The departure of Tony Blair after ten years in power is an important turning point in political developments in Britain. His replacement, Gordon Brown, represents a continuation of the ‘ancien regime’, the substitution of ‘New Labour’ by ‘New, New Labour’! But it also represents a psychological break in a changed British and world situation. Shakespeare’s Malcolm declared of the Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth: "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it".
Blair’s political death, however, will not enhance his reputation. The manner of his exit, after remaining in the political departure lounge for a seemingly interminable period, summed up his disastrous reign, certainly for the labour movement. Rather than the ‘crowd asking for more’, suggested by his small coterie, he has been met with derision, catcalls and boos from almost all sides. The ‘uberBlairites’ are correct when they claim that he was forced out by the Brown-inspired ‘coup’ before the last Labour Party conference.
Blair’s government, which began to the strains of Things Can Only Get Better, ended with a mere 22% of the population believing he had done a ‘good job’. Five million voters have deserted Labour since 1997. Even the so-called Blair landslide of 1997 was achieved by New Labour polling just 30.8% of the electorate (13.5 million). This has progressively shrunk in subsequent general elections to 24.2% in 2001 (10.7 million) and 21.6% (9.6 million) in 2005. Labour Party membership in this period has officially dropped by 50%, an underestimate of those who have deserted its ranks. The number of ex-Labour members is now greater than the official party membership!
If there was any lingering doubt as to the massive unpopularity of Blair and Blairism, that was dispelled by the results of the Scottish, Welsh and local elections in May. These were, in effect, a referendum on him and his policies: the disastrous Iraq war, a more zealous privatisation programme than the Tories, the failure of more ‘market-driven’ policies in the NHS, and an incapacity to tackle the searing poverty and inequality which scars Britain, part of Thatcher’s legacy.
The local elections were a chance to punish Labour for its failures, resulting in the lowest Labour vote in Wales since 1918, and in Scotland the lowest since 1955. In parts of the South, Labour was virtually wiped out in local government, in the same way as the Tories are in swathes of the North such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, where they do not have a single councillor. Labour lost 500 council seats in total, the Tories gained over 900. There would have been an even greater collapse in the Labour vote but for the fear of a Tory revival. Where that prospect was a ‘safe alternative’ – in Scotland and Wales for instance – voters felt free to punish Labour with a vote for the nationalists – the Scottish National Party (SNP), or Plaid Cymru in Wales.
The lesser evil?
The politics of ‘lesser evilism’ manifested itself in this election, which may be a portent for the next general election. In fact, there was an element in these elections of what has been seen recently in Europe and the USA. Galvanised by the threat of brutal, open right-wing capitalist parties holding on to or with the prospect of coming to power – Berlusconi in Italy, Sarkozy in France, Bush in the US mid-term elections – an electoral, distorted class polarisation resulted. This has led to increased turnouts, sometimes significantly so, as in the case of Italy and France which witnessed the biggest percentage turnout since 1981. Voters are ‘against’ candidates; there is little positive support and enthusiasm for the policies of the ‘progressive’ or ‘social-democratic’ opposition, or expectation of decisive change by the working class and sections of the middle class.
Nevertheless, they hope against hope that the so-called ‘centre-left’ will not go as far as the openly right-wing parties in attacking living standards and carrying through neo-liberal policies. They are, however, invariably and cruelly disappointed, as in the case with the present Prodi coalition in Italy.
The same phenomenon will also be revealed in the aftermath of the next presidential elections in the US if the Democrats are returned. These parties are basically similar to the ‘liberal’ progressive parties which existed in Britain, for instance, before the rise of the Labour Party as a distinct workers’ party. Moreover, some of them, also like the capitalist liberal parties of the past, retain an element of ‘social democracy’, or the illusion that they do. This leads to the masses, who do not consider entering them, voting for them as the ‘lesser evil’, unless there is a viable alternative.
In Britain, this was manifested in these elections particularly where the Liberal Democrats or Tories, as well as coalitions of these parties, have presided over local cuts sanctified by the New Labour government itself. Faced with no real mass left alternative, some workers opted to support New Labour candidates in the vain hope that this will prevent the slash-and-burn policies, the destruction of the elements of the welfare state which still remain at local level.
