Paul Foot

Millionaires’ welfare

(January 1998)

From Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No.215, January 1998, p.5.
Copyright © 1998 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The vocabulary of New Labour, which before and during the election seemed so benign, is being translated into real language faster than anyone could have dreaded. ‘Compassion with a hard edge’ was the phrase of the hour. Compassion was taken to mean a feeling of concern from government for the growing ranks of the desperately poor, especially the low paid, the single parents, the disabled. The hard edge would presumably be reserved for those who had helped themselves to the bounty of the Thatcher/Major years, the share option guzzlers, the pension swindlers, the growing army of arrogant billionaires.

It took only a few months for the real picture to emerge. There was compassion all right, but it was reserved exclusively for the rich. The manifesto promise not to raise a penny extra in tax on the rich was scrupulously observed. But the new ministers were not satisfied with mere compassion for the rich. They were appalled at how few of them were rich enough to make the big decisions of the hour.

There was only one millionaire among them – a fourth rate MP for Coventry whom no former Labour prime minister had even considered for office. There was nothing in the political career of Geoffrey Robinson which was even remotely impressive. But he was enormously rich. He had been left a fortune by a Belgian tax exile whose name inevitably was Madame Bourgeois. The very thought of a real millionaire with a real fortune evading tax in the Channel Islands was enough to shoot Robinson into the government as minister in charge of tax evasion.

One millionaire, however, was not enough. Into the highways and byways of the City of London went the new Labour leaders searching for Tories and union busters to take part in the new government: Lord Simon from Shell, Peter Davies from the Pru, Martin Taylor from Barclays Bank, even the crusted Thatcherite Alan Sugar of Amstrad and Tottenham Hotspur – all these and many more like them were ushered into Whitehall to help the new government with its social and economic policies.

The policies flowed quite naturally. The few election promises which were unpalatable to the rich were quickly jettisoned. To the manifesto pledge, ‘We shall ban tobacco advertising’, was added a proviso: ‘except for millionaires who donate to the Labour Party’. From Blair’s election promise, ‘We have no plans to introduce tuition fees’, the word ‘no’ was deleted. The real social problem quickly emerged. Too much was being spent by the ‘feckless poor’, and, it was claimed, people sat at home looking after children or pretended that their disablement prevented them from working. These people could be driven off the dole registers by denying them the pittance they got in extra benefit. The ‘Welfare to Work’ programme was launched with a sharp attack on the poorest people of all, the people who because of their poverty were the least organised and the least able to defend themselves.

Many, if not most, Labour voters were astonished at the speed with which the Labour Party cast off its old commitments to the dispossessed. This sense of shock was palely reflected in the House of Commons where 47 of Labour’s 411 MPs voted against proposed cuts in benefits for lone mothers. The 47 came mainly from the old left. Not a single one of ‘Blair’s babes’, the new women Labour MPs who preened themselves for the media on 2 May, managed to vote against the cuts or even to abstain.

But the vote against the government is the first real sign of dissent from New Labour capitalism, the first indication that even in parliament there are people who recognise the true course of their government: a course plotted for them by their hated predecessors, the Lilleys, the Redwoods and the Howards. The only recognisable difference between this government and the Tories is in its support. New Labour came to office on the votes of people, many of them poor, who wanted a change in political direction and had grown to detest the Tory priorities which now commend themselves to Labour ministers. A revolt is smouldering. It should be fanned into flames.


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