Institutionally corrupt

David Osler, 'Labour Party plc: New Labour as a party of business', Mainstream Publishing 2002, pp225, £15.99

Socialist Alliance partisan Dave Osler has done the working class movement a service by writing this book. Its usefulness lies not in providing some profound new analysis of New Labour, but in setting out a detailed record of the transformation - punctuated by numerous scandals and allegations of corruption and impropriety - the party has undergone under Tony Blair. While the reproduction of statements, such as that of Gordon Brown, in March 2002 ("The Labour Party is more pro-business, pro-wealth creation, pro-competition than ever before" - p213), can hardly be considered shocking after almost six years of Blair government, the bringing together of all the various strands of New Labour's many-faceted links with the profiteers nevertheless provides us with a pretty damning indictment. Comrade Osler relates the bankrolling of the Labour Party by capitalist companies and individual business men and women, and, according to the sleeve notes, the appendices make up "the most comprehensive list of all Labour Party donations ever compiled". He goes on to detail the rewards that these Blair benefactors could expect in return for their largesse: "One in three big Labour donors in 1997 got peerages, ministerships or roles advising Labour on policy within little more than a year of the party taking office" (p85). Comrade Osler describes the rich pickings to be obtained from New Labour's enthusiastic embrace of privatisation - not least the private finance initiative. He reminds us of the nature of some of the PFI contracts: for example, new hospitals are financed by private capitalists, who lease them to the NHS for 30 years, after which time they remain in private hands. As comrade Osler, notes, ""¦ the first six completed schemes had a capital cost of £423 million, yet involved payments of £2.4 billion over the life of the contracts" (p120). Not a bad little earner. Then there is a phenomenon which can largely be described as an offshoot of PFI and public-private partnerships: "The post-privatisation era has seen the rise of a whole new profession in the form of the lobbying industry. Public relations is now politicised as never before. Lobbying and political PR provides an appreciable living for middle men and women who offer a bridge between business and the cash-starved public sector, to an extent that would have been considered suspect throughout the relatively gentlemanly years of the post-war consensus "¦" (p99). And among those reaping the benefit are of course a whole host of New Labour careerists themselves. For instance comrade Osler lists no fewer than 16 relatively prominent Blairites who by 1995 had got themselves lucrative posts working for lobbying companies - a phenomenon which led to the 'cash for access' scandal during the first Blair administration. Senior lobbyists such as Derek Draper, director of lobbyist GPC Market Access, could demand "upwards of £225 an hour" simply because of their former position in the New Labour machine (p101). Draper bragged of his relations with the administration: "There are 17 people who count and to say I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century" (p112). He was just one of those who "indicated "¦ that he had secured political advantages - ranging from confidential information to actual changes in government policy" - for a fee (p110). Sections of the book are devoted to Bernie Ecclestone, Peter Mandelson, Geoffrey Robinson, Lakshmi Mittal, the Hinduja brothers, Enron, blind trusts "¦ all get the full treatment. None of this is new, of course, and in fact much of Labour Party Plc relies heavily on what has already been published. But, enriched by a good number of interviews with both business and Labour insiders, the totality provides us with a valuable new source of reference. The various subjects are dealt with in short but informative chapters and it is all written in comrade Osler's gently ironic, but nonetheless biting, style. For example, dealing with the 2001 general election campaign, he comments: "Blair's explicit message was that the main problem with Thatcherism was that it had not done enough to foster private enterprise, an argument seemingly on a par with the notion that Pol Pot was just too damn soft on the urban petty bourgeoisie" (p209). So it is an enjoyable read containing much that is useful. But what about the politics? What conclusions is the reader invited to draw? Well, comrade Osler is aware that the publication is not everything it could be, as he admitted when he addressed the CPGB's Communist University in August 2002: "One thing the book is not. It is not a fully worked out Marxist theoretical discourse on the changing 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" (Weekly Worker September 26 2002). And the editing peculiarities of Mainstream Publishing seem to show through occasionally. For example, a passing reference to China as "a communist nation" struck me as a most unlikely phrase from an author with years of membership of various Marxist organisations (p145). However, for most of the book Dave, the "award-winning journalist and former Labour Party insider" (sleeve notes), comes over as a Labour traditionalist, yearning for the good old days when "The Tories were the bosses' party, while Labour represented the working class" (ibid). But, as comrade Osler confided to Communist University, "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" (Weekly Worker September 26 2002). Which is where his real politics is allowed to come to the surface for the first and only time: "But from my point of view the best answer of all would be the rise in England and Wales of a new socialist political force along the lines of the left and red-green parties that are now a fixture in most European polities, exemplified by the alternative