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Socialism Today 111 - July-August 2007

New Labour inviolate

TONY BLAIR was the first prime minister in British history to depart the House of Commons to a two-minute standing ovation from both sides of the house – Labour and Tory. The Tories were waved to their feet by their leader, David Cameron, who is as anxious to claim the mantle as Blair’s rightful successor, as Blair once was to declare himself a child of Thatcherism.

As a result of the occupation of Iraq and his government’s pro-big business neo-liberal policies, only 22% of the population believed Blair was doing ‘a good job’, making him one of the most unpopular prime ministers ever. However, in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Westminster he remains a politician to be emulated rather than reviled.

The new New Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, has mentioned ‘change’ several times in his first few speeches to try and indicate that he will be different to Blair, and thereby improve his chances of winning a general election. Nonetheless, his overriding concern is to make it clear to the working class that his premiership will be no change, that it will not be a ‘shift to the left’. As a result, he spent most of the six-week period leading up to his coronation emphasising his continuity with Blair, in particular his intention to step up ‘reform’ (privatisation) of public services. While Brown’s style may be different, nothing fundamental will change.

On the contrary, the weeks running up to Brown’s coronation, and his first days as prime minister, have reconfirmed the Socialist Party’s conclusion that the Labour Party in the 21st century is a capitalist party which cannot be ‘reclaimed’ by the working class.

Brown came to power declaring that he wanted a ‘government of all the talents’, that is, a ‘national government’ with representatives of other capitalist parties, particularly the Liberal Democrats, in the cabinet. Back in 1997, Blair declared that the Labour Party should never have been founded and that there was no need for an independent party of the working class. It was originally Blair’s intention to bring Liberals into the cabinet in 1997, but the scale of Labour’s victory made it difficult to justify. However, the destruction of any remaining elements of working-class representation within the Labour Party, leaving the leadership free to follow the dictates of big business, has meant that the difference between a ‘national government’ and a New Labour one has been purely cosmetic.

The lack of any vocal opposition within the Labour Party to Brown’s ‘government of all the talents’ reflects this reality. The defection of Tory MP, Quentin Davies, citing Brown as the primary attraction of New Labour, drives the point home. All three establishment parties are becoming interchangeable, not just in terms of policies, but increasingly of personnel. Brown has even been able to appoint leading representatives of big business to his government, including Sir Digby Jones, the viciously neo-liberal ex-leader of the Confederation of British Industry, and Damon Buffini, the hated private equity chief, with barely a murmur of opposition.

Nonetheless, Labour left MP John McDonnell and his supporters have done their best to draw positive conclusions about the Labour Party from the events of recent weeks. Brown was nominated by 313 of the 355 Labour MPs, making it impossible for McDonnell to get on the ballot paper. However, McDonnell and his supporters argue that, had there been a contest, he would have received widespread support from ordinary Labour Party members and trade unionists.

Undoubtedly, some Labour Party members, and particularly members of affiliated trade unions, would have voted for John McDonnell had they been given the chance to do so. However, this does not answer the question about why it proved impossible to pressurise Labour MPs to nominate McDonnell, and what this says about the state of the Labour Party.

Prior to the close of nominations, Labour Left Briefing was pointing out that "backbench MPs respond to pressure. If the nearly 100 MPs who voted to reject Trident are serious about their opposition to a new generation of nuclear weapons they should nominate a candidate who will stop them being built. Now is the time", Briefing continued, "to mount maximum pressure on Labour MPs to ensure we have a real discussion about the Party’s future and not some Albanian-style coronation".

But of course an ‘Albanian-style coronation’ was what the Labour Party got. Most backbench Labour MPs have failed miserably to vote against the government’s right-wing policies on a consistent basis. Since 1997, there have been only three substantive issues with rebellions of 100 or more – Trident, the war in Iraq, and House of Lords reform. A majority of trade union sponsored MPs have not even supported the TUC-backed Trade Union Freedom Bill to remove the most repressive aspects of Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation. In reality, unlike Trident and particularly Iraq, where MPs felt under pressure from many of their constituents, Labour MPs were not under any serious pressure to nominate McDonnell for Labour leader because the Labour Party is an empty shell, virtually without activists or local structures. In Birmingham, the second biggest city in Britain, the party’s constituency delegate organisations, the general committees, have been formally abolished!

The only contest that took place was for the virtually powerless position of deputy leader of the Labour Party. Even if a left-wing candidate had been elected s/he would be unable to do more than whisper in Brown’s ear. However, there was no possibility of this happening. All six deputy leadership candidates nominated Brown for leader. Some, it is true, in the hope of winning the backing of ordinary trade unionists, attacked the obscene wealth at the top of British society. However, even Jon Cruddas, who went furthest – stating the obvious that New Labour has ignored the working class and lost five million voters as a result – was quick to deny that he supported any concrete increase in taxation of the rich.

Having failed to get on the ballot paper for leader, McDonnell put a brave face on the situation: "Thousands of socialists have joined or rejoined the Labour Party… We’ve recruited a whole new generation of young socialists – and won back those who had long since given up hope".

This does not fit the facts. Over the past 18 months, New Labour’s membership has slumped from 198,000 (half the level of 1997) to 182,000. While a trickle may have rejoined the Labour Party to vote for McDonnell, they were far outweighed by the flood heading out the door. Even those who did rejoin are unlikely to stay. Their attitude is likely to be summed up by one letter to The Guardian, sent after McDonnell’s leadership bid collapsed, which simply said: "Ah well, saves us having to rejoin what used to be called the Labour Party after all then".

However, it was the attitude of ordinary trade unionists to the Labour Party that was most clearly revealed by the elections. Only 8% of members of affiliated trade unions and organisations voted in the deputy leadership contest! The majority clearly did not see Labour as ‘their party’. The number who voted must have been affected by the fact it was required to tick a box saying you "support the policies and principles of the Labour Party" in order to take part.

Nonetheless, if McDonnell, whose programme did take up many of the issues affecting trade unionists, had been on the ballot paper, a bigger layer of trade unionists would probably have voted for him. For that reason the majority of the national leaders of the affiliated trade unions moved might and main to prevent McDonnell getting on the ballot paper and to ensure Brown’s smooth succession. They hope in vain for a few ‘crumbs’ from Brown’s table in return. However, as Brown continues to attack workers’ pay and conditions they will face overwhelming pressure from their members to take action, particularly in the public sector. In that situation, the idea that trade unions should continue to fund New Labour will become increasingly unsustainable.

In a premonition of future developments, Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, denounced an alleged "major push" by the Socialist Party to break the link with Labour (presumably he means our support for the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party), and lamented that he is "seen as an apparatchik for Gordon Brown". In an attempt to distance himself from New Labour’s attacks he declared: "Labour is drinking in the last chance saloon".

The right-wing trade union leaders will do all they can to prevent workers moving to found a new mass party which genuinely represents their interests. Unfortunately, McDonnell is continuing to argue, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Labour Party can be reclaimed. Nonetheless, workers’ experience of Brown in office will lead to growing numbers drawing the conclusion that a new mass workers’ party needs to be built.

Hannah Sell


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