|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Blair’s reign unravels
For the first time since his election in 1997, Tony Blair has been defeated in parliament. His proposal for internment without charge for 90 days in ‘terrorism’ cases was diluted to 28 days. On top of mounting anger at cuts to public services, attacks on pay and conditions, and the occupation of Iraq, Blair is increasingly seen as a lame-duck prime minister. How long can he hang on and what will happen when he goes? PETER TAAFFE writes.
"THE PRIME MINISTER re-elected six months ago faces the prospect of humiliating defeats on the pivotal elements of his entire domestic agenda. Such a prospect makes John Major’s final period in power seem like a smoothly harmonious political journey. Major’s battle was over the single issue of Europe. According to the apocalyptic soothsayers, Blair faces defeat in relation to NHS policies, education, welfare reform, the introduction of ID cards, smoking bans and the replacement of Trident. If they are right, the leader of a parish council will have a bigger influence on events in the coming months". (The Independent, 15 November 2005)
These words of Steve Richards, political correspondent of The Independent, are not at all unique in their description of Tony Blair’s plight. Jackie Ashley, of The Guardian, is no less alarmed in her analysis of the searing discontent within New Labour: "The level of bitterness and anger inside the Labour Party is becoming critical… We are quite close to seeing the parliamentary party disintegrate. The rebels of last week [over the anti-terrorism bill] talk about Tony Blair as some kind of manic autocrat, a dictator in the last days of his reign. His people talk about the rebels as rabble and suggest, quite seriously, that they should be kicked out of the party". (14 November)
These comments from journalists sympathetic to the government indicate the scale of the crisis confronting New Labour and its government. Nor is this a short-term crisis, afflicting just Blair, but one that is threatening to shatter the whole New Labour project, sully Blair’s ‘legacy’ and undermine Gordon Brown’s succession to the crown. This could help to pave the way for an even more divided party, the strengthening of the Tories and the danger of a victory for them at the next election. More than a fifth of the Parliamentary Labour Party did not support the government over the so-called ‘anti-terror’ bill, resulting in a 31-vote defeat in the Commons.
Backbenchers have threatened to go on revolting against Blair’s proposals to ‘reform’, read counter-reform, health and education. Michael Meacher, environment minister from 1997-2003 before he was ditched by Blair, summed up the mood of the ‘rebels’ – put at 100 MPs by former Labour minister Frank Dobson – towards this programme: "New Labour’s idea of health service reform has been to expose an integrated public service to the business marketplace model. The Private Finance Initiative [PFI] has been vigorously promoted even though it has proved far more expensive. Foundation hospitals have been introduced to enable NHS hospitals and primary care trusts to operate like commercial companies. Independent treatment centres are now ‘cream skimming’ standard low-risk surgery. And commissioning of services is now being transferred to GP fundholders, re-introducing the Tory internal market that was abolished seven years ago". (The Guardian, 17 November)
Labour MPs like Meacher have sat and slavishly supported the Blair government for eight years while it implemented ‘unremitting’ pro-capitalist policies. In refusing to swallow more of the Blair poison they signify the huge discontent which exists with him, his programme and the whole New Labour project. Where will this opposition lead? Can Blair recover and, if Brown takes over, will he represent real change? Above all, can the Labour Party survive in its present form or is there a need, as Socialism Today believes, to lay the basis now for a new mass workers’ party?
High priest of neo-liberalism
ECONOMICALLY, BRITAIN IS probably in the most exposed position it has been in history. It is this which ultimately shapes the determination to attack past gains of the working class, thereby boosting the already bloated profits of big business. Assuming that Blair lasts in power, which is not at all certain given the shedding of his authority in the past period, he intends to complete his counter-revolution against what remains of the state sector through a relentless privatisation programme. The ‘reforms’ promised will, unless amended or withdrawn, allow the vultures in the private sector to strip the National Health Service (NHS) and education of all the juicy profitable bits, leaving the bare bones, a skeleton service inadequately catering for the poor and the working class.
