SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 81 - March 2004

Blair after Hutton

THE HUTTON report fiasco and its aftermath have undermined all of Britain’s major capitalist parties to an unprecedented extent. In one poll, 51% of people believed that Tony Blair should resign as prime minister (Independent, 9 February). Another, taken at the same time, suggested that replacing Blair with the chancellor, Gordon Brown, would only improve New Labour’s rating by two points (Guardian, 10 February).

So unpopular is the government that the possibility of its losing the next general election is raised, despite a huge parliamentary majority. The main reason this remains unlikely is the overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for the other two mainstream political parties – the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. It is true that, for only the second time in seven years in office, New Labour has been overtaken by the Tories in at least some opinion polls (the first occasion was during the September 2000 fuel protests). Considering how deeply unpopular New Labour has become, however, it is hardly a sign of confidence in the Tories that they have scraped ahead in one or two polls.

Blair survived the biggest rebellion of the parliamentary Labour Party on university top-up fees by the skin of his teeth. When, a day later, the Hutton report completely exonerated Blair, the government, top civil servants and senior intelligence officers from any wrongdoing in the events that led to the death of the biological weapons expert, David Kelly, it momentarily seemed as if Blair had re-stabilised his position.

Twelve hours later, however, he was looking more vulnerable than ever. Never has a whitewash failed so spectacularly in its aim to get a government off the hook as has been the case with the Hutton report. On the contrary, Hutton went so overboard in his slavish covering up for the government that it has had the opposite effect – increasing the backlash against Blair in particular. Now every move Blair makes seems to sink him deeper into the mire. Most laughable of all is Blair’s latest claim – that he did not know that the ‘45-minute threat’ published in the infamous September 2002 dossier referred only to battlefield rather than strategic weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Crispin Black, a former senior intelligence officer, listed five reasons why this was impossible, comparing it to the queen suggesting that she did not know about the trooping of the colour! The effect of Blair’s war on Iraq has been such that 65% of people now say they can no longer trust the government on any issue (YouGov poll, 8 February).

And yet, when several opinion polls asked people whether they trusted New Labour or the Tories more, a majority still chose New Labour. Michael Howard, in his first 100 days as Tory leader, has succeeded in bringing the Tories back from the political grave. But, despite their opportunist opposition to New Labour over university tuition fees, they have not gained much in the polls. They are distrusted on their ability to manage the economy and, in general, still hated for the crimes they committed during their 18 years in office. Despite their attempts to appear to be ‘new’, ‘caring’ Tories, in reality their policies on the public sector amount to a programme of privatisation even more vicious than that being conducted by New Labour.

Even on WMDs the Tories have great difficulty in differentiating themselves from New Labour. After all, Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor, went even further than Blair when, prior to the war, he told some of his constituents that Saddam might drop a nuclear bomb on London! The Tories also made the mistake of joining the Butler inquiry, giving credence to Blair’s latest attempt to cover up the real reasons he went to war. Even the choice of Butler to head the inquiry further reminds people of the Tories’ past in office. This is the man who justified his behaviour during the Scott inquiry (on illegal supply of arms to Iraq) by saying, ‘you have to be prepared to be selective about the facts’. As cabinet secretary, he was responsible for covering up the corruption of three different Tory ministers whose shenanigans were later exposed.

The only mainstream party likely to gain over the issues relating to Iraq are the Liberal Democrats. While they have failed to oppose the war consistently (supporting it once it began) their refusal to take part in the Butler inquiry has undoubtedly won them kudos amongst an anti-war layer. Overall, however, the Tories’ recovery has kept the Liberals firmly back in third place.

Despite the weakness of the parliamentary opposition, Blair is now a wounded prime minister. He will never recover the position he had before the Iraq war, and it is not even certain he will survive until the next general election. If New Labour does very badly in the June local and European elections, Blair could be pressured to resign – most likely to make way for Brown.

Although Brown is barely more popular than Blair in the opinion polls right now, a switch to Brown as prime minister would undoubtedly generate illusions of a return to ‘Old Labour’. But those illusions would quickly come into conflict with the reality of Brown – who is every bit as much the architect of New Labour as Blair.

Even temporary illusions in a Brown-led government would represent not enthusiasm, but a forlorn hope. The central feature of the political landscape at the present time is the lack of any mass party capable of generating enthusiasm from working-class people. While it is true that, in order to prevent the Tories being re-elected, many workers will hold their noses and go and vote for New Labour at the next election, this does not represent any agreement whatsoever with New Labour’s neo-liberal policies.

The need for a new political force, representing the interests of the working class, has never been starker. But while it may be urgently needed, it will not come into being overnight. Nonetheless, the decision taken by the recall conference of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT) on 6 February may yet prove to be as significant in solving the problem of political representation for the working class in the 21st century, as the decision taken a century ago by its predecessors was on the road to the foundation of the Labour Party.

