Sticking with Blair
As New Labour’s transformation continues, the left clings on
Last week’s Brighton conference saw the successful completion of another stage in Tony Blair’s programme of transforming the Labour Party into an organisation suited to the task of running a ‘modernised’ British capitalism.
Never again will scenes of angry opposition to the leadership be permitted on the conference floor, as the annual gathering becomes little more than a rally of the faithful. Those who believed - and still believe - that Labour could be the vehicle for reforms in the interest of the working class, for socialism itself, will be lucky even to get a hearing.
In his keynote speech Blair proclaimed his ambition for his administration to be “remembered for all time” as “one of the great, radical, reforming governments”. He inspired the conference with promises of big things in the fields of health, education and welfare, but did not trouble to go into the finer details. It was clear that he believed improvements could only be achieved through self-provision at the level of bourgeois society’s basic unit, the family. Just as Margaret Thatcher did to signify the end of the post-war social democratic consensus, Blair too stresses the responsibility of the family as he continues along the Thatcherite road of dismantling the welfare state.
Gordon Brown made a more substantial commitment, and one that had previously been dismissed as no longer possible - he promised no less than the achievement of full employment. But, as several commentators pointed out, its significance today is very different from even a decade ago. It is the ‘full employment’ of a slave class - indeed, coming from Brown’s lips, it sounds more like a threat. Labour’s ‘welfare to work’ schemes will force the unemployed into ‘training’ and no-hope, low-pay jobs (the minimum wage will be set at around £3.50 per hour - even less for trainees). In addition the millions without work who are no longer counted in the official unemployment statistics will continue to be regarded as having no existence.
For a third successive year the platform suffered not a single defeat, as even the most blatantly anti-working class proposals went through with only verbal of opposition. Motions to restore the link between pensions and inflation and in opposition to student fees were both withdrawn without a vote. In the case of tuition fees, education secretary David Blunkett’s plans were actually supported by Labour students. No debate was allowed in opposition to Labour’s plans to cut state benefit to single parents.
John Prescott was also able to persuade union leaders to remit their motion on rail renationalisation after he promised to introduce measures of greater “public control”. But the closest shave for the leadership was over a motion to scrap Trident and cut arms spending. Even here the movers were at pains to point out that their opposition had nothing to do with Old Labour leftism. It was, they said, totally in tune with the modernised, ‘caring’ liberalism of New Labour.
While the conference voted narrowly against any cuts in Britain’s nuclear armoury of the most devastating weaponry, it shed crocodile tears for the victims of land mines. This display of emotion was carefully stage-managed by the leadership in an attempt to make the most of public sympathy for the ‘compassionate’ Diana Windsor. Indeed it was reported that Blair dropped a passage from his speech extolling her virtues only at the last moment in favour of this more subtle approach.
Jack Straw won acclaim for his proposal to enforce stiffer sentences for crimes that carry a racial element. It is typical of the Blair administration’s handling of social issues that their attacks are directed only at society’s alienated victims - and at such little cost too. This change will be used to dress up the next step in the state’s law and order clampdown in a ‘crime and disorder’ bill to be presented later this year.
Blair suffered a moment of embarrassment towards the end of the conference when a long service award was presented to Jean Haywood. To huge cheers the 79-year old called for “progressive taxation” as the fairest way to fund health and education. This has traditionally been seen by reformists as the key method of tackling the extremes of wealth and allowing for some redistribution, but it is anathema to the ‘modernisers’, whose aim is to remake Labour as the favoured party of big business, and secure majority support among the middle classes.
However, it is unlikely that Blair was unduly concerned by Ms Haywood’s statement that “socialism is an ideal to be striven for - a Christian ideal”. On the contrary it is quite useful to parade safe exponents of the Old Labour tradition and values - as a demonstration of the continuity of the ‘modernised’ party which ‘takes the best’ from its history. In fact Prescott held up the vision of “a democratic socialist party of the 21st century” in his closing speech.
In reality, the leadership holds its Old Labour, working class membership in contempt. This was demonstrated by Welsh secretary Ron Davies’s remarks that in order to get “the brightest and best” candidates for elections to the Welsh assembly the Party would need to relax its two-year membership requirement. He is openly looking for recruits from business and academia to front Labour’s campaign.
The passive acceptance of the delegates’ role as cheering foot soldiers might lead some people to wonder why Blair needed to bother with his Partnership in power rule changes. But he knows very well that, with his popularity at a record high, there is only one way for his fortunes to go - and that is down. Despite remarks to the contrary from some bourgeois commentators, the government continues to enjoy a prolonged honeymoon period. Many people, workers included, are still saying, ‘Give them a chance - things can only get better.’
And the press remains enthusiastic - even papers like the Daily Express and Daily Mail, formerly regarded as Labour’s most hostile critics. Writing of the supposed rapport between Blair and the population, The Independent proclaimed: “They actually want to be like their prime minister, just as they are happy for him to present himself as one of them. It is hard to recall a time when the degree of identification between the democratic leader and his electorate has been so intense as it is now” (editorial, October 1). However, with further attacks looming on the living standards and services of the working class, it is very possible that Blair’s popularity - despite the media’s adulation - can be turned to hatred in a relatively short time.
Such a change would certainly be reflected inside the Labour Party itself, with the left suddenly discovering a new confidence. Blair is making preparations now to ensure that internal opposition is virtually impossible, not least at future annual conferences.
This year, the left’s ‘successes’ were confined to the vote for the national executive, where Dennis Skinner, Diane Abbott and Ken Livingstone were all elected, while Peter Mandelson just missed out. But the leadership is not unduly concerned with that - the NEC now becomes a rubber-stamping body, retrospectively endorsing whatever Blair and his coterie dream up. Let the left rejoice at their ‘victory’ - the Blairites are not trembling.
Nevertheless the Labour Party contains many working class members. Many, as Jean Hayward’s remarks and the reaction to it showed, even have faith in some kind of socialism. However, more and more this has simply become synonymous with the idea of people cooperating and being nice to one another. It is a ‘socialism’ that sees no role for a working class fighting for its own self-liberation. New Labour is not at all fertile territory for the winning of workers to the need for revolutionary organisation. Yet much of the left still insists to one extent or another on the need to back this party in every election.
Many members of left groups that work inside Labour might, in a more honest moment, admit that they have little hope of building a ‘red base’ there. But they are adamant that working class advance can - at least initially - only be achieved through Britain’s ‘mass reformist party’. For more than 70 years this proposition has looked dubious in the extreme, but now it has been reduced to a complete fantasy.
Communists do not object in principle to the idea of working inside social democratic organisations, including the Labour Party. But we never forget that our aim is not to help strengthen Labourism, but to destroy it and replace it with a revolutionary party of the working class - the Communist Party.