Blair: new schemes

Labour promises more attacks

New Labour, new politics, new Britain, new presentation’. Gordon Brown put this Blairite axiom into practice last week when he presented his “pre-budget report”, or mini-budget. He did away with the battered old bag chancellors normally hold up to the cameras, did not sip from a glass of whisky (definitely not) while he delivered his speech and even walked to the House of Commons. Guided by the spirit of inclusiveness, Brown even invited the public to contact him on the web site, where they can quiz him on the finer points of his fiscal strategy. Away with the old.

Radical stuff all right - at least on the plane of imagery and symbolism. But when it came to substance, to reality, what we actually saw was, ‘The king is dead: long live the king’.  Our prudent, fiscally stern iron chancellor delivered - as the pro-Labour left loves to put it - an essentially ‘Tory budget’.

Not that this bothered the ‘anti-Tory’ Guardian. It praised the mini-budget, “which combines radical measures to get people back to work with a redefinition of the parameters of the welfare state”. This was a “thoroughly welcome initiative” - even if it did have some liberal reservations about the “government’s squeeze on poor families” (November 26).

We should not be surprised about the nature of the mini-budget - particular the further attacks on single parents and public sector workers, previously the objects of Tory venom. Though the left will scream ‘betrayal’ and moan about Labour’s ‘broken promises’, they are only getting what they voted for -  they urged the working class to vote Labour, knowing full well what to expect. To give New Labour its fair dues, they are delivering, already, exactly what they said they would do - further attacks on the working class and a ruthless defence of the capitalist system.

There were a few sweeteners of course. Brown suddenly discovered a pot of EU gold and now pensioners will be getting an extra heating allowance for winter. He also promised to create 30,000 new out-of-school clubs with one million extra places.

However, what we saw last Tuesday was a further shift from the social democratic welfare consensus of the post-war years to a lean and mean, US-style welfare-to-work system. As part of this process, he announced his intention to introduce by the year 2000 an American-style tax credit scheme, the ‘working family tax credit’, based on the US ‘earned income tax credit’ scheme. In conjunction with a ‘minimum’ (ie, minimal) wage, Brown aims to stigmatise welfare altogether, making it culturally unacceptable. Instead of the family credit giro cheque, low paid families would receive a tax credit, either in the pay packet, or as a lump sum paid annually. Interestingly enough, in the US this has led to fraud on a massive scale, with estimates that nearly one claim in three relates to non-existent children.

Wage restraint, naturally, is the central plank of Brown’s strategy - if you are a worker, that is. But not if you are, say, Sam Chisholm, chief executive of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, who was paid a total of £6.8 million last year. The pay package - over £18,000 a day - was £3 million more than he received a year earlier. Brown insisted, however, that nurses and chief executives must forget their differences and fight the good fight together: “We must all be long-termists now. It is no one’s interest if today’s pay rise threatens to become tomorrow’s mortgage rise.”

Brown’s mini-budget follows on hotly from the attacks on single parents announced the other week by Harriet Harman. There are 1.1 million lone parent families in Britain, with a £10 billion total cost. No wonder New Labour is gunning for them. Keeping faithfully to the Tory ‘reforms’, Labour is going to cut single parent benefits by an average of £6 per week. Like the student fees, this nasty and petty measure will be directed only against new applicants - a classic case of divide and rule.

Once again, we are obliged to point out that Harman’s cuts proposals are notan example of broken promises. When in opposition, Harman merely said that she disagreed with the Tory plans because they had no welfare-to-work element. This may baffle the likes of the SWP, but it should not be too difficult to understand. Ironically, the Tory-led attacks on Harman on Monday were based purely on the grounds that Harman, and New Labour, had broken election “promises” - not that the policies themselves were wrong. Coming from the Tories, of course, such huff and puff is transparently disingenuous. Unlike the ideologically deluded SWP, the Tories know for a fact that New Labour never made any such “promises”.

But then again, what else could the Tories say - damn New Labour for behaving like good, fiscally responsible conservatives? All Peter Lilley could say was that he was “sceptical” about New Labour’s commitment - to implementing anti-working class legislation. The Tories should have more faith in New Labour.

There has been a subdued and sullen revolt against Harriet Harmen’s plans, in the shape of a private protest letter signed by 120 Labour MPs, which included five aides to cabinet ministers. The letter was writen to Gordon Brown by Chris Mullen, the chairman of the home affairs select committee.

Yet when it came to the vote on Monday the government won by 336 to 131. There was a less than impressive boycott by nearly 90 out of the 101 Labour women backbenchers, who refused to leave their Commons rooms to back Harman in the chamber. It was left to the “unthinking Blairite clones”, as one of the boy-cottees put it, to back the benefit cuts. No Labour MP - not even Dennis Skinner, for all his loud objections - actually had the courage to vote against the government.

All this is just a tip of the New Labour iceberg. A favourite Labour jibe used to be that under the Tories you paid more and got less. Now it looks like we will be paying even more, and getting a lot less. It transpires that council tax will almost inevitably increase - probably by around seven percent - as the government permits a slight rise in town hall spending but makes further cutbacks in its grants to councils. John Prescott claimed that this was an exercise in “re-invigorating local democracy”. It may or may not be good news for local government bureaucrats and careerists - all it means for the working class is increased hardship.

Be warned. There is a lot more in the pipeline.

Paul Greenaway