All Thatcherites now
Blair’s ‘eminence gris’, Peter Mandelson, declared on the departure of his hero that under Blair’s direction Labour had become a "normal social-democratic party" on the pattern of the rest of Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth. In words and deeds, New Labour has broken with the ideas of social democracy: defence of the welfare state, gradual reforms and improvements in living standards, state intervention as a lever to increase the share of the working class at the expense of the rich and powerful. New Labour has gone over hook, line and sinker to the anti-state ‘greed is good’ philosophy of neo-liberalism and Thatcher.
Under Brown’s economic regime, Britain has become a ‘tax haven’ for the rich. The average company director pockets in a day what a worker earns in a year! If there was any doubt about the real character of New Labour, Mandelson added in the Evening Standard: "No Labour Party manifesto would now propose to repeal Mrs Thatcher’s trade union laws, reverse privatisations or remove the right to buy a council house… That has been Blair’s success in building on what was good in Thatcher’s mixed political legacy, with the result that, in a sense, we are all Blairites [read Thatcherites] now".
A further indication of just how far New Labour has moved from defence of the welfare state was shown by the Financial Times approvingly quoting the recent comments of Jim Murphy, government minister for welfare reform. He "declared that Britain’s welfare state ‘will never’ pay benefits high enough to lift people out of poverty, adding that he didn’t think it should". It went on to comment: "Work, he declared, was now ‘the only route out of poverty in the UK’. A decade ago, such remarks from a Labour MP would have caused a riot". (2 May) The pitifully low wages on offer in Britain for unskilled jobs do not provide an escape route out of poverty. Moreover, the latest figures show a rise in unemployment.
New Labour bureaucracy
Gordon brown’s election was a ‘Stalinist’ exercise in machine politics and arm twisting. This, together with the failure of John McDonnell to even get on the ballot for the leadership contest, reinforces the arguments of the Socialist Party that New Labour represents a decisive rupture with the Labour Party of the past. At bottom, it was a workers’ party, albeit with a pro-capitalist leadership. The mass of the working class and particularly trade unionists, we argued, could move to ‘reclaim’ it at certain points of heightened struggle and class tension.
Brown’s coronation shows that this is no longer a viable option. While not on the scale of Stalin’s triumphs in elections – he once received 101% of the vote – Brown nevertheless received 313 nominations, to ensure a ‘single candidate’ election. New Labour’s parliamentary group displayed all the features of Rabbie Burns’s "Wee cowering, timorous beasties" as they succumbed to Brown’s henchmen’s suggestion that a vote for McDonnell would be construed as a ‘career-ending’ step. The toadies who constitute the overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party duly fell into line.
They, together with the reduced band of Labour councillors, now constitute a privileged caste, separated from and impervious to the plight of the working class. They are utterly incapable of reflecting the palpable discontent at the government’s polices. Their slavish support of the ‘leader-in-waiting’ also reflects the material stake they have, with careers in parliament and quite lavish ‘expenses’ at local council level, in maintaining the status quo. A chasm separates these creatures from the ‘Old Labour’ councillors and MPs of the past who did, on occasions, champion the hopes and aspirations of working-class people.
Just as power is vested in a tight-knit cabal nationally around Blair, so at local level a ‘cabinet’ takes the decisions and New Labour councillors are often just ciphers. This was recently on full display, for instance, in the council chambers of the London Borough of Waltham Forest. They were invaded by ‘dinner ladies’ armed with rolling pins, and their supporters, including Socialist Party members, absolutely furious at the arbitrary proposal to completely end all school meals in the borough’s schools. This is the first such step, but probably not the last unless it is defeated, taken by a council anywhere in Britain. When confronted by the furious crowd, the New Labour councillors scurried away, bleating that they ‘had no power’ to prevent this attack on the health of children in the borough and the jobs of the school meals staff. Subsequently they were compelled to undertake a volte-face, with the council leader, after a magnificent local demonstration, declaring that the school meals service was ‘now safe’.
