SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 79, November 2003

Tremors at the top

While attention has temporarily shifted to the Tory leadership drama, Tony Blair still finds himself in a weaker position than ever before. But would his departure from the scene mean the regeneration of the Labour Party? And what is the alternative to New Labour? CLIVE HEEMSKERK writes.

Tremors at the top: Cartoon by Alan HardmanSUDDENLY, TONY BLAIR is looking politically mortal. Even before his recent health scare – itself symbolising the end of the carefully constructed image of a ‘new’, ‘young’, ‘dynamic’ prime minister – speculation on ‘post-Blair politics’ filled the commentary media.

No doubt Blair’s advisors were conscious of the unfortunate parallel with Anthony Eden, prime minister during the 1956 Suez crisis who, three months after launching an unpopular Middle East war, resigned citing ill-health (although he lived another 20 years). Before the charge was even made, Number Ten rushed to deny that there was any connection between Blair’s heart scare and the stresses of the premiership. This, however, was surely a case of protesting too much. A series of events have all contributed to making the past year the most turbulent of his six-year government: Blair’s support for the US assault on Iraq, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the Hutton inquiry into the persecution of David Kelly (the Ministry of Defence weapons expert who committed suicide) and the subsequent departure of Blair’s chief fixer, Alistair Campbell, combined with the growing opposition to his domestic ‘public sector reform’ agenda. When Downing Street sources are keen to point out that Blair’s dismal personal poll ratings have "not yet reached the depths of unpopularity that drove Margaret Thatcher and John Major out of office" – with a ‘negative rating’ of 29%, compared to 50% and 63% respectively – things aren’t going well. (The Guardian, 25 September)

It was against this background – culminating, on 18 September in Brent East, in the first Labour by-election loss in 15 years – that the eve-of-Labour conference Guardian leader article spoke of Blair going to Bournemouth "to start fighting for his political life". (27 September) The chancellor, Gordon Brown, the heir-in-waiting, had only to apply the coup de grâce and the premiership was his.

In the event, Blair’s position was not seriously challenged at the Bournemouth conference (see page 3). A key feature of the ‘Blair project’, to eliminate the element of working class political representation that previously existed in the structures of the Labour Party, was to transform the character of the annual party conference. When the Labour Party was a ‘capitalist workers party’, with a leadership at the top which reflected the outlook of the capitalist class but with a working class base, the Labour Party conference was in some respects a ‘parliament of the labour movement’. Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and union resolutions could change national party policy; and the unions, with 90% of the conference vote, were potentially able to dominate proceedings. That has changed fundamentally. The democratic structures were gradually closed off during the 1980s culminating in the 1997 ‘Partnership in Power’ structural changes, with policy powers largely removed to more tightly-controlled national policy forums (NPFs), resolutions restricted, and the unions’ conference vote reduced to below 50% in favour of CLP representatives. A left-wing union delegate to this year’s conference found it noticeable, even compared to recent years, how few of these CLP delegates "were ordinary party members – they were councillors, NPF members and candidates for paid posts. One speaker described herself as ex-officio and turned out to be a member of the party’s staff!" (Dorothy Macedo, Labour Left Briefing, October 2003) As The Guardian commented, following Blair’s conference speech, "the fundamental fact about the conference delegates is that they are mostly public supporters of the government, not public critics. Whatever their reservations, they had come to praise Caesar, not to bury him". (1 October)

There are, undoubtedly, growing ‘reservations’ amongst Labour MPs and councillors that their careers may come to a premature end, their seats lost, if Tony Blair remains. "Nobody suggests that Labour will lose in 2005", wrote the former Labour Party deputy leader Roy Hattersley, following the Brent by-election. "There must be 50 or 60 Labour MPs", however, "who have begun to question the prime minister’s adoption of the Zulu battle technique – sacrificing an expendable number of warriors… to secure his throne". (The Guardian, 22 September) Yet most Labour backbenchers are placated by the fact that even the best poll position the crisis-ridden Tory opposition has achieved in recent years would still see a Labour government returned with a substantial majority. And while Brent East was lost to the Liberal Democrats, not even an ambitious 10% general election swing would gain them more than a handful of Labour seats. Nervousness has not yet turned to panic.

But Blair’s unpopularity is not just another ‘normal’ case of government ‘mid-term blues’ as some commentators have argued, pointing to the far greater by-election losses suffered by the Labour government in the 1974-79 parliament. The revelations of the Hutton inquiry – regardless of the formal verdict now likely to be delivered in the new year – have had a corrosive effect on his standing. Blair’s appeal during the latest arguments over the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’, that the different parties would be satisfied on the decommissioning issue ‘if they knew what he knew’, was poorly received. Opinion polls show a consistent disbelief of the claim that the Iraq dossier was not ‘sexed up’. And with the continued failure to find weapons of mass destruction, a clear majority (53%), for the first time since the fall of Baghdad, are now saying that the war was unjustified, against those (38%) who still believe it was right. (ICM poll, 19-21 September)

