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Issue 52, October 2000

Britain:Volatile times

    A coalition government?
    Labour and capital
    Labour and the working class
    A Tory election win?
    The trade unions' role

The fuel protest in September was not a 'one-off' but an indication of the deep opposition fomenting just below the surface of society in Britain. Damaging sleaze allegations have further undermined Tony Blair's rule. In the run-up to a general election, New Labour are in danger of igniting a potentially explosive situation. PETER TAAFFE, Socialist Party general secretary, analyses Britain today.

'A THOUSAND DAYS for a thousand years' - Tony Blair on New Labour's 'project', 1994. 'The government is the most successful centre-left government in 100 years' - Blair at Labour's National Executive Committee, July 2000.

The overall political situation in Britain is characterised by extreme volatility. The same features are shown in the rest of Europe, with the fortunes of ruling governments and parties changing rapidly under the impact of the fuel crisis, which has affected practically the whole continent. In Britain, however, these mood swings have had a more pronounced effect coming as they do after a period of seeming social and industrial 'peace'. A few months ago, before September's fuel crisis, the government was reeling with New Labour's guru, Philip Gould, declaring that it was 'out of touch'. Andrew Rawnsley, political commentator of The Observer newspaper and with an inside track to the Blairites, pointedly declared in July: 'New Labour is dying'.

The Tories had begun to recover. Yet, no sooner was summer over than the position of the government appeared to improve with an increase in their standing in the polls and a corresponding drop in support for the Tories. This was partly due to the gaffes of Tory Party leader, William '14-pints-of-beer-a-day' Hague.


A more important reason for the slide in its position, however, was the lingering mistrust of the majority of the British people for the Tory Party. A former Tory minister declared in May that 'the country still hates us'. The damage that they inflicted during the 18 years under Margaret Thatcher and John Major is engraved in the memory of the British people. They are considered almost as 'war criminals' who have yet to be rehabilitated. This was underlined by the result of the Romsey by-election in May this year, won by the Liberal Democrats, the worst result for the Tory Party in a traditional Tory seat for 100 years.

The impression of a further lurch towards the 'extreme' right was borne out by the launch of Hague's mini-manifesto in early September. This was a naked appeal to British nationalism and jingoism, allied to an attack on asylum seekers, pension rights, council housing, and with promises of further privatisation of universities. At the same time, their programme for tax cuts could involve a slashing attack on the state sector by anything from £12-£16 billion.

The fuel crisis, however, and the ineptitude of New Labour in handling this dispute, gave Hague a lifeline. He hypocritically declared after the event that the protesters were 'fine, upstanding citizens'. This was a complete contrast to the Tories' stand during the miners' strike or towards the Liverpool protesters against Thatcher's cuts in the 1980s. They were condemned as the 'enemy within'. Hague has coupled this with an opportunistic promise that a Tory government will reduce the tax on petrol by at least 3p a litre, which will find an echo from motorists and others. (Although this could be cut across by the Blair government taking measures to cut fuel tax for some groups such as hauliers, farmers, and those driving in rural areas.) Hague looked towards the party conference in October for a relaunch of the Tories.


But the hopes of Hague and his entourage that they would be able to re-brand the party as a latter-day convert to 'One Nationism' seemed to go up in a puff of smoke after Ann Widdecombe's rant against cannabis users. A senior Tory Party figure commented to the Financial Times: "She's made sure we don't win a single vote on the university campuses". Another added: "All the racists, homophobes and Europhobes feel its safe to join the party again". (5 October 2000) The contrast between Widdecombe's right-wing rant (her family's Tory antecedents, according to a recent biography, arose from her grandfather's bakery being put out of business by a co-operative store which opened next door to his!) and the speech of Michael Portillo was striking. Portillo, champion of the elite armed forces unit, the SAS, and English nationalism at previous Tory Party conferences, has it seems undergone a most remarkable Pauline conversation. He spoke about the 'rich ethnic diversity' exemplified by Britain's Olympic success. He called for sexual minorities to be respected, as should 'state school pupils like himself and William Hague'. Incredibly, he even spoke up for 'asylum seekers who come to Britain in fear of their lives'.