Another purpose of Blair’s proposals is to allow the middle class – increasingly, his ‘base’ – to receive the lion’s share of the benefits. The intention is to turn back the wheel of history to the 19th century to create, as in the case of education, reliance on the ‘philanthropy’ of the rich, private schools and church institutions. The net result will be two-tier education and health systems along the lines of the US, at a time when the working class and big sections of the middle class groan under the weight of this system there.
Blair, in every speech he now makes, shows he is an unalloyed capitalist politician, refusing to make even the slightest genuflexion in words, as he did earlier, on the need for a state sector. There is not even the smallest concession to social democratic ideas, the ‘mixed economy’. Gerhard Schröder in Germany and Lionel Jospin in France carried out neo-liberal policies but were not averse to taking verbal sideswipes at the ‘market’; social-democratic spokesperson Franz Müntefering denounced ‘locusts’, foreign capitalist speculators, who stripped German industry bare and sacked workers.
This is not for Blair who has completely accepted the logic of capitalism in the ‘modern’ era in words and deeds. He is the high priest of unreconstructed neo-liberalism. Some of his supporters take this to its logical conclusion and end up supporting the right-wing US neo-conservatives. Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian informs us that New Labour MP Gisela Stewart supported George Bush in the last US presidential election! It is possible that, when he leaves office, the tenuous ties connecting Blair to the Labour Party could also be sundered.
To secure his legacy, Blair promises further privatisation or partial privatisation of the Post Office – a John Lewis-style so-called ‘partnership’ with the workforce – of the state-owned British Nuclear Fuels Limited, including the nuclear facility at Sellafield, part-privatisation of the ambulance service, of Jobcentres, parts of the civil service, etc. This is in the teeth of overwhelming evidence of public opposition to privatisation.
There is a general recognition, for instance, that the widespread chaos on the London Underground arises from privatisation. Brown (‘Mr PFI’) as well as Blair supported this Private-Public Partnership (PPP). In fact, Polly Toynbee, once a slavish supporter of the Blair-Brown duumvirate, declared in The Guardian in October: "Gordon Brown’s pigeon has come home to roost precisely as predicted, with added avian flu virulence". He imposed 30-year PPP contracts on London Transport, before the tube was handed over to the Greater London Authority. Even the government, through transport secretary Alistair Darling, has been compelled to beat a retreat and concede that Transport for London can now sack the firm responsible for the recent chaos. Of course, he stopped well short of renationalising the privatised firms which daily show the complete failure of the private capitalist sector.
Brown has also been to the fore in defending and extolling this neo-liberal mantra. At the TUC he and Blair were brazen in rubbing the trade union leaders’ noses in the mud by pledging to oppose the TUC’s demand for the EU limit of 48-hours maximum working week to be applied in Britain. His government, he said, would still exercise the ‘opt-out’ which condemns millions in Britain to the culture of long hours. Study after study has shown that this enormously increases ill health through stress-related illnesses in the workplace.
THE GOVERNMENT HAS also tried but was compelled to partially retreat over proposals to increase the retirement age for public-sector workers. In the last two decades of neo-liberal onslaught, the working class has been on the defensive, mainly, and has suffered a number of defeats and setbacks. It is, therefore, an achievement that a standstill has been negotiated in the pension rights of the existing workforce in the public sector – but not yet in local government and the fire service – although new entrants will have a longer working life agreement imposed upon them. The existing workforce, who can retire at 60, will have to fight to maintain what they have achieved in this struggle. Even before the ink is dry on the agreement a campaign has been launched by the CBI and others to try and get it withdrawn. The new generation must be mobilised to fight for the same conditions. This achievement on pensions arose from the threat of mass industrial action both before the general election and afterwards, together with the pressure exerted in Britain of the mass mobilisations over similar issues in Belgium, France and Germany in the past period.
