From Socialist Review 209, June 1997.
Copyright © 1997 Socialist Review.
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Many comparisons have been made between the Labour landslide in 1997 and the Labour landslide of 1945. There is a lot in common between the two but there are also radical differences. Today there are massive illusions in the Tony Blair government among millions of people in Britain, but illusions are double-edged. They can paralyse activity and make people complacent, but they can also raise expectations that can, in the longer run lead to much greater demands being made on the government. So it would be a mistake to assume that the illusions that people have in Blair have only a negative impact.
In 1945 millions of workers voted Labour because they rejected completely the experience of Tory rule and mass unemployment of the 1930s. This resulted in a massive Labour majority of 146 seats. Spin doctors like Peter Mandelson did not exist at the time and the fact that Clem Attlee was a small man, bald with a croaky voice did not affect the vote at all! Attlee’s opponent was Winston Churchill, who was very popular as a hero of the war, but at the same time was identified in the eyes of millions with the unemployment of the 1930s. Therefore 1945 was a complete rejection of 30 years of Tory rule.
In 1997, again, the landslide was a result of the rejection by millions of 18 years of Tory rule. There is no question that it was overwhelmingly a class vote – a working class vote.
Both in 1945 and 1997 Labour voters voted for a radical change and Attlee’s government did carry out radical reforms. In the six years 1945–51 unemployment in Britain never passed a quarter of a million. Even as late as the 1987 election the Labour leadership promised to cut unemployment to 1 million. In 1992 they changed the formula saying they would cut unemployment by 1 million as unemployment at the time was between 3 and 4 million. But now the only promise on unemployment is to cut youth unemployment by a quarter of a million.
The Attlee government also established the welfare state. In those years despite the economic difficulties after the war they built 200,000 council houses. In 1996 the total number of council houses built in Britain was only 6,000. The National Health Service was established and was completely free. In 1950, the government imposed two shillings on prescriptions. Such was the commitment to a free health service Nye Bevan, the secretary of state for health, Harold Wilson, the president of the board of trade, and John Freeman promptly resigned from the cabinet in protest.
Also in 1945 Labour promised a mixed economy and Nye Bevan talked about the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. In reality 20 percent of industry was nationalised – the railways, mines, gas and electricity. But this was still a capitalist government.
The Blair government hardly promises any reforms. He speaks a lot about “new, new, new”, although everything that characterises Blair is old, very old. For example, he says that Marxism is old and irrelevant while the market and the worship of the market is apparently something new. But in 1772 Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations expressed the same ideas as Tony Blair, only much better. Blair’s politics come from Hobbes – 100 years ago. As for Blair’s morality it comes from 2,000 years back – so there is nothing new about him.
Compare Tony Blair’s policies with John Smith’s. Smith was on the right of the Labour Party. Smith promised that a coming Labour government would repeal all the Tory anti trade union laws, yet Blair is against amending any of these laws. In an article on 31 March in the Times he explained that the changes that “we do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world”.
Smith was for restoring those industries privatised under the Tories to public ownership. Blair is against any of that, in fact he is even looking for new privatisations. On the question of taxing the rich, Smith was for the rich paying higher taxes – after all the top rich people in Britain made £70,000 million extra as a result of changes in the tax rate under Thatcher and Major. In contrast Tony Blair simply says, “I want more people to become millionaires.”
Smith promised to restore the link between pensions and earnings. In 1981 Thatcher broke this link and instead linked pensions to the cost of living. If the system that existed in 1981 had continued today a single pensioner would get £24 a week more and a couple would get £38 more. Instead of this Tony Blair and Gordon Brown promise only one thing – to cut the VAT on fuel from 8 percent to 5 percent. This is good, but gives a pensioner only 35p a week extra.
One usual explanation given by Blair’s apologists for his massive move to the right is that it was the way to win the vote. On the face of it this looks as if it worked. But when you start checking you find that the mass of the people in Britain are far to the left of Blair and his programme. For example polls show that over 70 percent of people believe that the trade unions are too weak rather than too strong. Between 70 and 80 percent of people believe that the privatised public utilities should be renationalised. Only 11 percent are in favour of the privatisation of the railways. As many as 76 percent think there is a class struggle in this country. And 43 percent of the population and 61 percent of Labour voters believe there should be more socialist planning. Yet there is not one mass circulation paper that argues the case for socialist planning, or one radio station or television programme that refers to it, and still people have those thoughts in their heads.
