Paul Foot

Why You Should
Vote Socialist


First published 2001. Bookmarks Publications Ltd, c/o 1 Bloomsbury Street, London, WC1B 3 QE, England.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


Thanks to Louise Christian, Neil Davidson, Shaun Doherty, Lindsey German, Matt Gordon, Charlie Hore, Judith Orr, Allyson Pollack, John Rees and Tommy Sheridan, who read the draft and made invaluable corrections and suggestions, and special thanks to Emma Bircham, who did most of the research.

A glorious May Day

The grim legacy of Thatcher

The great train robbery

The return of the Whigs

Sleazy does it

It takes two to quango

PFI: Perfidious Financial Idiocy

Schools: ‘B’ is for Blair, Brown ... bog-standard

Fill ’em up: a new policy for prisons

Council houses, pensions: all up for grabs

Universities: only the rich need apply

The great train robbery continued

The last Straw: the attack on civil libertiesT

The fat cats directory

The politics of Polly Prudence

Your chance to vote socialist

A glorious May Day

Legendary and stupefying was the crassness of John Major, but his supreme achievement was to select May Day, the traditional day of celebration for the international labour movement, as the time when the British people, after five more grim years of Tory rule, were finally allowed to go to the polls.

Only the most joyless socialist will pretend that he or she was not moved by what happened that May Day election night. Seat after seat, including some that had been Tory ever since people started voting, fell to Labour, and the final overall Labour majority of 179 was higher by far than had ever before been achieved.

The huge majority was described at once by the new victors as a vindication of New Labour, the ‘project’ set out by Tony Blair, who had been elected party leader in 1994 and, with the help of his faithful spin-doctor Peter Mandelson, ‘refurbished’ the Labour Party with new ‘accessible’ policies and a new constitution which replaced the historic commitment to common ownership with a series of illiterate soundbites no one remembers.

One stark fact emerged from the election results to confound that view. The Liberal Democrats, successors of the old ‘moderate’ Alliance that so comprehensively wrecked Labour in the general elections of 1983 and 1987, won more seats in 1997 than in either of those years, but everywhere the swing to the Liberals was half the swing to Labour. This suggests that the results were not just an expression of fatigue and disgust at the long years of Tory rule – a reaction that could just as easily have favoured the Liberal Democrats. The results were proof of a swing to the left throughout the country.

The swing had very little to do with Blair, Mandelson or New Labour. The opinion polls showed a huge Labour lead – always more than 20 percent – long before Blair became leader. This lead dated back to the Tories’ enforced closure of coal mines in October 1992, and the imposition, in defiance of the Tory election pledge, of VAT on fuel.

The acclaim for the new government was an expression of relief and hope: relief that the long years of reaction shaped by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and continued under John Major in the 1990s were at last at an end; hope that the balance of power and wealth in Britain would be shifted away from the rich to the workers and the poor.

Labour councillors and their supporters assumed that Thatcher’s relentless campaign against local democracy, especially in Labour’s heartlands, would be reversed. Socialists everywhere assumed that the Thatcherite obsession with irresponsible greed and wealth would at last be replaced by a government committed to fairer distribution and more democratic control of the country’s wealth.

As we approach another general election four years later, all those hopes have been dashed to pieces. Slowly at first, but with gathering conviction, the New Labour government has stubbornly enforced the anti-union laws promulgated by Thatcher and Norman Tebbit, continued to dismantle local democracy, and privatised everything in sight.

This pamphlet sets out the record of that drift into reaction, and offers socialists a chance to use their vote to help stop it.

The grim legacy of Thatcher


Margaret Thatcher’s strategy during all the 11 years she held office was founded on her determination to reduce the trade unions to phantoms of their former selves. She knew that this could not be achieved simply by passing laws, and that the real power of trade unions lies not in their legal strength but in their willingness to use it. She was haunted by the great trade union victories of the 1970s: the miners’ flying pickets which reduced the government of Edward Heath, in whose cabinet she served, to ruins; the legendary militancy of the print unions which was always a threat to what she regarded and still regards as the freedom of the press (but in reality is the freedom of Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black and Lord Rothermere to print what they please); and the shocking insubordination of trade unionists in the docks who greeted the Tory government’s Industrial Relations Act with such defiance that the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress was forced to call a general strike to free them from prison.

The fundamental problem confronting Thatcher and her new ministers was that the unions had grown too strong on the ground. They had to be broken not just by new laws but in open struggle. The Tory campaign against them was drawn up by Thatcher’s adviser, the seasoned class warrior Nicholas Ridley, and leaked to the Economist.

The Ridley plan, as it became known, was based on open class war. It envisaged, first, the provocation of a series of strikes in the nationalised industries where the unions were weakest. Government victory in such strikes would be followed, the plan went on, by mass sackings in the defeated industries. Then, and only then, the plan envisaged long and careful preparation for a battle against the old enemy, the miners. Once the miners were beaten, the focus of battle could shift to the other two main areas of trade union strength, the print workers and the dockers.

The Ridley plan was followed with disciplined precision. Among Thatcher’s first appointments was that of the hard-bitten American banker Ian MacGregor as chairman and chief executive of British Steel. He provoked a strike almost at once, challenging the weak and inexperienced steel trade unions to a war they did not savour, and winning easily. Thousands of steel workers were sacked.

In 1983 MacGregor was made chairman of British Coal. Two years earlier the miners, under their new leader Arthur Scargill, had reacted spontaneously to a chance announcement by the energy secretary David Howell that 50 pits might have to close. An unofficial protest strike ripped through the coalfields and for a moment threatened the entire strategy of the Ridley plan. In some panic, Thatcher announced that there were, after all, no plans to close 50 pits, indeed no plans to close any pits at all. The wretched David Howell was pitchforked into the House of Lords. The miners went back to work, and Thatcher, Ridley and MacGregor went back to their plan.

Three years later, when they were ready, at the end of the 1983–84 winter, they announced a series of arbitrary pit closures. The closures challenged the miners’ union to a fight to the finish. The miners responded with guts and vigour. For a moment at the beginning of the strike it looked as though the railway workers and dockers might join in – a haunting reminder of the ‘Triple Alliance’ that had terrified previous Tory governments in 1921 and 1925. But after some skilful concessions the railway workers and dockers were appeased.

Assisted by new laws passed by the Tories in 1981 and 1983, the government went to court to demand control of the mine workers’ union’s assets. Oil-fired and nuclear power stations were utilised to the full to supplement already large coal stocks, and the rules that had divided the responsibilities of separate county police forces were swept aside. A new national police force was thrown with full force against the miners. Coal production continued in what for the union was the historically weak area of Nottinghamshire.

The Trades Union Congress stood timidly aside, and in March 1985, after nearly a year on strike, the miners were finally broken. They had been broken before, in 1921 and 1926, but this time the Tories were determined that they would never again be humiliated by the miners’ union. It was, ironically, Michael Heseltine, later to become Thatcher’s sworn enemy, who put the finishing touches to her campaign against the miners by effectively closing down the coal mining industry in 1992.

The miners’ defeat was followed by the breaking of the print workers at Wapping by Murdoch in 1986, and wholesale privatisation and union-busting in the docks in 1989. By the time Thatcher left office in 1990, pushed out not so much by unions as by organised resistance to her flagship social policy, the poll tax, the Ridley plan was triumphantly completed. The unions had been broken in a class battle in which the employers and the government had been enormously assisted by seven different laws restricting the right to strike.

As Thatcher proceeded to further election victories in 1983 and 1987, the new Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, dropped Labour’s objections to the Tories’ anti-union laws. He emphasised that Labour would not repeal the laws banning sympathy strikes. He was effectively agreeing with the Tory argument that while people could legally strike for themselves, for their own pay and conditions, they should on no account be allowed to strike for anyone else. Thus the central principle of trade unionism – ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ – was subtly rewritten to read ‘an injury to one is an injury to one’, and Labour agreed.

Kinnock’s argument was that he could not win an election if he clung to old laws allowing sympathy strikes. He was therefore prepared, as on the issue of unilateral British nuclear disarmament, to jettison a vital policy in exchange for office, which anyway he never achieved.


Thatcher’s strategy did not stop at emasculating the trade unions. Her theory was that strong trade unionism was the other side of the coin to public ownership. Breaking the unions was the first essential stage in her and her successors’ campaign to wrest control of industry and services from public hands, and give them back to capitalists and speculators. Thus the humiliation of the unions in steel and coal was followed by the privatisation of both industries. British Telecom was privatised in three instalments from 1984 to 1986; Cable and Wireless in 1985; British Gas in three instalments from 1986 to 1988; British Airways and the British Airports Authority in 1987; British Steel in 1988; the publicly-owned water companies in England and Wales in 1988–90; and electricity in 1990–91. By 1990, the end of the Thatcher decade, after a slow and nervous start, she and her ministers had succeeded in privatising pretty well all the major industries brought into public ownership by successive Labour governments from 1945 to 1979.

All these privatisations were vigorously opposed by the Labour Party in opposition. This opposition was based on principles dating back to the formation of the Labour Party at the start of the century. The reasoning behind it was admirably summarised in a composite motion to the Labour Party conference in the year of the miners’ strike, 1984. The motion was proposed by Moss Evans, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. The Tories’ privatisation policies, he argued, were designed: (a) to undermine wages, jobs and union organisation; (b) to take the benefits of public services and assets away from democratic control and into the hands of profiteers and speculators; and (c) to dismantle the welfare state by reducing public services to a minimum which totally failed to meet the needs and aspirations of those depending on them.