Hague himself had previously gone on a pilgrimage to the USA to imbibe the lessons of so-called 'caring conservatism' as propounded by Republican presidential candidate, George W Bush. Hague's attempt at 'One Nationism', however, bears no resemblance to the 'One Nation' philosophy of Tory prime ministers, such as Harold Macmillan in the 1950s or Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century. They rested on a much stronger economic situation. Substantial concessions were made to the working class in order to mollify them and thereby blunt the class struggle. Hague, however, from one corner of his mouth speaks about 'One Nationism' and out of the other corner threatens to take an axe to the already depleted living standards of the working class. The polls since the fuel crisis indicate that the British people still don't trust the Tories.


top     A coalition government?

DOES THIS MEAN, though, that Blair will automatically re-enter 10 Downing Street after the next general election? This is not guaranteed in the changeable situation which exists. Big events, a world economic collapse for instance, could lead to a collapse in support for New Labour.

In a general election, if the Tories were 2% ahead, then this would mean Labour losing its overall majority but still remaining as the largest party in parliament. This is because of the demographic peculiarities of the electoral system in Britain, which favours Labour at the present time but which in the past counted against them. Labour-dominated parts of Britain tend to have smaller constituencies than Tory-dominated areas. If constituencies in Wales and Scotland, for example, were the same size as in England, they would elect 23 fewer MPs, 19 of whom would be Labour.

A key factor in British politics in the next period, both in the general election and in some respects afterwards, is the role of the Liberal Democrats. They are traditionally the inheritors of the 'third party protest vote'. And clearly, disillusioned former Tory and Labour voters have swung towards them.

Despite the opportunistic approach of the Liberals - all things to all men and women - the mass of the population judge by impressions. They can be taken in for a time by the rhetoric of the party leadership, particularly when that party has not been in power. The impression at the moment is that 'people have tried Labour and the Tories, perhaps it is time to give the other lot a chance'. Therefore, it is possible that in terms of votes and seats the Liberals could gain substantially in the general election. It is not ruled out that they could hold the balance of power. This would bring back onto the agenda, in an accelerated and heightened fashion, Blair's project for establishing a 'centre-left' domination of British politics, which would allegedly squeeze out the Tories 'for generations'. Former Liberal leader, Paddy Ashdown, has revealed in his recently published memoirs that Blair was prepared to take the Liberal Democrats into a coalition after the last election. It was the size of the Labour majority which forced him to abandon a 'coalition government'.


An essential part of Blair's 'project' was to change the electoral system which, in turn, would facilitate a coalition between New Labour and the Liberal Democrats. A national coalition is already in power in Scotland between New Labour and the Liberals, and now also in Wales, where Rhodri Morgan has agreed a coalition with the Liberals, prompting the resignation of one of his ministers in protest. Ironically, in London, Blair's 'big tent' concept has been brought into being by his alleged arch-opponent, Ken Livingstone. The 'London government' involves Livingstone supporters, New Labour, the Liberals, and even 'left-wing' Tories.

From Blair's point of view, however, an unfavourable by-product of proportional representation was the victory of Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Party in last year's Scottish parliament elections. Blair's lack of enthusiasm for real proportional representation arises from the fear that this would lead to the gaining of seats in the Westminister parliament by similar forces, including the Socialist Party, in England and Wales. Before the fuel protest he obviously considered that the 'project' could remain on course without the dangers posed by proportional representation or even the 'Alternative Vote' system. The fuel protest, however, leading as it did to the seeming recovery of the Tories, the growth in support for the Liberals, and the possibility flowing from this of a hung parliament, has put electoral reform back on the agenda.

top     Labour and capital


NEW LABOUR IS a shadow even of what it was in the 1990s. It is now a truism that the class character of the Labour Party has changed fundamentally. Even Tony Benn, who still resists the idea of breaking with the Labour Party and creating a new mass workers' party, has inadvertently reinforced this conclusion. He declared that he was 'retiring from parliament to enter politics' at the next general election. He proposed, probably as a parting shot, a debate in parliament on the issue of 'socialism'. But he was forced to switch this to 'wealth, poverty and the economic system' after being informed by civil servants that there was no New Labour minister 'whose responsibilities included socialism'!