The RMT conference did not decide to found a new party, or even to move clearly in that direction. Nonetheless, it took a courageous decision, by 42 votes to eight, to withstand New Labour’s bullying and reaffirm the decision of the July annual conference to allow RMT branches in Scotland to give support to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). As a result, New Labour has expelled the RMT by letter, without any right to appeal.

The response of Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, unfortunately has not been to make a clear political break with New Labour. While he has argued forcefully for RMT branches’ right to fund the SSP, he continues to support the union’s affiliation to Labour. He argues that "affiliation to the Labour Party is still enshrined in our rule book and will continue to be our policy. The RMT is still embedded in the fabric of the party, one hundred years of history are not changed from one letter from Old Queen Street" (the Labour Party’s HQ). Moreover, he is still committed to sending an affiliation cheque to the Labour Party: "If Labour doesn’t cash it, then, that is up to them". (Tribune, 13 February)

Many RMT activists, however, go further than their general secretary. Several motions were sent to the RMT conference which (although they were not voted on) show the far-reaching conclusions that some railway workers have drawn. The Bristol Rail branch, for example, called for the "building of a national conference of trade unions and organisations of working class communities and political organisations to discuss political representation for workers", as the next step forward from the July conference decision.

The East Midlands Central branch sent in a resolution, starting from the fact that "a century ago, the pioneers of our union took the historic decision that trade unions should form our own political party, so that working people could be directly represented in parliament, rather than relying on other parties who serve the employers not the workers. Despite the betrayals of the Labour Party since then, we believe this is still the right policy: workers need our own party". The conclusion from this, they argued, would be "to see the union taking the initiative to stand our own candidates along with other unions and socialists, rather than tagging along with non-socialist, non-working class parties or personalities".

While these excellent motions may only represent the position of a minority of trade unionists at this stage, they are a harbinger for the future. And there is no doubt that if the RMT were to not only adopt these policies, but to campaign on them, it would inspire millions of trade unionists who are disillusioned with New Labour and looking for an alternative.

Even the very modest step taken by the RMT so far could act as the first crack in the dam and lead to a flood of trade unionists moving to try and force their unions to break with New Labour. This is particularly so in those unions which have come into conflict with New Labour. The London region of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has not paid a penny to New Labour since the strike last year. A survey of Strathclyde FBU members, conducted prior to last year’s Scottish parliament elections, found that whereas 63% of them had voted Labour in the 1999 elections, after the strike only 2% said they would vote Labour again. Similarly, amongst postal workers there is widespread outrage at the continued funding of New Labour by the Communication Workers Union (CWU).

Unfortunately, Andy Gilchrist and Billy Hayes, the ‘awkward squad’ general secretaries of, respectively, the FBU and the CWU, will do all they can to maintain the Labour link, and it is by no means predetermined that their union conferences this year will take the same road as the RMT. Even in the RMT the right wing, backed by the Labour Party hierarchy and their allies in the media, will attempt to lean on the less active layers of the union to try and undermine the position of Bob Crow and the left.

At the end of last year Bectu, the broadcasting trade union, voted by three to one in a postal ballot to remain affiliated to New Labour, following a June conference decision to instruct the union’s executive to "look for alternative electoral organisations and individuals that are prepared to represent the interests of union members in parliament". The numbers who participated in the ballot were very small, and the threat of the withdrawal of government funds from the film industry played a part in this vote. Nonetheless, it is an indication of how, especially when no mass left alternative to New Labour is yet in existence, the union leaders’ argument about ‘losing influence’ can have an effect on particularly the less active layers of the unions.

This will change with experience, as millions of workers come into conflict with New Labour. However, the intervention of ideas and strategy can also play a critical role. Those union activists who have already drawn the conclusion that a new workers’ party is needed have a duty to give a clear lead and take their arguments to the ranks of the unions.

Events can only drive those arguments home. Seven years into Labour’s rule, the gap between the rich and poor is greater than it ever was under the Tories. Every year, 200,000 babies are born into poverty, one third of all births. In total, 9.7 million people live below the poverty line. And New Labour is already giving a glimpse of its plans for the future, whether led by Blair or Brown. As Brown’s estimate of the likely budget deficit has ballooned to £37 billion it has become clear he is preparing for major cuts, probably combined with increased taxes.

While the government may try to defer cuts until after the general election, the recently leaked report by Peter Gershon, head of the government’s efficiency review, paints a brutal picture of what they would like to attempt. As the civil servants’ trade union, PCS, held a two-day strike against low pay and a new appraisal system, the Gershon report revealed plans of swingeing cuts and centralisation, including the cutting of 80,000 civil service jobs. The leaking of the report did not, as was undoubtedly intended, cow the PCS strikers: on the contrary it made them more determined to fight. Nonetheless, it is these kinds of savage cuts that the trade union movement must be ready to struggle against and to defeat. Out of such battles the possibility of a new, mass party that genuinely represents working people will be born.

Hannah Sell


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