In his speech Moss Evans referred to the Ridley plan, and predicted with devastating accuracy that the breaking of the trade unions would be followed, if the Tories got their way, by a dismantling of the entire network of public ownership set up by Labour. He showed how, even as early as 1984, many of his predictions were being realised.

Huge speculative gains had been made on the stock exchange on the early privatisations. Far more grotesque windfalls were to follow with the massive privatisations of the utilities. A prime example was electricity, nationalised by the Labour government after the war and run with some efficiency ever since.

The privatisation of electricity was greeted with howls of fury from the young opposition energy spokesman, Tony Blair. At the Labour Party conference in 1989 Blair brought the delegates cheering to their feet with a furious summary of the case against the Tory plans:

At the outset we said that privatisation would mean higher prices, and it has done. We warned that the government would introduce a special nuclear tax for private nuclear power, and it has. We said that the government would be forced to admit there was no choice for consumers, and now they have. Born out of dogma, reared on deceit, this privatisation is now exposed for what it is and always has been, private prejudice masquerading as public policy. Let us send this message to the government. We do not want it postponed, we do not want it delayed, we do not want it put off – we want it abandoned here, now and forever.

Similar arguments were deployed by Labour leaders as they opposed all the other privatisations of that grim decade. The nightmares expressed by Labour politicians all became true.

The bureaucrats who had run the public industries on substantial but not exorbitant salaries suddenly took off into the orbit of the mega-rich. Iain Vallance, for instance, who had helped to run the Post Office on a reasonable salary suddenly found himself running British Telecom on £226,000 a year. He went from making 11 times the average salary of a BT worker in 1987 to making 38 times the average salary in 1990. By 1996 his salary was over £700,000, and it has grown considerably since. There was no recognisable increase in the efficiency or the performance of British Telecom following privatisation. The chief changes were that the unions were weakened, thousands of workers sacked and the new executives enrolled in the ranks of millionaires.

’Share options’ were introduced by the Tories to sweeten the new executives’ perks. When water was privatised a river of unearned slush flowed into the pockets of the new water bosses, most of whom were the same people who had run the old state industries. The monopolies remained monopolies, with no difference in the product as far as the consumers were concerned, but huge differences in the ‘remuneration’ which the new bosses heaped upon themselves, and in the strength and influence of the trade unions in their ability to protect jobs.

In every case a huge area of influence and power that had been, however distantly, accountable to elected politicians was transferred to wholly irresponsible boardrooms. The new utilities stopped being public utilities and became private commodities to be bought and sold, re-bought and re-sold in the international marketplace. The balance of democracy in Britain was tilted heavily away from the people and towards the new monopolists.

To their horror, the Labour politicians noticed that the craze for privatisation was extending to the very sanctuaries of public service of which Labour was most proud. There were cries from Tory ideologues to introduce fees for tuition in universities and colleges, and for schools to ‘opt out’ of local education authorities. Whole new organisations were set up by the Tories to campaign for state schools to ‘opt out’. These Tory plans were bitterly opposed by Labour.

Jack Straw, spokesman on education, told the Labour conference in 1991, ‘Opting out and privatisation of education will be stopped dead by a Labour government.’ He was utterly opposed, he said, to tuition fees for students. He told conference in 1989:

This government says that it wants an expansion of higher education, but by the introduction of student loans and the end of free tuition will make entry into higher education dependent more than ever on the size of a parent’s bank balance. It is the private schools today – it will be the private universities tomorrow.

Straw was a key backer of Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994, and was rewarded with the post of shadow home secretary. In that position he discovered a new Tory horror – the privatisation of prisons. This outrage, he argued, not only offended against efficiency as with the industrial privatisations. It was, he told the Prison Officers Association as late as 1996, an offence against morality as well. Prison privatisation was, he said, ‘wholly wrong in principle’.

Even worse for the Labour leaders was the suggestion that the Tories were threatening the inner sanctum of Labour’s post-war achievements, the National Health Service. The Tories, warned Labour spokesman Robin Cook in 1990, ‘are taking us down the road to the NHS run as a commercial business for commercial motives’.

The great train robbery

By 1990, the year Thatcher was finally pushed out by the irreversible popular tide against her flagship poll tax, the Tory government had achieved most of her central aim – a fundamental shift of wealth and power towards the rich. On the industrial front, however, there remained one area where a combination of workers and consumers had obstinately beaten off all attempts at privatisation – the railways.

In 1989 Cecil Parkinson, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite minister, excited an otherwise dispirited Tory party conference with a proposal to privatise the railways. The proposal was taken up eagerly by his successor as minister of transport, John Mac-Gregor, who was advised by Sir Christopher Foster, a partner of the top accountants Coopers & Lybrand. Sir Christopher set his accounting genius to devising a scheme for splitting up the railways into several separate pockets, each of which could be made profitable provided the public subsidy continued. So brilliant was Sir Christopher’s advice that on the very day the railways were privatised in 1995 he became deputy chairman of Railtrack, the private company controlling the network.

Though the ideology of rail privatisation had delighted the Tory party conference, the new scheme proved even less popular with the public than any of the previous privatisations. By 1996 only 11 percent of the British people (and only a minority of Tories) supported it.

The whole scheme was rottenly devised and riddled with contradictions. A strong attack from Labour, coupled with an unequivocal assurance that a new Labour government would instantly renationalise the railways without a penny of speculative gain to the new owners, would have killed off the whole crazy enterprise before it started.

Leading Labour politicians quickly proved that they understood the importance of what they said about rail privatisation, and were not afraid to say it. As early as 1993, John Prescott, Labour’s shadow transport minister, did not mince his words to the party conference. He boomed:

Let me make it crystal clear that any privatisation of the railway system that does take place will, on the arrival of a Labour government, be quickly and effectively dealt with ... and be returned to public ownership.

By the following year (1994) it was time for crystal clarity once more – this time from the new shadow transport minister, Frank Dobson:

Let me give this pledge not just to this conference but to the people of Britain – the next Labour government will bring the railway system back into public ownership.

Another member of the crystal clear faction was Michael Meacher, shadow transport secretary in 1995. He understood the real problem – that there were private investors lining up to squeeze some profit out of the railways. He issued the clearest possible warning to such investors:

The railways depend on public subsidies to the tune of £1.8 billion a year. There is no guarantee that the subsidy will continue.

If the railways were privatised, he asked, could they depend on government subsidy, and what profit could they make if that subsidy was not forthcoming?

Such statements worried the City vultures lining up for a feast on the railways. When the three rail operating stock companies (roscos) came up for sale in January 1996, no big investor showed any interest, and the roscos were flogged off at bargain basement prices. The combination of half-baked Tory plans for privatisation and the clearest possible pledges that a new Labour government would renationalise the railways had put the privatisers off.

Then, sometime in the first few months of 1996, the whole Labour campaign collapsed. Two new shadow transport ministers, Clare Short and Andrew Smith, backed away from the ‘crystal clear’ pledges of their predecessors. By the time the conference came round again in 1996, there were no further promises to renationalise the railways – only a few bromide sentences about the need for a fully integrated railway. Confidence flowed back into the privatisers, and the roscos were sold on again at enormous profit for the former bureaucrats who had paid so little for them in the first place. One such, Sandy Anderson, made a personal profit of £38 million.

Brian Souter, whose company Stagecoach made a fortune from the privatisation of buses and railways, told a House of Commons committee that in 1995 no one would touch railway privatisation ‘with a bargepole’. It was not until Labour fudged the issue that it suddenly seemed possible that a Labour government would renege on its pledges to renationalise, and the big boys with the big wallets started to creep out of the cupboard.

When the party manifestos were published before the 1997 election many people noticed that all Labour’s past renationalisation pledges were left out. Even the pledge to bring the railways back into public ownership had been shelved. Even the ringing declaration of shadow transport minister Andrew Smith at the 1996 conference, replying to a Tory threat to privatise air traffic control – ‘our air is not for sale’ – did not develop into a manifesto commitment.

On the other hand, there were no plans in Labour’s manifesto to privatise anything, no specific promises not to nationalise or municipalise. Many optimists hoped that Labour politicians had shelved their real aspirations for public ownership just for the election period. There was a strong feeling that Labour, once elected, would rediscover its century-long commitment to public ownership and public control, and would reassert both. Labour was elected in a landslide victory in 1997, and what happened?

The return of the Whigs

How the Liberals, with 17 percent of the vote, got into government

The first thing that happened was a curious shift of power and influence at the heart of the new Labour government – in 10 Downing Street. Two new advisers were appointed to prime minister Blair – Roger Liddle on defence and Europe, and Derek Scott on economics. Both had been founders of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), whose leaders had split from the Labour Party in 1981 and had run against the Labour Party in various elections since until the party’s absorption into the Liberal Democrats, formerly the Liberal Party from which Labour broke away on its formation in 1900.

Scott had stood against Labour in Swindon in 1983 and 1987, splitting the vote and letting in a Tory. Liddle had also been a founder member of the SDP and had been an SDP candidate, standing against Labour in Lambeth in 1983 and in the Fulham by-election in 1986. The SDP, with its new allies the Liberals, achieved 26 percent of the poll in the 1983 election, only 2 percent less than Labour. It could fairly be said that the formation of the SDP and its standing against Labour in 1983 and 1987 was the main electoral reason for Thatcher’s landslide victories in both elections.

The key policies put forward by the SDP differed only marginally from those of the Liberal Party. The SDP was for instance 100 percent opposed to more public ownership in any sector, and sought an accommodation with the rich and business executives, who welcomed them with open arms.

