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Issue 43, November 1999

Britain - Beyond the parliamentary shadows

New Labour and the Unions
Tories revive the ghost of Thatcher
Re-aligning British politics

As decisive sections of the British ruling class re-assess their support for the increasingly right-wing Tories, Tony Blair's 'project' to wind-up Labour as a class-based party has reached fruition. But this, argues PETER TAAFFE, combined with the profound social and political processes an economic recession will unleash, is merely preparing the ground for a new period of political fireworks in Britain.

'FACTS ALONE ARE wanted in life', said Dickens's Gradgrind. On the very day that Tony Blair at New Labour's conference in Bournemouth declared that the class struggle was over, the house journal of the financial wing of the British ruling class, the Financial Times, commented: 'Wage inequality is greater than for 100 years... one-in-two less skilled men is without work, and one-in-five households lack access to an earned income'.

Employment insecurity for those who have jobs is at 'the highest level for 30 years', according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Half of the workers polled by this body said that they 'cannot trust their managers at all, or do so only little'. According to The Observer (26 June), 'Those living in the ghettos of Liverpool and Manchester are poorer than olive growers in Greece and Portugal'. John Pilger has pointed out that the health of British children is worse than in Slovenia or Albania! Diane Coyle, economics corresepondent of The Independent, and probably a subscriber to Blair's 'classless' doctrine, nevertheless could write recently: 'The massive wealth and zero unemployment of the City of London lie just a mile or so from the country's worse concentration of poverty and deprivation. Half of Hackney's residents live in 'social housing', 38% receive benefits, and the average annual income is £10,000. In contrast, at least 1,000 City traders received a bonus of £1m this year - a total of £1bn or 0.25% of total UK consumer spending'.


There were 6,600 millionaires in 1992 and now there are more than 47,000. Blair's death rites over the class struggle is fashioned to soothe them and not Labour's 'core supporters', who are profoundly disillusioned with the performance of New Labour since it has been in power, even before the onset of a serious recession or slump. Real deep, abiding hatred exists already amongst some, in the 'sink' council estates, amongst old age pensioners (half of those over 80 live on £80 or less per week), the chronically sick, the disabled and the poor.

There is massive disillusionment, with half the population condemning Blair as being 'too arrogant', even prior to the Bournemouth conference. None of the real feelings of these sections, however, were echoed in the rarified atmosphere of Bournemouth, with its 3,000 'delegates' and 20,000 hangers-on, with two journalists present for each delegate. There reigned 'planet contentment' as invited guests were charged up to £500 a head to have dinner with 'president' Blair and his cabinet ministers (this was reported to have raised £1 million for New Labour during its conference).

Yet the reality for Labour, and a warning for the future, was to be found in the by-elections at Wigan, with a turnout of only 24%, and Hamilton South. Hamilton saw a massive collapse of Labour's vote compared to the recent elections to the Scottish parliament, with a 22% swing to the Scottish National Party (SNP) and, most notably, a third place showing for the Scottish Socialist Party. This did not prevent Blair, however, from modestly looking towards 100 years of power, not for Labour or even New Labour, but for 'the progressives'.


Bournemouth signified in a completely naked fashion what the 'Blair project' entails: a winding up of the Labour Party as a class-based party with one foot at least rooted in the working class, into an open capitalist party along the lines of the Democratic Party in the USA. Hugo Young underlined this in The Guardian: '(Blair's) reliability on the business front, it seems, is proven'.

Tom Sawyer, a former left-winger who has now been elevated to a 'Lord', reinforced this when he wrote in The Guardian, that the task facing New Labour today was, 'What kind of capitalism are we going to have, and how can we work with it for the benefit of the people'. The forces of 'conservatism', amongst whom Blair brackets the left with die-hard Tories, are consigned to the rubbish heap of history, alongside socialism and the class struggle.

One of his union spear carriers, Ken Jackson of the engineers union, the AEEU, joined in the Blair chorus by declaring that Britain was now 'strike free'. Three days after this infamous statement, 8,000 electricians marched through the streets of London demanding substantial wage increases, as well as Jackson's head, resulting in a 30%. A week later, Ford workers, many of them also AEEU members, gave a devastatingly practical refutation of the 'strike-free' proponents when they 'rioted' in the Ford Dagenham plant. Feeling just boiled over at the degrading conditions which are increasingly inflicted on workers in Blair's 'modernised' Britain.

An essential part of the Blair project is the embrace of the Americanised version of 'meritocratic democracy'. In essence, this idea suggests that power is wielded not by those who inherit wealth, who, allegedly, have hitherto held it, but by those who get to the top on 'merit' and by their own efforts. But even this implies 'winners and losers' with the mass of the population, that is the working class, in the second category.