On hearing of Ted Heath's retirement from parliament, Benn pointed out that the former Tory prime minister "is far more progressive than New Labour". Given his belief "in intervention in industry... he should be seen as well on the left of the present cabinet". (The Mirror, 25 October) Benn also gave an accurate description of the character of the Labour Party when he declared: 'The most powerful advocates of capitalism today are to be found amongst the social democrats... It is a fact that you cannot find anywhere in Britain more powerful advocates of market forces and globalisation than in the party that describes itself as New Labour'.

The USA is a model for the Blairites. In fact, the US presidential elections are being keenly studied by both the Tories and Labour for lessons for the coming general election in Britain. Labour's general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, and others, have visited the US and studied Al Gore's campaign with a view to applying the lessons learnt to New Labour's programme and tactics. This underlines the class character of the Labour Party in Britain today, which is not fundamentally different from the US Democrats.


The shift to the right of New Labour has even horrified someone like Roy Hattersley. In the past he was on the right wing of the Labour Party, yet today is seen as on the 'left'. He recently wrote that New Labour is no longer a party of principle. It would be more accurate to say that it is a party of principle, but one of capitalist principles. The Socialist Party predicted before the last election that the sleaze and corruption which surrounded the Tories would inevitably infect New Labour. Traditionally, the right wing of the party has always been open to the seduction and corruption of the bourgeoisie and their agents.

Parliamentary Labour Party members, moreover, are largely the tame creatures of Blair. This is shown by Stephen Pound, a backbencher MP: "I'm a cringing coward. I always vote the way they tell me to vote. I'm a balls-achingly, tooth-grindingly, butt-clenchingly loyal apparatchik". (The Observer, 7 May 2000)

There is a rot at the heart of New Labour, reflected in the malicious infighting, in effect an open civil war, between the Blairites and the Brownites. The recently published book by Andrew Rawnsley, Servants of the People, has shown this. There is personal bickering and backbiting at the very top of New Labour, particularly in the conflict between Blair and Gordon Brown. In addition, there have been further damaging details revealed by Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General, in his recent book, The Unconventional Minister.


This conflict between Blair and Brown has some similarities to the clashes which took place in the past between Felipe González and Alfonse Guerra within the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). That was a split largely over power and influence rather than ideology. These kind of conflicts can sometimes be important in the sense that, while starting on 'personal' issues, they can reflect class pressures, which in turn can open up political and ideological divisions.

This was not the case in PSOE, where it was a personal struggle between different wings of the party apparatus. The same applies to New Labour. This does not mean that there cannot be brutal conflicts between the Blairites and the Brownites, especially following the next general election. Prior to the election it is probable, for the sake of ensuring a second term, that they will be compelled to 'hang together'. In the future, however, if the government lasts for any length of time, such antagonisms are bound to resurface.

In view of this, the question is posed whether these tensions could result in significant or mass splits in the Labour Party of a left character. Divisions are inevitable given the social convulsions that will take place in Britain following the re-election of a New Labour government and against the background of a serious economic crisis. But these will not be of the character of a mass left split similar to the Independent Labour Party in 1932. There has already been a massive emptying-out of the membership of the Labour Party. Officially it is admitted that Labour Party membership has dropped by over 100,000 since the last election, with few activists on the ground. This has an effect on campaigns, particularly for elections.


The class character of Labour's membership was starkly pointed up in the debate on pensions at the September conference. In the past, constituency Labour Party delegates were traditionally to the left of the right-wing dominated trade unions, and sometimes significantly so. At this conference, however, the local party delegates backed the leadership and voted by a majority of two-to-one, as Blair triumphantly pointed out on television, against the unions' demands for pensions to be linked to average earnings. These delegates are overwhelmingly from a petty-bourgeois background, and some are bourgeois.

top     Labour and the working class

LIKE THE NOW defunct Italian Socialist Party in the past, the links between big business and the Labour leadership were openly on display. Fewer than 2,000 of the 20,000 who attended the conference were Labour Party delegates. The rest were lobbyists who had to pay £250 each, business representatives, and journalists. The increasing dependency on big business for support, and particularly finance, is in inverse proportion to the same kind of support which now comes from working people.