One of Liddle’s closest companions who stayed in the Labour Party was Peter Mandelson, a former television producer who had been rapidly promoted by Neil Kinnock to be campaigns director for the Labour Party for the 1992 election. Before Liddle split with Labour to form the SDP, Mandelson and Liddle had been Labour councillors at Lambeth in south London. In 1994 the two men co-authored an embarrassing hagiography of Tony Blair entitled The Blair Revolution. On close inspection, the policies and programme outlined by the book bore a striking resemblance to the not very challenging policies and programme of the defunct SDP.

Mandelson employed a young researcher called Derek Draper, who had been a director of a lobbying organisation called Prima Europe/GPC Market Access. The chairman of Prima Europe was Sir Ian Wrigglesworth, a former SDP founder member who later joined the Liberal Democrats. His predecessor as Prima Europe chairman was Lord Holme, a Liberal Democrat peer.

Further links between this magic circle and the SDP could be found in the home of Matthew Oakeshott, a founder member of the SDP who lived next door to Roger Liddle and was chairman of the ‘blind trust’ which invested Liddle’s shareholding in Prima Europe. In 1998, a year after the Blair government took office, another adviser took up residence in Downing Street. He was a journalist called Andrew Adonis – a former candidate for the Liberal Democrats. A founder director of Prima Europe was Lord Taverne of Pimlico, a former Labour minister who after leaving the party knocked Labour out of its seat in the Lincoln by-election in 1973. As for Prima Europe, the firm of lobbyists at the centre of this cabal, its clients included Unilever, Glaxo Wellcome, Abbey National, British Nuclear Fuels, Rio Tinto Zinc, and the privatised energy companies Powergen and British Gas.

Sleazy does it

Almost as soon as it took office the New Labour government, which prided itself on its freedom from sleaze, was caught up in sleaze. The government decided to renege on its manifesto commitment to ban tobacco advertisements, and allowed tobacco ads in their most lucrative area – on Formula One racing cars. This decision was promptly linked to a £1 million donation to the Labour Party by an established Tory, Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One racing billionaire. In some panic, Blair ordered the party to give Ecclestone back his million and explained to a sceptical public that he, Blair, was, after all, ‘a straight guy’.

Exactly how straight became a little clearer in the ‘cash for access’ scandal of 1998. Amazed by the new lobbyists who swarmed like locusts over the New Labour government and its ministers, the Observer journalist Gregory Palast interviewed Roger Liddle and Derek Draper. Liddle was quoted as saying:

... there is a circle and Derek is part of the circle. Anyone who says he isn’t is an enemy. Just tell me who you want to meet, and Derek and I will make the call for you.

Draper was even more direct:

There are 17 people in this country who count, and to say that I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century.

This novel approach to power and politics was based on the suggestion that rich clients using New Labour lobbyists could get close to New Labour ministers. Draper was sacked by Mandelson when this ‘cash for access’ scandal broke.

Mandelson himself was sacked from the cabinet at the end of 1998 when it was revealed that he had, without declaring it, borrowed some £400,000 from his cabinet colleague the Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson, to help buy himself a suitable house in fashionable Notting Hill. Geoffrey Robinson, whose only crime at the time seemed to have been that he lent Mandelson the money, was sacked too, never to return. But Mandelson, who got the loan, was taken back into the cabinet in 1999, only to be sacked again in February 2001 for intervening on behalf of the Indian billionaire Hinduja family.

The Hindujas, despite their involvement in a massive Indian arms scandal, applied for and got British passports in record time. Mandelson was ‘cleared’ of impropriety by an investigation, though there was no doubt that either he or his office asked questions about passports for the Hindujas.

As this pamphlet is written, yet another sleaze scandal breaks over Downing Street, this time about questions from leading Downing Street officials, including Blair’s chief of staff, about planning permission for an Oxford business school financed by the millionaire speculator Wafic Said. The same Said had hit the headlines all through the 1980s for his role in the brokering of the Al Yamamah arms deal between the British and Saudi Arabian governments – the biggest arms deal ever negotiated in the whole history of the world. Perhaps because of his role in that deal, Wafic Said became a close confidant of Margaret Thatcher and her sleazy son, Mark. The government changed its name but not its allies in big business. Wafic Said’s plans in Oxford had the eager support of Blair’s chief of staff, whose brother Charles had been a top aide to Margaret Thatcher.

Commenting on all these developments, and on the influence of so many millionaires on the highest echelons of the New Labour government, former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley referred to the way in which Blair, Mandelson and Co had been systematically ‘dazzled’ by people of vast wealth.

This was not itself a new phenomenon for a Labour government. Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour leader, was almost permanently clinched in what Beatrice Webb called ‘the aristocratic embrace’. He took shares and a posh car from a biscuit king in exchange for a baronetcy. Harold Wilson, Labour leader in the 1960s and 1970s, was entranced by a new breed of businessmen who specialised in import/export deals with dictatorships in Eastern Europe.

But neither MacDonald’s aristocratic embrace nor Wilson’s close relationship with entrepreneurs in Eastern Europe, nor even James Callaghan’s relationship with the Welsh financier Julian Hodge, could rival the sheer scale with which the New Labour government under Blair flung itself at the feet of any billionaire who asked its ministers to a party, or attended one of the Labour Party’s interminable fundraising dinners. Blair’s close friend Mandelson played a crucial part in delivering the leadership of the New Labour government into the hands of his business friends – and its former electoral enemies in the SDP and Liberal Democrats.

It takes two to quango

New Labour’s hankering for the plaudits of the rich swept through all ranks of the new government. On the afternoon after polling day in May 1997 an exhausted John Prescott, confirmed as the new deputy prime minister and head of one of the biggest departments of state ever constituted, met the board members of BAA, the privatised monopoly that runs several British airports. BAA wanted an early commitment that the new government was friendly to its bid to build a fifth terminal at Heathrow airport. A public inquiry was still sitting, but BAA wanted to make its peace with the new administration. Prescott, who pretended to represent the old traditions of Labour, was pleased and proud to greet such important businessmen. He was the first of the new ministers to experience the advantages of the new partnership with big business that the new government was so anxious to promote.

Very soon the nature of that partnership began to take shape. Prescott himself became a keen supporter of the government’s plans to privatise air traffic control. Andrew Smith’s proud declaration – ‘our air is not for sale’ – was subtly changed to ‘our air is for sale’. And Andrew Smith became chief secretary at Gordon Brown’s Treasury.

At the last Labour Party conference before the election Gordon Brown had attacked ‘the quangocracy which threatens democracy’ and ‘the quango state’. ‘Quango’ stands for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation. In the bad old days of Tory government these cliques were made up of the great, the good and above all the rich. They were appointed by the Tories to take charge of key sections of society, separate from and unaccountable to parliament or elected local authorities.

The most blatant examples of the Tory quangos were the development corporations set up by the Tories in 14 areas with the ostensible aim of improving the standard of life in the inner cities. These new development corporations were packed with local businessmen, lawyers and accountants, with a couple of elected councillors ‘co-opted’ to add a democratic veneer. The new corporations swiped all planning powers from the elected local authorities in vast tracts of turban territory. They infuriated the more responsible Labour councillors and achieved next to nothing. They were opposed by Labour and finally collapsed in ignominy and a strong stink of corruption.

No sooner did the New Labour ministers take office, however, than they started to appoint a new set of ‘taskforces’ even more wide-ranging and unaccountable than the Tory quangos. In the first few months of the New Labour government nearly 300 of these quangos had been set up to cover almost every aspect of national life. The degree of ‘partnership’ involved in the new quangos could be detected in the background of the 3,013 people who made them up, and who were catalogued in a booklet produced by Democratic Audit. Only 73 (2 percent) of these new quangocrats were trade unionists. More than a third (1,107) were from private business or trade associations. Gordon Brown’s Treasury set up the most exclusive of the task-forces, burrowing deep in the warrens of the City of London for appropriate bankers and investment analysts to supervise the new dawn.

PFI: Perfidious Financial Idiocy


Geoffrey Robinson, Paymaster General in the new government, had an office in Gordon Brown’s Treasury from which he proclaimed the Tory idea for public-private partnership known as PFI. Robinson brought in Malcolm Bates from the big construction company BICC to mastermind the government’s new plans for PFI. Bates was well used to the job – he had done the same thing under the Tories. PFI rapidly became the lynchpin of all the government’s construction policies. The theory was simple, if crude. Private business provided funds for the project up front, and the government paid back the money at substantial rates of interest over 30 years.

The first training ground for PFI was the National Health Service. Labour in opposition was not at all keen on PFI in the NHS. In 1996, when she spoke from the Labour front bench, Harriet Harman was horrified by the Tories’ obsession with PFI. ‘When the private sector is building, owning, managing and running a hospital,’ she declared, ‘that hospital has been privatised.’ Labour backbenchers cheered her attacks on creeping privatisation, but almost as soon as Harriet Harman became Secretary of State for Social Security, the new government rushed through the NHS (Private Finance) Act 1997, removing at a stroke all the barriers to the Private Finance Initiative in the NHS. Very soon a number of hospitals started to be built under PFI in circumstances exactly fitting Harriet Harman’s definition of hospital privatisation.

A typical example was the plan to close down the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and associated lucrative premises in the middle of Edinburgh, and replace them with a new hospital built by a private enterprise consortium on the outskirts the city. The area got a new hospital, the consortium got the business, but the people of Edinburgh got a hospital with 300 fewer beds than originally planned and substantial cuts in staff.

