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Issue 35, February 1999

The Mandelson Affair

    A new left/right division?
    Where now for the 'Blair project'?

The forced resignation of trade and industry minister Peter Mandelson on 24 December was an unexpected Xmas present to all those who have been brutally trampled on, or elbowed aside, as Blairism has risen to dominate the Labour Party. PETER TAAFFE, Socialist Party general secretary, writes.

THE MANDELSON AFFAIR has highlighted the degree to which Blair's Labour Party has moved decisively towards the right and, in the process, has ceased to be a party which represents the working class. It also revealed the tensions - read abiding hatreds amongst the different cliques in the leadership - both within the party, and between it and growing sections of disenchanted former supporters.

Mandelson personified this process. In a sense he is the product of the incomplete success of the left in the 1980s and, particularly, the influence of the Marxists around Militant (now the Socialist Party) who held such sway within the party at that stage. Initially, Mandelson acquired his 'legendary' abilities in managing the press by witnessing at first hand our approach towards the media in the 1980s.

We used the capitalist media to explain and counter the witch-hunting manoeuvres of the right wing on Labour's National Executive Committee. This involved public discussion of 'secret' reports of right-wing party officials which detailed their behind-the-scenes plans to purge the left within the party, beginning with Militant and its supporters. We aimed to raise the level of understanding of Labour Party members, and those workers we could reach, by relating the witch-hunt to the struggle for jobs, housing, improved conditions and the broad historical struggle for socialism.

In contrast, Mandelson's 'black arts' - the US-inspired ideas of 'spin doctoring' - have precisely the opposite intention: to lie, mislead, misinform and to denigrate opponents by falsifying their ideas and actions. One of its central aims was to dissipate the opposition, both within the Labour Party and also amongst the broad mass of working people, to the policies of the right wing as they rose to power via Neil Kinnock, then John Smith, and ultimately Tony Blair. This has led to the effective destruction of the Labour Party and the rise of 'New Labour' which, as Blair never ceases to explain, represents a breach with what the Labour Party was in the past.

  Mandelson was a key organiser and 'ideas man' for the counter-revolution against radical socialist policies and the socialist aims of the Labour Party. Blair's leadership election triumph in 1994 represented the culmination of this process. Returning this January from his Seychelles holiday - which cost over £9,000 - Blair emphasised this once more: "It is as New Labour that we were elected. It is as New Labour that we have governed. And it is as New Labour that we will continue to govern". (The Independent, 8 January)

The events surrounding Mandelson have been given a highly personalised slant in the media. But what is highlighted here is not the personal traits and inadequacies of Mandelson, Blair and the chancellor, Gordon Brown - considerable though they are - but the failure of their policies. If tomorrow Brown replaced Blair, little would change in the policies of the government or the party regime within New Labour. Blair, Brown and Mandelson all rose to prominence as the Labour Party abandonned socialism, enthusiastically embraced the 'free market', and expelled socialists from its ranks. The limitations of Blair's government are those of any government which remains within the framework of diseased British capitalism, which has not and cannot solve the problems of working class people.

Mandelson, the arch-practitioner of Blairism, adopted a nauseating flunky-like attitude towards the rich and powerful. As Ramsay Macdonald, even before he betrayed the labour movement in 1931, was noted for his obsequiousness towards the possessing classes, so Mandelson displayed the same fawning attitude towards Prince Charles and his 'lady', Camilla Parker-Bowles (dancing with her regularly at parties). He never hesitated to bend his knee before the rich barons of capital. On a 'fact-finding mission' to the USA, he had entrepreneurs swooning with delight in California's Silicon Valley when he said, "We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". (Financial Times, 23 October 1998)

  A different approach was reserved for the poor, trade unionists and working people in general, formerly the bedrock of Labour. He arrogantly dismissed the idea that 'horny-handed, dirty-overalled people' should be represented in the Parliamentary Labour Party. This was too much even for right-wingers like Ken Jackson, general secretary of the engineering union, the AEEU. After Mandelson's calculated insult to industrial workers, Jackson seethed: "Let's face it, he has never got his hands dirty". (The Guardian, 1 October)

Mandelson sought to put his 'filthy rich' doctrine into practice through his friend, the appropriately titled 'Paymaster General', treasury minister Geoffrey Robinson. This millionaire 'socialist businessman' had 'earned' a part of his considerable wealth as an 'adviser' to a Belgian millionairess named Bourgeois! And he achieved notoriety when his it was exposed that he held £12 million in an offshore trust located in a tax haven, along with his former links to the corrupt ex-tycoon Robert Maxwell, not to mention his 'failure' to register his directorship of seven companies. Robinson's wealth rained down in golden droplets on the 'Blairistas' who dominate New Labour. It is not just Mandelson who has been corrupted by this - because that's what it is - but also Blair, who stayed at Robinson's Tuscany mansion, Gordon Brown, whose private office was financed to the tune of £200,000, and many others.