The reaction of the capitalist press, however, from the Daily Telegraph to The Guardian – ‘Government surrender’, ‘loss of nerve’ – reflected the explosion of anger of the capitalists over the pensions agreement. It has even raised a question mark over the usefulness of this government to the capitalists. Martin Wolf, prominent Financial Times columnist, expressed this when he wrote: "Let me be frank; the public-sector unions have used their monopoly power to demand money with menaces from the taxpaying public". This is the language of war; the mere threat of strike action from the working class results in them being compared to robbers and thugs! Similar noises were made by German capitalist commentators before the 2005 general election. Schröder had done the bidding of the capitalists but it was not enough; they demanded even more of their pound of flesh and concluded that only an openly capitalist government led by the CDU could carry out their wishes. However, they miscalculated and ended up with a weak, unstable coalition.
Adair Turner, former head of the CBI, is to announce the results of his Pensions Commission soon. However, the main recommendations have already been floated in the Financial Times, an exercise in kite flying, clearly intended to soften up the working class for the medicine he prescribes. According to this report, everyone under 50 will have to work an extra two years to 67 for a state pension. If this is accepted, it is estimated that one fifth of men will not live long enough to receive it. This particularly applies to working-class men.
The labour movement must implacably oppose the Turner Commission proposals, not just on the retirement age but also on the level of benefits. If the link in earnings had not been broken by Margaret Thatcher, then a married pensioner couple would be receiving £50 more per week than they get now! The fight for the restoration of the link with earnings by pensioners’ organisations and others, and for a substantial cash increase in the level of the pension, must go on.
The government, in the best traditions of Thatcher and the Tories in the past, has also launched a war against the ‘work-shy’ (although it does not now call them that), the unemployed and particularly claimants. Before he was sacked, the odious David Blunkett demanded that claimants "turn off daytime TV and work". Yet the present 2.7 million who the government says are claiming incapacity benefit are a product of previous Tory governments’ massaging of the official level of unemployment. In the 1980s, it issued quotas to Jobcentre managers to keep the figures down by putting the unemployed on invalidity benefit. Now, Blair and the government are trying to force the disabled and the sick – 40% have mental health problems – back into industry at low pay rates with slave-like conditions.
Education & health
SINCE 1997, ‘education, education, education’ has been the dominant theme of Blair and his entourage. White Papers on this issue have rained down like confetti on the heads of the British people, and particularly teachers. Ruth Kelly’s latest effort is the twelfth education White Paper since 1997! And despite the claims of the government, Britain is still spending less on education as a percentage of GDP than in the 1970s. Blair, while proclaiming that all his efforts are for the ‘disadvantaged’, puts forward educational proposals that will worsen their lot and strengthen the already privileged through a greater emphasis on selection and other measures.
This is made abundantly clear in the latest White Paper. It signifies a complete somersault from Labour’s historical goals – when it was at the bottom a workers’ party – of education being one of the tools to end inequality in society. Marxists never believed that by this route alone, without altering the economic or social foundations of inequality in society as a whole, ie by abolishing capitalism, that these goals could be achieved. Nevertheless, we give critical support to comprehensive education, the ending of social selection in schools, opposition to selection, etc. But now, Kelly and Blair want to rip up the ‘historical consensus’ which existed on Labour’s education aims. Schools will be run by businesses, middle-class schools will expand and those in working-class areas will become even more sink schools. At the same time, the implementation of the idea of ‘faith schools’ opens the doors to religious zealots, together with big business, to take control of education. Blair is playing up to what he imagines is his ‘base’, the middle class. They will be allowed, under his and Kelly’s proposals, to ‘colonise’ even further the state education sector, with schools in their areas attracting the ‘best and the brightest’, the best teachers and more money than others.
If these proposals get through, the New Labour government is poised to implement what the Tories failed to do, even under Thatcher. Her one-time education secretary, Kenneth Baker, recently jeered in The Guardian: "I welcome a sinner that repenteth". He expressed his delight "that the government is bringing forward the same proposals that I introduced in 1988. In effect, they are re-establishing grant-maintained schools". Essential to achieving this aim is the ‘unbundling’ of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) which Thatcher tried in 1990 but was unsuccessful in carrying out. In doing this Blair is also forced to turn on his erstwhile supporters by seeking to abolish LEAs.