Any scepticism about these new schemes was initially drowned in popular relief and pleasure that, at last, a new hospital was being built. But detailed investigations of the schemes exposed their fatal flaw – a yawning gap between the cost of the new PFI hospital and the cost of a similar hospital built under the old scheme of straight public funding. The extra cost of borrowing on the open market plus the costs of dividends and bank charges, and clauses in the contracts which gave the consortia the right to vary the prices – all built up to a final cost of the hospital project far higher than the equivalent cost under the old public enterprise scheme. These extra costs had to be met by raiding other budgets in the NHS – by cutting beds or staff or both.

In papers written for the British Medical Journal as early as 1999, Professor Allyson Pollock and her team at the School of Public Policy at University College London investigated the ‘first wave’ of 14 hospitals built under PFI. They found, on average, a 30 percent reduction in beds and a 25–30 percent reduction in staff. All these cuts and sackings were caused by the shortfall in the PFI schemes when compared with the old public enterprise system. Some of the figures were quite astonishing. The new University College Hospital in London for instance would have cost £140 million under the old scheme. By July 2000 when the new scheme was signed, the cost had escalated to £430 million.

In Durham in the north east of England, the new Dryburn Hospital, built by a consortium headed inevitably by Balfour Beatty, was subjected to the PFI process. What was needed to replace the crumbling NHS in the area was a new hospital of 750 beds. PFI meant that the only way to make the new hospital ‘affordable’ to Balfour Beatty and Co was to cut the number of beds to 458, and staff by 25 percent. In Chepstow in Wales, if the surplus land round the new PFI hospital was sold, it would have provided 80 percent of the money for the new hospital without having to pay anything to the construction consortium which got the contract. These new hospital projects were handed over to PFI, even though in both cases the local Labour MPs had been bitter opponents of the original Tory PFI proposals. In Carlisle a new PFI hospital could only be built by cutting beds and staff to such a degree that the local hospital doctors denounced it as reverting to ‘Third World standards’. Much of the land owned by the NHS hospital was used for building a private hospital.

When the facts started to emerge about the costs and the cuts implied in the new schemes, public resentment grew. When a PFI plan to build a hospital at Worcester led to the closing of all acute services at Kidderminster Hospital, a local revolt led to the formation of a new organisation called Health Concern. By the beginning of 2001 Health Concern had 19 councillors at Wyre Forest – by far the biggest party in the area. When Tony Blair oozed up to Worcester to fraternise with the waterlogged population during the winter floods of January 2001, he was astonished to be surrounded and heckled by pensioners denouncing PFI.

As early as July 1999 Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote a leading article entitled PFI: Perfidious Financial Idiocy. This editorial, which has effectively become British Medical Association policy ever since, argued that the increased costs of PFI for hospitals drives down the number of beds and cuts clinical services in other schemes. In Hereford, for instance, a proposal for a PFI hospital with 351 beds had to lose 100 beds before it became ‘viable’ (profitable) for the contracting company.

There were other even more serious problems: ‘Private Finance Initiatives may inevitably lead to an increase in the private sector and user charges, providing one way for the NHS to shrink to a rump service for the poor.’ Smith went on:

A second factor that infuriates many of those working within the NHS is the complete absence of any evidence in favour of the Private Finance Initiative. In fact all the evidence we have suggests it is a very bad idea.

Richard Smith’s warning about the gradual privatisation of the NHS seemed at first to be a trifle extreme. It conflicted, for instance, with the constant attacks by Blair and his health secretary Alan Milburn on Tory health policies as ‘creeping privatisation’. At a conference in 2001 Chancellor Gordon Brown told the general secretary of the TUC that under the next Labour government ‘only the NHS and the police’ would escape Labour’s plans for privatisation. A closer look at recent government initiatives on health suggest that Brown’s prognosis may have been optimistic, and that health too is in line for creeping privatisation under New Labour.

In November 2000 Professor Allyson Pollock of the University College London School of Public Policy and David Price of the University of Northumbria wrote a paper entitled How the World Trade Organisation Threatens Public Healthcare Services – Where Does New Labour Stand? The article examined the wording of the recent World Trade Organisation (WTO) treaty, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The treaty, the article suggests, ‘provides the WTO with crucial powers to promote what it calls ‘pro-competitive domestic policies’. The article traced what these policies had meant in India and sub-Saharan Africa, where ‘access care has suffered and infectious disease control programmes have been disrupted’. In Latin America, ‘privatised services have proved lucrative business propositions and attracted healthier patients, while sicker patients have gravitated to a reduced public sector’. In Brazil, such privatisation has led to an expanded private sector with 120,000 doctors, while the public sector which serves three quarters of the population has only 70,000 doctors.

What about Britain, the land of the universal health service, which prides itself on treating people according to their health, not their wallets? The authors note that the health secretary, Alan Milburn, faced with a shortfall of beds in the acute hospital sector under PFI, ‘has chosen not a full restoration of public provision or abandonment of PFI but a new concordat with the private hospital sector to make up the shortfall’. Milburn explains that spending NHS money on using up spare capacity in private hospitals is ‘common sense’.

It is certainly common sense to Norwich Union and the other big private healthcare providers whose health service cannot make as big a profit without the huge injection of public funds Milburn has provided. It is the opposite of common sense to those who believe that the more profitable private health becomes, the more damage is done to the principle and practice of a National Health Service. The plain fact is that under New Labour 4,000 NHS hospital beds have been lost every year in the PFI process, and ‘cost overruns’ in PFI projects have been three times as high as they were in the old NHS hospital projects.

This creeping privatisation of the NHS got another boost from Blair and Milburn in the crucial area of long term personal care. Soon after taking office the government set up a Royal Commission, which recommended to ministers’ horror that long term personal care should, in the best tradition of the NHS, be ‘free at the point of delivery’. The government rejected this recommendation, preferring the minority report signed by journalist David Lipsey, and Joel Joffe, founder of Allied Dunbar, a health insurance firm. Both men are now in the House of Lords. In the last session of the 2000–01 parliament the government introduced a Health and Social Care Bill. Clause 4 of the bill, entitled ‘Public-Private Partnerships’, allows the secretary of state to set up private companies ‘to provide facilities or services’. The clause opens the door to huge new areas of privatised healthcare, and flies in the face of the principles of the NHS laid down more than 50 years ago by Lord Beveridge and Aneurin Bevan.

Schools; ‘B’ is for Blair, Brown ...
... Blunkett, Byers and bog-standard

What’s bad for the National Health Service is probably bad for everything else, and at the end of four years in office the New Labour government is committed to PFI in every area of government construction. It is almost impossible for government, local or central, to build a shed in a park nowadays without attracting the cloying attention of PFI enthusiasts. If there is indeed no evidence that any member of the public benefits from any of these schemes, why does the government proceed with them? One answer has come from Carillion, formerly Tarmac, which revealed in January 2001 that it was boosting the strength of its Private Finance Initiative team as part of efforts to reduce its dependence ‘on low-margin competitive contracting’. In plain English this meant that Carillion could make more profit more quickly from PFI than from ordinary contracts in the commercial market.

What about education, always rated so highly by Blair and his ministers? Great has been the hype for the government’s alleged triumphs in education, but most of it was exposed by a brilliant piece of investigative journalism by the Guardian’s Nick Davies in March 2000. He wrote:

The truth is that for his first two years in power Mr Blunkett [Labour’s education secretary] actually invested less in education than the Tories had, and by the end of this parliament he will still be only marginally ahead of the Tory level of spending, a level which he used to describe as ‘miserable’.

The sum of Blunkett’s achievement is that he has managed, on an annual average while he has been secretary of state, to spend 4.6 percent of gross domestic product on education, compared to the shocking average under the Tories – 5 percent. The chief reason for these figures was the government’s determination to stick to the Tories’ spending limits for 1997 and 1998.

Anyone with kids at state schools (and of course the kids themselves) can see the result – a tremendous increase in pressure and red tape for teachers, and a higher level of boredom for the children. The grand plans announced by Jack Straw for a ‘new partnership with teachers’ were effectively torn up when Blair and Blunkett agreed to reappoint for a fresh term of office as chief inspector of schools the man most hated by teachers in the whole history of state education.

Chris Woodhead was brought in by the Tory government to attack elected local authority education committees and to denounce teachers. When reappointed by New Labour, he continued with his former priorities as though nothing had happened. Votes of no confidence in him were passed regularly at all teachers’ union conferences, even those of headteachers. Doctrinaire and disciplinarian inspections intimidated teachers and cowed them.

When Blunkett and Blair announced that they intended to make it a criminal offence for a teacher to have sex with his or her pupils, they were embarrassed to discover that their own chief inspector of schools had engaged in a sexual affair with one of his pupils while he was teaching her at a school in Bristol. So loyal were Blair and Blunkett to Woodhead that they publicly defended him even when it became clear that his defence – that the affair had started only after the pupil had left school – was economical with the truth.

Finally, before even his term of office was complete, Woodhead resigned from his post and joined the Daily Telegraph, where his Tory anti-teacher prejudices could by fully arrayed, and where he could for a fee continue to bite the hands of the New Labour leaders who had reappointed him.

Meanwhile, what remedy did Blunkett and his minister of schools Estelle Morris have for the failing state school system? The chief problem, they discovered, was that it was a state system controlled by elected authorities. So with the help of Woodhead, who was never happier than when he was denouncing elected education authorities, they developed a scheme in which education would be taken out of the control of elected councillors and handed over to their blessed private enterprise. Slowly at first but with gathering speed, the two Tory solutions so comprehensively denounced by Labour politicians in opposition – privatisation and selection – were ushered in, with inevitably catastrophic results. The ritual would be as follows. Ofsted under Woodhead would denounce a school or an authority. The school or the authority would be written off as ‘failing’, and a new privatised authority would be introduced to save the children.

