Britain: Tony Blair’s destructive path

Autobiography shows aim to destroy Labour as a vehicle for working class struggle

The publication of Tony Blair’s autobiography, ‘A Journey’, has confirmed just how unpopular he had become. In 1997, his New Labour spin factory churned out false hope and illusion. By the time Blair departed, mass misery and brutality were entrenched in Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain’s public services were under fierce attack and the economy was a wreck. However, the most revealing aspect of the book is its exposure of Blair’s conscious policy to destroy the Labour Party as a vehicle for working-class struggle.

Writers of autobiographies have rarely been assailed as has Tony Blair. The reception for this book – visceral hatred from many – indicates that he stands alongside Margaret Thatcher, for whom he gushes enthusiasm throughout, as one of the most reviled prime ministers of Britain. The reason for this is spelt out in quite extraordinary detail in his book. Both Thatcher and her ‘heir’, Blair, were in the modern era the most finished expression of those who defended capitalism and all its barbaric features.

Two pieces in the Guardian newspaper are fitting epitaphs for Blair. One letter writer simply stated: “Surely Mr Blair’s book should have a subtitle: A Journey – How I Led You Up the Garden Path”. Commentator Tom Clark asks us to imagine the “quintet of goodies [that] might adorn a new pledge card if the party Blair led now took his advice and became full-blooded New Labour, as he understands it. 1. Get state out of banking. 2. Bomb Iran. 3. Cut taxes on pay over £150,000. 4. Repeal Freedom of Information Act. 5. Kill foxes”. One suggested signpost for his book signing read: “This way to the crime section”!

On the very first page, like a puffed-up bullfrog, Blair expresses his utter contempt for those who lifted him to power: “I owe the Labour Party, its members, supporters and activists a huge debt of gratitude. I put them through a lot! They took it”. He elaborates: “My head can sometimes think conservatively on economics and security [You can say that again! – PT]; but my heart always beats progressive, and my soul is and always will be that of a rebel”. We know at least that Blair – after the obscenities of Afghanistan and Iraq – really does have a ‘heart’ and even a ‘soul’! This unconcealed contempt for the ranks of his own party is matched by his fawning sycophancy for every reactionary capitalist leader on the planet. George W Bush, of course, possessed qualities of “decisive leadership”, Silvio Berlusconi was his “friend”, Nicolas Sarkozy was full of “charm”, etc.

The Blair-Brown team

If the book was full of such banalities and laced with sugary praise for one bourgeois leader after another it would be hardly worthwhile analysing. But it is much more than this. It details in the most brazen language the destruction of the Labour Party as a mass workers’ party by the bourgeois elements around Blair. There are some who have seized hold of the ‘differences’ between Blair and Gordon Brown to actually hold out some hope that there is still life, even for the left, within the Labour Party, that it can be returned to a ‘social-democratic agenda’. This conclusion is entirely erroneous.

Brown was at one with Blair in all the ‘reforms’ – in reality, counter-reforms – both within the Labour Party and in the policies pursued in the 13 years he shared power with Blair. Any ‘differences’ were entirely secondary, incidental and largely involved Brown asserting his power by seeking to keep strict control, through the Treasury, on state expenditure. Brown may have possessed a small ‘social-democratic’ tail, to give a small boost to public spending, largely by ‘stealth’. But this in no way departed from the main agenda of Blair or New Labour.

This was abundantly demonstrated in Brown’s short tenure as prime minister when his ‘differences’ with Blair were completely ‘blurred’. He differed with David Cameron and the current ConDem coalition not about the need for savage cuts but on the timescale: death by a thousand cuts! In every respect he went along with the attacks on everything that the Labour Party traditionally stood for. Together with Blair, he created a ‘new party’, as Tony Benn indicated at one stage – unfortunately never drawing the conclusion that it was necessary to create the basis for a new workers’ party.

Blair even admits: “I voted Labour in 1983 but I never really thought that a Labour victory was the best thing for the country and I was a Labour candidate!” Anything that signified the assertion of working-class interests, let alone power or control was seen as retrogressive. He writes: “I had actually used support for the [EU] Social Chapter to drop our support for the closed shop [the obligation in certain trades to join a designated union]”. In this one line, Blair is at one with the bourgeois like Rupert Murdoch, who smashed the closed shop and thereby enormously weakened the trade unions in the print industry. Ask any print worker or a member of the National Union of Journalists whether this was a progressive move by Murdoch, supported by Blair.

