After New Labour
Has Labour become just another bosses' party? Is Tony Blair's government qualitively different from Attlee's and Wilson's? Labour Party plc, by Socialist Alliance member Dave Osler, is released this week and provides some thought-provoking answers
The Labour Party was founded just over 100 years ago as the Labour Representation Committee, a body with the explicit aim of securing representation for the working class and the trade unions in parliament. Nowadays the Labour Party describes itself as many things. But one of the most ubiquitous sound bites in Tony Blair's canon is that Labour is the party of business. Where even Conservative prime ministers once spoke about the unacceptable face of capitalism, for today's identikit New Labour politician, every single last visage of the market is perfectly agreeable. As a result of this accommodation, the government's record is littered with sleaze, plots, dodgy deals, scams and downright scandals. Think about the Dome, Railtrack, the air traffic control and London Underground privatisations, PFI hospitals, education action zones, the Enron affair, cash for access, cash for passports, blind trusts, peerages for donors - it is all there. It is as bad as it ever was in the Major years. The ideological paradigm shift has been accompanied by a dramatic change in the Labour Party's source of finance. Where once it was almost totally dependent on trade unions for its financial support, it has now moved to a situation where it more than matches the Conservatives pound for pound in extracting seven-figure cheques from major business figures. In the crucial quarter leading up to the last general election, three rich individuals gave more money than all the trade unions put together. Which certainly brings a new content to the old socialist slogan of 'Make the rich pay'. Never has the gap between Britain's two major political parties seemed so narrow. As a result, public interest in politics is plummeting frighteningly fast. Of course, the Blairites argue that that does not matter, that Britain is in the grip of an outbreak of mass contentment, and that all the class politics nonsense went out with glam rock in the 1970s. Yet class, indisputably, remains a key determinant in people's lives. But Labour is losing working class support, and fast. The fact is, that this government has the active endorsement of just one in five of the those entitled to vote. And there is a real danger that the political vacuum that is being created will be filled by the populist right, something we have seen in much of Europe (partly the result of the left's stupidity too, although that is another topic). For those of us of the generation that came into socialist politics in the late 1970s and 1980s - Bennism, etc - the rise of New Labour is probably one of the most important political phenomena of our lifetime. My book sets out to attempt to document the process and put it within some sort of explanatory framework. Interestingly, mine is not only the first socialist book that has attempted to do this: it is the first book of any description, as far as I know, that has systematically tried to work out what all this has been about. What I have attempted to do is to trace the phenomenon within its historical context, as the culmination of a process that is largely rooted in the Kinnock period, backed by the unions at the time. Taking an even longer view, the history of Labour's links with big business goes back a lot further even than that. Probably to the day that Ramsay MacDonald accepted a freebie car from a biscuit manufacturer. Wilson in particular had his own network of business cronies - the likes of Lord Kagan, Harold Lever and Robert Maxwell. James Callaghan was on the board of several banks, and associated with a number of bankers, including Sir Julian Hodge. In the early chapters I look into this, and also examine the little documented importance of certain pro-Labour business cliques in the 1970s and 1980s, groups such as the Labour Finance and Industry Group, and the Industry Forum, which played a key role in keeping Labour's links with the bourgeoisie alive - even when the party was at its most leftwing. Blairism The New Labour clique saw even that revolutionised. Those informal ties were not enough. What the Blairites sought to do, what was different, was that they were openly seeking to replace the unions as the main source of party funding. A lot of this went on behind closed doors, the so-called 'blind trust' system, that most famously operated for Blair with the money that was raised for his private office by Lord Levy, but also extended to the other important figures in the shadow cabinet. There was a Cook blind trust, a Prescott blind trust, and of course a Brown blind trust. Brown had his own Lord Levy in the shape of Geoffrey Robinson, a businessman and also a Labour MP, who played much the same role for the Brownite camp in picking up the tab as Levy did for the Blairites. The advantage of people like Robinson is that, where there was a political problem that money could be thrown at, he could be relied upon to throw the money. A relatively small-circulation magazine like the New Statesman for instance - just a bit of a pain for the Labour leadership - occasionally published critical articles. No problem: Robinson wrote a cheque for £300,000 to buy and silence the magazine. Other chapters examine more direct trade-offs between donations and honours. I also go into the importance of the lobbying industry as a bridge between an extremely cash-strapped public sector after two decades of cuts under successive governments and companies which are hungry for public sector contracts. There are full-length treatments - again, I think, for the first time from the left - of the private finance initiative, and its pivotal role in Britain today, and the state of manufacturing industry. I did not resist the temptation to get at the individual villains - the likes of the Hindujas, Ecclestone, Draper and Murdoch get turned over in depth. Lastly I look at the prospects for the second term, and the policies of a government described by Gordon Brown - a man still seen in certain Labour leftwing quarters as some sort of closet old Labourite or the last hope for social democracy - as "more pro-business than ever before". Obviously when socialists sit down to write books, they want them to serve as political ammunition. I would be delighted if what I have written helps to inform the debates that are taking place in the labour movement now, especially with the process of change occurring in unions such as Amicus, the RMT, FBU, GMB, CWU and indeed the wider left. Readers of the book are clearly invited to draw the conclusion that what we need is some sort of new political vehicle for the working class - I say that of course as someone who was a Labour Party member for 14 years. One thing the book is not. It is not a fully worked out Marxist theoretical discourse on the changing class nature of reformism. There were actually real constraints in writing for a commercial publisher (the idea for the book was rejected by the two major leftwing publishing houses). There are though also plus points in doing it in that way: I will get wider publicity and distribution, the book will