In Southwark in south London the new authority will be supervised by Andrew Turner, a Tory candidate previously employed by the Tory party to campaign for the opting out of state schools – a policy savaged at the time by all the New Labour leaders, including Tony Blair. In Leeds the new privatised education authority will employ the services of Capita, a private company that has already made millions for its shareholders by taking over failed public services and continuing to fail with them. In Haringey, north London, schools minister Estelle Morris announced a ‘radical new venture’ to introduce the profit motive into state education. The bids from the three companies pitching for the contract, including Group 4, which had become a joke for its failure to keep control of prisoners, were all presented by former or present local authority education chiefs. The bids were all so hopelessly incompetent that they were rejected.

But by now ministers are so committed to privatisation in education they cannot, even if they want to, concentrate their attention on improving the service provided by government.

They are steeped so far in blood that going back is worse than going on. So they must grovel still deeper for what goes on eluding them – the private profit solution to public education.

In Glasgow, a city with a proud tradition of public education, the Labour-controlled authority has privatised the services of all its 29 secondary schools in a complicated lease-back arrangement which means public council spending over 30 years of £1.2 billion so that a private consortium can own and control those schools for all that time in exchange for its own investment of £420 million. Even then it is still not clear who will own the schools.

Another brilliant idea for dealing with what ministers regard as ‘failing’ schools (which usually means that most of the children are poor or black or both) was the notion of the ‘fresh start’. Schools failed by Ofsted were closed down altogether, their staff sacked, new headteachers and staff appointed, and the whole process started over again. Despite heavy public spending, and much media hype, these fresh starts proved in almost every case to be a dismal failure. This is because most of the children in the schools were still poor, and their exam results did not improve just because the headmaster changed and the staff were sacked.

At the last Labour Party conference before the 1997 election David Blunkett, rattled by a passionate defence of comprehensive education from Roy Hattersley and others, asked the conference to read his lips and promised that during the next Labour government there would be ‘no selection by examination or by interview’. This pledge has become a standing joke in schools, as selection either by exam or by interview, or usually by some less obvious but no less pernicious method, has become the norm.

This process was blessed by prime minister Blair in his last major speech on education, in which he proposed that 46 percent of schools should be turned into ‘specialist’ schools. He did not explain what would happen to the remaining 54 percent, nor what the difference was between the old barbaric system in which children were divided up at the age of 11, with the cleverer children sent to grammar schools and the less clever herded into secondary moderns. This was the system that Labour replaced with comprehensive schools.

Teachers reading Blair’s remarks started to think that Labour must be planning to put an end to comprehensive schools altogether and divide them up, half and half, between ‘specialist’ and ‘non-specialist’ schools. Then, as if to justify their fears, Blair’s press secretary Alistair Campbell delicately explained what the new proposals meant – ’no more bog-standard comprehensives’.

Fill ’em up: a new policy for prisons

The same obsession with dismantling public accountability has seeped into every area of government policy. Home secretary Jack Straw became so concerned about the warning from shadow home secretary Jack Straw – that prison privatisation was immoral – that he set about privatising prisons almost as soon as he took office. Within days he had sanctioned two new private finance prison deals.

In the last four years the number of private-run adult and young offenders prisons has doubled. This trend looks set to continue, with the government now considering semi-privatisation of prisons along the lines of the extremely unpopular Treasury plans for the London Underground. This would involve the facilities and buildings being taken over by the private sector and split from the custodial operations – a variation on the model of division of ownership and responsibility which has proven so disastrous for the railways.

Under New Labour the number of people in prison rose from 60,000 in 1997 to 66,000 in 2001. Official statistics show that more people are imprisoned in England and Wales per head of the population than in Sudan, Saudi Arabia or China, and across Western Europe only Portugal has a greater proportion of its population behind bars.

’Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ had been the most quoted slogan of New Labour in opposition. In office, the New Labour ministers could remember only the first three words. They were tough on crime all right. The prisons were accurately described by the director of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, as ‘hellholes’. Some 36 jails in the UK have more than 100 inmates ‘doubled-up’ sharing cells.

Sir David Ramsbotham, a retired general brought in by the Tories as chief inspector of prisons to bend the stick away from his progressive predecessor, was almost physically sick at the conditions of the men and women confined to the prisons he inspected. He told the Guardian in February of this year that ‘20,000 inmates – women, boys, elderly, mentally ill, petty offenders – should never have been sent to jail.’ The more stridently his reports resorted to strong language to express his disgust, the more they were ignored by New Labour ministers in the Home Office.

Paul Boateng, the new prisons minister, had told his constituents when they returned him for the first time by a small majority in 1987, ‘Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto.’ Few who heard this rhetoric can have imagined that the smooth young radical would one day, as prisons minister, seek to refashion British prisons along lines laid down in Soweto. Boateng rapidly became a regular spokesman for every reactionary initiative from the Home Office. The nadir was reached under his regime when an Asian boy, Zahid Mubarek, on remand in Feltham young offenders centre, where some 600 prisoners get no education at all, was forced to share a cell with a psychotic racist thug who battered him to death.

Council houses, pensions
All up for grabs

The very core of Labour’s historic municipal advance – the public ownership and control of council housing – has been systematically attacked by New Labour. The government’s own spending plans for housing depend on the ‘transfer’ (sell-off) of 200,000 council homes a year. Since the government came to office in 1997 no less than 342,000 council homes have been sold off to organisations that are not elected, and that find it much easier to evict tenants. This policy is pursued by Labour councils with increasing vigour despite that fact that ballot after ballot of the tenants affected shows deep hostility to privatisation. In many cases, especially in London, the sell-offs have been backed and subsidised by large property companies whose intention is to evict working class families from their council homes and rebuild in their place homes fit for City parasites who have second homes in the country.

Pensions is another issue where the New Labour ministers have abandoned their previous commitments to old people in preference for their love affair with big insurance companies. In 1986, when Thatcher and her henchmen Norman Fowler and John Major started privatising pensions by using tax concessions to bribe people in perfectly workable pension schemes to take out private pensions, the Labour front bench, led by Margaret Beckett, exploded in rage. Year after year, Labour’s pensions spokespeople clung courageously to SERPS, the relatively decent pensions schemes relating pensions to earning established by Barbara Castle, a Labour left winger, in the 1970s.

By contrast, New Labour social security secretary Alistair Darling has scrapped SERPS, which was run entirely by the government, and replaced it with a scheme for ‘stakeholder pensions’ run by the private company which achieved the record for the most swindling under the mis-selling pensions scandal of the late 1980s and early 1990s – the good old reliable Prudential.

As more and more private companies try to ‘adapt’ their pension schemes to the disadvantage of their pensioners – British Airways, Barclays Bank, IBM, etc. – the government stands by and nods them through. When the chief culprit in this regard, British Airways chairman Colin (Lord) Marshall, was honoured by fellow millionaires with a dinner at the Hyde Park Hotel in 1998, the guest of honour was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.

As for the state pension itself, the cornerstone of former Labour governments’ reforms, it has been allowed to slide into obsolescence. Endless pledges by Labour’s social security spokespeople that they would restore the link, established by past Labour governments and abolished under Thatcher, between the state pension and the rise in earnings have been cynically junked.

Only the rich need apply

Tessa Blackstone was one of the New Labour peers who had most vitriolically attacked the concept of private privilege in all forms of education. As a former ‘master’ of Birkbeck College in London and a member of the last Labour government’s cabinet think tank, no one was better qualified to go to the House of Lords and to become New Labour’s Minister of State for Education. There, almost at once, she found herself defending yet another New Labour U-turn – the decision to impose tuition fees on university students.

Did she remember Neil Kinnock’s famous speech to the Labour Party conference in which he boasted that he had been the first member of his family to be able to go to university because for the first time a young man from the working class could afford it? Or had she read the stinging speeches of Jack Straw when he was opposition spokesman (quoted above) in which he said that tuition fees would mean a slowdown in working class recruitment to universities, and in the end a system in which universities were almost entirely exclusive to the rich?

According to the National Union of Students, university students in England and Wales now pay £1.5 billion more than they did before Labour was elected in 1997. At the same time funding per student has declined by almost 40 percent in the last 12 years.

The culmination of old Tory cuts in the student grant, the old Tory provision of student loans and New Labour tuition fees has had a catastrophic effect on university students. Many of them live entirely on their loans without any real idea of how they can repay them. Others either drop out or (more usually) do not even bother to enrol in courses for which they are qualified. Enrolment in many universities has fallen, with over 50 universities reporting that they were more than 2 percent below their student recruitment targets in the current academic year.

Tuition fees were too much for Labour, and even the Liberals, in Scotland where they were abolished. In England and Wales they continue to cast a shadow over one of the areas of life which, thanks to Labour governments in the past, had held out some hope for the young.

The great train robbery continued

Looming over this entire privatisation process has been the greatest scandal of them all – the railways. We have seen how fiercely Labour front benchers spoke out against privatisation in all the years the Tories proposed it, and how the same ministers took flight from their opposition when it might have made a difference. This abject surrender continued apace as Labour took office.

The railways were not renationalised. The hideous mess constructed by the Tories, the different competing railway organisations and the speculative millionaires they created, continued with hardly any change. The reason was trumpeted proudly by Blair, Prescott and Co whenever they were asked about it, usually by the transport unions which had contributed so many millions to Labour. They explained that they could not possibly afford the £4 billion it would have cost to create what Blair had promised – a ‘publicly owned, publicly accountable railway’. They had so many other priorities, they bleated, that they could not possibly waste public money on paying railway shareholders for their assets. Then came the great triumphs of railway privatisation, the disasters at Southall, Paddington and Hatfield.

