discontent with Blairism. Already there are powerful establishment forces more than happy to provide both financial support and political direction. Let France act as a warning here. In this context, European Monetary Union could emerge as the natural focus, especially around the Save the Pound campaign headed by Margaret Thatcher and David Owen.

There are other cultural straws in the wind. The death of Enoch Powell saw the late racist’s corpse all but lain in state, while even Sir Oswald Mosley enjoyed a brief television rehabilitation as an essentially well-meaning philanderer who happened to dabble in a touch of Toytown fascism on the side. Presumably he just got off on uniforms.

Where will the opposition to the Blairite project come from? Dissent has been minimal on the part of Labour left parliamentarians, and has taken only the weakest of organisational forms among the party membership, in the shape of Labour Reform. This failure to get anything meaningful off the ground underlines the lack of resonance for entrist projects.

Reformist leftists have been systematically purged from even such lowly positions of influence as places on key select committees. As the Uxbridge by-election demonstrates, the imposition of Blairistas will in future be the norm. While Labour leftists hyped up the failure of Peter Mandelson to get elected to Labour’s National Executive last year, the vote remains purely the outcome of a popularity contest, not a harbinger of socialist revival in Labour’s ranks.

Until now, most of the left has assumed that there will be some breaking point for left reformist MPs and the trade union bureaucracy. Is there one in real life?

Recent months have seen rhetorical shots across the Blairite bow by a number of trade union general secretaries, most notably Edmonds. While this is a curious quarter for opposition to spring from, it is in some ways hardly surprising. After one year, New Labour has still to deliver its severely limited promises on trade union rights, held out before the election as the bureaucracy’s knock down bargain-basement price for continued financial support. Even the moonshine promised for the future has been watered down. Partial restoration of trade unionism at GCHQ – a spy centre, if you please, with just a few hundred employees – is purely symbolic. The practical effects of the phased pay award for 1.3m public sector workers, which at bottom equates to a pay cut, will be rather greater.

The two key pro-union planks of Labour’s manifesto were the right to trade union recognition where a majority of the workforce wants it, and the minimum wage. Otherwise, trade union law correctly described by Blair as the most restrictive in the western world will remain in place. At the time of writing, the government had yet to set down firm commitments on either point. But it seems that any eventual right to recognition will be effectively neutered through accommodation to manifold Confederation of British Industry-inspired caveats, while the minimum wage will be around the less than generous £3.50 level, and not in place until 1999 at the earliest.

What, then, is New Labour? The Blair project is essentially nothing less than the destruction of Labourism from within the Labour Party itself. In this limited yet very real sense, it is to the right of Thatcherism. Thatcher more than once rhetorically remarked that she wished to destroy socialism, by which she primarily meant Labourism. However, she had no option within the framework of bourgeois democracy but to accept its continued existence, Bennism and all. Blair is that much more audacious. By sundering the union link, he wants to introduce a US model of two capitalist parties, offset by proportional representation giving a handful of elected representatives to the far left ... and the far right.

The trade union activist/Labour left milieu that frequently lent social weight to revolutionary socialist projects has declined dramatically. Revolutionaries are isolated as never before. This has opened the way to concerted attacks on the far left in Unison, in what could mark the start of a process similar to the Labour Party drive against entrism in the Eighties. If left unchecked, it will rapidly spread to other unions.

Meanwhile, the left has lost even such limited influence it enjoyed in civil society as late as the early eighties, in areas ranging from the labour movement to the media and academia.

Undoubtedly, socialism would be better served by a powerful left-wing presence within a party of government, rather than a small parliamentary contingent under its own colours. But with Marxist forces in Britain at their weakest this century, we are not calling the shots. Better to grasp the opportunity to build a new party, presented to us by Blairism, than to waste time on fighting a rearguard action inside New Labour.

The task of regroupment into a new multi-tendency mass socialist party capable of influencing events and even, far as we seem from it today, changing the world, seems inescapable. This is the historic significance of the Socialist Labour Party – despite its early coagulation into a Stalinist non-entity – and the Independent Labour Network around expelled MEPs Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr. Bigger breakaways, and the rise of a significant party of recomposition, are to come.

The least I would have expected from the comrades associated this journal is some kind of intellectual rethink of entrism, given our new and very different political landscape, rather than the dogged insistence that revolutionaries must work inside the Labour Party always and forever. Let me throw down that gauntlet again. Can anyone produce such an article?