There is some justification in Hague's jibe at Blair that the new 'establishment' is already concentrated around Blair and his entourage. There is a web of interlocking interests in the press, academia and industry (particularly 'self-made' millionaires who have accumulated wealth in the 'new' industries, such as the internet, new technology, etc). Add to this the 'quangocracy', many of whom are signed-up supporters of the 'project', and there is a considerable body of bourgeois financiers, industrialists, and 'opinion formers', who are alienated from the Tories and in the Blair camp.

top     New Labour and the unions

AT THE SAME time, the Blairites relentlessly continue to weed out any last vestiges of rank-and-file involvement which could challenge, never mind threaten, their grip on the party. Management committees of local parties are to be phased out and replaced with quarterly aggregate meetings; a minimum of 'business' will be dealt with, which means that scrutiny and control over the leadership is further weakened. A further purge of left-wingers is planned, with an 'approved list' of parliamentary hopefuls to be introduced. Aspiring candidates face a 'loyalty quiz' on party policy and mock media interviews to discover whether they would 'stand up' (that is, apologise) for New Labour's policies under pressure.

Before his elevation to the Northern Ireland office, Peter Mandelson, the Blairite prince of darkness, declared that what was needed was a 'virtual' Labour Party. Most observers were under the impression that this was what existed already! A membership was no longer necessary, according to Mandelson, particularly a paid-up, 'activist' kind. Instead, this 'virtual' party would have supporters to be mobilised as a cheering chorus at rallies, to be tapped occasionally for financial donations, and to be allowed the 'privilege' of occasional electoral forays. Little wonder that in the run-up to the Labour Party conference, it was revealed that Labour Party membership has officially plummeted from 400,000 to just over 300,000. In reality, the membership is way below this and the activist base has shrunk out of all recognition.


Blair, prior to the Paddington railway disaster, was prepared to privatise anything not nailed down. He has even privatised the Labour Party! The control, liaison and upkeep of membership figures is now in the hands of a private company. Despite the reluctance of the trade union leadership to recognise it, the influence of the trade unions within the Labour Party has been all but nullified. Like good British pragmatists, however, the Blairites, while excoriating the unions and denouncing any attempts by them to exercise decisive influence in the direction of New Labour will, nevertheless, lean on them against the left, or the vestiges of the left, which still exist in the Labour Party.

Faced with the challenge of Ken Livingstone for the mayor of London, the Labour leadership have been reluctant to court the odium and possible electoral unpopularity of completely banning him. They have, therefore, resorted to the next best thing by attempting to stitch-up the position for their favoured candidate, Frank Dobson, through an electoral college which gives one-third of the votes to the trade unions, one-third to the parliamentary party and MEPs, and only a third to the existing membership. These champions of 'one member one vote', as in the elections for the leadership of the Welsh Labour Party, change the rules to an 'electoral college' when it serves their purposes, despite denouncing it in the past in relation to the deputy leadership election involving Tony Benn in the early 1980s. This 'selective democracy', with some trade unions probably not even balloting their members but casting their votes for Dobson, is designed to ensure that Livingstone will not be selected. This is despite the fact that in a London Evening Standard poll, 50% of Labour supporters were behind him and 40% of Tories!


This incident is a practical demonstration that the New Labour tops will just change the rules when it suits them to prevent any challenge from not just the left, but even old-style 'social democrats' like Roy Hattersley. At the same time, they will lean on the old right-wing trade union apparatus to prevent the real voice of the working class being reflected within the party. Only one-third of Labour Party funds now comes from the unions, compared with 90% at the beginning of this decade. The contempt with which the New Labour summits view the trade unions came in the wake of Ken Cameron's proposal for the unions to financially disengage from the Labour Party. One of them declared that the FBU's withdrawal of finance to New Labour would be of no consequence as they receive the same amount, '£75,000 each year, from the publisher, Felix Dennis'.

Nevertheless, Peter Mandelson, in recent comments on the trade union link, could signify a change in attitude by the Blairites on this issue. He no longer advocates completely severing the party-union link. He has done this for a mixture of reasons. He wants to ingratiate himself with the right-wing union leaders and the ranks of New Labour. On the other hand, the kind of continued link which he proposes is not like the past when the trade unions had decisive control of the Labour Party.

