Workers' Liberty #59


COMMENTARY


New Labour, five years on


In June 1994 when Tony Blair stood for election as leader of the Labour Party he denied wanting to get rid of Clause Four, the Labour Party's long-held, ambiguous, but potently symbolic, commitment to reform socialism.

Four months later, when installed as leader, Tony Blair told Party conference that the time was ripe to ditch such out-of-date aims and replace them with a "modern" mission statement. Eighteen months later a special conference voted to do just that.

The levers of class politics

The Labour Party leaders, Blair and the team which was rapidly gathering around him, were committed Thatcherites. Their political outlook went hand in glove with their aspiration to convince British bosses that New Labour could be their natural choice of party for government. The Blairites, at this point, knew that they either had to make the trade union leaders acquiesce to the "modern" agenda, or ditch the structural links between Labour and the unions. Stephen Byers, then a shadow minister, said as much a few months before the 1997 General Election.

Labour's membership was sick and weary of having the Tories in power, and so battered after years of defeat. Blair spun the media, convinced the trade union leaders that his was the only game in town, pulled the strings of an internal machine and brought the old soft left - Cook, Prescott and Short - into line. It was enough.

In government the Blairites have done their utmost to smooth a path for the capitalist exploitation of labour. They have had to face down significant revolts over lone parent and disability benefits from the Parliamentary Labour Party. With Labour Party internal channels largely blocked, Parliament is now the only ready arena for political revolt. The left was not able to put up strong resistance to the "Partnership in Power" changes to Labour's structures, adopted in September 1997.

After "Partnership in Power", Labour's annual conference became a complete sham of policy making. No motions can be submitted directly. Labour's National Executive Committee is a hollowed-out body. The real policy-making takes place in Blair's office. Long-winded consultation processes, modelled on the Stalinist transmission-belt-style "democracy" are now the order of the day. "We are the rulers and we tell you, the plebs, what we are doing." Labour had never been a Clause Four reform-socialist party, but it had been the political wing of the trade union movement. When in power Labour, under pressure from the unions and its members, would attempt to win concessions from capitalism. That relationship no longer operates. At the same time, Labour's links with big business, financially and through a network of "advisers", are being institutionalised.

The relationship between the unions and Labour has died, or at least gone into a coma, because the unions no longer demand their rights. Everything New Labour wanted to do, even on anti-union legislation, has been accepted by almost all the trade union leaders. The trade union leaders have done everything in their power to stop their members pressing for real change, even modest demands for a better minimum wage.

The unions were cowed by Thatcher and remain so under the new Thatcherites. Many of the unions leaders are university-educated professional functionaries who have no direct experience of winning concessions from the bosses on the shop floor. Their daily existence consists of stepping into smooth-running sound-proof Rover cars and driving to their offices. They certainly no longer know how to be anything but the most junior of "partners" in government.

To paraphrase one of Blair's heroes, Blair has brought us to "the beginning of the end" - the end of all that the best elements in the Labour Party have aspired to since the party's foundation in 1900. It would be very foolish for socialists not to face up to this reality. It would be foolish, also, for us simply to abandon to Blair important arenas of struggle in the trade unions or in what remains of the Labour Party.

What the working class needs as an alternative to Blairism is not just more agitation by small socialist groups - valuable and irreplaceable though that agitation is - but renewed mass working-class politics. The organised working class needs to reclaim the Labour Party, splitting away core working-class support from Blair's neo-liberal party-within-a-party, or to establish a new mass party based on the trade unions. The way forward is through the unions, and through the patient organised work of socialists in the unions. They cannot be bypassed.

Immediately, socialists can create political campaigns which attack New Labour policies such as the wave of privatisations and promote the interests of our class.

Reduced, bureaucratised and undermined by the passivity of the union leaders, the trade union link remains. A big fight by the unions is not on the cards today. But serious campaigns by the left in the unions are. The political fund can be used as a lever to argue for New Labour to back off or deliver on particular policies. Trade union activism is at a low ebb, but not as low as the do-nothing consensus which dominates TUC gatherings would suggest. Tony Blair is completely out of touch with what many trade union members think and believe. Trade unions still have to bargain within the system, however badly. Haringey council workers (in London) are set to strike against the local Labour council's 4 million cuts in staff wages.

One of the local Labour parties has been won to oppose the cuts. The dispute calls into question the whole strategy of Labour councils - how they waited and waited for New Labour's election to save them from making cuts and how they are still making cuts now.

The working class must have a political voice, but because of Blair's grip on the structures of New Labour, our tactics have to be more flexible. It has never been a matter of principle to Marxists not to stand against Labour, but it made little sense while the structures inside the Labour Party were open. Today, standing in elections in order to promote socialist ideas and counterpose a class alternative to New Labour can enable us to reach out to people otherwise excluded from politics. It can assert the idea that workers should have a political voice in a direct way that no other immediately available tactic can. Socialists should not have a fetish about electoral campaigns - but they can help develop a profile for what we say. The experiences of the left's attempts so far to get joint slates against New Labour has been very mixed - but that is to be expected. The questions of politics and orientation are central, and have still to be argued out.

We live in an apolitical climate where there is very little effective criticism about even the most obvious "failures" of capitalist society - high unemployment, social deprivation, rising inequality and deep-rooted evils such as physical and mental ill health among the poorest in society. The weak are often scapegoated. Those that work to soften inequality - teachers, and other public sector workers - are often scapegoated too. They are told that they are not doing enough to foster "social inclusion".

The job of the left is to make ourselves the most trenchant critics of the exploitative and unjust world in which we live - and to combine our agitation with a programme for a workers' government. We say that class is the prime organising principle, that fighting on class issues can win, and above all that the labour movement needs a political voice.


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