Bourgeois entrists

The most crucial aspect of the book is the way Blair set about destroying Labour, creating a bourgeois party in its place. Without the creation of a certain set of unique objective conditions beforehand, Blair would not have been able to achieve this. The work of destroying the Labour Party as a specific workers’ party at bottom had already begun under Neil Kinnock, who was the gateman for Blairism. The onset of neo-liberalism in the 1980s, but particularly the collapse of Stalinism which followed, and the huge ideological campaign in favour of capitalism, were decisive. Without this, such an ideologically formless figure as Blair, a modern Vicar of Bray – all things to all men and women when required – would never have risen to power.

He is unashamed in describing how he shuffled from one ‘boring’ Labour Party meeting to another in the desperate quest for a seat – in the process showing the type of carpetbagger that infested the Labour Party then and still does. ‘There is no gratitude in politics’. Right-wing Labour Party member and head of the General and Municipal Workers Union in the north-east, Joe Mills, was instrumental in getting a seat for Blair at the very last moment before the 1983 general election. There is, however, no mention of him in the book.

There are, however, references to Militant – now the Socialist Party – to which he oozes hostility. This is quite fitting. Blair’s rise to prominence was linked to the attacks on Militant in the early 1980s. As he hints in the book, Blair was then involved as a junior barrister in the legal action against the Militant Editorial Board. When Tony Benn came to the defence of Militant, in a shared car journey with Blair, this was enough to dismiss him as an ineffectual “idealist”. Blair was, in effect, a middle-class/bourgeois ‘entrist’ into the Labour Party.

In almost every line, his programme for degutting the Labour Party of socialism is expressed: “Where was our business support?” he asks about the situation in the 1980s. He wails: “By 1992 I was almost 40. I had been in opposition for almost a decade”. He then declares: “If steps were too incremental [in changing the Labour Party], we might fail again and I would be 50… before even getting a sight of government. What was the point of politics if not to win power?” There is nothing wrong with power – power for a class party, yes, that stands for decisive change in the lives of ordinary working people – but ‘personal power’ is inimical to a real socialist.

Blair never lets pass the fact that ‘New Labour’ was in power for 13 years. But to what effect from the standpoint of the mass of the working class? How did this much-vaunted ‘power’ end? In the greatest economic bust since the 1930s, a worsening of the position of the poor and an entrenchment of Thatcherism, as Blair makes clear: “I even decided to own up to supporting changes Margaret Thatcher had made. I knew the credibility of the whole New Labour project rested on accepting that much of what she wanted to do in the 1980s was inevitable, a consequence not of ideology but of social and economic change”. This was a complete acceptance of the Thatcher ‘settlement’, the terminology of warfare, the class war in this instance!

Blair presided over the destruction of a party that at least, at the bottom, was a lever for this kind of change and the long-term aim of ‘socialism’. This is spelt out in graphic detail in his attempt to change the leadership, to barge his way into the position of supreme leader, in effect, and fundamentally alter everything upon which the Labour Party was historically based. Childishly, Blair admits that his foreign policy – bloody ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Iraq and Afghanistan – followed a Saturday afternoon viewing of the film ‘Schindler’s List’. He proffers admiration for Schindler but his and Bush’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the slaughter of the innocents was more akin to those who Schindler tried to protect the Jews from!

Ruthless execution

Blair even tries to pretend that he was “very non-political in my view of politics”. This does not square with his Machiavellian scheming to become leader, aided by Peter Mandelson, his ‘consigliore’ (his word). The fact that Blair can use terminology of this kind shows the mafia-type operation behind him. Once leader, he quite consciously set out to eliminate any connection between the Labour Party, its organised working-class base, and its socialist ‘aspiration’ enshrined in Clause IV. Detailed here is the manner he went about doing this, garnering the support of former leader Neil Kinnock – an erstwhile left – as well as his political thugs, such as Alistair Campbell.

