Paul Foot

Is this what democracy looks like?

(June 2001)

Editorial, Socialist Review, No.253, June 2001, p.7.
Copyright © 2001 Socialist Review.
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Paul Foot examines why New Labour is increasingly becoming old Tory

Shaun Woodward was the driving force behind John Major’s election victory in 1992. He personally supervised the campaign of John Major’s friend Jeffrey Archer to become mayor of London. No one took more pride in the success of the Tory campaign in 1992, a success which landed us with five more years of Tory rule studded with jewels such as the privatisation of the railways. He defended the Tories against allegations of sleaze while championing Archer, the most contemptible sleazeball of them all.

Now Woodward is the prospective Labour candidate for one of the largest working class areas in Britain, St Helens. Woodward is very rich. He shot to his huge fortune by the time-honoured method of marrying an heiress. No more than a handful of people in St Helens could ever dream of eating in the same restaurant or driving the same sort of car as Shaun Woodward. Yet somehow, after a series of backstage deals that would have brought cheers in Tammany Hall, this Tory political fixer has been selected to stand for Labour in St Helens.

A shiver of disgust runs through what’s left of the Labour movement in that part of the world. It seems almost incredible that the fixers of Millbank can achieve such a monstrous perversion of Labour representation. Yet there is nothing new about it. Ever since Blair became party leader the word has gone out from his apparatchiks to dump anything to do with Old Labour and, if possible, use the mass working class vote to enrich the House of Commons with the rich.

Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke Central, was rung up recently by a senior official at Millbank and asked two bizarre questions: did he not think it admirable that Tory MPs should desert their party and cross the floor to Labour and, if so, did he not think that MPs with big majorities (like him) should sacrifice their seat to a Tory apostate? It was sometime before Mark realised exactly that the bureaucrat was proposing that he, Mark Fisher, should give up his seat to someone like Woodward and make his way without fuss to the new House of Lords, where seats are apparently as available as they were to any corrupt businessman who lavished part of his wealth on the Tories or former Liberal leader David Lloyd George. Perhaps, as he furiously abused the man from Millbank, Mark Fisher recalled that after 18 months as arts minister he was suddenly and arbitrarily sacked by Blair to make way for another Blair favourite, Major’s former social services minister, the Tory Alan Howarth. Howarth was imposed on the Labour voters of Newport in exactly the same scurrilous way in which Woodward has been imposed on St Helens.

Fisher’s indignation was immediate and glorious – the Millbank courtier was sent packing. But the same trick was then tried more successfully on the MP for St Helens, Gerry Bermingham. Bermingham denies that he is going to the House of Lords. But he has vacated his seat and abandoned his constituents so that yet another millionaire can take his place in the House of Commons. It is truly hard to imagine a more ridiculous way to end a mediocre parliamentary career, nor a worse fate to bestow on his unfortunate constituents of St Helens.

Tory millionaire

What does it prove? It proves that Tony Blair and his timeservers at Millbank have nothing but contempt, not just for the Labour movement – that has been obvious for some time – but for the whole system of representation and selection in that movement. He much prefers to have an ex-Tory millionaire in parliament than to allow the ordinary process of Labour local selection to take its course. Blair believes, moreover, that the Parliamentary Labour Party is his own fiefdom and that he can and must choose the right sort of people to sit under him in parliament. It is not simply that he wants an MP for St Helens who will vote for him in the lobbies. He wants an MP for St Helens who by his past record, his wealth, his photogenic wife and children, his stately home and everything else about him, will fit the image of New Labour – the image of the smooth talking plutocrat who represents patronage, privilege and undemocratic power.

He wants the Labour benches in the House of Commons (and the House of Lords, which he has revived) stuffed with people like Lord Sainsbury, who deserted Labour for the SDP, and Geoffrey Robinson, a beneficiary of that famous Labour millionaire Robert Maxwell. Both have been generous hosts to Blair. He would like to be surrounded by an even more generous coterie consisting of millionaires like Bernie Ecclestone and the Hinduja brothers. The mark of a good MP or minister in his eyes is to do what Tony says in public life and, in private, to make as much money as possible in the free market.

These figures are not just symbols. They are the reality of what is happening to British Labour. For if the Tory millionaire is to be marked out for advancement in the movement, it follows that the politics and priorities of the millionaire will become the policies and priorities of the Labour Party. Many people find it hard to understand, for instance, why Blair and Brown are so determined not to raise the higher rate of tax, or why they beg rich businessmen to take their slice of what used to be public enterprise. But when the high income tax payers and the rich businessmen are personally preferred to the people who do the work, then the mystery vanishes. New Labour is not new Labour at all. It is becoming, not just in rhetoric but in reality, Old Tory.


Last updated on 27.11.2004