Britain: The Brown ascendancy

In its nine years in office New Labour has presided over the brutal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the privatisation of more public services than the Tories, and a bonanza of riches for the elite at the top of Britain’s society.

Tony Blair’s days as prime minister are numbered. Almost certainly, Gordon Brown will replace him. Despite their intense personal rivalry, they have been the key architects of New Labour’s neo-liberal policies. So, how different would a Brown government be? Hannah Sell writes.

The Brown ascendancy

While the economy is predicted to grow by less than 3% in 2006, the average pay of the UK’s top company bosses rose by an incredible 43% last year. This compares to 1.5% being offered to nurses and other health workers which, at half the rate of inflation, is effectively a pay cut. This disgusting pay offer sums up the programme of New Labour – attacks on the NHS and workers’ pay!

The share of income owned by the top 1% of the population in Britain is back to pre-second world war levels. Meanwhile, 60% of people earn less than £20,000 a year, 80% less than £30,000. For millions the minimum wage has become a maximum wage, a glass ceiling that they cannot rise above. Twelve million Britons live below the poverty line.

This gaping chasm between rich and poor underlies every aspect of life. First under the Tories, and now under New Labour, the ruling class has pursued ferocious neo-liberal policies – relying on cheap, sweated labour rather than investment to boost profits. However, the global race-to-the-bottom means that Britain can no longer rely on low wages to be competitive. Big business and New Labour have partially compensated for this by encouraging migration from the new EU countries to Britain. But there is no doubt that the potential exists for major struggles over pay, involving both migrant and indigenous workers.

This has not happened to date, partly because of a lack of confidence which still exists at this stage, but primarily as a result of the lamentable role played by the national trade union leaders. Most of them have accepted the role of the market in society, and have therefore proved incapable of leading a determined struggle against its consequences. A glimpse of the potential is shown by the Whipps Cross hospital strike, a local strike of auxiliary staff, including migrant workers, which recently won a victory on pay after eight days of strikes. This shows that workers are prepared to take determined strike action, and can win victories, if they have a union leadership which gives a lead.

Another complicating factor is the changed nature of industry in Britain, with the almost complete destruction of manufacturing and the expansion of the financial and service sections. This means that most young workers, potentially the most combative sections, are currently in workplaces which are untouched by trade union activity. A key task of the union movement in the coming period is to reach and organise these sections of workers.

However, if this is done simply as an exercise in increasing union membership, not linked to struggle, it will only result in a revolving door as members leave as fast as they are recruited. Nonetheless, where the unions are prepared to fight for their members, there is no question it is possible to dramatically increase membership in unorganised sectors. For example, the PCS civil service union was able to win an overwhelming ballot for union recognition among teenage agency workers in Carlisle: 65% of the 500 workers voted and every single one voted in favour of union recognition!

The scale of low pay in Britain is still partially disguised by workers staying afloat by borrowing, resulting in record levels of debt. The recent creeping up in interest rates, while modest by historic standards, has hit workers’ pockets hard because the level of indebtedness is so vast. The number of people going bust has reached record levels and is likely to hit 100,000 this year for the first time. Young people are the worst affected. There has been a rise in bankruptcy of 18-29 year olds of 288% between 2001 and 2005. However, this is the tip of the iceberg compared to what will happen in the future. At the moment, the British economy is still growing, largely fuelled by the consumer credit bubble and the housing market. This is not sustainable in the medium and long term.

Disenfranchised working class

Even before A recession, the sharp nature of the class divide is the defining feature of British society. Yet according to Tony Blair, ‘we are all middle class now’. Jack Straw has even suggested that it is religion not class that is the major divide in society. However, it is class that is largely responsible for New Labour losing four million votes between the 1997 and 2005 general elections – as wide sections of working-class voters abandoned a party that they rightly see as standing in the interests of big business. New Labour is only able to maintain its position that class is no longer relevant because, as with the emperor’s new clothes, nobody is challenging its claims. The lack of any mass party which stands in the interests of the working class means that, in the Westminster bubble, class is scarcely ever mentioned.

Meanwhile, while there is enormous underlying anger on the question of pay and cuts in public services, because of the absence of a lead from the trade unions nationally, it has not yet been translated into national mass action. The key question facing socialists and the labour movement remains the development of a new mass party that represents the interests of the working class. Such a party would play a major role in increasing the confidence of workers to struggle in defence of their pay and conditions.