Why is there a difference between the reformist zeal of Attlee and the conservative complacency of Blair? It is to do with the state of British capitalism. The Labour government of 1945-51 took place when capitalism was expanding more quickly than ever before. There was the long boom, with full employment that started in 1939 with the outbreak of the war and continued for over 30 years. Tony Blair comes to office after 20 years and three recessions.
Over the last 20 years the total output of manufacturing industry in Britain rose by 1.66 percent (although the number of workers in manufacturing went down by a third). Twenty years ago manufacturing output in Britain rose by 86 percent – this level of growth leaves space both for the profit of the capitalist and reforms for the workers. The path to reform is open when capitalism is expanding, but when capitalism is stagnating the path to reform can only be opened by revolutionary struggle that challenges the whole capitalist system – this is certainly not what Tony Blair and the Labour Party stand for.
What will the fate of the Blair government be? The Attlee government, because it delivered reforms on a big scale was very popular.
When Labour came to office in 1964, after 13 years of a Tory government, there was a period of honeymoon. First of all people did not expect very much from the new government because the Tory government of 1961–64 had been by and large part of the consensus between Labour and the Tories.
In 1964 Labour won the election by a majority of only four. Two years later in 1966, Wilson went to the country and won a majority of around a hundred. Wilson went on the offensive only after the second election. He decided wages were rising too quickly and that there was a danger of inflation. He decided to have a showdown with a group of workers and picked on the seafarers. At the same time Wilson came out in open support of the US in the Vietnam war. This really marked the end of the honeymoon.
The Labour government of 1974–79 came in on a wave of the massive strikes that got rid of the Tories – the two miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, the national dockers’ strike, the freeing of the five dockers from Pentonville prison, the occupation of Upper Clyde Shipyard and another 200 factory occupations. All this gave workers fantastic confidence that things really could not become worse, and Wilson and Callaghan would not dare to attack them. For a couple of years they didn’t dare, but in 1977 there was a showdown. This time the government took on the firefighters and brought in the army to break the firefighters’ strike. Then there were cuts in hospitals and cuts in real wages. When people talk about the winter of discontent of 1978-79 many don’t remember what it was about. Dennis Healey was chancellor at the time and decreed that no worker was allowed a wage rise of more than 5 percent, when prices were rising by 12–14 percent a year. So there was a massive confrontation with the government, but it took a number of years until the honeymoon ended.
What about today? Firstly, the expectations of the new government are much higher. At the same time there is a lot of goodwill towards Tony Blair. After all, we are at last out of the nightmare of 18 years of Tory rule. But it would be a mistake to speak simply about a honeymoon, this will be a honeymoon racked or intertwined with conflicts. There will be sharp contradictions right from the start. For example Tony Blair has a majority of 179 in parliament, the government is the biggest single share owner of the Liverpool docks, owning 40 percent of the shares. Why doesn’t Labour now restore the jobs to the 500 sacked Liverpool dockers?
Again, why is the government so mean when it comes to the National Health Service? Labour has adopted Major’s spending plans for the NHS, providing real increases of 1.2 percent this year, 0.2 percent in 1998-99 and 0.1 percent the year after. The Kings Fund health policy think tank says the service probably needs more than 4 percent a year real increase in spending to show any benefit. Those figures don’t mean very much to millions of people, but when it comes to the closure of a specific hospital the question will arise – why?
Tony Blair says “education, education, education”. So why are teachers being sacked in further education colleges and why is the management at Southwark College trying to get rid of lecturers? Why are Ofsted and Chris Woodhead still attacking teachers and why are teachers being sacked in Ellen Wilkinson school in Manchester?
There are three levels of consciousness among workers at present those workers who say they trust Blair, those who are worried about what Blair will deliver and those who say they don’t trust Blair. But the three categories overlap. The same workers who one day belong to the first category will, when it comes to a specific issue like the Liverpool dockers, move to the second category and so on. The job of socialists is to relate to people who are in agreement with us 60 percent and who can, through activity and argument, come to agree with us 70 percent. The fact that people’s consciousness can be split, that people can believe and disbelieve in Blair at the same time is very important. We have to find common argument and action.