At Hatfield, it was revealed, a train had come off the track because of a broken rail. Railtrack, the privatised company which owned and controlled the network, had known perfectly well of the dangers of broken rails. They had been spelled out to the company in great detail a year before the Hatfield crash by the new rail regulator, Tom Winsor, whose militant approach to the railway monopolies was held out by the government as proof of its continuing concern for and control over the railway. Winsor’s memorandum about the dangers of broken rails was scrupulously ignored in the interests of keeping trains moving and profits flowing.

After Hatfield, Railtrack panicked and subjected millions of long-suffering passengers to months of chaos and delays as some of the track was renewed. The militant Winsor decided that what was most important was that he should have a private company to regulate, so he announced that another £4 billion of taxpayers’ money would be released to keep the privatised railways running. By coincidence, £4 billion was the exact sum that Blair, Prescott and Co had estimated as the likely cost of renationalising the railways. The money they had ‘saved’ the taxpayer by leaving the railways in private hands was now being passed into those same private hands without any public accountability for it.

The sheer extravagance of the decision not to renationalise the railways was set out in an article early in 2001 in the journal Public Finance. The author, Jean Shaoul, calculated the cost of public subsidies in the four years before privatisation and the four years after. Adjusted for inflation, the figures were: 1991–94 £2,556 million; 1997–2000 £6,848 million. The cost to the taxpayer of subsidising the privately-owned railway had grown to three times the cost of subsidising the publicly-owned railway.

The last Straw
The attack on civil liberties

Many liberal-minded people were inclined to turn away from arguments about the unions and public ownership, believing or hoping that New Labour would address issues involving simple civil liberties, so many of which had been trampled on by past Tory governments. These optimists were the successors of those civil libertarians who measured their criticism of the 1964–70 Labour governments under Harold Wilson by recalling ‘at least’ that government had supported private member’s bills to ensure major social reforms – the abolition of capital punishment, the reform of the abortion law, and for the first time a major relaxation in the draconian laws which persecuted gay men and women.

Many believed that the huge majority for Labour in May 1997 would at least ensure a clutch of measures of that kind. At last, for instance, it was believed that here was a chance for a robust freedom of information act to expose future governments to the scrutiny of their electorates; a curb on the powers of the police that had so shocked and infuriated black people in the inner cities; a reform of the drugs laws to legalise at least some of the more harmless drugs which wasted so much of the time of the police and other legal authorities; a shift in the balance away from the judiciary and towards juries; an expansion of a legal aid scheme which in the past had left so many people deprived even of a hearing, let alone justice; repeal of the hated Section 28 which discriminated against gays; above all, at last, a government which showed a genuine respect for foreigners and people fleeing to Britain from persecution and terror.

Not one of these things happened. Most of them were the responsibility of the new home secretary, Jack Straw, who had come into politics as a campaigner for the National Union of Students and had been a protege of his predecessor as MP for Blackburn, the left winger Barbara Castle. We have come across Straw before as the man who maintained his moral objections to the privatisation of prisons in opposition by privatising them once in government. On all these matters of civil liberty he swiftly emerged as a dyed in the wool reactionary who might as well have donned a helmet from one of me more reckless policemen in his charge.

Straw was not originally responsible for the government’s new measure on freedom of information, but he rapidly ensured that he seized control of it from David Clark, the unassuming MP for South Shields. When Straw objected to Clark’s moderate proposals, Clark was sacked and replaced by Straw. Mark Fisher, minister for the arts, who spoke up in committee for a strong freedom of information act, was sacked too, and replaced as arts minister by Alan Howarth, former Tory MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who was catapulted into the safe Labour seat of Newport by diktat of New Labour headquarters in Millbank without anyone in Newport having the chance to select a proper Labour candidate. Straw took charge of the new freedom of information bill, and produced a measure so flimsy mat campaigners for freedom of information concluded that it is now, under New Labour, even more difficult to get information from the government than it was under the Tories.

The rest of New Labour’s record on civil liberties is no better than that of its Tory predecessors. Ministers boasted that they had adopted European law on human rights, but most of the proposals of the government in that area appeared to take away human rights. One of the oldest and most valuable human rights in the legal system, for instance – the right to be tried by jury – has been assailed again and again by Straw and his colleagues in the Home Office. Straw has proposed, at the moment without too much success, that in many instances the jury should be done away with altogether. Every reactionary notion that floats down to Straw from the Neanderthals on the Law Commission he adopts as quickly as he rejects any genuine reform.

The involvement of his own son in an embarrassing tangle with the police after he was found in possession of cannabis hardened Straw’s heart to any suggestion of relaxation of the laws on drugs, provided of course that the drugs in question, unlike alcohol and tobacco, are not sold by big corporations for profit.

Straw has publicly accepted the Law Commission’s recommendation to do away with the rule banning the trial of any defendant for a crime for which he or she has been acquitted. This proposal was heralded as a progressive measure since it had been proposed after the public inquiry into the racist killing of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. A new band of ‘progressives’ in the police argued that the young men acquitted of murdering Stephen were protected by the double jeopardy rule from being charged again for the same offence. A more likely reason for the rule, and for the chorus in its favour, is that it allows police to re-charge some of the countless people who, usually because of police prejudice and incompetence, have been found not guilty of crimes for which they were wrongly convicted. Section 28, moreover, is still on the statute book in England and Wales.

Looming large over all the other of New Labour’s backward measures in the civil liberties field is the proposal for a replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 1974. This act, which had to be renewed every year, was introduced in response to a series of IRA bombings in Britain that killed many innocent civilians. There was no such background to New Labour’s proposal for its replacement, the Terrorism Act. One purpose of this act was for the first time to make it illegal for anyone in Britain to take part in what the act describes as terrorist activities abroad. On the day the act came into force on 1 March 2001, the government banned 21 groups, most of them Islamic. The ban was extended to the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party, which has a substantial following in Britain but which is hated by the Turkish government for its campaigns on behalf of the persecuted Kurdish minority. No evidence was produced by Jack Straw or anyone else to prove any terrorist act in Britain by any of me banned groups, but Straw told the Commons he was ‘entirely satisfied’ that all the groups were ‘concerned with terrorism’.

Close reading of the new bill by civil liberties groups, and by the campaigning magazine the Big Issue, revealed clauses which could be used against groups in Britain engaged in protests and campaigns. Anyone, for instance, supporting a revolution against the hated dictatorship in Iraq would be caught by the act, even though their aims might be shared by government ministers. The same applies to anyone advocating or supporting any uprising in the illegally occupied West Bank of Jordan, Gaza or Jerusalem.

As far as activity in Britain is concerned, the act actually defines terrorist activity as any violent activity designed ‘to influence the government or intimidate the public’, and includes any act which results in damage to property. The Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs, Simon Hughes, told the Commons, ‘If you are a trade union leader calling for a strike at a hospital you would effectively be caught by this legislation.’ Just about the only organisation outside New Labour wholeheartedly to support the new act was the Conservative Party, whose spokesman complained that similar legislation proposed by the previous Tory government had been blocked by Labour.

Asylum seekers coming to Britain found themselves under sharp attack not just from racists and right wing fanatics but also from the New Labour government and its minister at the Home Office, Barbara Roche. She accused asylum seekers of ‘milking the system’ and then set about organising the system to ensure that there was nothing for asylum seekers to milk. Under her regime asylum seekers are deprived of social security benefits and provided instead with £36.54 a week in vouchers to buy food and clothes plus £10 a week in cash (there is no change from the vouchers). Asylum seekers are treated with the most disgusting contempt, housed in conditions unfit for human habitation and dispersed continually from refuge to refuge without discussion or consultation. Their vouchers and cash benefits are conditional on obeying orders to move.

When the Tory leader William Hague suggested locking up all asylum seekers, New Labour reacted with horror at such a gross breach of civil liberty, and promptly started building more detention centres for asylum seekers. The numbers of asylum seekers detained by New Labour have gone up from 800 to 1,200, and two new detention centres just built will take many more. More and more asylum seekers’ applications to stay in Britain are being turned down, including all such applications from Iraqi Kurds. A high point for New Labour policy was the refusal of an application to stay from a 24 year old Iraqi Kurd Ramin Khadeji. When he got his refusal he killed himself. Refusals have gone up from 35 percent of applications when New Labour took over to 60 percent.

Similarly, the proposals of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, on legal aid were intended to cut out of the legal system any lawyer who seeks diligently to represent a client who has no money. Most of the legal aid work under New Labour’s proposals will go to big firms who ‘process’ their clients through the courts with maximum speed and minimum consideration.

The Lord Chancellor himself, incidentally, is probably the only head of the legal profession in history to have lost a case in his own courts. In keeping with the cronyism of his government he appointed his mate Garry Hart from top City solicitors Herbert Smith as his chief adviser, paid by the taxpayer, even though no previous Lord Chancellor had ever had such an adviser. He was promptly sued by Jane Coker, a prominent immigration solicitor. She alleged that she had been discriminated against since there had been no public notice that the post was vacant. Lord Irvine treated the writ with casual disdain but was shocked when he lost the case in front of a unanimous tribunal. He appealed and, with the help of some of the most distinguished barristers in the land, managed to win by a margin of two to one at the Employment Appeals Tribunal. That decision has now gone to the House of Lords in a further appeal, but the case showed in the brightest possible colours how the arrogant appointment to high office of the government’s closest cronies in big business can even conflict with their own legislation.

