From International Socialism 2:67, Summer 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.
Paralysis has struck down British Labour. Old commitments to changing the hated Thatcherite society are daily cast aside. One Sunday morning David Blunkett goes on television to reaffirm tentatively Labour’s long standing promise to impose VAT on private schools. That same Sunday, in the afternoon, after a call from his Leader, David Blunkett is on again, telling us that Labour has no intention of imposing VAT on private schools. A few days later Derek Fatchett, a Labour front bench spokesman on ‘defence’, launched a spirited attack on the grotesque waste of public money on homes, servants and cooks for senior officers in the armed forces. The Leader called Fatchett in and told him he must never again attack senior army officers without his permission. Jack Cunningham, the very right wing Labour spokesman on industry, gave a public commitment that privatised coal would be renationalised by Labour – only to read in the newspapers of a speech by a more junior Labour spokesman with the ear of the Leader. The speech told a meeting of coal merchants that there were ‘no plans’ to nationalise their industry.
Even the health service may not be safe in Labour hands. The rumour as I write is that the party’s health spokeswoman Margaret Beckett threatened to resign in order to hang on to Labour’s long established pledge to dismantle the NHS trusts and return the health service to some form of more elected control. An ‘indissoluble commitment’ to renationalise the railways has now been replaced by a ‘might do, might not do’ compromise written in such gobbledegook that its author must have been John Prescott.
The day by day controversy between Labour and the increasingly absurd Tory government is paralysed too. When the deeply reactionary employment secretary Michael Portillo changed the rules making it more difficult for unemployed people to claim benefit, he was roundly attacked by his ‘shadow’, Harriet Harman. He lost the argument all down the line until he asked her whether Labour would abolish his new rules. There was a lot of huffing and puffing, but no reply. In the House of Commons the prime minister has taken to replying to questions from Labour leader Tony Blair with a single question: what would you do? Would Labour squeeze the rich? Would they return opted-out schools to the elected authorities? Would they reverse privatisation with public enterprise? Would they repeal the anti-union laws? Exactly what is the minimum wage? No reply, no reply, no reply. Paralysis.
The paralysis flows from the political to the industrial. I recently spoke with Tony Benn at a meeting of nurses called in response to a fantastic offer from the government’s ‘impartial’ review body of a wage increase of 1 percent. The nurses were angry, but the union officials cool. When I remonstrated afterwards with a UNISON official, he replied simply, ‘Well, it’s Blair, isn’t it?’ He meant that the new young Labour leader and his glittering successes in the polls had mesmerised union officials who might otherwise have been stung into action.
The same paralysis hit the teaching unions as the government blandly announced new pay cuts for teachers. A campaign against the cuts was launched not by the unions but by the school governors who had been granted new powers over the schools in order to tame the unions. The teachers’ union leaders don’t want to rock the Blair boat. When, at the annual Easter conference, the National Union of Teachers overturned their leaders’ advice and called for a strike ballot, Blair himself led the witch-hunt against the militants. He and his colleagues take every opportunity to make it clear that any industrial action, even the slightest ripple on the social surface, will make it more difficult for Labour to win the next election.
The price of this paralysis is very high: continued exploitation without hindrance. Britain’s rulers, hugely enriched by the privatisation, union busting and higher-band tax cuts of recent years, are like burglars who feel that their stealing time is at last running out. They are cramming into their sacks what remains of available booty. The railways, the nuclear industry, even huge savings on slashed disability benefits, are all up for grabs before the election without any meaningful opposition from the Labour or trade union leadership. The most rapacious British ruling class since the war is making hay while its sun still shines. The price, moreover, is not just in pounds and pence: lower wages, longer hours, more sackings and so on. The old defeatist arguments of the mid-1980s, that workers are all frightened or apathetic, are plainly false. There are on all sides signs that more and more of them are ready and willing to fight. Every time they are held back by Labour’s paralysis they lose confidence, hope – and a chance to knock the Tories back.