The same features were evident in the leadership ‘non-contest’. Even the pleadings of ‘liberal opinion’, Guardian writers and their like, for Gordon Brown to ‘lend’ some MPs to John McDonnell to ensure at least a semblance of a contest, went unheeded. Brown was utterly impervious to such democratic sensibilities, dismissively commenting that the failure of the ‘hard left’ McDonnell to get on the ballot was a clear manifestation of the ‘rejection’ of the left’s policies. In the one hustings, at a London Fabian group meeting, the reforms promised by McDonnell, which undoubtedly would have represented a step forward, were rejected by Brown as "unaffordable". This is the very terminology used by Thatcher and Major against his policies of Labour reformism before the advent of New Labour. This was a clear expression of the fact that Brown, just as much as Blair, will stamp on any attempt of the left to ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party.
Will the trade union leaders challenge this? They were, in fact, equally desperate to prevent McDonnell from appearing on the ballot paper. His programme is unlikely to have resonated with the ‘Labour rank and file’, at least in the constituencies, as he argued. These bodies are largely empty, their membership restricted in the main to demoralised and cynical New Labour councillors, or organically pessimistic trade union officials and their hangers on. In a recent Labour Party conference, 80% of the ‘constituency’ delegates voted against even discussing the Iraq war! This while thousands demonstrated outside the hall and society at large was convulsed by the horrors inflicted on the Iraqi people by the Blair-Bush war.
Paradoxically, it was in the trade unions and among some workers and young people outside of the Labour Party that McDonnell’s campaign did find an echo. This could have been reflected in the ballot if it had taken place. It would have put trade union leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison, as well as Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley of the new union Unite, on the spot. Pressure would have undoubtedly mounted for these union leaders to support McDonnell, whose policies are more in line with the official policies of the trade unions and particularly with the rank and file.
Notwithstanding our opposition to the proposition of John McDonnell and others that the left could breathe new life into the moribund and empty shell of the Labour Party, we supported, particularly in the trade unions, the idea that, if it came to a vote, McDonnell should have been supported. We did this, despite some hesitation and even doubts within the ranks of the Socialist Party, in order to go through this experience with leftward-moving workers and test out the viability or otherwise of the idea that Labour could be transformed.
The best outcome would have been for McDonnell to have accumulated enough votes for a real leadership contest to take place. It would have led to debate and possible ideological turmoil – not so much in the Labour Party but in the wider labour movement. McDonnell would not have won but out of such a battle the beginning of a coherent left could have emerged. But ‘hope springs eternal’. McDonnell and his supporters, despite the non-contest, now argue that with just one more ‘heave’ New Labour can be transformed. This is quite false. Mao Zedong’s long march of the 1930s was a stroll in the park compared to the task of transforming New Labour.
Any Labour left?
Refusing to fight for the ‘crown’, the trade union leaders have instead concentrated on the position of ‘dauphin’, the mostly meaningless position of deputy leader, which gave the hapless John Prescott the semblance of power. Their preferred candidate is John Cruddas, a former Blairite fixer and liaison between the cabinet office and the trade union leaders.
With the stamp of New Labour still all over him, he has nevertheless been compelled to come out with some surprising admissions which flatly contradict everything that New Labour, including Brown, has been arguing for the last 15 years. He wrote in The Guardian: "We were wrong about class. That is why we have lost votes". He admits "a significant movement away from us [New Labour] among workers in the public services; amongst black and minority ethnic voters; and amongst those described by marketing experts as ‘urban intellectuals’; and a huge shift away from us among working-class voters especially manual workers".
He correctly identifies "that manual workers still account for close to 40% of total employment". If you add in clerical and secretarial work, the traditional labour force stands at 15 million, approaching two in three jobs. The number of computer managers, software engineers and programmers has risen slightly, "but the real growth has been in the service sector, with the huge expansion in cleaning and support work and caring occupations. In short, in the past 15 years there has been no revolution in employment. In terms of the demand for labour, the key growth areas have been in traditional, often low-paid jobs, mostly carried out by women". This is a welcome, if belated, admission of the correctness of Marxist criticism of the ‘post-Fordist’ nonsense – ‘we are all middle class now’ – peddled by New Labour and their shadows in the past.