Nonetheless, Blair’s imminent retirement has inevitably raised the question again, at least in the minds of some trade union activists: can Labour be ‘reclaimed’? Blair used his speech to the Labour Party conference to argue that there was no fundamental difference between ‘old’ and New Labour. He pointed out, for example, that in 1969 Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, tried to introduce anti-trade union legislation in the form of the misnamed ‘In Place of Strife’ bill. Blair argued that the difference then was that Wilson did not dare to go ahead. In a sense Blair was right. The tops of the Labour Party have always acted in the interests of big business. Nonetheless, Labour governments in the past were forced to respond to the pressure of the working class.

In 1969 a series of strikes put the government under such pressure that the cabinet openly split and Wilson was forced to retreat. Today there is a fundamentally different situation. The Blairites have destroyed the democratic structures of the Labour Party and completely insulated themselves from the pressure of the organised working class.

While the trade union vote still has some weight at the Labour Party conference, (at least for now, and far less than that exercised in the Wilson-era Labour Party) the conference itself has no decision-making power at all. Even so, New Labour was anxious to limit the bad publicity and used bureaucratic means to prevent discussion on a wide range of issues: Iraq, Trident replacement, the council housing ‘fourth option’, nuclear energy, trade union laws, Venezuela, incapacity benefit, school admissions’ policy, party funding, Thames Water and the Labour leadership! Nonetheless, as in recent years, the trade unions were able to get motions debated and passed in the face of government opposition, on health service privatisation, council housing and corporate manslaughter legislation.

Unfortunately, as with last year’s ‘victories’, they will not make one iota of difference to government policy. On the contrary, Patricia Hewitt used her speech at a fringe meeting sponsored by Axa, a private insurance company, to emphasise again that there are ‘no limits’ to how much of the NHS will be sold off to private companies. It is these multinational companies, not the trade unions, which the government listens to. Axa, incidentally, refused to pay for the cancer drug Herceptin for patients who had taken out its insurance policy on the assumption that would entitle them to a higher level of healthcare.

The Brown agenda

Blair’s speech to the conference was a determined defence of Blairism. It is an indication of the nature of the event, that he was met with rapturous applause even while he was arguing in favour of the policies the conference, thanks to the trade union vote, rejected – privatisation of the health service and council housing. Unfortunately, the trade union leaders did not fight to reclaim the Labour Party in the determined way that Blair fought to defend his record. On the contrary, while they used their bloc votes to oppose one or two of the worst aspects of Blairism, they simultaneously acted as a cover for the government and, in particular, for the heir-apparent, Gordon Brown.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the public-sector union UNISON, in his speech to the motion against further privatisation did not oppose the government’s general direction on healthcare: "We signed up to a reform programme which we believe was working". He only asked to slow the "pace" of reform, and to halt the "headlong rush" to privatisation. Behind the scenes, at the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC), it was Brown who intervened to ensure that the UNISON motion on the NHS did not receive the NEC’s backing. In particular, Brown emphasised that the government would not back down on its plan to privatise NHS Logistics. And Brown used his speech to propose handing over the NHS to an ‘independent body’, in reality, a further acceleration of privatisation, which Brown has promised to "intensify". Yet Prentis welcomed Brown’s speech because of its "emphasis on listening and learning". Prentis added, "there was enough in his speech to give us hope that he will listen about the direction of reform".

Undoubtedly, there will be some workers who are hoping against hope that Brown will reveal his ‘true socialist colours’ once elected. Unbelievable as it seems now, many once harboured the same hopes about Blair. However, there is no more possibility of this happening than there was with Blair, a fact recognised by many trade union activists, who have the opportunity to see Brown at closer quarters than other sections of the working class. There are no serious ideological differences between the ‘Blairites’ and the ‘Brownites’. In this situation, for Prentis and other union leaders, who have sat and listened to Brown argue for the privatisation of their members’ jobs, to make such favourable comments is a dereliction of duty.

The left’s last stand?

At the conference fringe meeting sponsored by the ‘big four’ unions – the GMB, UNISON, TGWU and Amicus – none of the trade union general secretaries were prepared to say who they would support as the next leader of the Labour Party, all confining themselves to statements that ‘it is not about personalities’ but ‘programme’. However, there is one candidate, John McDonnell MP, whose programme on the major issues – anti-cuts, anti-privatisation, anti-war, and for trade union rights – matches the demands of the trade unions. If the ‘big four’ union leaders were serious about reclaiming the Labour Party they would be campaigning for McDonnell, and arguing for their sponsored MPs to be mandated to nominate him. Unfortunately, they will not do this. In all likelihood the big four will back Brown. Even if pressure from their membership forces them to support another candidate, it will be another of much the same stripe.