So headlong and relentless is this stampede that some optimistic Labour Party socialists can be heard to say: ‘It is all a bluff. Tony and John are not really as right wing as they pretend. They are just saying they are right wing so that they can win the election. When they get into office they will revert to their true socialist feelings.’ This is the exact opposite of the truth. The new leaders’ ‘true feelings’ are that they want to run the country not very much differently than it is run at the moment, with marginal adjustments to make it a little bit fairer. A good guide to Tony Blair’s ‘true feelings’ is his original draft of the alternative Clause Four, which promised to ‘work together’ with ‘trade unions, consumer associations and employers’ organisations.’ (The replacement of the word ‘employers’ with the word ‘other’ was the only tangible victory for the trade union negotiators over the new clause.)
Unlike all the other Labour leaders this century, Blair himself has no socialist past. During the whole of his youth and his university education there is not the slightest sign of any ideological commitment to socialism. Unlike every other Labour leader this century, he has never at any time in his life been convinced of the argument for a socialist order of society. It has been argued on his behalf that he joined the Labour Party in the early 1980s when most right wing social democrats were joining the Social Democratic Party. In fact, most of the social democrats who joined the SDP were converts from the Labour Party. They were in many ways the more idealistic and evangelistic of the right wing social democrats. Most political careerists, after glancing at the political and electoral realities, stayed with Labour. A young man intending to make a career of anti-Tory politics in 1981 or 1982 was far more certain of a safe seat in parliament and high office with Labour than with the SDP. Though he gingerly toed the more left wing party line when he fought the Beaconsfield by-election in 1982, Blair’s politics were never socialistic. They stemmed from a vague Christian notion of togetherness, encapsulated in his well-worn cliché, ‘We achieve more together than we do on our own.’ This togetherness has nothing to do with equality or public ownership. It is as achievable, Blair believes, in a corporation like Hanson or Kingfisher as it is in any public enterprise. That’s why he throws out the ‘baggage’ of a constitutional commitment to common ownership, and fixes his sights on a few very simple and easily attainable objectives, none of which have anything to do with socialism.
No, the Blair offensive is not a bluff, and most Labour Party members know it isn’t. What then is the secret to his enduring appeal among people who suspect his politics? How is it that so many constituency parties have voted to dump Clause Four, to which most of them still feel a strong political attachment?
The main reason is their confidence that Blair will win the next general election. Large numbers of Labour Party members have been convinced by the argument that the election cannot be won unless Labour dumps every vestige of its traditional support for socialism and peace. They are impressed by the awful results of the 1983 general election, in which the breakaway Social Democratic Party with the enthusiastic support of the Liberals got almost as many votes as Labour. They ascribe that defeat to the left wing policies in the Labour manifesto. The argument persists through the two subsequent elections as Labour dropped more and more of its left wing policies. Like desperate adventurers in a punctured hot air balloon, they cry for more and more ‘socialist baggage’ to be cast overboard. The Blair paralysis is the logical result of that argument.
Political history, however, did not start in 1979. There have been two long periods of Labour government in the last half century. Both these elections, 1945 and 1966, were won with Clause Four in place and far more left wing policies even than in 1983. In 1974 a Tory government was thrown out by the electorate and a Labour government established, even though Labour’s Programme 1973 was far, far to the left of anything written by Labour in the 1980s. The record shows that the results of elections have far more to do with the prevailing popular political mood than with formal policies in manifestos. If Labour does win the next election – and another defeat seems beyond the capacities even of the shadow cabinet – the result will have far more to do with the popular fury with Tory broken promises and sleaze than with the political inclination of the Labour manifesto.
But what then? What happens after a Blair victory?
Here traditional socialist arguments are inclined to sound irrelevant. Traditionally, socialists in and out of the Labour Party have protested about the backsliding of previous Labour governments; the broken promises and unfulfilled aspirations of the past. They dust down the old manifestos and show how specific promises (for instance, to end the Polaris nuclear missile programme in October 1964) have been systematically broken. This argument has lost its force. Indeed it has to some extent been adopted by Blair and his team as a justification for their paralysis. ‘In the past’, they argue, ‘Labour tried to do too much. They promised things they knew they could not achieve. What we offer is something much more honest. We will say what we can achieve, and we will achieve it.’ This argument is seized on eagerly by all sorts of Labour Party supporters worn down by years of Tory cruelty and greed. But it falls to the ground as soon as anyone asks an old and familiar question.