Cruddas also points out that it is "here, amongst groups that we thought were of declining importance, that the shift from Labour has been greatest". These voters, in the main, "did not go to the Tories, they went to the BNP and other nationalist groupings, the Liberals and Respect. Or they simply stayed at home. In fact, the only group where Labour support has actually grown between 1997 and 2005 has been the professional, administrative and executive classes".
In fact, Respect candidates on average received roughly the same percentage as the Socialist Party’s in the recent council elections, gaining about 15% of the vote where they stood compared to 13% for the Socialist Party. In the two regional lists in Wales in which both parties stood, the Socialist Party gained more votes. Moreover, Respect clearly draws its votes narrowly, not on a class and socialist basis but predominantly from one section, the Muslim population. The Socialist Party on the other hand, presented a clear socialist alternative.
The diagnosis of John Cruddas has some merit but where, apart from some obvious broad generalities, are the remedies to the problems of the millions who have cut away in despair from New Labour? Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, has also identified some of the issues which have detached millions from New Labour: "Growing inequality, the loss of manufacturing jobs, privatisation of public services and, of course, Iraq". He adds: "If under new leadership, the party can reconnect on these issues we can surely stop David Cameron’s march on Downing Street". (Financial Times)
Will the ‘new leader’, Brown, accept this agenda? He has been at the wheel of the New Labour ship with Blair for ten years! In that period, as a raft of recent reports and polls has admitted, inequality is just as great as it was under Thatcher. The trade unions are still crippled by the most anti-union laws in the whole of Western Europe. There is, moreover, absolutely no mention or expectation by Woodley that Brown would dismantle the anti-union laws. Without the power to undertake solidarity action – outlawed by laws that Brown supports – we can have reruns of the Gate Gourmet dispute, whose workers were shamefully let down because of a cowardly refusal by the union leadership to defy the anti-democratic, anti-union laws and call for mass solidarity.
The stance of Woodley and other trade union leaders amounts to whispering in the ear of Brown, via a deputy leader, hoping for concessions which, in the main, will never materialise. This government ‘listens’ to junior doctors over their contracts, to the Catholic Church over ‘faith schools’, to the housing industry over the ill-fated ‘home information packs’ and it backs away. It bends the knee to the CBI, the bosses union. But it never listens or retreats before trade union pressure unless it is confronted with the threat of actual strike action.
The crises in the National Health Service (NHS) and education will continue under Brown, as will the level of the pathetic minimum wage. This is against the background of a spiralling up of the cost of living, with food prices rising by at least 6%. This is while Brown imposes a 2% wage rise offer to public-sector workers. A Financial Times Harris Poll in May showed that the vast majority of voters do not believe that health and education have improved in the past ten years, dominated as much by Brown as Blair. Eighty percent of those asked said that hospitals were either no better or worse than in 1997, with 72% seeing no improvement in schools.
Brown will be undoubtedly be compelled to retreat on some of the more unpopular aspects of Blair’s policies. It is expected that he will make some concessions on the NHS, perhaps cutting back the hospital closure programme – with £500 million hospital debt due to the marketisation process approved by Brown himself. He may stop the closure of some accident and emergency departments, but he will not retreat on the so-called Public Finance Initiative (PFI), which will leave a crippling legacy through the massive repayment programme it involves. Brown has also flagged up the need for urgent action to correct the catastrophic housing situation, the result of the virtual end of the house-building programme (the construction of council houses has dropped 99% under New Labour) and spiralling mortgage payments fuelled by rising interest rates. But his programme for house building will not signify a return to a serious programme for council or social housing.