Monstrous in its mendacity is how Blair misinterprets the original Clause IV in Labour’s constitution. He invokes the fact that “even Russia had embraced the market” post-1989 to underline the need to eliminate any connection with the idea of socialism. Quite falsely, he claims: “Nobody outside the far left really believed in Clause IV as it was written”. His attempts to base this on Labour history show his dishonesty and ignorance. In fact, the original Clause IV, written by the Fabian Sidney Webb, was a result of the pressure of the Russian revolution and the effect this had in Britain. It reflected the political outlook of the most politically conscious sections of the working class. Moreover, when Hugh Gaitskell, an earlier prototype for Blair, also attempted to eliminate Clause IV in the 1950s, he was defeated by an uprising of the membership of the party, led by the trade unions.

Although in practice, it is true, Labour governments had never carried out Clause IV – ‘the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy’ – party members, working class in the main, saw the necessity for such a programme by a Labour government in the future. The capitalists and their agents within the labour movement were always hostile to it, recognising that it could be a promissory note for the introduction of socialism later.

The elimination of Clause IV was, in effect, a defining moment in the disintegration of the Labour Party as a distinct workers’ party at the bottom. Blair spells out that the trade union tops, particularly those like Tom Sawyer of NUPE (later a component part of Unison), supported Blair’s ‘modernising agenda’, including the elimination of Clause IV itself. Sawyer had ‘evolved’ from left to right and earlier played a crucial role in the expulsion of Militant supporters and other lefts from the Labour Party.

Moreover, Blair shows that Brown and others entirely subscribed to this lurch to the right. The essence of New Labour is spelt out by him: “No return to the old union laws; no renationalisation of privatised utilities; no raising of the top rate of tax; no unilateralism; no abolition of grammar schools. There were certain clear pointers as to future social policy: a tough line on anti-social behaviour; investment and reform of public services”.

Like a modern Bonaparte, he declares: “The party had to know I was not bluffing. If they didn’t want New Labour, they could get someone else. The country had to know that if I was going to be their prime minster, I would be of the party but also removed from it”. As if recognising he goes a little too far here, a few paragraphs later he writes: “The commitment remained. The means of implementing it radically altered”. In fact, his only commitment was personal power for himself, the implacable defence of capitalism, and the abandonment of any connection with the class struggle and socialism.

Whose side are you on?

In effect, as Blair describes in the latter chapters of the book, his perception was entirely different to Labour’s historical approach in the struggle to change society. He was an advocate of the ‘minimalist’ state as an “enabler”, which is no different to the stance of the present ConDem government. It was the argument also deployed by Thatcher and her acolytes when she was in power. The question is ‘enabling’ for whom? Which class, which force? Blairism/Thatcherism and Brown stood for the state to step in when the system is in danger, to dole out a trillion pounds to the banks to enable them to escape from the effects of the crisis and then, having done this, handing them back to the private sector.

Also illuminated here is the way in which Blair consciously turned towards the capitalist media, Murdoch in particular. He ‘likes’ Rupert! This is the man who deploys dishonest ‘hackers’ of private phones (the News of the World and Andy Coulson). Murdoch is the hammer of every worker fighting for his or her rights: miners, print workers, etc.

Marxists consider that the present state is not a ‘neutral’ factor. We stand for an entirely different type of state which combines centralised action in owning the means of production with democratic control – workers’ control and management of industries taken over by the state. However, it is preferable that where capitalism fails the state should step in, takes action to nationalise a firm or an industry, rather than see it destroyed. In this case of ‘state capitalism’ we demand workers’ control and management, election of all officials, etc. This can then open up the possibility that these sectors, which have failed under private ownership, can be used for the benefit of working people and not the capitalists. All the actions of Blair and New Labour had the intention of facilitating the encroachment of the private sector – like the present government – into the nationalised sections of the economy to the benefit of a handful of privateers.

It is entirely false, as Blair argues, that “the [Labour] party wanted ‘true socialism’ beloved of the activists; the government was focused on the people”. In fact, the ‘people’ who Blair looked towards were ‘key City people’, those on over £150,000 a year and more at the expense of the mass of working people. His ruminations on the character of class in modern Britain – most people are middle class or aspire to be, he says – are entirely superficial. Ninety per cent of the people of Britain have an income below £40,000 a year with the majority of full-time workers earning below £26,000 per annum. This is not a princely sum and certainly not approaching the estimated £60 million personal fortune accumulated by Blair and his family. Kinnock is a poor relation with only an estimated £20 million fortune!