However far he moves to the right, there is one crucial characteristic of past Labour governments which Blair cannot shake off. Like Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, Blair must believe that he, as prime minister, will be in charge of events. I recall as one of the formative experiences of my youth going down to 10 Downing Street in late October 1964 as an impressionable reporter. The new young, popular and extremely able prime minister, Harold Wilson, was holding a press conference. He had just stormed into Downing Street by overturning a massive Tory majority. The world, it seemed, lay at his feet. He sat in the cabinet room, puffing on his pipe and beaming benevolently. He conveyed an impression of child-like amazement at his new power. He pointed to a series of buttons attached to his telephone. ‘I can sit here’, he said, ‘and call up the Governor of the Bank of England or the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.’ For anyone interested in politics it was a time of high hope and excitement. The old days of the Tory dynasty, what Wilson called the ‘faded antimacassars of the age of ancestor-worship’, had been removed forever. Here was a new man in charge, committed to a new order, his power conveyed to him by the votes of the people.
The disillusionment which followed so swiftly, culminating in the cuts and wage freeze of July 1966, was not so much about specific policies. It was about political power, or rather political impotence. The man who pressed the buttons summoning the Governor of the Bank of England was having his economic policies dictated by that same governor, his foreign policy dictated by that same Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The thread of democracy which attached the new prime minister to the electorate was effortlessly cut by wealthy and powerful people elected by no one. If this seemed true of the first Wilson government of 1964–1970, it was doubly true of the second one – which started in 1974 and went on (after Wilson abandoned it in 1976) until 1979. The first real crisis was in the early summer of 1975, when Wilson reversed all his economic commitments and again set in motion a policy of wage controls followed by public spending cuts. He did not do so by choice. He himself described his role in Downing Street as that of an entirely impotent tenant awaiting eviction by bailiffs, whom he specifically defined:
We were living on borrowed time. But what of the bailiffs, in the shape of the international financial community, from cautious treasurers of multinational corporations, multinationals, to currency operators and monetary speculators? Would they give us time to win the support of the miners and take all necessary corrective action? The answer came on 30th June. 
The answer was no. The government and its electoral majority were evicted from its planned and stated policy by ‘the bailiffs’. The following year, 1976, which rightly became the bogey for the left for years afterwards, Denis Healey, the Labour chancellor, was similarly stampeded by the International Monetary Fund, which insisted, in exchange for a loan to help Britain out of its balance of payments difficulties, that Labour renege on its promises to increase spending on hospitals, schools and public transport. Was the loan really necessary? Years later, when Healey wrote his memoirs, he thought not. ‘The whole affair was unnecessary,’ he wrote. ‘We could have done without the IMF loan at the time only if we – and the world – had known the real facts at the time.’  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, a man of high intelligence, was not informed of the real financial facts! So ill-informed was he about the matters over which he was meant to be in charge that he reversed the entire thrust of his party’s policy, and launched his government on a Thatcherite economic policy before Thatcher even came to office. Later in that same annus horribilis, 1976, Prime Minister James Callaghan chose the Labour Party conference to make a classical statement of Labour’s impotence:
What is the cause of high unemployment? Quite simply and unequivocally it is caused by paying ourselves more than the value of what we produce. There are no scapegoats. That is as true in a mixed economy under a Labour government as it is under capitalism or communism. It is an absolute fact of life which no government, be it left or right, can alter … We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. But I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists …
So what option did exist? To coin a phrase, back to basics. Callaghan spelled it out quite clearly. ‘We must get back to fundamentals – first, overcoming unemployment now unambiguously depends on our labour costs being at least comparable with those of our major competitors.’ The only way workers could ensure unemployment did not rise was to cut their own wages.
