Britain: Blair’s departure. Curtain falls on disastrous reign

Curtain falls on disastrous reign

Ten years of ‘unremitting’ attacks on the working class and poor for the benefit of the rich, blatant corruption – symbolised by the Ecclestone affair at the beginning of his reign and ‘cash for honours’ at the end – the systematic undermining of the NHS, the continuation of the dirty work of the Tories through privatisation. Above all, the obscenity of the Iraq war with its 650,000 civilian victims and the country plunged back almost to medieval barbarism. This, and not the sycophantic blandishments by Blair and his media allies in the last week, is the real ‘legacy’ of his disastrous reign.

Thatcher was a modern Genghis Khan as her capitalist barbarism swept over Britain, leaving its mark to this day in the industrial wastelands and the monumental poverty which scars the country. New Labour’s accession to power deepened this, despite claims to the contrary. 1997 and the defeat of the Tories did, indeed, seem to be a ‘new dawn’ for millions of working-class people seeking deliverance from Thatcherite Tory despotism. Many hoped against hope that Blair and his government was the agency for this change.

These illusions were not shared by the socialist and the Socialist Party – we warned he could turn out to be as bad or worse than Thatcher herself – nor by the serious representatives of capitalism who knew precisely where he stood… in their camp. The Financial Times wrote before the election of 1997: "The New Labour ‘project’ looks increasingly like Margaret Thatcher’s final triumph."

The gradual realisation that this was, indeed, the real agenda of Blair and New Labour has led to the almost excoriating hatred with which Blair is viewed by working-class people, the young and, above all, the organised labour movement. Despite the stage-managed emotion of a few New Labour toadies in his Sedgefield constituency, his departure evoked hisses, boos and catcalls, rather than the hosannas and the crowd ‘calling for more’ ludicrously suggested by his coterie.

The representatives of the ruling class recognised his worth to them as he departs. Tory former chancellor Kenneth Clarke, appearing on BBC Question Time, praised Blair for "finishing off socialism" in the Labour Party. However, he correctly added that the "heavy lifting" – witch-hunts against the left and Militant in particular – was started by former Labour leaders, Neil Kinnock and John Smith. The result of all this for the Labour Party was underlined by John Curtice, the election commentator, in the Independent: "The party that was originally founded to provide working-class representation in Parliament is no longer regarded as a working-class party. In 1987, the British Election Study found that 46% of the electorate thought the Labour Party looked after the interests of the working class ‘very closely’. By the time of the last election, only 11% did."

According to Mori, the pollsters, at the last general election, Labour’s support among "A/B professionals was eleven points higher than in 1992. In contrast, its vote among the D/E, the working class, was a point lower." The ‘electoral wizardry’ of Blair and the New Labour machine resulted, in the recent local election, in New Labour attaining almost the same share of the vote as Labour did under Michael Foot in 1983. At the time, this earned Foot the jeers of the right and their press that Labour’s electoral manifesto was the "longest suicide note in history".

The idea that Blair himself was responsible for the victory in 1997 is punctured by Curtice: "Mr Blair did not enable his party to secure a double-digit lead in the opinion polls, he inherited one. Thanks to the ravages of ‘Black Wednesday’ [1992] Labour already enjoyed a 23 point lead over the Tories in May 1994, the month that Mr Blair’s predecessor, John Smith, died." In other words, it was the massive unpopularity of the Tories, rather than support for the programme of Blair and New Labour, which hoisted him to power in 1997.

But, protest the Blairistas like Peter Mandelson, thousands of children have been lifted out of poverty. Yet the UN recently declared in a special report that the position of children in Britain was the worst in the advanced industrial countries. Moreover, today, a million children live in overcrowded, run-down, damp or dangerous housing. The number of homeless people in Britain has risen to 391,000; across the UK 93,000 families are living in temporary accommodation, twice the number when Labour came to power. The average price paid by first-time buyers has doubled in five years. House prices are now beyond the reach of first-time buyers in 93% of towns, up from 37% in 2001.

But there is a minimum wage, isn’t there? Yes, of a miserly £5-35 an hour! This is at a time when the Sunday Times rich list – featured in a previous issue of the socialist – showed that the combined wealth of the UK’s 1,000 richest people had risen by 20%, to a staggering £59 billion in the last twelve months. A previous renegade socialist once declared that he believed in the ‘emancipation of the working class one by one, beginning with myself’. Blair has put this cynical philosophy into practice. When he leaves office, he will no longer have to ‘struggle by’ on an annual salary of £180,000 a year. His wife, Cherie, earns an estimated £100,000 a year plus £30,000 every time she gives a ‘lecture’. He is entitled to a backbench salary of £60,000, redundancy pay of £31,000 and a retirement pension of £63,000 for life. When he reaches 60 he will be eligible for another pension for his long service as an MP. This will be worth another £40,000 a year. The dosh will pile up as he lectures to the like-minded rich throughout the world.

But he leaves in his wake massive discontent and a broken-backed party which has no real connection now with the working class which historically created this party and hoisted its leaders on its backs into power. Contrast Blair’s reign with that of previous Labour governments. By no means a full-blooded socialist government, the Attlee government of 1945-50, under colossal mass pressure, did preside over a ‘quarter of a revolution’ by nationalising 20% of industry and creating the National Health Service.