Underlying economic weakness
The replacement of Blair by Brown has already resulted in a small electoral ‘bounce’ of 3% for Labour in opinion polls. This may be immediately sustained on the basis of further concessions or, at least, the promise of such. But Brown’s options are severely limited, hedged in as he is by the weakening of the British economy. As he never hesitates to stress, Britain has experienced a 15-year growth in the economy, with a quarter by quarter advance. This is not down to the economic wizardry of Brown or New Labour. It is a combination of factors largely outside his control: the forced devaluation of the pound on Black Wednesday in 1992 under the Tories, the world economic upswing, the product of capitalist globalisation and the entry of China, Eastern Europe and Russia onto the world market, with the resultant flow of cheap goods, which has kept down prices in key sectors such as clothing.
The expansion of financial services and investment of British capitalism abroad has also played a part in increasing the tribute extracted. Increased profits have also flowed from migration with its cheap labour, which has filled out the coffers of big business. Overall, this has meant the cutting down of the share of the working class of the wealth it produces, helped by the brake on struggle exercised by the conservative officialdom of the British trade unions.
But, as with Spain at the beginning of the 20th century, this growth has masked a ‘slow inglorious decay’ of British capitalism. Its place in the world, its ‘clout’, has declined – witness the poodle-like behaviour of Blair towards Bush. Alongside of this has gone the astonishing underlying collapse of British capitalism as a leading manufacturing economy with a high-paid, highly-skilled labour force. This has been recently underlined by the figures provided by the Department of Trade and Industry. This shows that the "supply of people with qualifications at any level outstrips employer demand by almost five million. Yet there is a shortage of four million people to fill jobs that require no qualification in all sectors from service industries to manufacturing". Such is the de-skilling of the British economy that the bosses do not want ‘overqualified’ workers but unskilled drones on slave wages.
The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that Britain is no longer an ‘industrial nation’, at least not a major one. As Larry Elliot, economics editor of The Guardian, commented: "It is deeply unfashionable to mention the state of Britain’s current account". But the UK deficit in goods is currently 6% of GDP and the rise in the value of the pound, particularly compared to a devalued dollar, will further undermine the weak competitiveness of British manufacturing industry. From this, Elliot summarises: "Britain is no longer an industrial nation. Is this worrying? Well it scared the life out of me, but not it seems the government. The fantasy is that we can cope with living beyond our means at a national level through the profits generated by the city and by building up Britain’s ‘knowledge economy’. Yet, a £7 billion trade deficit [in March] suggests we have some way to go; hardly surprising since the fastest-growing job in the 1990s was hairdressing and the UK now has a bigger slice of its population working as servants as it did in 1860".
A Brown government could be overwhelmed by an avalanche of the stoked-up discontent of the working class, manifested through trade union struggle. Civil servants, through the PCS union, are already engaged in a battle over job losses, as well as the attempt to limit pay increases, including the magnificent strike on 1 May. This has been matched by another victory of the left – with Socialist Party members playing a crucial role – in recent PCS national executive committee elections.
On the public sector, Brown may be compelled to initially bend with the wind as he and Alan Johnson did on the issue of pensions, at least for the PCS and to some extent teachers. He may concede a small increase over the 2% limit. This may be enough to satisfy some union leaders – not the PCS we hasten to add – who may then seek to dissipate the pressure building up for a common front of all public-sector workers, including the demand for a national demonstration and coordinated action against Brown’s arbitrary limit.
The growing discontent is reflected in the pressure within the post office union (CWU) for action on pay as well as the scandalous closure of 2,500 post offices. This could provoke both rural and urban ‘uprisings’ of frequent post office users like pensioners, who will now experience extreme difficulties. Brown, like Blair before him, could also be looking for an excuse to defeat one public-sector union like the PCS in a head-on struggle, to cow other public-sector workers and the unions as a whole. Blair was planning such a brutal offensive against the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in 2002-03, but this was cut across by the Iraq war.
Shifting political climate
A Brown government could also face a crisis of legitimacy, both in Scotland and Britain as a whole, by the advent of an SNP government in Edinburgh (see article on page eight). While Brown promised and may wish to crush the SNP, deny it resources and funds, he has to be careful not to further alienate from New Labour an already disenchanted Scottish electorate which could give further support to the SNP minority government. SNP leader, Alex Salmond, will seek to introduce popular measures which, if they are thwarted by Brown, will result in him appealing to Scottish opinion with some probable success.
