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Lindsey German

Can the right let rip?

(February 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 183, February 1995, pp. 8–10.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Where is Tony Blair taking Labour and how far can he go? Lindsey German looks at the fight for the party’s future

‘We are dealing with a rump of people suffering final withdrawal symptoms, who have not yet come to terms with the fact that we are a social democratic party. They know it’s not practical to renationalise water, gas and electricity.’

This statement from a Tony Blair supporter campaigning against the retention of Clause Four sums up both the contempt felt by the modernisers for the bulk of Labour activists and the extent to which they want to move Labour away from its roots.

Blair and his backers want to turn Labour into a US style Democratic Party, with no links to organised workers and no particular commitment to collective values or social change.

Blair said in June last year, just before his election as Labour leader, that reform of Clause Four – the section of Labour’s constitution which commits it to some form of collective ownership of industry – was not a priority. Just over three months later, at Labour’s October conference, he announced his intention to scrap it.

The decision – to be taken at a special Labour conference in April just a few days before the local government elections – is likely to go Blair’s way. But his task is not without difficulties, partly because Labour still has working class roots, and partly because Labour members’ enthusiasm for Blair as leader does not necessarily stretch to accepting his view of what Labour’s policies should be.

The main reason for Blair’s victory in last year’s leadership elections was that he convinced most Labour members that he would be the most voter friendly, especially to the southern middle classes. Even then around half of Labour’s members affiliated to the trade unions voted for one of his rivals, either John Prescott or Margaret Beckett.

Blair and his supporters mistook this acquiescence for a green light to take Labour much further to the right than most of its previous leaders have ever envisaged, let alone attempted. At the very least this has been a gross miscalculation by Blair. He will probably win his position at the April conference, but at the cost of creating divisions inside the party.

He is already having to rely very heavily on the union block vote in order to secure victory. This is from a man who has always dismissed and denounced the union machines as part of ‘old Labour’. In return, the union leaders are putting pressure on Labour’s shadow cabinet to make firm commitments to renationalisation of water and railways. Even so, union leaders such as Bill Morris have so far been highly critical of Blair’s plans. Many constituency activists are also against him. A survey by Tribune demonstrated that, of 62 constituency parties, 60 had decided against change of Clause Four.

The present arguments can hardly be the ones envisaged by Blair when he launched his attack three months ago. Even the Economist has warned:

‘He should avoid taking on his party’s activists on too many fronts. Otherwise, they could conceivably give him a bloody nose, even at the cost of giving Labour’s electoral prospects a black eye.’

His standing in the eyes of Labour members has been damaged by a number of issues in those months. So there is much more unease about his leadership than previously. Labour members are still disgusted at Blair’s decision to send his son to the grant maintained, selective, conservative, Catholic London Oratory school. Former deputy leader Roy Hattersley has argued that schools like London Oratory should be scrapped while the Independent reported that Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, ‘was reported to have said that while he was a “serial loyalist” to the party leader, the damage he had done in his constituency was regarded as “incomprehensible”.’

The other retreats by Labour on education – vacillation over grant maintained schools and the refusal to charge VAT on private school fees – have also created a backlash among Labour supporters, for whom non-selective state education has always been a key political issue.

Labour’s leadership seems happy to capitalise on the Tories’ unpopularity without feeling the need to put forward policies which differ sufficiently from them. The shadow cabinet seems so in awe of big business that it refuses to commit itself to anything that costs money or that might upset the money markets.

So the Tories’ cut of unemployment benefit to six months under the new Jobseeker’s Allowance will not necessarily be restored by Labour. More importantly, last month Blair reneged on Labour’s commitment to renationalise the railways, refusing to commit himself to any policy. He was forced to back down almost immediately but since then Labour’s policy has been at the very least opaque, with commitments to renationalise hedged round with qualifications depending on how far privatisation has been achieved. Listening to Prescott parrot this latest line, while Tory MPs take the rare chance to run rings around him, shows just how much damage these fudges inflict even on Labour’s better advocates.

Coupled with the retreat over Clause Four, this turn of policy may yet haunt Blair. Privatisation is more unpopular than it has ever been and many would vote Labour to keep the railways nationalised. A recent survey showed that 85, 74 and 75 percent wanted water, gas and electricity back in the public sector. Even among Tory voters, 39 and 43 percent wanted water and gas in public ownership.