the Scots already have in the form of the Scottish Socialist Party" (p225). So, although the SSP is permitted a mention, the nature of the "new socialist political force" in England and Wales (why not across Britain?) has to be left to the reader's imagination. Nevertheless the Socialist Alliance imprint is there - the foreword is written by Paul Foot, while I recognised 14 out of the 39 people named in the acknowledgements as SA activists too. We know then what sort of alternative comrade Osler envisages. But what about the Labour Party itself? Is it irretrievably doomed to continue its relentless march to becoming an outright bourgeois party? Here is what he has to say: "What we have witnessed over the last decade is the organic transformation of a major political party. If Blair fell under a privatised bus tomorrow, the changes would stay in place" (p13). "There has been much debate in the left press over whether or not Labour can now be described as in any sense a workers' party. The answer is probably still 'yes' "¦ but only just "¦ Britain now has a system not dissimilar from the US, where government alternates between two safe pairs of hands, one of them marginally more union-friendly" (p224). "The process of delabourisation, while not yet complete, has clearly gone a long way. The second term will decide the fate of the party" (p220). It seems to me that comrade Osler, no doubt persuaded by the overwhelming mass of evidence he has himself collated on the nature of New Labour and Blairism, has all but written the Labour left out of the picture. While, of course, a discussion on the nature of Labour and union branches, the rank and file membership, and organisations such as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, London Labour Left and the Campaign Group were not part of his remit, you might be excused for believing that the only forces operating within the party are the Blairites and the union bureaucracy. Although it is true that the left has been successfully sidelined, and that Blair has put in place structural changes that militate against a revival in its influence, it is still capable of winning seats on the party's national executive and pulling towards it other old Labour forces disenchanted with Blair - who, for example, would have suspected even a year ago that John Edmonds would find himself on Campaign Group platforms wanting to "bury New Labour"? Comrade Osler himself puts his finger on why, "despite its best efforts, Labour is not the party of business "¦ The Tories have networks within the establishment that date back centuries. Labour still has no real organic links with the ruling class" (p224). Such "organic links", self-evidently, cannot be created overnight. Large sections of capital, big and small, may have rushed to endorse Blair, and formerly diehard Tory supporters in the media may have swung over to New Labour, but, as comrade Osler makes abundantly clear, this has been for two main reasons: firstly, the Conservative Party is in a state of disarray, and, secondly, in a situation where Blair has been a sure-fire winner in two successive general elections and is openly courting the advice and cooperation of business, it is important for every individual capitalist and company not to be left out in the cold. Short-term self-interest has caused them to put their money where Blair's mouth is. While comrade Osler points to the Tories' "networks within the establishment that date back centuries", he concludes nevertheless that the Conservative Party can no longer be considered "the party of business" any more than New Labour. In other words, we are approaching a Republican-Democrat scenario. In my opinion there is a danger of projecting the current situation onto an indefinite future. But there is the little problem of the link with the trade unions which always threatens to pull the rub from under the feet of New Labour modernisers if they threaten to go too far and jeopardise the intermediate social position and role of the bureaucracy. Then there is the possibility of a mass upsurge finding expression in, and bending the structures of, the Labour Party. So there still remains a constant question mark hanging over the head of the Labour Party. Besides, Labour's status as the 'second 11' of British capital has not been without its uses. Whenever the working class has started to move, Labour has been at hand as the party which claims to have the workers' interests at heart - a safety valve. When working class combativity starts to revive, we can expect the party to be called upon to fulfil that role again. In such circumstances its left wing will almost certainly come once more to the fore. Labour Party plc also caused me to consider another interesting question. Yes, as comrade Osler states, "New Labour is institutionally corrupt", but just what is the connection between corruption and the normal bourgeois political process (p223)? Reading the various stories relating to 'cash for access', cash for business advantage, cash for peerages, etc, it seems to me that there is a very thin dividing line between what is deemed acceptable and what is not under a system that aims to maximise the extraction of surplus value and glorifies private profit. No doubt because of the "constraints" imposed by the publishers, comrade Osler does not go beyond a vague call for "new legal penalties for abuse of political position", when it comes to advocating solutions (p225). He does, however, make the following useful call: "It's high time to democratise institutional political funding. Several trade unions are considering balloting their memberships on where political fund money should go. Let companies be required to ballot shareholders before making political donations too" (p225). Overall a valuable examination of the birth, growth and triumph of New Labour. Those who want to see its demise would do well to study it. Peter Manson