The Blair phenomenon opens the door to both common action and argument. Of course we don’t know in advance when the tension between workers and the Blair government will arise – there are too many unknowns in the equation. We don’t know what will happen in advance but what we do know is that conflict will take place. This is because the ideological crisis in Britain is rooted in the fact that millions of workers want big change and Tony Blair refuses to fight for a change. This must create tensions although the form they will take cannot be predicted.
A number of factors will cause the end of the honeymoon, even if it is a tarnished honeymoon. The explosions will be much sharper than in the past. In the 1964–70 Labour government one of the strongest roles was played by Frank Cousins, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and a member of Wilson’s cabinet. In the 1974–79 Labour government the most important leaders of the unions were Jack Jones, the general secretary of the T&G, and Hugh Scanlon, the president of the AEU. Both were very much on the left of the trade union movement and both gave strong support to the government, playing a very important role at the time. In addition the Communist Party (CP) existed with something like 30,000 members, and with a big influence among the working class. They controlled the engineering shop stewards, the docks and the mining industry. They were very influential and both led and contained struggle which gave stability to the government.
Today there are no Frank Cousins, Jack Jones or Hugh Scanlons around. Union officials like Rodney Bickerstaffe have none of the weight or influence of the leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. The Communist Party has completely disappeared with the events in Eastern Europe having damaged them massively.
In 1964 our predecessors, the IS, had something like 400 members, in 1974 we had 3–4,000 members but we were 10 percent of the size of the CP and much weaker. Today we are in a much stronger position. This means there is a greater responsibility on us and much greater obligations.
Engels wrote that the class struggle takes place in three spheres, the economic, the political and the ideological. Of course between those three spheres there is a relationship, and they are not completely isolated from one another. But there is no mechanical relationship between them either. You may find that the economic and the class struggles can be at a very low level, but the ideological struggle can be very high.
If you look at the example of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, they led hundreds of thousands of workers in the insurrection in Moscow in December 1905, but the party was much smaller than it was in 1906 or 1907. The party grew more after the end of the revolution than in the revolution itself. The reason is simple. Tens of thousands joined the Bolshevik Party in 1906 because they learned the lessons of 1905. Of course this growth couldn’t go on for ever. The party grew to 40,000 members but then when the struggle continued to be at a very low level, when the counterrevolution was victorious, when thousands of workers were thrown into prison and sent to Siberia, the demoralisation spread among the party members, so by 1910 the membership had fallen to only 200.
So ideas cannot be completely separated from the economic base, but the ideas can develop in advance of the economic base for a time. This means that there can be growth in the size and influence of the revolutionary party even if the level of struggle is quite low. Of course at the end of the day there will be either levelling up or levelling down. Either industrial struggle will rise to the level of the ideas or the ideas will go down to the level of the struggle.
In workers’ heads at present there are lots of contradictions. The hatred of the Tories means that workers will give Blair the benefit of the doubt. People can both support and feel unease about the leadership. For example before the general election the NUJ conference met with 100 delegates. We had four comrades there and they moved a document condemning Blair over his attitude to the unions. Out of 100 delegates, 90 signed the document, although no doubt all of these delegates voted Labour and were, like us, over the moon with at the Labour victory.
But the contradictions that exist in the grey matter are less fundamental than those in the material world. To put it simply, because capitalism is in a deep economic crisis, in the final analysis this crisis will demonstrate the bankruptcy of reformism and show the need for a socialist alternative. What Labour does, even if it does not spark massive discontent immediately, can still produce an ideological questioning – as happened over the issue of denationalisation of the Bank of England. Questions about alternatives to the market, such as Marx versus the market, are ones we’ll have to deal with again and again.
The period ahead is very promising for socialists and very challenging for the whole working class. People not only want change, they want a vision of a better society. As workers begin to question what Labour is doing in office it will raise an ideological debate inside the working class and inside the colleges. In that situation we can successfully build.
Last updated on 4 February 2017