Blair’s project offers new opportunities
Most of the left has yet to grasp the thorough-going nature of Blair’s proposals for reforming the constitutional monarchy.
Still locked in the mindset which sees the Conservative Party as the main, if not the only, instrument of bourgeois political rule, many rejoiced at New Labour’s general election victory, seeing it as an advance for the working class and a setback for the establishment. As recently as September 20, Socialist Worker reminded us of “the joy on May 1 when the Tories were annihilated at the polls”.
It has not yet dawned upon these comrades that Blair’s reforms would set the scene for a complete restructuring of bourgeois politics in Britain that could leave the Tories sidelined for many years. Blair hopes to make New Labour the main organ of bourgeois political control for a generation.
His plans for the creation of a ‘new Britain’ are designed to ensure a wide consensus necessary for the more efficient operation of British capital. They include decentralisation of some state powers, particularly in Scotland and Wales, but also embrace a new arrangement for the Six Counties, incorporating some kind of all-Ireland institution under British hegemony.
Blair intends to repopularise the monarchy in line with his vision of a modern Britain - replacing its archaic image which was so clearly demonstrated following the death of Diana Windsor. He also aims to curtail the powers of the House of Lords and abolish voting rights for hereditary peers.
Central to all these proposals are his plans for the state funding of political parties and the introduction of proportional representation. That would reshape the political landscape and open up the possibility - indeed the certainty - of new alliances. Under PR no party could expect to win an overall majority and coalition government would become the norm. At the recent Liberal Democrat conference delegates who wanted to rule out “in principle” a partnership with Labour were told to grow up. Why did they think their party had been campaigning for electoral reform if not to achieve greater influence, including a share of government?
In this light the immediate future does not look bright for the Tories. Potential allies after the first PR general election appear very thin on the ground at this time. Indeed William Hague has as good as admitted that the Conservative Party can expect further defections to the Liberal Democrats or even to Labour. He said that his party would continue to oppose British participation in European monetary union even if that risked losing Tory leftwingers. Such a position, out of step with the requirements of British capital, would guarantee Tory isolation from the bourgeois mainstream if it were maintained for long.
While the left has commented on Blair’s reforms on a case by case basis, there has been very little in the way of a serious overall analysis which places New Labour, rather than the Tories, at the centre of the bourgeois political stage. This piecemeal approach has led, for example, to the welcoming of toothless assemblies for Wales and Scotland as a ‘step forward’, whereas a more rounded, global analysis would at least have given rise to the possibility of viewing Blair’s devolution in a different light - as a central part of his bourgeois constitutional reforms, aiming to subdue national aspirations and deny the right to self-determination.
The Tory leadership has, like the left, responded to its crushing electoral defeat without fully grasping the potential consequences for the Conservative Party. Hague’s proposals to reform his party’s constitution bear all the hallmarks of a reaction to a short-term loss of power, rather than any attempt to draw up a strategy to avoid the marginalisation that the Tories could face.
Like Blair, Hague wants to ensure a tighter grip on the component organisations of his party - a move which has led to the rightwing MP, Nicholas Winterton, dubbing his reforms “Stalinist”. As well as bringing the Tory youth and student groups under central control, he intends to give the leadership new powers to discipline wayward MPs at the expense of constituency parties.
The element of membership democracy he intends to introduce will nevertheless ensure that the leader keeps a firm grip on policy and organisation. For the first time there will be a central membership record, enabling central office to bypass the constituencies and allow individual Tories a vote in leadership elections. However, MPs will retain a majority say - their votes being worth at least 60% of the total. Similarly, elected representatives will account for only half of the new governing ‘board’ of the Conservative Party, the rest being nominated by the leader.
The current leadership ‘election’ ballot has been rightly denounced by Tory dissidents as a public relations exercise. The results, to be announced on the first day of next week’s Tory conference, will of course give Hague a large majority of the votes (he was the only candidate, but members could refuse to ratify his election). However, it is thought that only around half Conservative members bothered to vote - hardly a ringing endorsement of his leadership to date.
The running of the ballot left a lot to be desired. In the absence of centralised membership records papers were issued in bundles of 50 to constituency parties, leading to a lack of control and allegations of foul play. Union leaders were right to point out that if they had conducted their internal elections in that way they would have been vociferously denounced by the Tories and the vote declared illegal.
Hague’s reforms will no doubt ensure that the present fiasco will not be repeated, but they will do little more. He shows no sign of coming up with a strategy to counter Blair’s far-reaching constitutional changes.
The Tories had no answer to Blair’s devolution proposals except to lecture the Scottish and Welsh people that everything in the constitutional garden was fine as it was. It is true that Hague is said to be considering toning down Conservative opposition to Blair’s plans for reform of the House of Lords, but how does he intend to deal with the threat of PR?
Proportional representation throws up the possibility of splits that would not be contemplated under first-past-the-post. The Tories, with their deep-rooted divide between realists, who understand British capital’s need for European integration, and out-and-out reactionary chauvinists, would be most prone to splinter - although Labour too would not be immune to a leftwing break of greater significance, socially and numerically, than the Socialist Labour Party.
Such a change would also offer new possibilities for the revolutionary left, providing of course it is able to overcome its chronic sectarianism. But before we can even consider such opportunities, the left will have to wake up to the significance of Blair’s plans.