Once again, it was not just the breaking of manifesto commitments which disillusioned Labour voters. It was the admission of their government’s impotence. Ever since 1945 Labour politicians had been inspired by the economics of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes provided them with an economic theory which enabled them, so they believed, to organise the national economy so that they could ‘spend their way out of a recession by cutting taxes and boosting government spending’. Once in office, they believed, they could act on Keynes’s theory – and run capitalism fairly without abolishing it. Universal suffrage conferred on them the necessary power to seize the reins without changing the horses. During the 1945–1951 government and, to a lesser extent, the Wilson government of 1964–1970, the Keynesian Labour ministers convinced themselves that they were in charge; and that it was their brilliant management of the economy which for the first time in capitalist history stopped the cycle of booms and slumps. In fact, as the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) argued at the time, they were not in charge at all. The economic stability was caused in the main by the huge spending on unused and unsold arms in peacetime. The full extent of the Labour ministers’ impotence, and the futility of the Keynesian argument, only became clear to ministers during the Wilson/Callaghan government of 1974–1979. The arch-Keynesian James Callaghan abandoned Keynes and reverted to reactionary free market slogans which Tory ministers of the 1950s and early 1960s would have been ashamed to proclaim. Callaghan’s 1976 Declaration of Impotence set the tone for Labour’s three remaining years in office. The Labour government, its impotence sealed by an alliance with the Liberal Party, careered away from even its most marginal aspirations, and stumbled to defeat.
Here is the crucial lesson for the Blairites. The point is not, as they argue, that Labour sought to do too much, nor even that they abandoned individual manifesto commitments. It is that Labour’s ability to do anything for the people who voted Labour was systematically removed. They didn’t just abandon individual promises. They lost control altogether.
Why were these governments not in control? The history of Labour governments is inexplicable in any other language except that of class. The society we live in is controlled by an unelected class which guards its wealth and power jealously against elected politicians whom it regards as upstarts. If those upstarts try, as Labour’s Programme 1973 suggested they should, to ‘shift the balance of wealth and power towards working people and their families,’ they come up against the most relentless ruling class opposition. Here then is the Labour dilemma. Because of the history and origins of the party, because the party rests on trade union support, because of the people who vote Labour, because Labour Party members are overwhelmingly workers, all Labour governments must try to do something for the people who vote Labour. Blair might change Clause Four from a commitment to common ownership, but even he must replace it with a statement committing Labour to ensure that ‘wealth and power is in the hands of the many, not of the few’.
His supporters today are no longer hoping for socialism. They are not even hoping for any substantial change in the ownership of industries or in the distribution of wealth. They want no more than a few minor reforms to make the society better than it has been under Major or Thatcher. But to do even that Blair will need, above all, to be in control. Indeed, the more he rejects socialist policies, the more his credibility depends on showing that, once elected, he is in control. The more he abandons what Harold Wilson during the 1964 general election called ‘the moral crusade’ to change the world, the more he relies on his image as an efficient administrator, the more he will depend on being in control. The qualities for which he is renowned – competence, civility, a command of his brief – can only be put to good effect if he can press those buttons in 10 Downing Street much more confidently than even Harold Wilson dared to do.
Is there not, the Blairites argue, at least a chance that with a much more moderate agenda, Blair will usher in more reforms than did Wilson or Callaghan? After all, they argue, even those administrations seem much better than anything we’ve experienced since 1979. Labour governments in the past have introduced reforms. Look at the National Health Service. Look at the high rate of council house building in Wilson’s first government, not to mention liberal laws on gays, abortion, capital punishment. Look at the fact that even the 1974–1979 Labour government did, as promised, freeze council rents and take back into public ownership the shipbuilding and aircraft industries.
Yet those reforms were not examples of ministers being in control, still less of their personal determination or administrative abilities. They are, once again, impossible to explain except in terms of class. They depended on three factors: the economic ‘leeway’ for reform, the strength and confidence of the opposing classes, and, much less important, the extent of Labour’s electoral commitment.