Mandelson, obviously choking with frustration in his Islington basement flat, yearned to be part of the glitterati in the fashionable Notting Hill 'swanky-land'. The bridge to this was a £373,000 loan from Robinson which was nearly ten times his parliamentary salary. And the most astonishing feature of this is that he, and Blair, do not see that he has done anything wrong in accepting a loan from a rich 'friend' who just happened to be a well-known candidate for future ministerial office in a New Labour government. Mandelson's only 'regret' is that he did not mention this 'loan' to either Blair or to his ministerial permanent secretary.

The affair has lifted the lid on the organic corruption which flows from the political position adopted by the 'modernisers'. If capitalism is to be embraced and socialism ditched, then why not accept the philosophy, outlook, lifestyle and pig-trough 'morals' of other capitalist politicians? This is the inevitable conclusion which flows from the ideological rupture with the principles of the labour movement - struggle, solidarity and socialism - which the New Labour 'project' represented right from the beginning. The 'socialist' parties in Spain, Belgium, Italy and France had taken steps much earlier along the road now being travelled by New Labour.

Contrast their behaviour to the spotless record of Militant, and the Socialist Party, whenever we have been elected to public positions, either as MPs or as trade union officials. Terry Fields, Dave Nellist, and the late, marvellous working-class fighter, Pat Wall, when they were elected to parliament, were selflessly devoted to the working class and lived on a workers' wage. Look at Joe Higgins, champion of the 'underdog' in the Irish parliament, the Dáil. What a contrast to the Mandelsons and their counterparts in the Irish Labour Party.

  top     A new left/right division?

SOME, EVEN ON the left, at first saw the clash between the Blair/Mandelson axis with deputy prime minister, John Prescott, and the 'Brownies', as a left/right division. It is not. It has more of the character of a struggle for influence and power within the apparatus of what is now a capitalist party. It has some similarities to the continuous clashes between Felipe Gonzalez and his supporters, on the one side, and those of Alfonse Guerra in the Socialist Party (PSOE) government, which held power in Spain throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s.

Under certain conditions, even a struggle within the apparatus of a party can reflect class pressures. A split or a division at the top can give a big push to a brewing mood of opposition in the ranks of the working class. Blair and Brown, conscious of this danger - remote as it is at this stage - rushed to paper over the cracks opened up by the Mandelson affair. Blair demanded the head of Charlie Whelan, Brown's 'spin doctor' press secretary. This character is presented by his friends, such as Paul Routledge, Mandelson's unofficial biographer, as a 'leftie' bruiser and a 'progressive'. He is nothing of the kind. As a 'fixer' for the right wing in the AEEU - before joining Brown - he organised to 'deliver' the votes of right-wing unions for the Blair 'modernisation project', including the dilution of trade union influence within the Labour Party.

The left/right interpretation which has been put on the Mandelson affair was given a certain credence by the statements of Prescott in early January while Blair was still in the Seychelles. He called for a return to 'Labour fundamentals', resurrected the ghosts of 'Old Labour', and called for 'Keynesian' measures and state intervention. It is a measure of how far to the right New Labour has moved that these very mild statements produced near panic in the capitalist press and their echoes in New Labour. More serious capitalist commentators, such as Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer, were clear that this was no traditional 'left/right' split. He commented that Blair's strength lay in the fact that "there was no united body of colleagues offering a coherently argued alternative to Blairism. Is anyone calling for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and pip-squeaking hikes in income tax? Not out loud, they are not. Not in whispers either. John Prescott knows they were not elected on that programme. Gordon Brown will be at one with Mr Blair in agreeing that they would not have been elected on that programme".

  Almost as soon as he had landed in Britain, Blair vindicated Rawnsley's analysis by declaring, "Labour as a party is now more ideologically united than at any time I've known it". When in South Africa, before returning to Britain, he stated on television that there was not a scintilla of difference between him and Brown on economic policy. And, despite Prescott's endorsement of Brown's alleged 'Keynesianism', Brown has pursued the opposite agenda - much to the annoyance of real Keynesians, like Will Hutton of The Observer. Hutton pointed out that Brown's policies are an unhappy "mishmash of laissez-faire and Conservative economic policies… without a clear political economy".

Nor will you find in the statements of big business representatives, such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) president, Sir Clive Thompson, any fear of a leftward lurch by New Labour. On the contrary, this viciously anti-union boss, the head of Rentokil, declared at the CBI conference in November 1998, that 'Labour is now the sort of centre-right party for which I would consider voting'. The capitalists clearly recognise that the former social democratic leaders have abandoned socialism and are prostrating themselves before the market. This was summed up at the meeting of European 'socialist' leaders in November by Strauss Kahn, French finance minister. He declared: "Gone are the days when Margaret Thatcher's Britain and François Mitterrand's France were implementing almost entirely opposite policies". Now the former social democrats just implement Thatcher's policies in a disguised and watered-down fashion.