A speciality of New Labour’s touch on crime policy has been a creation of a whole new range of offences under the broad heading of anti-social behaviour. The new Criminal Justice Act promulgates a series of new powers to arrest young people on what the police think is anti-social behaviour, and gives the police powers to impose on the spot fines and curfews. The new act comes at a time when the powers of the police are already considered far too wide by a larger and larger proportion of the young population, especially if they are black.

The fat cats directory

George Monbiot’s recent book Captive State tells the story of how the big corporations took over the elected government. He started his book in the month Labour was elected, and plainly, like almost everyone else of the same opinion, hoped that the new government would at least put up a fight to take back some of the democratic power and control that had been surrendered by successive Tory governments. As his book proceeds, it becomes, almost reluctantly, a devastating attack on the New Labour government for continuing, and even heralding that surrender. Some 26 pages in the middle of the book are devoted to a comprehensive Fat Cats Directory. Under the enticing headings Fat Cat, Previous Gluttony and Subsequent Creamery, he lists the big businessmen, speculators, landlords and exploiters promoted by New Labour to positions of power and influence.

Almost every month since his book came out, new appointments have been made which can be added to his directory. In January 2001 Dr Ian Hudson, former top executive of the gargantuan pharmaceutical monopoly Smith Kline Beecham, was appointed head of the Medicines Control Agency, regulator of the British pharmaceutical industry. The following month Anne Parker, a director of private nursing agency and private healthcare firm Nestor, took charge of the government’s new National Care Standards Commission, the regulator of private care homes. Almost as an aside to this directory, Monbiot exposes the New Labour ministers who once promised so much, and are now no more than office boys and girls for the bosses they pretend to control. Here is Brian Wilson, once a socialist campaigner in the Scottish Highlands, as a Scottish Office minister justifying the monstrous toll charges levied by a US bank on the bridge to the island of Skye, and the cancellation of formerly government-owned ferries to Skye which might have offered dangerous competition to the profit-laden bridge.

Here is Nick Raynsford, once a resolute campaigner for the homeless, breezing round the world acting as salesman for British construction companies, chief among them Balfour Beatty, the construction company with the highest ever fine for a blatant breach of health and safety laws, and which was chiefly responsible for the broken rail at Hatfield. In January 2001 Raynsford introduced a new Homes Bill to the House of Commons. He started by rejecting what he called the ‘lie’ that homelessness had increased under New Labour. Not so, he insisted. In the last six months of the Tory government local authorities had accepted 110,000 homeless households, while four years of New Labour policies later the figure had been reduced – to 108,000. Other speakers in the debate complained that priority homelessness had actually increased during Mr Raynsford’s regime, and that the numbers of people in bed and breakfast accommodation had gone up under New Labour by 51 percent.

Here is Stephen Byers, a champion of public state education when he was chairman of the education committee in North Tyneside, now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry with not a word to say about the wholesale privatisation of education. Here is the new minister of science and supporter of genetically modified foods, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, whose exalted position has, we are assured, absolutely nothing to do with the millions he has pumped over the years into the coffers of the Labour Party. To these names many others should be added.

Patricia Hewitt, a senior Treasury minister, represents the growing links between the government’s privatisation policies and the sprawling consultancies of the big accounting monopolies. Before talking office Hewitt was director of research at Andersen Consulting, a firm which was one of the first to spot the growing fortunes of New Labour, and which laid out the fares of the entire Labour front bench – about 100 MPs – to go to Oxford in the summer of 1996 where they were instructed on how to be efficient ministers.

Andersen Consulting, which in 2001 changed its name fashionably and incomprehensibly to Accenture, became one of the new government’s favourite companies, being let off most of the full cost of the delays and disasters in the computer system it had constructed to store National Insurance data. A few months after taking office the government ended a long battle with Andersen Consulting’s sister company, the accountants Arthur Andersen, a battle that dated back more than a decade to the auditing of the accounts of the old crook John DeLorean. Infuriated by what it regarded as the accountants’ deceit, the Tory government banned Arthur Andersen from all government work, but New Labour quickly ended the ban on terms highly favourable to the company.

As for Patricia Hewitt, she leaped up the government hierarchy with increasing agility, reaching her peak in 2000 as minister for e-business with a sterling defence in parliament of the government’s support for the Ilusu dam, a scheme by the Turkish government with the help of big British contractors (including, inevitably, Balfour Beatty) to flood whole tracts of land occupied by Kurds. Ms Hewitt was the only speaker in the Commons debate to support the project.

Other honourable additions to Monbiot’s list should include Peter Hain, the former anti-apartheid and CND campaigner, who became the government’s chief spokesman for economic sanctions against Iraq which have killed thousands of innocent civilians, most of them children; Alan Milburn, former organiser of the Days of Hope left wing bookshop in Newcastle, who as Secretary of State for Health decided quite suddenly that one way to protect the National Health Service was to pay private hospitals for beds and services they provided for NHS patients; Clare Short, the former champion of the dispossessed whose Department for International Development became a stout supporter of the neo-liberal orthodoxy which has abandoned so many millions in the underdeveloped world to hope less poverty; and the former firebrand Robin Cook, foreign secretary, whose ‘ethical’ foreign policy was absolutely indistinguishable from its not so ethical Tory predecessor. The list I could go on forever.

The distinguishing features are a former commitment to a more egalitarian, fairer society, and a current exclusive commitment to the opposite priorities of big business.

The politics of Polly Prudence

As this pamphlet is written, the Murdoch press and even the Daily Mail is loudly congratulating Gordon Brown on his election budget. They praise him not as he praises himself, for his alleged commitment to the poor, and to women and children, but for his prudence. Their prevailing fear is that a Labour chancellor might use the powers at his disposal to pump money into the pockets of the people who voted for him. They need not worry. The chancellor was far more concerned to impress his arbiters in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank than with the people with little or no money at his disposal.

He himself admits that his record over his five budgets has been exactly neutral. He has given almost exactly what he has taken away. Not surprisingly, his measures have had little or no effect on the distribution of wealth in Britain. Four years of New Labour in extremely favourable economic circumstances have left the Tory balance between rich and poor almost exactly what it was when the Tories left it. Millions are still plunged in hopeless poverty. The gap between rich and poor has actually widened under New Labour.

One way in which this grim fact has been disguised has been by publicising and heralding marginal changes to the plight of the poor and workers while maintaining discretionary secrecy about the rich. Everyone knows to the last detail what happens to the incomes of workers and the poor. No one knows in anything like the same detail what is happening to the rich. The grotesque advances in the incomes of the rich in the Labour years are literally incalculable. Income tax has come down, capital gains tax has been cut from 33 percent to 30 percent. Gordon Brown has continued his predecessor’s habit of extending tax breaks on share options and other perks for the rich without calculating their overall impact. A survey conducted by stockbrokers JP Morgan and published down the page in the Observer in February 2001 revealed that the UK has more households with an income of more than half a million dollars than any other country in Europe; and in the New Labour years the wealth of those with between half a million and $1 million rose by 8.1 percent, those with between $1 and $5 million by 10.5 percent; and those with over $5 million by 11.8 percent. Unto him that hath has been given, prudently, by New Labour, in great abundance.

Prudence Brown boasts that under his careful stewardship unemployment and inflation have come down. Modestly he ascribes this miracle to his own genius. Yet from the first moment he took office and handed the level of interest rates (previously set by elected government) to unelected bankers who benefit from high interest rates, he in effect admitted what he knows to be true – that elected governments of whatever colour cannot and do not determine what happens to the international capitalist economy unless they embark on the most determined and ruthless economic intervention.

Under capitalism, unemployment, inflation, the rise and fall of booms and slumps, are not brought about by governments, but by economic forces beyond government control. No one knows, for instance, why there was a recession in the so-called Tiger economies of Asia in 1998. Those economies were previously heralded as evidence that capitalism worked better when it was unfettered by trade unions or government regulation. The impact of that illusion is still being felt by the working people and the poor of those economies, notably in Indonesia where one corrupt and dictatorial government has been toppled, and its successor teeters on the brink of revolution on the one side and unspeakable racial violence on the other.

The most predictable feature of any capitalist economy is its unpredictability. Gordon Brown knows that perfectly well, which is probably why he prefers capitalist caution to socialist advance. He also knows that the more his government loosens its democratic grip on the engines of the economy, the less control he will have in the event of any future slump, and the more he consigns the future to a private enterprise chaos out of which he knows no road. Against the background of chaos and unpredictability, his refusal to spend his ‘war chest’ on the people and services who need it most is all the more reprehensible.

This, then, is the central charge against the New Labour government. All through the 20th century the Labour Party sought at least to some extent to use the power conferred on it by the votes of working people to shift the balance of wealth and power in their direction. Often the party failed miserably in that endeavour. Again and again elected governments bowed to what they regarded as superior forces in unelected private capital. They were, in Harold Wilson’s famous phrase, ‘blown off course’ by runs on sterling, investment strikes, judicial arrogance, media blitzes and other forces they did not understand, and did not dare to counter. But at least some effort was made in the right direction. At least some commitment was made to public ownership, to civil liberties, and to the building of strong trade unions. New Labour in the late 1990s and early 21st century has shifted so far to the right mat almost all its policies and achievements have converged with those of its Tory predecessors.