The co-author of this survey, Patrick Seyd, was quoted recently:

‘I think there is no doubt that Blair made a huge blunder in not making a commitment over the railways. Alarm bells began to ring that there was a hidden agenda. So long as party members feel that public ownership is not being eliminated entirely, he would get the support of a majority of individual members.’

Blair claims that he will only consider what to do with the railways when and if they are privatised – something which he claims the Tories will not be able to achieve in the first place. But Labour’s vacillation over whether to take rail back into private ownership will only make it easier for the Tories to go ahead with privatisation in the first place. One of the strongest arguments put by Labour during the parliamentary debates on privatisation of rail was that a Labour government would certainly renationalise the industry – so deterring potential shareholders.

Yet ‘New Labour’ under Blair has fought shy of any commitment to spending which would in any way deter those in business and within the capitalist class who have so enthusiastically backed the Tories over the past 15 years. These people are only even contemplating backing Labour today because they fear the Tories have lost all electoral credibility.

The contradiction facing Blair is that he is still pulling Labour further to the right at a time when opinion among the bulk of Labour’s potential voters is, if anything, moving to the left. A poll at the time of the Labour Party conference showed big majorities supporting a minimum wage (which Labour refuses to fix a level for), renationalisation of the utilities, the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, a wealth tax and more state intervention in the economy.

Behind the disagreements with Blair lies a fear that he is really no different from the sort of Labour MP who split the party in the early 1980s through forming the SDP. Some of the MEPs whom Blair described as ‘infantile’ certainly put him in that category. But even his close friends seem to regard him in a similar light.

Extracts from a forthcoming biography of Blair by John Rentoul describe the dilemma faced by fellow Labour right winger Gordon Brown when deciding whether he should run against Blair in the leadership contest. Rentoul writes:

‘He [Brown] knew he could win only by “calling on such dark and awful forces” that it would negate the attempt. It would mean having to portray Blair as SDP non-Labour, anti-trade union. It would have been an appalling campaign which might have damaged the party’s chances – and thus his own – of gaining office.’

The modernisers are revealed here as people who want to break all links with Labour’s past as a working class party, to create a party which can manage the market system, only with more humanity and social conscience than the Tories.

Their model is Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party, where Democrats vie with conservative Republicans to attack those living on welfare and take a hard line on crime. But Clinton’s two years in office should he instructive for Blair. He has been unable to implement plans to reform the private health care system in the US, mainly because the big capitalists and vested interests in the health industry refused to see their profits hit for the benefit of the majority of American workers. Now his conservative, cautious policies have led to a slump in his popularity while opening the way for a right wing Republican backlash.

Whatever Labour does, however much it bends over backwards to appease the ruling class, it is always going to lose out. Even the most timid declarations from Labour that the banks might make too much profit or that the big supermarket chains are monopolies lead to outrage in the City. The Economist said recently, ‘If Labour is to realise its aspirations, it has no choice but to learn to love, or at least tolerate, profits.’

This doesn’t bother Blair. But unfortunately for him the Labour Party is still a long way from becoming the open party of big business that the US Democratic Party represents. However right wing its leaders and however distorted the party’s aims become, it still has real connections with working class people, especially through the unions – the reason why the Labour Party was set up in the first place.

These links exercise some constraint on the modernisers. Although the trade union leaders themselves accept at least part of Blair’s agenda, they also understand that if Labour is to be at all distinct from the Tories it has to commit itself to a health service, public utilities, a more equal society.

It is also clear that millions of workers look to Labour as a means of improving their lives. Many who voted Tory throughout the 1980s are – if the polls are any indication – willing to trust Blair in a way that they did not trust Kinnock. But this says at least as much about how unpopular the Tories now are as it does about any real enthusiasm for the modernisers’ agenda.

They will expect something better for themselves and their children if they vote Labour. If Blair follows the dictates of the Economist and those who run the system, the workers who vote Labour will he sorely disappointed. Blair is caught between the interests of business and having to deliver at least something to those who expect so much after so many miserable years of Tory rule.

Already Blair has been forced to make more commitments to public ownership than he would like. Whether he is forced to make further concessions depends on whether he receives enough pressure from below, from those prepared to take action to defend education, jobs, the health service.

It also depends on whether we can continue to build a significant revolutionary alternative to Labour, before and after the election, which both tries to ensure a fight over all these issues, and also tries to give a voice to the demands of those who want real change, and who increasingly only see that happening through changing the whole system.

A nation of shareholders?

Going public – background to Clause Four

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