But perhaps the most sensitive privatisation planned by Blair and driven through by health secretary Patricia Hewitt are the plans to dismantle what remains of the NHS. The process of privatisation is following the guidelines of the Health and Social Care Act 2003. Primary Care Trusts can contract out all aspects of primary medical services – from cancer screening and family planning to maternity services and minor surgery. By the end of 2004, 55% of general practitioners’ out-of-hours’ services were expected to be delivered by companies like GP Plus and Asda. The consequence has been disastrous chaos. It is estimated that 73% of hospital trusts face a funding shortfall in the current year. The government has required them to introduce ‘savings’, read cuts, averaging £6.2 million per trust. Almost half the trusts are proposing recruitment freezes and 27% were considering redundancies. Some trusts are also intending to close beds. The Royal College of Nursing, for instance, has said that one thousand nursing jobs could be axed this year to contain the trust deficits that are likely to hit a combined total of £1 billion. At least 25 hospital casualty units face closure after previous cutbacks and 200-250 have closed in the last ten years.
Hewitt also wanted to ‘privatise’ 250,000 nurses and other medical staff in one ‘big bang’. This was to be done by trusts stopping directly employing the staff in chiropody, physiotherapy, speech therapy and other similar services. These plans were ‘slipped out’ after the government went on holiday in July. Even Blairite MPs, it seems, were alarmed when the details emerged and Hewitt was ‘roughed up’ in a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). She has now been compelled to withdraw this proposal.
Hewitt was also defeated on the government’s privatisation schemes at the Labour Party conference. This, however, will not stop either her or Blair proceeding to dismantle the NHS, piecemeal if necessary. At the Labour Party conference she wailed: "Haven’t we learnt that profits are not a dirty word? They are part of a dynamic economy and are helping to build 100 new hospitals as well". Yet in 2004, PFI hospitals, lauded by Hewitt, had some of the biggest deficits, were shutting wards and freezing recruitment. This led the British Medical Association in 2005 to warn that there may not be jobs for those in the expanding doctor training programme!
The class character of New Labour, completely in thrall to the propertied classes, was revealed in Hewitt’s interview in The Independent (21 November). She drew on historical parallels to buttress her case for privatisation of health. She described the defeat of Harold Wilson’s anti-union proposals, ‘In Place of Strife’, in 1968 as an "historic mistake", as was Labour’s opposition to "Thatcher’s policy of council house sales". If only Labour had implemented these measures, they could have been carried through in a "less brutal, more consensual way"!
Brutal attacks by piecemeal measures, by a thousand cuts or by a ‘big bang’, these are the choices offered by New Labour! Wilson’s anti-union policies were a direct attack on the democratic rights of the working class. He tried and failed to carry them out but met mass resistance and retreated. The Tories capitalised on what he had started. Labour has carried out Thatcher’s ‘legacy’, and the fact that it has been able to get away with it says everything about the capitalist character of the Labour Party.
The Brown succession
EVENTS SINCE THE re-election of the government for a third term have completely reconfirmed the analysis of the Socialist Party on the political decay of the Labour Party into a capitalist party. Opposition to this analysis on the left amounts to a romantic yearning for the past days of the Labour Party which will not return. The left trade union leaders cling to the battered wreckage of the party, alongside a dwindling band of left MPs, because no serious alternative new pole of attraction exists. The trade union leaders have donated over £40 million of their members’ money since 2001 to this party of privatisation. People like Tony Benn cut isolated figures when they argue, hoping against hope, that the Labour Party can be recaptured for the left.