In a book published in September 1998 entitled The Political Economy of New Labour, Colin Hay devoted a whole chapter to this convergence. The results, even by 1998, are as follows. On trade union reform, five out of six policies converge (with the other almost completely converged). On employment law, two out of four policies converge, one (access to tribunals for unfair dismissal) is subject to qualified convergence, and only one (the pledge to sign the Maastricht treaty on employment) can be said to differ from that of the Tories. In six major areas of education policy, only one policy (the assisted places scheme) is not shared by the Tories. As for training, all four major policies are the same for both parties. Labour and Tory pension policy is exactly the same. So they are in all seven major areas of economic policy, and in three out of four areas of industrial policy (the fourth is the commitment to regional development agencies which are very similar to the wholly undemocratic Tory development corporations). On the four areas under the heading privatisation, the only (qualified) divergence is on Labour’s windfall tax on the privatised utilities, a tax which, though opposed by the Tories, has been borne by the new utility shareholders with a patient shrug, and on media regulation there is not a sliver of difference between the two parties.

Hay concludes, ‘Labour now accepts that there is simply no alternative to neo-liberalism in an era of heightened capital mobility and financial mobilisation’, and that ‘social democratic parties such as Labour must effectively abandon their social democratic credentials’. This is one answer to those optimistic social democratic commentators who have resigned themselves, often against their better judgement, to voting Labour. Polly Toynbee and David Walker of the Guardian have written a whole book to argue (a) that things didn’t get better quickly enough under New Labour, but (b) that another Labour government with a fresh mandate would surely rediscover its radical heritage and improve on every policy front to the satisfaction of the vast majority of its supporters.

One answer to Polly Toynbee is that she, as she recognises, was one of the prominent defectors from Labour to the SDP in 1981, and thus can be held at least partly responsible for all the Tory excesses that followed. But another has more resonance. It is that she and all her fellow ‘Vote Labour for real change’ enthusiasts are not listening to their leaders.

Tony Blair’s speeches about his next term of office carry not a whisper of trade union reform, or of a new era of public ownership and democratic responsibility, or of a widening of the comprehensive element in schools, or of a new assault on the grotesque bonanzas of the rich. Everything Blair says about the future points in exactly the opposite direction, towards more privatisation, more inequality, more chaos on road and rail, less planning, less intervention, and a fiercer attack on what his press officer calls bog-standard comprehensives, bog-standard council housing, bog-standard anything which derives from the traditional cooperation and solidarity of working class people.

The Toynbee-Walker thesis, that a new New Labour government would put the errors, omissions and mistakes of the last one behind it and engage on a new road to reform, is to ignore completely the triumphalism of Labour ministers and their single minded devotion to office whatever the price that has to be paid by the people who vote for them. They have abandoned their social democratic credentials without a word of regret, but with the singular jubilation of bog-standard politicians who have suddenly discovered the full fruits of high office and intend above all else to go on enjoying them.

There is another reaction to all these developments which is even more corrosive than Toynbee’s and Walker’s. This is Colin Hay’s assertion that there is ‘no alternative to neo-liberalism and globalisation’. He appears to argue that because Labour governments have now been corralled by capitalism, and forced to abandon their social democratic credentials, there is now no alternative to their policies. This is the policy of resignation and despair. There is no democratic alternative to Tory policies, argue the New Pessimists, so we had better accept them even when they are carried out by ministers calling themselves Labour. The inevitability of corporate power and corporate control commends itself most sweetly to the directors of corporations. But there is no reason why any of the rest of us should bow before them.

There is plenty of evidence in the past and even now that these policies can be resisted and reversed. Corporations do not always get their own way. The establishment of the British National Health Service, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, the toppling of post-war dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal – all these were accomplished against the corporate stream. Even today, while capitalism boasts its omnipotence, it is stopped in its tracks by mass protests in Seattle, Prague and Nice. Resistance can be as international, as globalised, as capitalism is, and, unlike capitalism, it offers hope and life to the exploited millions. There is nothing mystical or superhuman about capitalist power. It is managed and controlled by human beings and can also be changed by human beings. It can and must be resisted with all the power at our disposal.

On the eve of a general election, the abject performance of New Labour in office has a grim implication for all those who have believed in the past that their future depends at least to some extent on voting and maintaining a Labour government, but now no longer think the same. All such socialists, trade unionists, civil libertarians, environmentalists, National Health Service campaigners, are effectively disfranchised. With Labour’s link to the unions so weak and its commitment to public ownership and civil liberties reduced to the Private Finance Initiative and vouchers for asylum seekers, the choice before the voters is increasingly similar to the choice in the United States of America between the Republican Party (conservative) and the Democratic Party (conservative).

No sane person wants a return to Conservative government, led by Hague and Widdecombe, but more and more voters realise that Hague and Widdecombe have been pushed rightwards by a Labour government far more right wing than any of its predecessors – and they do not want to vote Labour again.

Your chance to vote socialist

Is there an alternative? The answer in at least a third of the country is yes.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is standing candidates in all 72 seats in Scotland. Each of them is committed to renationalising the railways, ending PFI, and restoring the rights and liberties of trade unionists, asylum seekers and the poor. The SSP has to fight not only against New Labour and the Tories, who have almost vanished north of the border, but also against the Scottish National Party. In the past the SNP was not averse to mouthing socialist policies, but instead of developing and expanding such policies, the SNP has backed away from them. No longer do we hear the SNP calling for renationalising the utilities, for a minimum pension of £90 a week, or for 50,000 new council houses. All these pledges have been dropped. The SNP’s pensions policy has even been trumped by Gordon Brown. The SNP has moved relentlessly to the right. Alex Salmond was more right wing than his predecessor, Jim Sillars, and the new leader, John Sweeney, is more right wing than Alex Salmond. The SNP has retreated into the narrow bourgeois nationalism from which it came.

In England and Wales the Socialist Alliance has already selected 80 candidates. The first major elections contested by the Socialist Alliance were for the Greater London Assembly (GLA) in 2000. The Socialist Alliance drew together several organisations and formed a united front proclaiming basic socialist policies. Since the GLA elections, Socialist Alliance and SSP candidates have performed creditably in national and council by-elections, and all of them are determined to present a socialist alternative to a wide spectrum of the general electorate. If you are unhappy with the convergence of Labour policies with Tory ones, if you want to see the railways and other privatised industries renationalised, and the Post Office and London Underground left in public hands, if you want an end to PFI and other schemes for backdoor privatisation, if you want to stop the creeping privatisation of the health service, if you are disgusted by the illiberal drift of New Labour on questions of civil liberties, then you should vote for your socialist candidate. If there is no such candidate in your constituency, find out where there is one in your town or city or county, and go to work on his or her behalf. If there is no Socialist Alliance or SSP candidate in your area, you may prefer to vote for a Labour candidate because he or she is a socialist, or even just to keep the Tories out, or you may want to vote for an independent candidate who represents working class resistance – such as Arthur Scargill in Hartlepool or Health Concern in Wyre Forest. The difference between this election and the last one is that on a nationwide scale there will be candidates in many areas who can represent some of your aspirations.

The Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance offer more than a shift in politics. They offer a new style of campaigning – a clean break with the suffocating careerism that throttles so much reforming zeal. They realise that real change and progress in a class society cannot be brought about just by voting. They realise that the real threat to the power of the rich comes not from voting but from organised resistance from our side. All the real advances of the past century were rooted in the confidence of working people and their willingness not just to vote but to use their industrial power against their employers, or to organise in collective protest, or both.

The great social leap forward after the Second World War was accomplished not just by the enormous Labour vote, but also by the rising confidence among trade unionists of both sexes that had grown far beyond what anyone had imagined before the war. The further leaps forward in the 1970s depended almost entirely on the mighty strength of the organised working class and their willingness to use it.

Ideas and the votes they represent cannot be isolated from the real battles in society. Socialist ideas take root and grow in circumstances where people decide to organise and do something to change their circumstances. In the past few months we have seen the first faint stirrings of a revival of working class revolt. The sustained resistance to mass sackings under PFI at Dudley, the continued refusal of communication workers to accept the privatisation of the Post Office, the massive votes for industrial action in protest against the splitting up and privatisation of London Underground – all these are signs of a new mood of resistance and a new impatience with the clichés of New Labour. They come at least partly as a reaction to great international demonstrations of anti-capitalist protest.

Voting is only one infrequent and often emasculated form of protest. But voting is still a crucial opportunity to make use of our democratic rights. Our votes are important in proportion to their links to the real powers at our disposal. Every vote for the Socialist Alliance, every decent performance of the Socialist Alliance and SSP, will put new heart and spirit into the growing ranks of people prepared to fight.

Socialist candidates are standing not to further their own careers, still less to secure a parliamentary salary (they will only take an average wage if they get elected), but because they are horrified by what has happened to the labour movement and are determined to set it back on track. In a recent pamphlet, The Captive Party, the veteran socialist Michael Barratt Brown appealed to socialists to recall the alternative society that socialism promises:

All forms of health and childcare and the care of the disabled would be free. Education would be free at every age right through to lifelong learning. Housing would be available at reasonable rents with access by foot to shops and parks and gardens, and to many workplaces. There would be a wide range of opportunities for work in production and services with appropriate training built in. There would be no discrimination at work on grounds of gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Pensions for the aged and invalid, and payments during sickness and unemployment would be provided on a universal scheme based on contributions related to income. Planning of land use, road and rail transport, industrial location, and the balance of urban and rural activities would be subject to the most open examination and discussion. In all walks of life, at work and at home, in all workplaces and public institutions, management would be subject to agreed forms of consumers’ and workers’ controls. We have the resources for all this. We just have to find how to change the system from one of private greed to that of public gain.

As a start, just a start, you should vote socialist.

Last updated on 2 May 2014