As shallow is Blair’s counterpoising of ‘aspiration’ to socialism. He declares: “I hate class but I love aspiration”. The hoary old myth peddled by Thatcher and swallowed by sections of the right wing of the labour movement is that if a worker gets a ‘brass doorknocker’ and owns a house, the worker immediately abandons any idea of changing society and becomes a pillar of the system. Where is this ‘theory of the property-owning democracy’ now, when millions have been evicted or face repossession of their homes in the US, Ireland, Spain and Britain? The next generations in Britain have a vain hope of ever owning their own houses. All the tenets of New Labour have been smashed in the course of this crisis and Blair, as well as Brown, did nothing to prepare for this eventuality. Witness Brown’s claim to have abolished the boom and bust cycle.

Equally illuminating, and spelt out in this book, is how Blair changed the party from a vibrant, fighting organisation – witness what was achieved in places like Liverpool in the 1980s – into a hollow shell which marched to the drumbeat of New Labour’s pro-capitalist policies. He even reveals how he “changed policy” on the hoof on Northern Ireland.

Mock-up of the former PM at Iraq’s oilfields by Kennard Phillipps

Hypocrisy and war

One of the most sickening chapters in the book is the attempt at self-justification over the criminal role he and Bush played in relation to the Iraq war. Eulogies are trotted out about Bush: “He was at peace with himself”. Pity we could not say the same thing about Afghanistan and Iraq today.

In a rare ‘contrite’ moment, Blair admits mistakes and misjudgements about Afghanistan: “I certainly misjudged the depth of the failure of the Afghanistan state; the ability of the Taliban to immerse themselves into local communities”. Why? He was at the helm of the government, presumably briefed on the history of the country. Not just Britain, but Alexander the Great and the Russians were incapable of the long-term occupation of Afghanistan. There was little chance, therefore, that Britain, even in ‘alliance’ with the US, could achieve this.

He sees the monstrosities of Iraq as a ‘debating issue’: “The trouble with debating Iraq is that, by and large, people have stopped listening to each other”. Justifying his and Bush’s war, he states that “one third of children in central and southern Iraq… suffered from chronic malnutrition in 2003”. Entirely forgotten here are the earlier sanctions imposed on Iraq before the war had begun which resulted in this catastrophe. Before this, Iraq was as rich as Portugal or Malaysia in 1979 but by 2003 – precisely because of the sanctions – 60% of the population was dependent on food aid.

Worse is to come a few pages later where Blair disputes the numbers killed in Iraq. The Lancet report of 2004 claimed that Iraq had suffered 600,000 ‘excess deaths’ as a result of the invasion. Blair states that ‘only’ 100,000 perished. He has agreed to give the proceeds of this book – £5 million – to the ex-servicemen’s association. As if this could compensate for the soldiers’ families who suffered devastating losses or those who have died and suffered in Iraq; four to five million Iraqis are in internal or external exile.

Blair versus Brown

In some senses, the most relevant part of the book for today lies in the battle between Brown and Blair over the ‘succession’. We are informed that these ‘principled’ battles between the two centred on issues such as tuition fees, foundation hospitals and the privatisation programme relentlessly pursued by Blair and Brown. Interestingly, Blair makes the point that the closest he came to being unseated as prime minister was over the issue of tuition fees. He admits that in the 2005 general election it “cost us several seats”.

That issue was then and is now a subject of enormous discontent. It represents the pulling up of the ladder of educational opportunity by the generation represented by Blair and Brown who themselves received free university education. This ‘privilege’ is now denied to the present generation of students, who despite considerable achievements in A levels will be shut out of university education on the basis of the massive financial burden that tuition fees represent for students and their families today. It is not a dead issue and will be taken up in the education sector in the midst of the battles over the savage cuts that loom through the ConDem government.

On foundation hospitals, Blair tries to picture Brown as opposed to what this represented, as well as NHS ‘reform’ in general – that is, creeping privatisation. Some on the left agree with Blair. By bolstering Brown’s efforts, they hope that this will show that there is still a ‘space’ for the left within the Labour Party! The book makes clear that Brown may have ‘demurred’ – as did the left – but no fundamental challenge was made to Blair’s proposals by Brown, the left or the trade unions either in the education sector or in general. Brown was a firm advocate of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and the Public-Private Partnership, especially in London Transport. This was one of the issues that brought him into collision with Ken Livingstone, which Blair mentions in this book. Therefore, he did not differ fundamentally from Blair.