The unions are still being expected to cough up £8 million for New Labour's election 'war chest'. These hard-earned resources of ordinary trade unionists are given for the 'privilege' of being trampled on by New Labour. Overall, Labour's target is to raise 40% of its funds from small donors and members, 30% from unions, 20% from big donors and 10% from commercial activities.


The haemorrhaging of support is particularly striking in the so-called Labour 'heartlands'. In Merseyside there was a mere 11% turnout in some areas in the May council elections. Contrast this to the huge turnout in council elections, never mind in the general elections, the interest amongst working-class people about the debates and discussions on the council, and the general political ferment when Militant (the Socialist Party's predecessor) exercised important influence on Liverpool council in the 1980s.

But it is perhaps in the North-East, famed for solidly voting Labour over generations, where the change is most striking. As John Pilger has commented: "In the past year, the North-East, like other heartlands, has stopped voting; turnouts for local and European elections, and by-elections, hover around 30% and drop as low as 19%". (New Statesman) You do not have to go far in the area to discover why this is the case. The collapse of industry, particularly the closure of the mines, has meant that the population has reaped a bitter whirlwind of poverty wages and big pockets of unemployment, with the attendant plague of crime and drug addiction. Relatively high-paid jobs in manufacturing industry and the mines have been replaced by call centres 'staffed by human battery hens', textile sweatshops and fast food outlets.

The refusal to vote in the May elections cannot be construed as an expression of 'apathy'. Rather it is a conscious act, a voters' strike against all the parties, but in areas like the North-East particularly against New Labour. Prior to the September events there was speculation, even from New Labour gurus, that the turnout in the next general election could be the lowest ever, at about 60%, although the revival in the fortunes of the Tories could temporarily cut across this to some extent.


As he did at the Labour Party conference, Blair will use the threat of the return of the Tory bogey-man, Hague, as a means of compelling even reluctant former Labour voters to come behind him in a general election. It is possible that this could have an effect, depending upon when the general election is called. Electoral polarisation between New Labour and the Tories would, however, only be temporary and would not cut across the underlying Americanisation of British politics, unless a real socialist alternative is posed.

Because of the threat posed by the Tories, it is possible that many workers who would have otherwise voted for parties to the left of Labour may swing back to Labour as a means of preventing the Tories coming to power. This could have an effect on the prospects of socialist candidates in the election. This will not be decisive, nor will it be an accurate reflection of the potential constituency which exists for a viable mass socialist, working-class party. This election is just one stepping stone towards that.

top     A Tory election win?

THE UNSTABLE SITUATION in Britain, and worldwide for that matter, economically, socially and politically, does not make it easy to predict the outcome of a general election. Timing, of course, against the background of world economic developments, will be crucial. Perspectives for the British economy are organically linked to the developments in the world economy, particularly in the USA.


Brown has a 'war chest' estimated at £15 billion to hand out in the run-up to the election. As Deutsche Bank put it recently: 'The British government has become a cash cow'. Some concessions will be made to the fuel protesters, hauliers and farmers in particular, and maybe to those who live in rural areas. But it looks doubtful whether Brown will make concessions to ordinary car owners.

In the light of the revolt at Labour Party conference on the issue of pensions, where Blair was defeated on an important issue for the first time since his election as party leader, Brown will be compelled to give significant pensions increases, probably before the election. Taking fright at the scale of the fuel protesters' revolt and their standing in the polls, New Labour gurus were urging Blair to delay the election until the last possible moment: 2002, or the autumn of 2001 at the earliest.