Blair has presided over the dismantling of this previous monument to Labour rule. Listen to David Hinchcliffe, an ex-Labour MP and former chairman of the MPs health committee and an opponent of Socialist Party members in the Wakefield area, who declared recently: "We never envisaged that a Labour government under Tony Blair would go further with the Tory market reforms in health than Margaret Thatcher would ever have dared." This is why there is colossal anger on the NHS and other attacks on the public sector.

It would be even greater but for the fact that the British economy, allegedly now the world’s fifth-largest and richest, is in what capitalist economists describe as its ‘15th year of uninterrupted growth’. This is not down to the ‘management’ of Gordon Brown and New Labour but is the product, in the main, of the devaluation of the pound under the Tories in 1992. This created a certain economic breathing space for the British economy, together with the upswing in the world economy through globalisation and other factors.

But this, for the mass of the population, has been a ‘joyless boom’, one that has been marked by increased exploitation of the workforce – resulting in super-profits for big business, at their highest level for 50 years in Britain. It has gone together, also, with bullying in the workplace and increased stress. An attempted management counter-revolution has taken place against the rights, conditions and union organisation of the working class. Consequently, the situation in the workplaces and factories could be compared to a lake of petrol which an accidentally dropped match could ignite into an explosion. Public-sector workers, faced with a big increase in prices, will refuse to accept the diktat of Brown’s 2% limit on pay. Post office workers are threatening to strike.

The situation that Brown will inherit is entirely different to that of 1997 or of any time since. The British economy, like the American and many others, such as Spain, is floating on a sea of credit. Home repossessions have jumped by 65% to a six-year high of 17,000 last year. Personal debt has reached a record $2.6 trillion and, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, UK household debt, as a percentage of annual disposable income, hit 159% in 2005 – the latest year for which data is available – compared with 135% in the US. There is a growing deficit, presently at 3.5% in the trade current account. Interest rates have been pushed up to 5.5%, the fourth rise in nine months and a six-year high. Even a fervent Blairite like Will Hutton recently declared in the Observer newspaper: "The crash is coming, and it could be soon." And yet, the CBI (the bosses’ trade union) demands its pound of flesh, a further squeeze on public spending, attacks on public-sector workers, privatisation and a further shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of the capitalist class.

Tony Blair facilely declared in 1999: "The class war is over. But the struggle for true equality has only just begun." This itself was a concession to the opposition to the gross and widening disparities in wealth. But inequality is not just an ‘unfortunate leftover’ from previous ‘uncivilised times’. Inequality is woven into the very fabric of class society, with the rich compelled to squeeze the share of the working class in order to boost its profitability, and the working class itself equally forced to resist. Sometimes that resistance is muted by conservative trade union leaders, but the ‘class war’ inevitably breaks over the heads of even this stratum who invariably rush to catch up. Britain is on the eve of such an outburst of working-class fury.

Despite the plaudits of the rich and powerful, Blair, in the words of Leon Trotsky to the Mensheviks in 1917, is about to go into the "dustbin of history". But, unfortunately, Blairism/Thatcherism will still dominate New Labour under Gordon Brown. Mandelson shows the real character of New Labour when he declared: "No Labour Party manifesto would now propose to repeal Mrs Thatcher’s trade union law, reverse privatisations or remove the right to buy a council house." (Evening Standard, 8 May)

The weakness of the left in the Labour Party is indicated by the difficulty, as we go to press, of John McDonnell reaching the 45 required nominations. Brown’s acolytes are reported to be struggling to prevent McDonnell appearing on the ballot. This is clearly because this would then put many trade union leaders on the spot in the Labour leadership election. While these leaders, almost to a man and woman, are prepared to drag behind Brown, their own members could exert pressure for a vote for McDonnell.

However, even if John McDonnell gets on the ballot, this will not prevent a Brown ‘coronation’. He has already re-emphasised that he is the joint architect, with Blair, of New Labour. There will, of course, be some concessions to the labour movement and the working class. But, fundamentally, Brown will continue the same policies as Blair but maybe not in the same brutal, blundering fashion.

Blair is considered, even by establishment figures, as an ‘American neo-conservative with a British passport’. Tariq Ali informs us in the Guardian that, "senior diplomats have told me it would not upset them too much if Blair were tried as a war criminal". Certainly, the Iraq disaster is the worst foreign policy catastrophe for British capitalism and imperialism since the Suez crisis of 1956. A man who once said that his could be the first generation who may "live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war" actually took British troops into five wars: Kosovo, ‘Desert Fox’ in Iraq, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Brown is not likely to make all the same disastrous mistakes. Nevertheless, his government, even with cosmetic changes in policy, will amount to little more than a ‘re-spray’ of New Labour, with the same Blairite/Thatcherite policies as the foundation of his government. Therefore, the real lesson of the last ten years is that the ruling class, through the medium of right-wing trade union and Labour leaders like Blair have succeeded, unfortunately, in destroying the former mass political expression of the British working class, the Labour Party, replacing it with the capitalist New Labour. There is, therefore, no time to be lost in creating the basis for a new force for the British working class, a new mass workers’ party.

The ‘new dawn’ of 1997 for the British workers turned out to be a false one under the stewardship of Blair and Brown. However, a new future can open up if the work of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, shown at the splendid national conference at the weekend, was built on, as it will be, in the struggles that will unfold in the next period in Britain.

Editorial from The Socialist, paper of The Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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May 2007