John Edmonds, leader of the general workers union, the GMB, writing in The Independent during the Labour Party conference, answered calls for the severing of the link between the unions and New Labour by stating: 'We are the Labour Party'. This is a severe case of living in the past. It is true that during New Labour's conference a few critical motions were passed on partial privatisation of the post office and air traffic control. But with their crushing parliamentary majority and, as important, an almost completely Blairite cabinet, they can ignore any conference resolutions they don't like. This is a far cry from 1968 when the opposition from the unions to Barbara Castle's anti-union bill, 'In Place of Strife', split the Labour cabinet right down the middle. If the then prime minister Harold Wilson hadn't retreated and jettisoned the bill that government would have been brought down in the same way that the Ramsey MacDonald government was in 1931. There is no possibility of this happening now with this government. While it is not yet an open 'national' government there are strong elements of this in the co-operation with Tory grandees such as Heseltine and Clarke, and the Liberal Democrats.


The trade unions may now even be tolerated as linked to Labour in the same way as the AFL-CIO is to the Democratic Party in the USA. They are there to supply funds and support but not to exercise control over policy or press for decisive measures in the interests of the working class, let alone demand socialism.

A break from everything Labour stood for in the past was signified in Blair's speech to the Bournemouth conference. He brutally declared that the struggle was no longer between capitalism and socialism, brazenly conjuring up in his support Labour pioneers such as Keir Hardie. With the vision of an inhabitant of an ant hill, the twentieth century was pictured as belonging to the forces of 'conservatism'. This century, which saw the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, the Spanish civil war, the rise of Hitler, the second world war, the colossal development and progress of social attitudes, the huge development of technology and technique, the rise of the working class and its organisations; all of this is portrayed as nothing compared to the fact that the Tories have held power for most of this century. Blair deals with parliamentary shadows and not with the underlying class realities. This will be the source of Blairism's downfall in the events that loom.

The picture of the past is one-sided and erroneous. The very creation of the Labour Party is seen as a colossal mistake, a betrayal of 'progressivism'. The breech between the Liberals and the forces which set up the Labour Party is seen as a terrible mistake. Blair's mission is to put Humpty Dumpty together again. The Lib-Lab alliance must be recreated to guarantee that the next century belongs to the 'progressives'. Hence the partial coalition between New Labour and the Liberal Democrats and the actual coalition in the Scottish parliament. In the run-up to the 1997 general election Blair was planning a coalition with the Liberal Democrats if New Labour had won only a small majority. The crushing majority for New Labour put paid to this. It has now been revealed that Ashdown and Blair, unknown to their parties (particularly to the Lib Dems) were planning a joint manifesto for the next election.


The new Lib Dem leader Kennedy, because of colossal discontent with New Labour in his ranks, has been forced to put some distance between himself and Blair. But he has stubbornly resisted pressure for the Lib Dems to take up a position 'to the left of Labour', although he claims he will emphasise 'social justice' more than New Labour. Proportional representation, while it is rejected for Westminster elections at this stage and in this parliament, is being planned both for Scottish local elections, and possibly in England and Wales in the foreseeable future.

top     Tories revive the ghost of Thatcher

THE SEEMINGLY 'UNPRECEDENTED' poll ratings of New Labour - at over 50% - are rooted in the present stage of the economic cycle in Britain as well as the weakness of any challenge from the Tories, on the right, or from the left. Ten years ago, in Militant International Review, the forerunner of Socialism Today, we wrote: 'The more serious strategists of capital are terrified of the long-term consequences of Thatcherism. It is not accidental that the Financial Times... ruminated on the comparisons between Thatcherism and de Gaulle. For a decade the so-called 'strong state' of de Gaulle rode roughshod over the French proletariat. The stoked-up anger burst out into the streets in the immortal May-June days of 1968. The downfall of de Gaulle left in its wake the break up and splintering of the bourgeois parties'. (No.39, Spring 1989)

After these lines were written, and following the mighty poll tax struggle, Thatcher was removed from the political scene. Thatcherism, however, lived on in the Major government and more significantly, in the capitulation of the right-wing leaders of the labour and trade union movement. Blair himself is a by-product of Thatcherism, which was reflected in the political counter-revolution in the Labour Party effected through Kinnock, Smith and, above all, Blair.


The political effects of Thatcherism, however, are most acutely reflected in the virtual meltdown at its recent Blackpool conference of what was in the past the most successful bourgeois party in Europe. The left and socialists have no need to attack the Tories; the job was more than adequately done by one bourgeois commentator after another.