At the same time, the advent of the nationalist government in Scotland (the configuration of the new government in Wales is not clear as we go to press but a minority Labour administration is likely to remain in office) could lead to a rise in anti-Scottish and Welsh sentiments in England. Socialists will implacably oppose this, fighting for the unity of the working class while defending the legitimate national rights of the Scottish and Welsh peoples. As a ‘Scottish prime minister’, with a number of prominent Scots in his cabinet, Brown’s government could be adversely affected by these developments.
Brown’s replacement of Blair may be a case of the ‘king is dead, long live the king’, in terms of the general policies of the government. Nevertheless, it signifies a psychological change in the political climate of Britain. The stoked-up frustration and anger in the working class will be manifested in a greater preparedness to struggle, which could compel the reluctant trade union leaders to head up a movement of opposition to the government. Whether or not this takes place is partly dependent on the economic situation. The gathering global economic storm clouds will impact on Britain, because of its integration into the world economy almost as never before.
Brown may even cut and run for an early general election. If he delays too long, he could suffer the fate of other ‘mid-term’ replacement prime ministers, like Callaghan in 1979. He famously delayed the general election for six months, consequently facing a massive industrial wave in the ‘winter of discontent’. This alienated millions and laid the basis for Thatcher’s victory with all the terrible consequences for workers that flowed from that. Even if Brown goes for an early election, there is no guarantee that New Labour under his stewardship will be successful. The Tories, under Cameron, have tried to shed a lot of the Thatcherite baggage. The abandonment of support for new grammar schools is a token of this but also recognition that they are not really necessary now because Blair and Brown’s academy programme is a ‘rose by any other name’.
All the official parties, including the Liberal Democrats, are neo-liberal to one degree or another, in their policies and general political stance. Dave Nellist, the chairperson of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and Socialist Party councillor in Coventry, was correct when he described them as the "three wings of what is, in effect, one [capitalist] party". They will not, however, unify into one political party, preferring to maintain the illusion of political differences. The capitalists need to ventilate opposition to their rule by rocking the parliamentary cradle from ‘left’ to ‘right’ and back again in an electoral game of ‘ins’ and ‘outs’. But these parties huddle together in that narrow strip of the so-called ‘middle ground’.
In so doing, they are ploughing the ground for the emergence of new and massive political forces offering change, particularly a new mass workers’ party. One of the factors delaying the emergence of such a formation is that Britain in the past 15 years has not experienced severe economic rupture. However, the growth seen in this period has been lopsided, overwhelmingly favourable to the rich, with the generation of tremendous anger because of the stress, inequality and injustice for the majority of the population.
This discontent, like an erupting subterranean explosion, has to, and will, go somewhere. The far-right can make significant gains, particularly with the rise in unemployment clearly taking place and the deterioration of social conditions, especially if a left fighting alternative is not provided. The BNP did not gain substantially in these elections (see article on page ten) but it has built a platform in some areas that could lead to significant growth, particularly with the failure of New Labour and Brown’s government.
On the other hand, the basis for a new mass workers’ party has been prepared by the events of the last decade and a half. The discontent of the working class will not be manifested within the existing New Labour structures, contrary to the hopes of John McDonnell and the left still clinging to the wreckage of New Labour. There was a flicker of hope perhaps that Labour could be ‘reclaimed’, kindled by McDonnell’s campaign. But those hopes have now been dashed for most people, as was indicated by a letter which appeared in The Guardian when it was clear that New Labour was a one-candidate party. The correspondents, in just two lines, introduced a ‘reality check’, concluding after Brown’s coronation, "Ah well, saves us having to rejoin what used to be the Labour Party"!
There is no time to lose in a fruitless attempt to resuscitate the living dead. It is now urgent that the efforts of workers, young people, trade unionists, women and the oppressed ethnic communities move from below, if the trade union leaders will not, to build a powerful force for a new political voice of the working class, a new mass workers’ party.