This will lead to a complete rupture between decisive sections of the working class and Blair's government at a certain stage. This recent clash, and the resultant departure of Mandelson, Robinson and Whelan, will be seen in the future, as the government is split wide open, as a minor affair. Even seemingly personal clashes can be rooted in growing social tensions which will find much bigger reflections in the government than the Mandelson affair. We could have in Britain a re-run of what happened in 1931 as Blair, under the hammer blows of a worsening economic situation, attempts to impose greater burdens on the working and middle classes. Already, the attacks on welfare recipients, the catastrophe in the National Health Service, the massive unpopularity of Labour's educational 'reforms', have all produced huge discontent even within Blair's sanitised New Labour Party.

A haemorraghing of Labour Party members is already taking place in protest at the policies of the Blair government on issues like tuition fees, and cuts in single parent benefits. Official figures in August projected that New Labour would lose a further 36,000 members in the following twelve months (and another 6,000 would die). These figures probably underestimate the decline in the membership of New Labour, certainly in its active base. The situation is likely to get worse as the government is battered by the economic storms which loom. At the same time, the ruling class is quite clear as to where Blair has positioned his government and his party: "New Labour's embrace of prudent economics and market solutions is irreversible". (Financial Times)

  top     Where now for the Blair project?

ONE OF THE most significant aspects of the Mandelson affair will be the effect that this will have on Blair's relationship with the Liberal Democrats and the prospects for proportional representation. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, is the fourth casualty of the 'Mandelson Affair'. His resignation from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, to take effect after June's European elections, means that the 'Blair/Ashdown project' has now effectively been put on ice, at least for the next period. Ashdown clearly expected that the proposals of Lord Jenkins (who headed the government's commission on electoral reform) on the Alternative Vote-Plus system would be implemented before the next general election, and also that 'cooperation' with Blair would result in a cabinet place for himself. Those plans have been dashed in the wake of Mandelson's departure.

The central idea of Blair's 'Third Way' is to re-establish the Liberal/Labour coalition which preceded the formation of the Labour Party. In December he went further and declared: 'My vision for New Labour is to become as the Liberal Party was in the 19th century, a broad coalition of those who believe in progress and justice, not a narrow class-based politics but a party founded on clear values'.

In January, he again dismissed 'tribal positions' (read class divisions) and reaffirmed his alliance with the Liberals: "The ideological differences between me and many of the Liberal Democrats are pretty small". (Financial Times, 11 January 1999) He is trying to prepare the ground not just for cooperation but for merging with the Liberal Democrats and for a coalition government with them in the future. Philip Gould, a prominent exponent of New Labour philosophies from its outset and still part of Blair's court camarilla, has declared in his new book, The Unfinished Revolution, "The better course would be for liberalism and labourism to unite".

The division between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party was historically rooted in the incapacity of liberal bourgeois parties to solve the problems of the working class. This was why the Labour Party was created in the first place, at the expense of the Liberal Party, particularly by winning over 'Lib/Lab' workers. Blair has already involved the Liberal Democrat leadership in a government committee and is considering attaching civil servants to the Liberal Democrats to help them 'develop government policy'. He is also proposing that they will have greater access to 'confidential government papers'.

  In this sense, this New Labour government already has strong elements of a 'national government'. The Liberal Democrats are already in a de facto coalition with Labour, and the Tory 'wets', Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, have also been courted, with appointments to government ventures such as the Millennium Dome and 'export promotion' organisations.

Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely that, apart from one or two minor ministerial defections, even a programme of cuts in public expenditure similar to that in 1931, would provoke anything like the same response within the Labour Party today. Yet a Labour Party gutted of socialism and with very few socialists left in its ranks will not be completely immune from the waves of working-class anger that such a situation will provoke. Alan Simpson, one of the leaders of the Campaign Group of MPs, has foreshadowed a future split when the trade unions will break from Labour. It is unlikely, however, even if this was to come about that the unions would immediately create 'their own' party, as they did with the Labour Party at the beginning of the century. It is more likely that the privileged union officialdom will adopt the position of political neutrality, as did the socialist trade union, the UGT, in Spain, when it separated itself from PSOE in the 1980s.

However this would not apply to thousands of ordinary rank-and-file union members who are already looking for a new mass socialist alternative to New Labour. Such a movement would find an echo from many workers outside the Labour Party who already yearn for a fighting mass alternative. Already there is a significant layer of workers and youth who are looking for a socialist alternative under the impact of the first stages of a crisis within New Labour.

The Socialist Party stands for a new mass workers' party. We understand, however, that it will take events and a change in the consciousness of the working class before this becomes a reality. In the meantime, we stand for the closest collaboration of genuine socialists on the electoral plane, in the unions, and in the general struggle for socialism. We also believe that the Socialist Party and its programme and policies are the political weapons which can now arm the best workers, youth, women, and black and Asian workers who are repelled by capitalism and nauseated at the spectacle of a corrupt New Labour Party. They are looking for a socialist alternative. The Socialist Party offers that alternative.

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