Dyed in the wool Tory Max Hastings, editor of the Evening Standard, savagely satirised Thatcher's political re-emergence at what he called a 'torturers rally in honour of General Pinochet'. He characterized Hague as having as much 'charisma as an infant amoeba'. While the 'representatives' (conference delegates) swooned in delight at Thatcher's conjuring up of 'her glorious past' and defended Pinochet, Heseltine, former darling of the conference, was pelted with peanuts and cocktail sausages. John Gray, ex-Thatcherite professor, characterised the conference as a 'festival of the depressed'. Andrew Rawnsley, in The Observer, simply reported it as 'the monster raving Tory party'. He scathingly wrote of Thatcher: 'Once again she was standing staunch with the heroic Augusto (Pinochet) - what's a little torture between friends'. He declared: 'Virtually the entire Tory party was aboard the flight to cloud cuckoo land... so psychotically are they gripped by the Thatcher fantasy that I am coming to the conclusion that the Tories cannot win an election while she remains alive - or at least sufficiently active to cast her baleful penumbra over whoever is nominally in charge of the Conservative Party'.


Continuing this train of thought, one Tory MP commented that she should simply 'be shot'. Julian Critchley, the former Tory 'wet' MP and now expelled from the party, in a parting sally, suggested 'a period of preventive detention in the Michael Ashcroft sunset home in Peacehaven'. The struggle between the Thatcherites and the 'wets' in the 1980s was like a village tea party discussion compared to the civil war which has broken out in the Tory Party today. John Major declares that Thatcher is 'mad' and that Tory policies on Europe are 'crazy'.

But the re-emergence of Thatcher, it is now clear in the aftermath of the conference, was not an accident. It was closely linked to the switch in strategy by Hague and the Tory leadership. Major was simply 'airbrushed' out of Tory history as the Hague leadership endeavoured to return to the 1980s 'golden age' of Thatcherism. Up to this point Hague seemed to be flirting with the 'caring conservatism' promoted by, for instance, George Bush junior in the USA. Portillo, the former darling of the extreme right, has attempted to re-invent himself as a 'caring Conservative' with a spell as a hospital porter and recent confessions of his 'gay past'. This merely resulted in a deluge of criticism, led by the odious Norman Tebbit, who is a caricature of his Spitting Image caricature! He denounced Portillo's 'deviancy' and sickeningly justified Pinochet's murder of Allende and the flower of the Chilean working class.

It seems to have dawned on 'Wee Willie' Hague, however, that the space for a viable 'caring' Tory party is now occupied by Blair. Therefore the conclusion that has been drawn is to shift the party even further towards the right. The model invoked is that of Mike Harris, the Tory leader of Ontario province in Canada. This brutal representative of big business, in climbing to power, promised a 30% income tax cut, savage welfare reforms, an end to positive discrimination in employment, etc. He reintroduced academic selection, moved schools from local authority control to parent dominated boards, and imposed 'no-strike' clauses on head teachers and their deputies. Naturally his counter-reforms provoked massive strikes from the workers of Ontario. Harris crept back to power, however, because of the lack of a viable alternative, due to the former workers' party, the New Democratic Party, moving to the right.


The situation in Britain is entirely different. The memory of the devastation and social convulsions caused by Thatcherism is still fresh in the minds of the mass of the population of Britain. The Tories' shift to the right is underlined by its virulent English nationalism (not British now with the defection of Wales and Scotland) allied to a pronounced ratcheting up of its anti-Europeanism. This takes the form not just of opposition to the Euro, upon which Hague could find an echo as the unviability of EMU becomes clear in the future, but of a decisive shift away from Europe and towards the USA. Thatcher vividly blurted out at the conference: 'In my lifetime, all our problems have come from mainland Europe, and all solutions have come from the English-speaking nations who have kept law-abiding liberty alive for the future'. Maude, the shadow chancellor, contrasted the USA's 'hi-tech, low tax, lightly regulated economy' to the alleged 'sloth' of the European economies.

It is not fantastical to suggest, as even bourgeois commentators have pointed out, that the Tories under the Hague-Thatcher axis are even contemplating withdrawal from Europe. The wilder margins of the Tory right have posed Britain joining the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)! This flies in the face of the economic reality that British capitalism confronts at the present time. Britain's trade has shifted decisively away from the Commonwealth towards Europe, both investments and exports to the USA take a minority position. Moreover, the decisive 'inward investment from Japanese monopolies, US conglomerates, etc, have all been on the assumption that the UK will be within the Euro zone' (Financial Times). Once Britain was cut adrift from the EU, this investment would dry up, enormously complicating the problems of British capitalism. The decisive sections of British capitalism look with horror at the prospect of an economic and political detachment from Europe. The City of London alone would lose out decisively if withdrawal was to come to pass.