Brown’s opposition was mainly a device to play to the left and force Blair out. Blair recounts how the scandal over ‘cash for honours’, in which businessmen gave New Labour undeclared ‘loans’ in return for nominations for peerages, was used by Brown – through Jack Dromey on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party – as an attempt to force Blair to go. Brown agreed with Blair and New Labour’s programme on privatisation but used his power at the Treasury to extract concessions favourable to him.

There is undoubtedly an element around Brown – represented by those like Ed Balls – who did see an opportunity by stealth to increase public expenditure minimally under Brown’s aegis. This was no fundamental challenge to Blair or Blairism. The king – Blair – might be ‘dead’ but he carries on in the form of David Miliband. Blair makes it clear in the book that David Miliband was and is a ‘central pillar’ of the New Labour project. The anti-working class, anti-union, anti-strike position is a central theme.

Blair deals with the confrontation arising from the fuel protests of 2000. In September of that year, fuel protesters gathered at petrol pumps and outside oil refineries because of the sudden rise in petrol prices. Blair concedes that he should have realised that “your ordinary motorist” was facing big rises in filling a car with petrol and was in revolt. Yet he was determined to face down these protesters, who were a “motley bunch”. They were, according to Blair, “farmers, hauliers, the self-employed and anti-government”. They were not from the “usual protesting stock; these were what the Marxists would call the petty bourgeoisie, not that there was anything petty or petit about them”.

Here is a Labour leader who has spent all his time courting the middle class and counterposing them to the working class. Yet when they move to assert their rights, in concert with workers, he vilifies them. What is more, he is prepared to use the most threatening, if not dictatorial, tactics. He demands of the police that they smash the protests. He says to the oil companies that they should “sack them”. Shamefully, he declared, he would like the army to come in and, if necessary “drive your tankers and if they meet any violence from protesters I want you [the police] to deal with them very firmly, and if not, to let the army take care of them. They are very good at it”. A later manifestation of Thatcherism, first seen in the miners’ strike, the print battle at Wapping, etc?

Thoroughly Tory Tony

Blair is absolutely contemptuous of the Labour left. With faint praise, he says of Tony Benn, for instance, that he is a “national treasure”. He now has nothing but kind words for the former firebrand Dennis Skinner. Skinner had attacked Blair just after he had been elected in a meeting in his constituency, virtually dismissing him correctly as a right-wing, middle-class infiltrator. But Blair also declares that in later years, “Dennis was one of my best (if somewhat closet) supporters. He didn’t like some of my policies but he liked someone who whacked the Tories”. This is a warning for those who remain in Labour’s ‘big tent’ and still claim to stand on the left. They have been nullified and marginalised and nothing in the current direction of New Labour indicates that this will change.

In his concluding chapter, ‘Postscript’, Blair indicates how far to the right he has moved. He denounces Keynesianism – he is on the side of the unreconstructed believers in the market. He even claims that the market did not fail in the current economic crisis! Only one part, one sector, did! He is unashamed in declaring that the state should step in, rescue capitalism and then skedaddle. He is at one with the current ConDem government in Britain, which he says is, in essence, a New Labour government, in attacking and savaging the living standards of the working class.

He declares that if Labour had pursued ‘New Labour policies’ then it would have won the last general election. But the Brown government lost the general election because it betrayed the hopes of working-class people and came to the aid of capitalism, as Blair before had done. This great ‘electoral genius’ Blair – in tandem with Brown – succeeded in losing five million Labour votes between the elections of 1997 and 2010! In contrast, the much reviled Liverpool ‘Militants’, when they were in power between 1983 and 1987, pushed up the Labour vote to its highest ever level in the city!

Events are now moving in the direction of utterly undermining and discrediting capitalism and all of those who defend it. It is necessary to prepare now for a new mass workers’ party, which will close the chapter on New Labour and open up a new vista for socialism in Britain and the world.

"A Journey", by Tony Blair, published by Hutchinson, 2010, £25

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September 2010