The union leaders’ lamentable approach will prolong the period of time during which working-class people will be condemned to have no mass party of their own. If union leaders are serious about reclaiming the Labour Party, they should use McDonnell’s campaign to launch a serious battle to democratise the party and commit it to defending workers’ interests, starting with the scrapping of anti-union laws. We are not at all convinced that such a campaign, even with significant union backing, would succeed. But let them test out the possibilities. If the campaign is not successful, we believe they should then be prepared to draw the necessary conclusion – and move to disaffiliate from the Labour Party in order to begin building a new mass workers’ party.

Instead of waging a serious struggle on either basis, however, the right-wing trade union leaders are acting as a fig leaf for Brown. McDonnell has nonetheless declared that he is ‘fighting to win’. If McDonnell succeeds in getting on the ballot paper (which requires nominations from 44 MPs) socialists should call on trade unionists who can vote to support him. It is also necessary to discuss with John McDonnell and his supporters about what conclusions they will draw if they do not succeed.

The Labour Party today is little more than an empty shell. McDonnell’s supporters have taken succour from getting Walter Wolfgang (the octogenarian who was physically evicted from last year’s New Labour conference) elected onto the NEC along with three other ‘centre-left’ candidates. However, the most important story told by the NEC elections is the collapse in the number of Labour Party activists. In 1997, the top candidate in the constituency section received 118,726 votes, this year, just 19,491.

John McDonnell effectively recognises that New Labour is empty of rank-and-file members when he emphasises the need to get activists to join the Labour Party in order to support him. However, as Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail and maritime union, correctly pointed out, most RMT members, seeing the anti-trade union laws and privatisation of public services, could not be convinced to join the party. This is not just true of RMT members, the main trend is not for people to join New Labour but to leave it. McDonnell himself estimates that real Labour Party membership is as low as 100,000, with 10-20,000 of those active. Most of those are part of the New Labour bureaucratic machine rather than genuine activists. We believe these factors make the campaign to ‘reclaim Labour’ utopian.

Bob Crow is therefore correct to oppose re-affiliation to the Labour Party. However, non-political trade unionism is not a way forward, and Crow and others like him have a responsibility to work towards the foundation of a new mass workers’ party. It was a mistake that the RMT-initiated conference at the end of October was limited to discussing the question of building a shop stewards’ movement and, unlike the RMT-sponsored conference earlier this year, was not organised to also address the question of political representation. In reality, the rebuilding of the base of the trade union movement, and the development of a new layer of shop stewards, needs to be linked to the question of building a political alternative.

The shop stewards’ movement in the 1970s arose out of the major class struggles that took place at the time. Today, after the retreats of the 1990s, the layer of activists in the trade unions is still much thinner than it was then. It is being rebuilt as a new generation is drawn into struggle, and this is taking place more quickly in left-led unions, such as the PCS. However, it will take time to develop, and the existence of a new party or pre-party formation would help raise the confidence of potential shop stewards and therefore help to speed the process up.

Blair’s final phase

Blair hopes that, following the Labour Party conference, he will be able to stay in office until the summer of 2007. This is possible, but it is more likely that he will be forced out as a result of a new crisis before then. The trigger for the last round of infighting – the prospect of disastrous results in next May’s elections in Scotland, Wales and local authorities – still remains and will loom again if Labour suffers further electoral damage.

However long it lasts, the final phase of the Blair government is going to be unstable and include brutal attacks on the working class. Blair is under huge pressure to withdraw from the quagmire of Iraq, not least from sections of the British ruling class, as shown by the incredible public statements of Richard Dannatt, chief of the army. He condemned the whole basis of the invasion: "As a foreigner you can be welcomed by being invited in to a country but… the military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in". It is virtually unprecedented for the military to publicly break ranks with government and is an indication that the military wing of the ruling class feels it is crucial to get the troops out of Iraq as soon as possible.

However, Dannatt, has not, as some have suggested, ‘joined the anti-war movement’! On the contrary, he is in favour of the continuation of the occupation of Afghanistan, which is resulting in more British soldiers dying than has been the case in Iraq. And his only ‘solution’ for Iraq is that it has to accept "less than liberal parliamentary democracy". This is thinly-veiled code for the conclusions being drawn by increasing sections of the ruling class in the US and Britain that the only way to protect their interests, given the nightmare they have unleashed in Iraq, is to accept a ‘new Saddam’ or, more likely, three Saddams in a divided Iraq.

It is possible that Brown, regardless of the position he takes now, will be forced to remove the troops from Iraq. If Blair stayed in office he would probably also be forced to do so at a certain stage. However, this would not alter the general direction of a Brown government of supporting US imperialism’s brutal foreign policy, including continuing operations in Afghanistan.