top     Re-aligning British politics

IN THE LIGHT of these recent developments in the Tory Party the decisive sections of British capitalism are re-assessing their support for the Tories. It was their most reliable political instrument in the past. It has now, in the words of capitalist commentators, fallen into the clutches of the 'Thatcherite sect'. Belatedly, the pro-Europe wing of the Tory party has rallied for a decisive fight against the Hague-Thatcherite right. They have, for the moment, rejected the invitation from Blair for them to join the ranks of New Labour. Heseltine, undoubtedly echoing the sentiments of Clarke, Geoffrey Howe, and the rest of the Tory Europhiles, pointed out in response to this invitation that Blair hadn't left the Labour Party to join the SDP. They intend to recapture the Tory party after the expected electoral holocaust of the next general election. It is not certain they will succeed. A section of Pro-Europe Tory MEPs and others, after standing unsuccessfully in the recent European elections, are now considering joining the Liberal Democrats. Hugh Dykes, a former Tory MP, has already taken this step.

This may mark a decisive realignment of British politics, from the point of view of the British bourgeoisie. If the Tory party continues to march even further to the right it is not excluded that the British ruling class will detach themselves from this party and transfer their hopes to the Liberal Democrats. In a peculiar way, therefore, and with much delay, it is possible that Marx's prediction that the Liberals would be the main bourgeois party could be borne out. The Blair New Labour government is the best government from their point of view at the present time. But capitalist parliamentary democracy need its 'ins' and 'outs'. The British bourgeoisie need to rock the parliamentary cradle from 'left' to 'right' as they did in the 19th century between the Liberals and the Tories. They will not put all their eggs in the New Labour basket: they need another bourgeois party, as with the Democrats and Republicans in the USA, which can act as a safe parliamentary pole of attraction with the discrediting of one party or the other.


All the calculations of Blair and the strategists of capital can founder on unforeseen events, however, particularly developments in the world economy. 'Gordylocks' Brown presents a picture of a perfectly balanced British economy: 'not too hot, not too cold, just perfect'. The 'virtuous circle' of low inflation, low and falling unemployment, and a growth of the economy, will be shattered by world economic developments. Blair himself is considering calling an early general election, maybe as soon as Autumn 2000. Perhaps it has belatedly dawned on him that an economic recession or slump will have profound social and political implications which could shatter the foundations of his government.

Even if this present boom was to continue for some time, however, the stored up problems will produce social and political convulsions. A continued growth of the economy will provoke strikes, with the demand for an increase in the share going to the working class. The strikes of the electricians and Ford workers indicate future big movements of the working class. If New Labour comes back to power, as is expected, but probably with a reduced majority, it is then that the real political fireworks will take place in Britain. The British working class is very slow and ponderous, reluctant to draw hasty conclusions.

The excuses of the Blairites, however, that they had to first of all solve the problems accumulated under Thatcherism before proceeding to change things decisively, will have evaporated. The bill will be presented by the working class. This will take the form not just of social and political movements on an unprecedented scale but will pose acutely the question of the mass political representation of the working class. The creation of New Labour has meant the political disenfranchisement for the first time in 100 years of the mass of working class people in Britain. The cause espoused by generations of workers throughout the 20th century, of struggle against capitalism, of the solidarity of working people and the historic aim of transforming capitalist society and establishing a socialist planned economy, is now espoused by small forces like the Socialist Party.


But events will be a great teacher to first of all tens of thousands and then of millions of workers in Britain. Like the historic victory of the Liberals in 1906 (a prelude to their decline and the rise of the Labour Party), the political earthquake that brought to power New Labour in 1997 is preparing the ground for the emergence of a new force, a mass party of the working class in Britain. It will rise in inverse proportion to the weakening and ultimate decimation of New Labour and with it the Blair project. And the best proof of this is the 'rediscovery' of the ideas of Karl Marx. Francis Wheen's new biography of Marx, which has been met by astonishment and praise in the bourgeois media, indicates, even before this system has faced a serious slump, the profound disillusionment of a section of the intellectuals with 'post-modern capitalism'. The effects of this system are now being rejected by those who barely ten years ago looked towards it for salvation. This is a harbinger of what will happen amongst the working class in the not too distant future.

As we pointed out in Socialism Today in 1998, on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, the next 'big idea' will be the ideas of Karl Marx. 'No doubt', we argued, 'bourgeois academia will seek to imprison them (a new generation of socialist intellectuals), as they have done successfully in the past, within a kind of anaemic Marxism, which admires Marx's ideas, at least the less threatening of them, but refuses to draw the conclusion that mass action must result from them'. (No.26, March 1998) But we went on to point out, 'This will not prevent millions of workers from finding a road to the genuine combatative socialist and revolutionary ideas of Marxism itself'. Capitalism, and its parliamentary and political shadows, whether they be the Tories, the Liberals, or New Labour, are preparing the ground through their actions for the materialisation of this process in the next period.

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