But if Brown can 'get it right' in his pre-budget statement by indicating the necessary concessions, and if the bottom does not drop out of the world economy before then, all the indications are that a general election will be held in the spring of 2001. Short of another economic or social earthquake, for the reasons sketched out above, it is likely that New Labour will come to power once more but with a reduced majority. In the polls they have recovered some support, though not all of the ground lost during the fuel protest and its aftermath has been regained.

A Tory victory, as remote as it seems now, would have huge repercussions. The electoral arithmetic makes this unlikely but not impossible. To say that a Hague government would be a red rag to a bull is an understatement. The constraining influence of the trade union leadership would not be sufficient to stop a huge collision between an aroused working class and a new right-wing Tory government. This would be a repetition, taking into account the differences in the situation in Britain today, of what happened in France following the election of a right-wing government and the attempt of Alain Juppé to introduce an austerity programme in 1995. This resulted in a successful public-sector partial general strike which was followed by the electoral defeat of the right-wing government and the coming to power of the current government headed by Lionel Jospin. A period of upheaval, which would have some similarities to the movements which followed the election of Heath in 1970, would develop in Britain. The issue of an all-out or a partial general strike would even be posed in this situation. John Edmonds, leader of the general workers' union, GMB, has promised 'fireworks' from the unions after a general election even if New Labour was re-elected. That would be more certain if the Tories came to power.


top     The trade unions' role

THE PRESSURE ON the trade union leaders given the election of a Tory government would be immense. However, they are an enormous conservative dead weight on the movement of the British working class and only a social earthquake would begin to move them into action. In reality, they would only be prepared to ratify action from below once it became unavoidable. Nevertheless, if one takes into account the general world economic situation and its repercussions for Britain, and the social effects that will have, then it is inevitable there will be eruptions which will be reflected in the trade unions.

One of the consequences of a new recession or slump will be the gradual emergence of a new advanced layer of the working class who will play a critical role in shifting the labour movement towards the left. Unlike previous generations, in which there existed a deep-seated confidence in the ability of the traditional workers' organisations to represent them, this new generation will be fresh, open and prepared to by-pass New Labour.

The Labour Party is now clearly no different from the Democratic Party in the US. This is a conclusion which is still rejected by the Labour left, in so far as it exists. It continues to hold out the prospect that Labour could be 'transformed' in a left direction. However, the New Labour aristocracy, who hold all the levers of the party's power in their hands, has systematically pursued its programme of stripping the Labour Party of even the semblances of democracy which were inherited from the past.


The channels through which the trade unions, with reduced influence, could transform and change the Labour Party at every level, have been blocked-up by the right wing. Even Edmonds complained prior to the Brighton 2000 conference that getting a motion onto the agenda of the conference was like trying to 'ride over Beacher's Brook' in the Grand National. Of course, Edmonds and the other right-wing union leaders, through their own actions in supporting the Blairites in the past, helped to construct the very obstacles they now complain about. Together with the policy changes, this has made it a party which is no longer a vehicle for the working class and the organised labour movement. Notwithstanding this, these very same trade union leaders will use the hard-earned resources of the rank and file to finance the party in the run-up to the general election.

What will come afterwards, in the event of New Labour being re-elected, is another matter entirely. There will be an inevitable industrial revolt, as well as massive social convulsions. This will wrack New Labour and compel the trade union leaders to come into semi-opposition to the government. But to expect that the union leaders will, at one go, seek to transform the Labour Party in a left direction would be unrealistic. Even if they wished to do this - and a majority is implacably opposed to such a step - they no longer have the enthusiastic backing of rank-and-file members of the trade unions to move in this direction. Moreover, the structures for doing this no longer exist within New Labour. The disgust with New Labour would be so acute in this situation - even worse than the widespread disenchantment that exists today - that whole sections of the unions will, in effect, be voting with their feet to oppose New Labour and move in a new direction. This is where the Socialist Party's position on the need for a new mass workers' party will come into its own.


The events in September are not a 'one-off'. The mood of working-class people has changed and decisively so. The pre-election atmosphere obviously has an effect but such is the frustration and anger at deteriorating living conditions that explosions before an election are not ruled out. Britain has well and truly entered a new period where the ideas of socialism and Marxism will find new and receptive audiences.

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