Underpinning the accumulating discontent, moreover, are the growing economic difficulties facing the Blair government. With weak economic growth and consequent falling tax receipts, the public spending deficit for the first six months of the 2003-04 financial year has risen to £22.5bn, up from £13.5bn during the same period last year. In April’s budget Gordon Brown predicted a total annual deficit of £27bn, which now looks likely to be at least £10bn out. The prospect is that December’s pre-budget report will include a combination of higher borrowing provisions, a future public spending squeeze outside of the health and education budgets, and more ‘stealth taxes’ to meet the gap. This will only fuel the discontent. This April, for the first time since Labour was elected in 1997, real take-home pay fell, by an average of 1.3%, because of higher national insurance (NI) contributions (and lower than inflation pay rises). Significantly, Labour’s standing as the party with the greatest ‘economic competence’ has fallen dramatically in opinion polls, from 47% in March – before the NI hike and council tax rises hit home – to 29% in September. (ICM poll, 19-21 September)

One consequence of this has been the loss of electoral support for Labour amongst the so-called ABC1 professional, service sector and skilled manual worker voters. This was New Labour’s ‘new social base’, with a consistent poll lead recorded amongst this social grouping since 1993, following the Tory debacle of ‘Black Wednesday’ in September 1992 when the pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (and when the Major government temporarily raised interest rates to a crippling 17% in an attempt to avert the crisis).

This potentially is an electorally critical development for New Labour. The most significant feature of the 2001 general election was the mass abstentionism that took place, with a 12.5% drop in turnout. Labour’s total vote fell by 2.8 million (21%) compared to 1997. Only in 1983, after the formation of the Social Democratic Party, and 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald split to form a national government with the Tories, had Labour’s absolute vote fallen by over 20% from one election to the next. And yet there was a differential rate of ‘flight from Labour’ between the ABC1 electorate and other voters, with abstention rates rising significantly more in the working class Labour ‘heartlands’. While a recent ICM poll showed that the Tories were not putting on support in key marginal ‘middle England’ seats, Labour’s vote had slumped (The Guardian, 29 September). Unlikely though it seems today – although more plausible as the hapless Iain Duncan Smith departs – a further rise in abstentionism, combined with an erosion of Labour’s middle class support, could yet see the Tories cut into Labour’s majority.

At this stage, however, the Labour government is still the favoured instrument of rule for Britain’s ruling class. One indication of this is the fact that, from 2001-03, the Labour Party received nearly three times as much funding from wealthy business donors, £7.89m, as the Tories, £2.76m (although, as the role of Tory pay-masters in the unseating of Iain Duncan Smith shows, the ruling class still wants the Tory Party as a reserve weapon). Undoubtedly, not the least important factor behind the ‘Betsygate scandal’ – the alleged misuse of public funds by Duncan Smith to pay his wife, Betsy, for ‘secretarial duties’ – was the growing reliance of the Tory Party on state money (so-called ‘Short money’, named after the minister who introduced financial help for opposition parties, and other similar sources), which provided 55% of its income (£6.89m) in this period.

Blair’s role in the Iraq conflict, including his role in the inter-capitalist clashes provoked by the US disdain for ‘multilateralism’ and the role of the UN, impacted negatively on British imperialism’s international standing, not least amongst its key European Union ‘allies’. Sections of the ruling class clearly feel that this ‘presidential prime minister’ – the Caesar of the Bournemouth conference – should have his wings clipped. But overall, largely satisfied with New Labour’s stewardship of British capitalism, there is no ruling class clamour for a change of government. Far more attractive, if Blair has to go, would be a managed succession to Gordon Brown.

This would also have the advantage of allowing some of the less awkward of the new ‘awkward squad’ of trade union leaders to claim that they were making headway in their campaign to ‘reclaim the Labour Party’. Both Dave Prentis, general secretary of the public services union UNISON, and Kevin Curran, leader of the GMB general workers union, made a contrast between Tony Blair’s conference speech and that of Gordon Brown. Kevin Curran praised Brown’s speech, with its 63 unadorned references to ‘Labour’ rather than ‘New Labour’, as having "socialism as its base", while Dave Prentis called it "inspiring" and "reassuring for public services". It was, of course, nothing of the sort. Even The Guardian could see that the "paradox in Mr Brown’s boldness lay in the certainty that he and the prime minister remain closer on the bulk of the modernisers’ agenda than the chancellor is to many of Mr Blair’s critics". (30 September)

At present it appears that the most likely way that Blair will depart the scene will be through a ‘cold transition’ to Brown, possibly before the general election if events compel (Hutton, the economy, the Iraq imbroglio), but more likely some time after. This would not mean, however, that the Labour Party would be regenerated as a vehicle for working class political representation. It is not even assured that there would be a leadership contest, given that a nomination for leader needs to have the support of 12.5% of the Parliamentary Labour Party (52 MPs – or 20%, 82 MPs, ‘if there is no vacancy’). In the same way, Scotland has seen three Scottish parliament Labour first ministers elected since 1999 without a single vote being cast by individual party members or affiliated trade unions. But even an election contest between candidates who could reach the parliamentary party nomination threshold, say between Gordon Brown and Robin Cook, would be little different in political content to a US Democratic Party-style ‘primary’. Cook’s new book, The Point of Departure – which contains a ‘personal manifesto’ including commitments to ‘the [capitalist] stakeholder economy’, euro entry and proportional representation (as a prelude to ‘centre-left co-operation’ with the Liberal Democrats) – was correctly described by The Guardian journalist Martin Kettle as "a manifesto for an alternative Blairism… [an] attempt to put a bit of ideological bite into Labour’s second-term managerialism". (21 October)

The end of Blair could well mean the end of the terminology and other superficial aspects of ‘New Labour’. But the core of ‘the project’ would remain – the elimination of the latent potential for workers’ interests to be politically represented that formerly existed through the Labour Party.


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