get into WH Smith and Waterstones. But there is a down side, in not being able to state political positions as explicitly as you might like. I would have liked to make a sweeping call for people to join the Socialist Alliance, instead of a half-hearted little squeak in the final paragraph. If the socialist movement had stronger and better organised publishing houses we could promote our own books, get our ideas over better, and financially be able to support comrades writing these books. But despite not being able to express it as fully as I might have liked, if you want the basic thesis in Marxist terms, it is that while Labour does remain what Lenin rightly described as a bourgeois workers' party, the past decade has seen the bourgeois pole of that equation come to dominate to a hitherto unimaginable extent. My conclusion at the end of the day is that New Labour can rightly be described as institutionally corrupt, in the same way that the Metropolitan Police might be described as institutionally racist. Even those with a disposition sufficiently charitable to accept every last torturous explanation put forward by Labour MPs accused of fingers-in-the-till behaviour will have to admit that a clear pattern is emerging. That New Labour is now a repeat offender - to the point where several of its leading members deserve to be electronically tagged before leaving their well appointed abodes of an evening. The problem now is that both major parties are increasingly viewed as rigged fruit machines that pay out every time. And, being in office of course, New Labour gives you a better prize for a line of cherries. Moreover, it is also important to note that I am arguing that Labour is not somehow in the grip of a 1950s science fiction-style invasion of the 'body snatchers' scenario. If Tony Blair fell under one of Brian Suter's privatised buses tomorrow, the changes would largely stay in place. What we are now seeing with the Labour Party is that older members are voting with their feet: they are ripping up their membership cards. They are not coming over to the Socialist Alliance by and large (hopefully I can add 'yet'). Meanwhile new recruits are increasingly informed by values that in the 1980s would simply have been derided as Thatcherite. Tory networks Even so, what I have concluded is that Labour is not yet the party of business. Much as it craves the love of a good businesswoman, its problem is this. The Tories have got networks within the establishment that date back centuries. Labour still has no organic links with the ruling class. They are tending to attract the wide boys, people with agendas and with a million or two to put behind those agendas. I do think that the Socialist Party's line on this - broadly speaking that the transformation is now complete - is wide of the mark, and actually might come to handicap people who argue that line when they are trying to theorise some of the current developments. Blairism is like the head on a pint of beer. It has no organic links to the bourgeoisie, or to the working class either. But it has a party machine, supported by a considerable layer of full-timers and an even larger layer of cadres not on the payroll - the half a dozen political careerists running each constituency Labour Party dreaming of Westminster. To some extent it may be described as a caste. I am reminded of the orthodox Trotskyist position on the Soviet Union. I hate to sound like Ted Grant, but this is some sort of political base that does give Blairism, in the final analysis, the ability to cut loose. The trend is seemingly irreversible. Barring utterly unforeseen circumstances, Labour's eventual transformation into an outright capitalist party - probably something along the lines of the Democrats in the US - is inevitable in the medium term. State funding - and I do not think that is too far away - could prove decisive in allowing the Blair tendency finally to sever the link with the unions. Paradoxically the limited revival of the trade union left could speed that process up. I do not see much chance of the unions reclaiming the Labour Party, in the way that some Labour lefts now seem to think. Quite frankly the Blairites would rather commit hara-kiri. Obviously the reappearance of a Labour left is a serious tactical issue facing us as socialists. To some extent it has been a surprise - it has thrown a spanner into several preconceived schemas. The Labour left are relatively upbeat. Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune, recently told me he thought there would be 50 new left MPs at the next election, and urged me to rejoin the Labour Party - he even offered to help find me a seat. I told him not to be silly. But there is not really a 'new Labour left'. There are no signs of new forces. It could be portrayed as the last gasp of an old Labour left. Yet the 1970s or early 1980s are very different from today. There has been a massive decline in trade union membership, from 12 million to seven million, a massive decline in the union political influence within the Labour Party, and the political atomisation of the working class. Where I probably disagree with the CPGB line is over the nature of the new political vehicle that we are going to need. The CPGB is very impressive in the way it operates a democratic centralist culture. But it is still small. For those of us who are veterans of factional battles in larger organisations, that is when it gets a bit trickier. Obviously what I advocate is a broad-based party of recomposition, along the lines of the shamefully Pilsudskiite Scottish Socialist Party, rather than a democratic centralist Communist Party. One of the problems I always found was the influence of full-timers - people who were not shop stewards or active in the workplace but were full-time revolutionaries, in virtually permanent caucus at party centre. This becomes a brake on democratic centralism. The SSP is currently polling around eight percent and is set to get five MSPs. That is certainly an advance on any prospects we have for the left in England. The advantage of parties of recomposition is their larger base. Without forces we are nothing. If we don't have critical mass, our politics are not going to progress. It is going to be easier to win comrades over in common struggle around Socialist Alliance and party of recomposition activities. Can we win people directly over to revolution? It can happen, but there are few historical examples of small groups of revolutionaries suddenly getting catapulted to the big time. To some extent that vision has been debilitated. It has justified regimes like that of the Workers Revolutionary Party - just build up the machine and the masses come later. Many of the Labour left have explicitly rejected revolution: either they never bought into the argument in the first place or went through the mill and were spat out the other end. Of course we do not want to rerun old Labourism. But we don't want old CPGBism either. I would argue that we do not want a "reforged CPGB" - although I know you interpret that slogan rather differently to the way I do. We all want something new. We do not want to approach the challenges of the 21st century with a tool kit from the 19th or 20th century. We are in a very different political period.