The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are now more unpopular than at any time since 2003. Among the Muslim population of Britain they have led to a profound anger with New Labour. This is being enormously added to as the government, desperate to recover ground in the polls and frightened of being undermined by the Tories and, in some areas, by the far-right, is resorting to using anti-Muslim prejudice – a dangerous game. The various statements that have been made by Straw, Ruth Kelly and Blair, and the baying they have produced in the right-wing press, have resulted in an increase in racism, particularly aimed at Muslims, and will increase instability and the potential for ethnic conflict.

Ironically, the Tories, who traditionally have been the ones to ‘play the race card’, appear to have taken a more careful position than New Labour. However, Muslim workers would be making a mistake to imagine that the Tories are any better than New Labour. While the Tory party is anxious to change its brutal right-wing image, David Cameron is only giving a slick gloss to the same old policies. This was made clear at the Tory party conference where Cameron clearly attempted to blame Muslims for the divisions in society.

The best traditions of the labour movement have historically been to defend the right to criticise others’ beliefs, including religious beliefs. This should remain the case today. However, it is also a duty of the labour movement to defend oppressed minorities and to fight against racism, prejudice and religious intolerance, and to explain that such ideas can only weaken and divide the working class.

NHS fightback

Despite its efforts, it is unlikely that New Labour will gain ground in the polls. Not least because Blair obviously wants his ‘legacy’ to include large-scale ‘reform’ of the NHS. By pushing ahead with cuts and closures of hospitals, combined with widespread privatisation, Blair is risking a legacy similar to Margaret Thatcher’s.

The Tories went ahead with the poll tax partly because they mistook the mood of the trade union and Labour leaders for the mood of the working class. Blair may be doing the same again on the NHS. The Health Emergency campaign was correct when it said: "There’s been nothing like this since the spontaneous rebellion against the poll tax". There are of course many differences with the mass movement against the poll tax, where 18 million refused to pay it, resulting in the defeat of both the tax and its chief defender, Thatcher.

The poll tax was a uniform attack on working-class people across Britain (although it was introduced a year earlier in Scotland). Cuts in the NHS are taking place on an uneven basis, on different levels and timescales, depending on the local area. Also, while there was enormous spontaneous anger against the poll tax, the movement against it was organised and co-ordinated by the national anti-poll tax federation, in which Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party) played a central role. At this stage, while there is enormous anger and protests locally, the NHS campaigns have not been effectively coordinated nationally.

The TUC lobby of parliament on 1 November was welcome but not sufficient. The Socialist Party supported a feeder march to the lobby, called by the London Pensioners’ Confederation, as a step towards a national demonstration. There is no doubt that, if the trade unions were to call a national demonstration in defence of the NHS, they would receive an enormous response – which would be a springboard for the biggest movement Britain has seen since the poll tax.

Tragically, given the lack of lead given by the TUC, in some parts of the country the Tories are successfully posing as defenders of the NHS. For the first time since the NHS was founded by the 1945 Labour government, the Tories are now ‘more trusted’ to run the NHS than Labour. However, Cameron’s chief policy strategist, Oliver Letwin, blurted out the truth to the Sunday Times when he explained that the Tories, like New Labour, oppose any limits on private companies running parts of the NHS.

Both the Labour and Tory parties support the destruction of the health service, but this does not preclude a new Brown-led government making concessions on NHS cuts, albeit temporarily. This would not be the result of a ‘move left’ by Brown but, like John Major on the poll tax, under the pressure of a mass movement of the working class. Once such a generalised movement develops and gains concessions, whether on the NHS or another issue, it will enormously increase the confidence of the working class.

However, Brown’s general policy will be to continue to tighten public spending. Over the last few years, Brown has expanded spending in the public sector, albeit linked to privatisation, which has helped to keep the economy afloat. This has been done on the basis of increased borrowing. In 2001, Brown predicted that the public sector’s net borrowing would be £12 billion by 2006. In fact, it is £136 billion and climbing. Now, the government is attempting to claw back public spending, resulting in the attacks on the NHS. Brown intends to continue this trend. In addition, having been a lucky chancellor, he is likely to be a very unlucky prime minister, coming to office just as the underlying economic trends are played out and Britain is pushed into recession.

Even if this is not the case in the short term, it is clear that Brown will carry on with the same neo-liberal policies as his predecessor. He will be faced, however, with a working class which has suffered nine years of New Labour government. Once they realise that Brown will be no better, workers will be increasingly determined to fight against the Thatcherite onslaught on public services and living conditions that they will inevitably face.

From Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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November 2006