On all three counts a new Blair led Labour administration will be substantially weaker even than its pathetic predecessors. Particularly if he is successful in taming any industrial action or confidence before his election, Blair will find himself at the mercy of an arrogant and contemptuous ruling class, eager at once to humiliate him and subdue him to its purpose. All the signs are that he will be a willing captive. But as his control over events is seen to vanish, as he becomes the servant of events rather than their master, so the very characteristics which now serve him in such good stead will become the instruments of his and Labour’s humiliation. His moderation will be ridiculed as weakness, his hostility to dogma as weak minded, his everlasting grin as facetious. A glance at what happened to his hero, Bill Clinton, who won an election after energetically distancing himself from any substantial reforms, reveals just a little of what will happen to Blair in Downing Street. Tossed about like a cork in a whirlpool, he will jettison one commitment after another until, no doubt, he will start to study how his illustrious predecessor Ramsay MacDonald escaped a similar plight and stayed in Downing Street at the head of the Tory party. It won’t be long into a Blair government before the Tories and their press start to howl for a government of national unity.
The economic state we’re in – and the whole history of Labourism in Britain this century – points to the inevitable collapse of a Blair administration, with horrific social consequences. This will not just be a personal tragedy for Tony Blair. The pit into which Tony Blair will certainly fall beckons all of us. The failure of a government in which so many socialists and trade unions have placed their faith could lead to the widespread cynicism and pessimism.
The more this grim prospect looms, the more wretched some Labour supporters become. Some on the left argue for an electoral break with Labour. They announce proudly that they will be abstaining in the polling booths and denouncing Labour on the hustings. This small minority argue that Labour has lost all claim to the allegiance of working class votes, and that there is no longer any substance in the claim that Labour has links and roots in the working class. These people do not seem to have noticed that the most blatant and well-endowed effort to smash British Labour – the SDP – collapsed in ruin. Despite OMOV, John Prescott, John Smith, Tony Blair and all the others, the trade unions are still inexorably entwined with the party. In its basic electoral support and in its links with the unions, Labour is still a party with working class roots. When Labour does well at the polls, its worker supporters feel better, more confident; and when Labour goes down, its supporters go down too.
In the next general election at least, there will be no credible left alternative to Labour. The only effect of alternative candidates or abstentions will be a stronger Tory party in parliament. Those who propose an exclusively electoral answer to the Blair problem are making the same mistake as Blair himself – putting far too much emphasis on what happens in the ballot box. They are also abandoning all those people who cling loyally to Labour for its class roots but are deeply disturbed by the Blair paralysis.
Ironically, indeed, many of the people who voted for Blair as leader in a desperate desire to get rid of the Tories are the most aware of the possible consequences. They know the implications of the history and of the economic background and the utter spinelessness of every statement that comes from the leader’s office. They know what to expect, and many of them just hang on, grimly expecting it. At a meeting not long ago in Norwich I was interrupted in mid-flow about the inevitable and dreadful consequences of a Blair Labour government. ‘I know, I know,’ said a man standing in the aisle holding his head and begging me not to go on. ‘I know – but I hate the Tories so much I just want to see them beaten at the election, and I don’t care what happens afterwards.’ Such people should not be left to stew in their own hopelessness. Their plaintive question – is the prospect entirely bleak? – needs an answer.
No, the prospect is very far from bleak. For a start, there are plenty of signs that Blair’s rightward stampede is resented by large sections of the people who will vote for him. His relentless march to respectability seems to have carried the new Labour leader well to the right of most of his supporters.
In a MORI poll last October, for instance, 68 percent of voters spoke up for returning privatised utilities to public ownership and 60 percent were in favour of a wealth tax on people with more than £150,000. An ICM poll the previous month asked the question: ‘Do you think profitable state industries should be run as private companies?’ The question was first asked in 1988 when 30 percent agreed, 53 percent didn’t. In 1994 the percentage agreeing had slumped to 16 with 66 percent against. Even more remarkable, in the same poll 38 percent agreed and 28 percent disagreed with the statement: ‘More socialist planning would be the best way to solve Britain’s economic problems’. Six years ago only 29 percent agreed with the statement: ‘Trade unions should have more say in the way the country is run’. Now the figure has risen to 39 percent, with only 40 percent against – the gap of 25 percent has been cut to 1 percent. In the last poll to ask the question, 60 percent said they would pay more income tax for more social security – more than half said they would pay an extra four pence in the pound.