The rebellion against Blair that spluttered into life following the October conference of the Labour Party gives them hope that the party can somehow be brought back to life. However, as we commented in the last issue of Socialism Today, the only real short-term alternative within New Labour to Blair is Brown, which is no real alternative at all. Alan Johnson and Peter Hain, who have been touted as rivals to Brown for the leadership, are cut from the same political cloth as Brown. ‘Mr PFI’, as Brown is dubbed even by the capitalist press, has made it absolutely clear that in fundamentals he will carry out Blair’s policy although the mood music and posture on some issues may be different. It is likely that when Brown replaces Blair, the perception of many workers initially could be that things will be different. But Brown made it clear, at the TUC, the Labour Party conference and in cabinet meetings following Blunkett’s resignation, that while he might oppose some ‘ill-considered’ privatisations, in general, as his support for London Underground privatisation demonstrates, he will continue to extol its virtues. He has also stated that he opposes ‘generous’ increases in pay for public-sector workers, which presumably refers to the increase to a miserly £5.58 an hour for hospital workers.
However, the illusions and patience amongst working-class people cannot be underestimated when a new leader appears on the scene. Despite his courting of the capitalists in the run-up to the 1997 election, there was a widespread illusion that Blair was a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’; once in power he would bare his fangs towards the capitalists. Instead, he proved to be a lamb as far as capitalism is concerned, as we predicted beforehand. Steve Richards has revealed that, soon after Blair arrived at Number 10 in 1997, the CBI paid him a visit with a ‘shopping list’ of demands. They had a bottom line but never got a chance to explain this because Blair accepted, to their astonishment, their demands in total! Brown might be a lot more robust on standing up to the capitalists on individual issues but he will act on fundamentals like Blair.
If Brown takes over quickly – some time in the next twelve months – then it is possible that by changing the rhetoric at least, if not content of policy, Brown could give the impression that he is different to Blair. Major managed, seemingly against all the odds, to pull off a narrow majority for a fourth consecutive Tory victory in 1992. Brown could tack and weave but would be prepared to carry out the original New Labour project of him and Blair. This assumes that the bottom does not fall out of the world and British economies, which is not at all guaranteed. On the internal position in the Labour Party, Brown is as much of a control freak as Blair, brooking no serious opposition.
One-man rule, with a tiny cabal around the prime minister, is the norm within the New Labour government. Cabinet discussions, as ex-ministers have revealed, are for form, as the important decisions have been taken outside. The PLP meetings, which in the past were forced to reflect the pressure at the base of the party, are according to Clare Short, not a forum for discussion but merely ‘rallies’ in support of the leader. A Brown premiership may signify a short interregnum in the discrediting and disintegration of this moribund party but it will not fully arrest its decline.
The conditions for a new mass workers’ party exist as much in Britain – and for that matter in the rest of Europe – as in Germany where the Left Party received 8% of the vote and 54 MPs in the last general election. The crucial difference is that a leading figure in Germany like Oskar Lafontaine stepped outside the increasingly discredited ex-social democracy and linked up with trade unionists and young people to create the Left Party electoral alliance. In Britain, leading figures who could play that role such as Tony Benn or trade union leaders like Tony Woodley instead use all their efforts to try to repair what is now the wreckage of a past workers’ party. It is left to Bob Crow and others to show a way forward. The dwindling band of lefts who still advocate work within this party know in their heart of hearts that they do not have much hope of success. Labour Party ‘activists’ are reduced to a rump of councillors and their hangers on, increasingly devoid of power and isolated from the population they purport to represent.
A Tory revival?