As Blair has moved to the right, his supporters seem to have moved to the left. Blair refused to support the 1994 signal workers’ strike, but more than 70 percent of Labour voters did so. Perhaps the most fascinating recent poll was about Clause Four. In February 1995 Gallup asked a cross-section of voters what they thought of Clause Four. Overwhelmingly the respondents said they opposed it. Then they were told what it said: 37 percent said they were ‘broadly in agreement’, 28 percent broadly in disagreement. Among Labour voters 49 percent agreed, 29 didn’t.
The people’s mood is not cowed or broken. Blair’s New Labour seems like a ray of hope – but certainly not the only possible salvation. The people who supported Blair’s campaign to change Clause Four were often the same people who were in broad agreement with the clause. The signal workers dispute showed that ‘old fashioned’ official strikes can win as effectively as they ever could, and the sudden unheralded spurts of militant demonstrations on issues like the export of live animals and the Criminal Justice Act do not fit into the picture the Tories paint of a subdued working class. Indeed, ever since the hospital strikes of 1988, political and industrial resistance has grown – through the successful mass uprising against the poll tax in 1990, the Welling anti-Nazi demonstration in 1993 and the big TUC-sponsored demonstrations for the health service and against racism. There have been growing signs on all sides of a rank and file resistance which takes little notice of what the Labour leaders are saying. All this suggests that a Blair government will have to grapple with a strong grass roots working class resistance. In other words, when the Blair bubble bursts, as it must, people are as likely to move to the left as to the right.
If that happens, there will be one crucial difference to last time. Last time the explosion of fury in the working class movement at the right wing policies of the Wilson government after 1974 were held in check by left wing trade union leaders such as Hugh Scanlon of the engineering union and Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union. Their influence was rooted deep in the rank and file. For years the Communist Party had attracted and organised industrial militants, to whom hundreds of thousands of workers responded. During the last Labour government the left wing union leaders and their supporters in the Communist Party had no alternative strategy to that set out by the Labour government. The ‘social contract’ which, as Callaghan blurted out at the 1976 Labour Party conference, was a device to control wages and salaries, was supported unanimously at the 1975 Trades Union Congress. Labour left and Communist militants encouraged their sceptical supporters to vote for freezing their own wages and cutting their own services.
Today there is no such organisation of Communist militants, no left trade union leaders of anything like the stature of Hugh Scanlon or Jack Jones. This represents, first, the decline of traditional socialist education and propaganda in the British working class. But it also means that the trade union ‘gendarmerie’ which controlled the working class movement so effectively in the late 1970s is no longer as influential: that an angry and militant reaction to a Blair government can shoot to the surface with less obstruction.
Last time Labour made some promises and sold most of them out. Next time, even if it doesn’t make any promises, Labour will quickly lose its only remaining appeal: its appearance as a fair, rational and efficient administrator, committed, however vaguely, to a better world. Last time the sell out led to a shift to the right. This time the situation is more volatile. If socialists, like that man in Norwich, abandon all their ideas and spirit of resistance to a hopeless and ridiculous faith in Tony Blair, then the vacuum created by the Blair disaster can be filled from the right. If on the other hand there is in place an energetic non-sectarian socialist Party which seeks to build from the bottom up, which brings militants together and encourages them with socialist propaganda and a socialist press, which organises at the rank and file level against fascists, Nazis and racialism, and which opposes any further attempt to make workers pay for the capitalist crisis – then there is every chance that socialism can be put right back on the political agenda; and that masses of angry and disillusioned workers will swiftly make up what they have lost in organisation and education by enrolling in the most effective school of all: the school of industrial struggle.
The conclusions have never been more obvious.
1. H. Wilson, Final Term: The Labour Government 1974–1976 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1979), p. 114.
2. D. Healey, The Time Of My Life (Michael Joseph 1989), pp. 432–433.
Last updated on 19.3.2012