MOREOVER, BLAIR AND his entourage hope to complete the ‘project’ before he departs the scene, particularly as far as the Labour Party is concerned, by emasculating even further trade union influence within the party. Alan Johnson, former trade union leader and now a government minister, has called for a further cut in the vote of unions at the conference from the present 50% to 15%! Tony Woodley’s riposte to a weakening of trade union influence was to declare: "A Labour Party with no place for working class collectivism would be a Labour Party no longer". (The Guardian) He was speaking in the future tense but that is the reality now. The late Sir Keith Joseph, guru and author of the counter-revolution against workers’ rights and conditions, once declared that the Tories’ aim was to create "two Tory parties in Britain". They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
The main argument of Tony Benn to justify hanging on to the Labour Party in a recent Guardian article was that he had witnessed, as a child, the betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald. However, he says that the Labour Party then recovered… in 1945! It took 14 years to overcome this betrayal and elect a Labour government once more! There was, however, a fundamental difference between the Labour Party then and now: Labour was still a workers’ party at the bottom, even after the defection of MacDonald, although it had been reduced to a small number of MPs in the Commons. It was still therefore an arena for work for socialists and a vehicle for working class views and action. But with Blair or Brown at its head, with the same policies in substance, the party will further decline and, worse, could prepare the conditions for a Tory revival.
The election of Cameron is a measure of the desperation of the Tories. Traditional leaders of what was the main capitalist party were usually blooded in the hurly burly of politics, both in the ‘bear pit’ of parliament and outside on the electoral stump. The risk is that he will fall on his face when he comes up against ‘bruisers’ like Brown when he replaces Blair. Notwithstanding all the difficulties confronting Cameron, however, it is not ruled out that the Tory party could be politically renovated, backed by the media, and exploit the discontent with Blairism and Brown, especially if the economy goes pear-shaped. If mass abstentions occur in the next election, as was the case in the last two, the Tories could creep back to power. Cameron and Davis are attempting to pretend, like Bush, that they are ‘compassionate conservatives’, which means that they are ‘compassionate’ towards conservatives, the rich and powerful.
Although he is dismissed as a lightweight, Cameron could yet lead the Tory party to an electoral victory. The Guardian ICM poll in October showed that Labour’s lead was down to just three points (Labour on 36%, Conservatives 33%). Both Blair and Brown will use the threat of a return of the Tories to bolster their own position. Schröder tried the same tactic in the German election but it did not work. Therefore, a Tory victory in the next general election cannot be discounted. On the other hand, it is possible that a hung parliament could be the outcome. What government would result from this is now not at all clear.
Tory chairman, Francis Maude, has even floated the idea that the Tories could form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in a situation like this. This is, in itself, a mark of how the situation has changed in the last 30 years. Ted Heath, Tory prime minister in 1974, when he found himself in a minority following the February election that year, tried to broker a coalition with the Liberals, then led by Jeremy Thorpe. However, the Liberals, then posing as a radical party, would have been completely shattered if they had accepted the embrace of Heath and the Tories. In those circumstances a minority Labour government came to power.
The Liberal Democrats today, however, are a different beast entirely, having embraced privatisation and other neo-liberal measures. The proponents of the ‘Orange Book’ in the Liberal Democrats – which enshrines their neo-liberal programme – like Vincent Cable, their treasury spokesman and a former top oil executive, could easily sit in a Liberal Democrat/Tory cabinet. The more radically inclined Liberal Democrat base would oppose this, maybe even leading to splits to the left. Such a scenario cannot be ruled out.
We have moved into a new phase in Britain and worldwide. It is characterised by economic uncertainty for capitalism where a recession or even a slump could develop in the foreseeable future. If, however, it manages to stagger on then this will be against the background of an intensified neo-liberal offensive against the working class and the poor in Britain and worldwide. This in turn means that, even without an economic collapse, the collision between the classes will grow, resulting in strikes, even defensive general strikes, social upheavals along the lines of the riots in France and the searching by a new generation in particular for a political expression in new formations of the working class.
New Labour has already been profoundly shaken, as we have seen, by this process. The crisis within the party and the government reflects the, as yet, mostly subterranean revolt which is brewing in the ranks of the working class. Millions no longer have a mass voice as the three major capitalist parties huddle together in the so-called ‘centre’ of British politics. The result is a rejection of ‘official’ politics, a disconnection from what is happening, particularly at the lofty and lucrative summit of society.
It is time to break the logjam by launching a serious discussion about action for a new mass party for the working class! It is this road and not the obstacle-strewn, politically potholed one of New Labour which working-class people should take.